An ancient stone mask made of a pinkish-yellow limestone and meticulously shaped with stone tools has been recovered from the West Bank, providing insights into a pivotal time in human history.
“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 cheekbones. It has an impressive nose and a mouth with distinct teeth,” said Ronit Lupu of the Israel Antiquities Authority Theft Prevention Unit in a statement sent to IFLScience. Other publications have reported the mask was initially stolen by thieves before being handed to authorities, but that has yet to be confirmed by official sources.
The mask dates back to a time known by archaeologists as the Pre-pottery Neolithic period, which was characterized by a shift from hunter-gatherer societies to one of agricultural domestication and established settlements. This led to a revolution in social structure and a “sharp increase in ritual-religious activities” that incorporated human-shaped figurines, plastered skulls, and stone masks probably for worshipping ancestors.
“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.”
This mask is one of 15 others in the world dating from this time period, only two of which archaeologists have been able to establish a known origin. The remaining 13 are found in private collections around the world, making them difficult to study and even more challenging to place.
“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,” Lupu said to IFLScience.
The mask is currently being studied by the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Geological Survey of Israel. They will present their initial results this Thursday at the annual meeting of the Israel Prehistoric Society.