A collection of rare 9,000-year old masks, which are considered among the most ancient human portraits, are to go on show in Jerusalem.
The masks all originated from Israel and have the same striking features, perhaps to resemble the spirits of dead ancestors.
It is thought they were used by in religious and social ceremonies and in rites of healing and magic.
The exhibition at The Israel Museum is the result of a decade of investigative work into where the masks came from and it is the first time that the group of 12 Neolithic masks will be displayed together in their ‘birthplace’.
The masks were made in the Judean Hills and nearby Judean Desert and share the same features of large eye holes and gaping mouths, which make them resemble a human skull.
However some of the faces are young and others appear old and are thought to represent venerated ancestors.
It is thought that perforations on the masks could have been used for a cord allowing a person to wear them, or even for hair, to give them a more human appearance. There is also a theory that the masks were decorative and suspended from pillars as part of an early Stone Age religion.
Each carved limestone mask weights one or two kg and would likely have been painted – but only one has the remnants of colour, the Times of Israel reported.
The people who carved the masks were among the first humans to abandon nomadic life and set up home in permanent settlements, but because they predate writing by some 3,500 years, no one can be exactly sure what they were used for.
Based on similarities to other skulls used in religious ceremonies for ancestors found in other villages from the same period, it is thought the masks were used in magical rites.
By recreating human images for cultic purposes, the early agricultural societies of Neolithic times may have been expressing their increasing mastery of the natural world and reflecting their growing understanding of the nature of existence, experts explained.
‘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 James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum.
‘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.
‘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 Israel Museum has had two of the masks in its collection for years. One was found in a cave at Nahal Hemar in the Judean Desert and the other from Horvat Duma in the nearby Judean Hills.
A chance discovery of photographs of similar masks led Dr Debby Hershman, the Museum’s Curator of Prehistoric Cultures, to begin to research the subject.
She enlisted the help of experts at Tel Aviv University to explore the masks’ geographical origins as well as of the computerised archaeology laboratory at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to conduct 3D analysis that shed light on their comparative features and functions.