A stone mask dating to the Neolithic (new stone age) period was discovered several months ago in the Pnei Hever region in southern Mt. Hebron, and is now being studied by experts of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Geological Survey of Israel. Results of the initial study of the mask will be presented on Thursday at the annual meeting of the Israel Prehistoric Society.
Information received at the IAA’s Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit at the beginning of 2018 led to the recovery of the stone mask. Hananya Hizmi, head staff officer of the archaeology department of the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria, was informed, and a subsequent investigation revealed the archaeological site in which the mask had been found, in the Pnei Hever region of southern Mt. Hebron.
The mask is estimated to be 9,000 years old, dated to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period. The discovery strengthens the assumption that the southern Mt. Hebron area was a center for producing stone masks, and most likely for ritual activities in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period.
According to Ronit Lupu of the IAA Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit, “the mask is a unique find in the archaeological world. It is even more unusual that we know which site it came from. The fact that we have information regarding the specific place in which it was discovered makes this mask more important than most other masks from this period of which we currently know.”
The mask is made of pinkish-yellow limestone, carefully shaped with stone tools to resemble a human face. Four holes were drilled along the perimeter of the mask, probably in order to tie it – possibly over the face of a living person, or maybe to a pole or other designated artifact in order to display it.
“Discovering a mask made of stone at such a high level of finish is very exciting,” Lupu confessed. “The stone has been completely smoothed over and the features are perfect and symmetrical, even delineating cheek bones. It has an impressive nose and a mouth with distinct teeth.”
Dr. Omry Barzilai, head of the IAA Archaeological Research Department, said that “stone masks are linked to the agricultural revolution. The transition from an economy based on hunting and gathering to ancient agriculture and domestication of plants and animals was accompanied by a change in social structure and a sharp increase in ritual-religious activities. Ritual findings from that period include human shaped figurines, plastered skulls, and stone masks.”
Ancestor worship was practiced during this period. “It was part of the ritual and retention of family heritage that was accepted at the time,” said Lupu. “For example, we find skulls buried under the floors of domestic houses, as well as various methods of shaping and caring for the skulls of the dead. This led to plastering skulls, shaping facial features, and even inserting shells for eyes. Stone masks, such as the one from Pnei Hever, are similar in size to the human face, which is why scholars tend to connect them with such worship.”
There are currently fifteen known masks in the world that date from this period, of which only two were discovered in a clear archaeological context – meaning we know which site they came from. The remaining masks are in private collections, which makes it more difficult to study them. The importance of this new mask stems from the fact that it has been traced to an archaeological site that can be studied. The site can help scholars understand the material culture in which the mask was produced.
Dr. Omry Barzilai and Ronit Lupu will present the initial research related to the mask on Thursday, at the Israel Prehistoric Society annual meeting at the Israel Museum.