JERUSALEM, Israel – Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists revealed details of a 9,000-year-old mask dating to the Neolithic (New Stone Age) period, discovered in early 2018.
IAA archaeologists, working with other experts from the Geological Survey of Israel, have been studying the mask found in the region south of Mount Hevron, an IAA press release said Wednesday.
The location of the artifact "reinforces the theory of a stone-mask production center in southern Har Hevron during the New Stone Age in what archaeologists call the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period."
According to the report, information received by the IAA's Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit led to the recovery of the mask at the beginning of 2018. Further investigation revealed the "probable archaeological site in which the mask was originally found."
Rare Stone Mask, Photo, IAA, Clara Amit
IAA archaeologist Ronit Lupu, who works with theft prevention unit, called it a "unique" discovery.
"The mask is a unique finding 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 that we currently know of," she said.
The mask, made of pinkish-yellow limestone, had been shaped with stone tools to resemble a human face. The four holes drilled at the edge of the mask were probably used to tie it to a poll or even to a person's face, Lupu explained.
"Discovering a mask made of stone, at such a high level of finish, is very exciting. 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," she said.
Dr. Omry Barzilai, head of the IAA Archaeological Research Department, also commented on the find.
"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," Barzilai explained.
Lupu said ancestor worship was a common practice at that time.
"It was part of the ritual and retention of family heritage that was accepted at the time," she said. "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."
According to the IAA, of the 15 known masks from this time period worldwide, only two include "a clear archaeological context," meaning archaeologists know which site they came from. The others are in private collections, which has made them more difficult to study.
The fact that this mask can be traced to an archaeological site means it helps researchers understand the culture in which it was produced, which they believe was probably for worship.
The researchers will present their findings Thursday at the Israel Prehistoric Society's annual meeting held at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.