World’s Oldest Masks Come Home to Jerusalem

A dozen stone masks, made 9,000 years ago in the Judean Desert, star in a new exhibition at the Israel Museum.

Dr. Debby Hershman punches in a code, opens an iron-barred door and carefully closes it behind us. She hands me a pair of white cloth gloves, solemnly unlocks a metal cabinet, takes out a heavy, wrapped bundle and places it on the table. A moment later we are gazing at a 9,000-year-old mask. An ancient stone face with round, closely placed eyeholes, prominent eyebrows, a broad, toothy mouth, a small protrusion for a nose and no sign of lips or chin. We could be in a movie based on a Dan Brown best seller, a la “The Da Vinci Code,” or a new Indiana Jones film, at the exact moment when he finds a rare treasure. The white gloves suit me, I must say. The facial expression of the mask has been this way for thousands of years. Someone from the ancient past is staring at me, and I break out in a cold sweat. Anxiety about damaging one of these priceless masks gets to me and I quickly return them to the table.

Hershman, curator of prehistoric cultures at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and of this exhibition, is a great storyteller, and she knows this particular story is superb. She takes obvious pleasure in revealing it bit by bit. “Face to Face: The Oldest Masks in the World” opens Tuesday, March 11. The exhibition, which will run until September 11, features 12 extremely rare stone masks, all of which, Hershman notes, are “from this neighborhood, the area between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea and the Judean Desert. In many senses, we are bringing them back home. This is a family reunion of the oldest surviving portraits of ancient man.”

The tale of the masks’ discovery and their route to the Jerusalem exhibition is as fascinating as their ancient past. Hershman has focused on the project for a decade, but her love affair with ancient stone masks began 30 years ago. An archaeology and anthropology student at Hebrew University, she joined a dig by Prof. Ofer Bar-Yosef at a cave in Nahal Hemar in the Judean Desert, a few tens of kilometers from the museum basement where we stood. In April 1983, the excavation team found artifacts from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period, around 7000 B.C.E. – 9,000 years old, in other words. The term “9,000 years” is repeated a number of times during my conversation with Hershman, and it’s mind-blowing.

Just to be clear: King Solomon is estimated to have lived around 3,000 years ago. Abraham, if he actually existed, lived slightly more than 1,000 years before that, according to some Bible scholars. Hershman calls the Nahal Hemar artifacts “the oldest ritual treasure in the world.” The artifacts included statues, wooden beads, bone tools, arrowheads, threads, cloth and fragments of masks, which we now hold in our hands, after they have been healed by the “doctor” in the Israel Museum labs. These artifacts are considered a significant breakthrough in the study of the history of the Land of Israel. They are also among the oldest known artifacts from the Neolithic period, which changed the face of the world, and a time in which inhabitants of this region played a central role.

Just to drive home the point to a layman like myself, Hershman explains helpfully, with characteristic passion: “These are the people who were responsible for the greatest revolution in human history. They are the ones who carried out the agricultural revolution, whose importance cannot be exaggerated. Basically, we all owe our way of life to them. They were the first permanent settlers, the ancestors of civilization.”

The Nahal Hemar mask, which when I hold it and look at it up close, looks like a patchwork of stone in different shades, is the foundation of the current exhibition. Then comes the most famous mask in the museum’s collection – still known as the “Dayan mask.” This mask, a smiling visage revealing a fine row of teeth, is the most famous item that the Israel Museum acquired from Moshe Dayan’s widow Rachel following his death. Purchased by Dayan from an antiquities dealer in Hebron, it too came from the southern Judean Hills, near where the Nahal Hemar mask was found. Ten additional masks were added to these two famous ones after lengthy research, a worldwide search and meticulous testing to verify their age and origins.

Cracking the symbolic code

“In 2004 we set off in search of the world’s oldest masks,” looking for ones that were similar to the first two, Hershman explains. The masks they found were in private collections, including several owned by Judy and Michael Steinhardt of New York. The latter is one of the world’s wealthiest Jews, with a large art collection and a famous Judaica collection. In an interview with Haaretz last year, he described himself as a “total atheist.” Hershman calls the Steinhardts “art lovers and collectors, major philanthropists and owners of the world’s largest collections of Neolithic masks.” Their interest in ancient masks, she says, derives from their love for art and for modern figurative works, especially the works of Pablo Picasso – a known mask aficionado himself, she says.

To determine whether the masks did in fact belong to the Neolithic group, Hershman, an expert in ancient cultic rituals, cracked their “symbolic code” using measurements and analysis of their visual characteristics. In the course of the museum’s worldwide search, several masks were rejected due to doubts about their age and origin.

That’s where Prof. Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Eastern Cultures, who directs the Laboratory for Comparative Microarchaeology, stepped in. Hershman says Goren was involved in the project from the start, explaining that he used the lab’s microscope to examine the patina built up on the masks, testing its components to assess their authenticity.

His tests result in an estimated time period and region for the object, within a 50-kilometer radius. A mask located in London was rejected for “Face to Face” because the results of these tests were inconclusive. “It was an ancient and important mask, so it’s mentioned in the exhibition catalog, but all the masks that came here passed all the tests with flying colors, and we just couldn’t say that with full confidence about that particular mask,” Hershman explains.

One of the masks that was included in the exhibition came from a private collection in Israel, while others came from collections in New York and Paris, among other places. All are believed to have been made in the Judean Hills and Judean Desert.

Hershman believes the masks were modeled on skulls, not living people, which explains the tiny nose, the bared teeth and the lack of lips or eyes. She also conjectures that they were modeled on specific individuals, noting differences in the facial features. The Hebrew University’s computerized archaeology laboratory was brought in to test this theory. The laboratory team, headed by Dr. Lior Grossman, confirmed both of these theories. It also concluded that the masks were intended to be worn over the face, in other words, they were meant to be used and not just placed on a pole or a statue.

Family ties

To understand how the masks were used, Hershman takes a somewhat risky leap: “One way to understand the use of the masks is to look at similar contemporary ethnographic material. This must be done with great caution because these civilizations are very distant from each other in time and space, but nevertheless one can say that there are societies that still live by and use a similar model. If we examine their symbolic code, we can understand the role of the ancient masks. An examination of tribal societies with a similar structure shows that they have a divinity that is not present. It is the group’s ancestors who look after the welfare of the individual and the society. In West Africa, for example, the ancestors are second in power to God. They are still the most important supernatural beings. In all of these societies, the family connection is exceedingly important, since it is the family connection to the ancestors that attests to people’s rights to their homes, lands and crops. There are no documents attesting to this right. The ancestors, with the aid of the masks modeled on their skulls, attests to the rights of the past and serve as unifying and highly influential figures in the society. From this it’s not hard to conclude that the ancient masks that were made according to the skulls of specific people were masks of the ancient Neolithic ancestors who were supposed to protect the members of their tribe and act on their behalf.”

When I ask Hershman if it isn’t a little frustrating that, after a decade of extensive research, only a dozen, not-very-big stone masks are going to be displayed to the public, she gives me a stern look and says I haven’t understood anything.

“Aside from the fact that these masks are a whole world unto themselves and will be displayed at the museum in impressive monoliths, as they have never been shown before, visitors to the exhibition will also get a much more comprehensive experience. On the walls of the hall they will see a video detailing 9,000 years of mask-making in human civilization. This will include more than 100 pictures of different masks, providing the context in human history, religious history and art history. The direct continuation of the items in the exhibition will also cover the walls.” Hershman’s eyes twinkle with excitement. She gingerly repacks the ancient masks and returns them to the cabinet. Then she starts to tell the amazing story of one ancient mask that was discovered in a small museum run by a Catholic organization in Paris, and how the mask found its way from Jerusalem to France after it was purchased from Bedouin in the desert together with some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Indiana Jones, watch out.

Eli Posner / The Israel Museum
Eli Posner / The Israel Museum