Face to Face: The Oldest Masks in the World

A rare group of enigmatic stone masks, which were created in the Judean Hills and the Judean Desert and are the oldest human portraits known to us, sketch the cultural and spiritual world of the people who lived in our region during the Neolithic Period, 9,000 years ago. These prehistoric masks, discovered in the 20th century and subsequently scattered around the world, are exhibited together here for the very first time.

Close observation reveals that despite their similarities – the use of stone, the method of carving, and certain features – each mask has a distinct "personality," owing to its details and design. At the same time, the common features, especially the vacant eye sockets, truncated noses, lipless mouths, and exposed teeth, evoke human skulls. Based on their similarity to the cultic skulls of ancestors that were found in the villages of this period, the time of the "agricultural revolution" and the transition from hunting and gathering to permanent settlement and food production – we assume that the masks represented the spirits of the dead and were used in religious rituals, initiation ceremonies, and magical rites.

The primeval worldview regards the skull as a as the embodiment of the individual's life force and spiritual power. As such, skulls were given a prominent role in the ancestor cult of ancient societies. The living believed that the deceased continued to protect them, their families, the clan, the social order, and even the forces of nature, in accordance with the social and spiritual status that the latter had enjoyed during their lifetimes. Thus the Neolithic stone masks may be regarded as the faces of individuals with special social, spiritual, or mythological standing, whose spirits possessed tremendous power.

From the moment a mask is worn, the personality of the wearer vanishes, and the spirit embodied by the mask enters and empowers him. Based on the holes along the masks' edges, the distance between the eye sockets, and the weight of the masks, it seems that the Neolithic stone masks were indeed worn on the face during cultic rites and embellished with hair to give them a more human appearance. Through the use of the human form in cult, the members of these early agricultural societies expressed their growing ability to control the forces of nature. For the first time, people depicted supernatural powers in their own image.