Roman gate discovered in ancient city of Hippos may solve mystery of mask of Pan

Since 2000, the ancient city of Hippos has gradually been unearthed by an international expedition.

The Roman gate excavated by University of Haifa (photo credit: HAIFA UNIVERSITY)
The Roman gate excavated by University of Haifa
(photo credit: HAIFA UNIVERSITY)
A Roman gate discovered during excavations by the University of Haifa in the ancient city of Hippos, located at Sussita National Park, may cast light on the mystical bronze mask of Pan, considered by archeologists to be the only object of its kind in the world.
Researchers from the university’s Zinman Institute of Archaeology announced on Monday that they believe the gate may have led to the compound of Pan, the god of shepherds, after unearthing it during last year’s excavation season.
Half man and half goat, Pan also represents fields, music and merriment, the researchers said.
The mask of Pan (Credit: HAIFA UNIVERSITY)
“The discovery of a bronze mask of this size depicting one of the gods was an innovation on a global level, a fact that seriously complicated efforts to date the item or explain its possible function,” said Dr. Michael Eisenberg, the head of the expedition.
“Now that the whole gate has been exposed, we not only have better information for dating the mask, but also a clue to its function. Are we looking at a gate that led to the sanctuary of the god Pan or one of the rustic gods?” Since 2000, the ancient city of Hippos has gradually been unearthed by an international expedition, under the auspices of the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa.
Eisenberg noted that until now, it has only been possible to suggest hypotheses regarding the mask’s original function and use.
He said the mask was discovered in the remains of a large basalt ashlar building, and the researchers assumed that uncovering the building would provide additional information about the unique object.
The Roman gate excavated by University of Haifa (Credit: HAIFA UNIVERSITY)
“As happens almost every year, Hippos did not fail to yield some surprises,” he said. “The researchers were working on the hypothesis that the building formed part of the fortifications of the city, but as they dug deeper they found two square basalt towers with dimensions of approximately 6.3m. by 6.3m. and a portal of 3.7m. wide in between.”
The researchers concluded that the original gateway was over 6m. high, while the building (propylaeum) itself was even taller,” the archeologist said.
“The propylaeum can probably be dated to the period of the emperor Hadrian, who reigned from 117 to 138 CE, or slightly earlier,” Eisenberg said. “The mask was presumably fixed to a wall or altar at the compound, as its rear side included remnants of lead used for stabilization purposes.”
The Roman gate excavated by University of Haifa (Credit: HAIFA UNIVERSITY)
Thanks to the discovery, he said researchers can offer a fuller analysis regarding not only the mask’s dating, but also its function.
“When we found the mask we assumed that it had filled a ritual function,” Eisenberg explained. “Since we found it outside the city, one of the hypotheses was that we were looking at evidence of a mysterious ritual center that existed outside the city. However, as we all know, monumental gate structures lead to large compounds.”
Consequently, he said it is possible that the gate led to a large building complex, perhaps a sanctuary in honor of the god Pan or one of the other rustic gods, situated just before the entrance to the city of Hippos.
“The mask, and now the gate in which it was embedded, continue to fire our imaginations,” Eisenberg said, noting that the worship of Pan sometimes included ceremonies involving drinking, sacrifices, and ecstatic rituals including nudity and sex.
“This worship usually took place outside the city walls, in caves and other natural settings,” he continued. “We are very familiar with the city of Paneas to the north of Hippos, which was the site of one of the best-known sanctuaries for the worship of Pan. But here we find a monumental gate and evidence of an extensive compound, so the mystery only gets stranger.”
“What kind of worship of Pan or his fellow Dionysus, the god of wine, took place here in Hippos? To answer that question, we will have to keep on digging,” concluded Eisenberg.
The next excavation season begins next month, with the participation of dozens of researchers and volunteers from Israel and around the world, he said.
Sussita National Park is managed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.