Oldest Masks in Existence Unveiled in Time for Purim

“And Jeroboam said to his wife: ‘Arise, I pray thee, and disguise thyself, that thou be not known to be the wife of Jeroboam; and get thee to Shiloh; behold, there is Ahijah the prophet, who spoke concerning me that I should be king over this people.” (1 Kings 14:2)

With the Jewish holiday of Purim around the corner, during which people traditionally don costumes and masks, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is opening an exhibition on ancient masks found in the Judean Hills region.  These 9,000-year-old artefacts are the oldest masks in existence, predating writing by 3,500 years.  Because of this, there are no records of their use or purpose, and researchers have had to deduce their function through study.

The exhibit is called “Face to Face: The Oldest Masks in the World”, and features twelve masks from the Neolithic era, with large eye sockets and gaping mouths.  In this way, they resemble skulls.  It is thought that they were used in religious or magic ceremonies, and perhaps represent venerated ancestors or spirits.

“It is important to say that these are not living people, these are spirits,” said Dr. Debby Hershman, curator of prehistoric cultures at the Israel Museum, who organized the exhibit.

Hershman began researching the masks about a decade ago.  Two of the twelve have been in the museum’s permanent collection for years, but a chance discovery of similar masks in a collection in the US led her to investigate.  With the help of Dr. Yuval Goren from Tel Aviv University, as well as other experts, Hershman began to assemble the masks and study their origins and function.


The people who made the masks were among the first to abandon the nomadic lifestyle of earlier times and establish permanent settlements.  “[The masks] are the first glimmerings of existential reflection,” said James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum.

(Photo: Israel Museum, Jerusalem)
(Photo: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

Each mask weighs between 1 and 2 kilograms (2.2 to 4.4 pounds) and portrays a unique face.  They have exposed teeth and holes around their edges.  The holes may have been used to strap the masks to people’s faces during ceremonies, or to add hair to give them a more life-like appearance.  They may have even been suspended from pillars.  It is likely the masks were painted originally, but only one shows a remnant of paint today.

The masks are made of limestone.  The patina and the type of stone the masks are made from indicate that they all originated within a 36 kilometer (20 mile) radius of one another in the Judean desert.

“It is extraordinary to be able to present side by side this rare group of ancient stone masks, all originating from the same region in the ancient Land of Israel,” said Snyder.

“That we have been able to assemble so many – first for intensive comparative research and then for display – is a tribute to the collections that were so cooperative in making these treasures available to us.

(Photo: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem)
(Photo: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

“And, given their origins in the region and the context provided by the adjacent setting of our Archaeology Wing, their display in our Museum in Jerusalem carries special meaning, underscoring their place in the unfolding history of religion and art.”

The 12 masks will be on display from March 11 until September 13, 2014.  Ten of the masks were made available courtesy of private collectors Judy and Michael Steinhardt of New York.

“They are timeless treasures, priceless,” said Hershman.