Photograph by Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority
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This 9,000-year-old limestone mask was recently recovered by Israeli anti-looting authorities.

Photograph by Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority

9,000-year-old mask stuns archaeologists, raises eyebrows

The rare discovery was greeted with excitement but revived strong concern about the authenticity of these mysterious Neolithic artifacts.

With their vacant eyes and enigmatic, toothy expressions, the 9,000-year-old stone masks from the area around the southern Judean desert are among the region’s most compelling and distinctive artifacts. Adding to that is their rarity: Only 15 examples are known to exist. So, when the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) recently announced the discovery of a sixteenth stone mask, it grabbed the attention of archaeologists and the public alike—but also revived a simmering discussion on the authenticity of these unique objects.

The stone mask was recovered several months ago by the authority’s Theft Prevention Unit, according to an IAA press release. A subsequent investigation led archaeologists back to the “probable archaeological site in which the mask was originally found,” near the settlement of Pnei Hever in the southern West Bank. The results of an initial analysis of the mask were presented earlier this week at the annual meeting of the Israel Prehistoric Society by Ronit Lupu, of the IAA’s Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit, and Omry Barzilai, head of the IAA’s Archaeological Research Department.

The newly discovered mask shares many characteristics of the others found to date. These include a human-size face of soft, carved limestone with large openings for eyes, a defined mouth, and holes drilled around its circumference. The holes lead some researchers to suggest that the masks were designed to be tied to a face or an object.

“It’s amazing, it’s beautiful,” says Lupu, who was involved with the recovery of the mask and the identification of the site associated with its discovery. “You see it and you want to cry from happiness.”

Along with their aesthetic appeal, the Neolithic stone masks are scientifically important, created at a moment in history when people in the region began to organize in settled communities, according to Barzilai, who has analyzed the find.

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Holes drilled around the circumference of the mask lead some researchers to suggest that it was designed to be tied to a face or an object.

“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,” Barzilai noted in the press release.

Alan Simmons, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who specializes in the time period, agrees. “Once you get larger populations and more people living in one place, you need some social control. That’s why you start to see more formalized, ritual behavior.” Other indicators of ritual behavior from this period include human figurines and plastered skulls.

“Elaborate Party Gear?”

What exact purpose these masks served in society 9,000 years ago, however, remains a mystery. They may be associated with a form of ancestor worship, some suggest.

“Were they for a funerary ritual or some other sort of ritual, or just elaborate party gear? Who knows?" says Simmons.

Much of the mystery has to do with the fact that most of the known Neolithic masks come from private collections and have hazy origins with no firm archaeological provenance. Until now, according to the IAA release, only two of the masks had clear archaeological context: a mask recovered from a cave at Nahal Hemar, and a mask purchased by Israeli general Moshe Dayan.

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Another phenomenon that appears in the Neolithic is the plastering of human skulls. In this 1953 National Geographic photo, archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon (right) examines Neolithic plaster skulls excavated at Tell es-Sultan, near Jericho.

In this latest case, the unnamed person who discovered the mask led Lupu to the find site. Conflicting accounts make it unclear whether the artifact was voluntary handed over to the Theft Prevention Unit or tracked down. A surface survey of the site revealed flint tools dated to between 7,500 and 6,000 B.C., Lupu says. A preliminary isotopic and mineralogical analysis of the mask shows that it came from that area.

Based on the hazy origins of the majority of the masks, Lupu understands questions about authenticity. But she’s confident that the new mask hails from the discovery site.

“I’m sure that this is the context for this find,” she says. “I think when we publish the [final analysis of the mask], it will be a done deal.”

Location Isn’t Enough

Some archaeologists say just knowing the location of the discovery isn’t enough. “Even if we could find the site that [the mask] comes from, that really doesn't tell us anything about how it was used,” says Yorke Rowan, a professor of archaeology at the University of Chicago. “Would it have been found with a burial? In a ritual context, like some sort of sanctuary? These are the types of questions that can only be answered by getting the archaeological context.”

The fact that only one of the 16 stone masks was scientifically excavated also raises the specter that other examples may be forgeries, says Morag Kersel, a professor of anthropology at DePaul University who is preparing a study on the authenticity of the masks.

Proponents for the masks’ authenticity point to a 2014 analysis of the surface patina of a dozen of the stone masks—including ten from private collections with no known provenance—which indicated all had been discovered within a small geographical radius around the Judean hills and desert. The latest mask was also found in the same area.

Nonetheless, Kersel urges caution, noting that “authentic” patina can be replicated on counterfeit artifacts. “We’ll never know if a mask is fake or where it really comes from unless it’s scientifically excavated,” she says.

Simmons also admits that the shadow hanging over the origin of other masks has colored his initial reaction to this new discovery. "Boy, it's a really interesting find, but I'd just like more evidence,” he says. “My first question [when I heard about the discovery] was 'Hmm, is it real?"