Israel Pulse

Will Neolithic West Bank mask spark modern-day culture war?

Article Summary
A Neolithic mask found in the Judean Desert is a relic from a bygone spiritual belief system prevalent in the region around 9,000 years ago.

One of the world’s oldest masks, dating to the dawn of the agricultural revolution thousands of years ago, was recently discovered in the West Bank. The mask's vacant eyes, bared teeth and enigmatic purpose have led Israeli archaeologists to hail it as a unique and rare find.

The particulars surrounding the mask’s discovery and its examination by archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) were presented at a conference Nov. 29 at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. The artifact, from the Neolithic period, is a relic of a bygone spiritual belief system prevalent in the region around 9,000 years ago.

“This stone mask is part of the spiritual world of the Neolithic at that time,” said IAA archaeologist Ronit Lupu, adding that it was likely used in ancestor worship.

Speaking to the Israel Prehistoric Society, Lupu told the audience that an Israeli man had found the artifact in early 2018 while hiking through a field south of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Pnei Hever, southwest of Hebron. After discussions with Israeli authorities, the man agreed to hand it over to the IAA’s theft prevention department.

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The IAA has declined to provide further details about the discovery of the mask, which is currently being studied by the authority and the Geological Survey of Israel.

“Discovering a mask made of stone, at such a high level of finish, is very exciting,” Lupu said. “The stone has been completely smoothed over, and the features are perfect and symmetrical, even delineating cheek bones. It has an impressive nose and a mouth with distinct teeth.”

The piece joins a small collection of 15 similar limestone masks discovered over the years in the Judean Desert, all dating to the Neolithic period. This particular mask, however, is also one of just two found in a clear archaeological context, archaeologists say. IAA researchers who studied the site of the find in the months afterward discovered dozens of more artifacts from the Neolithic age.

While caves in the Judean Desert may be more famous for the discovery of texts, foremost the Dead Sea Scrolls, the area's arid hills have also proven to be a rich source of prehistoric archaeological artifacts. This latest mask was discovered some 25 miles north of Nahal Hemar, where in 1983 a team of Israeli archaeologists discovered a massive trove of Stone Age artifacts, including a stone mask. The finds — ranging from plastered skulls to stone masks and intricate copper objects — offer a glimpse of local cultures in the millennia before the advent of writing.

In 2014, the Israel Museum exhibited 12 stone masks, two that belong to the museum’s collections and 10 others that made their way via the antiquities market to private collectors Judy and Michael Steinhardt. Each mask is uniquely carved, perhaps to represent individuals, but they all share a haunting gaze.

In recent years, the IAA has made an extensive effort throughout the Judean Desert to excavate caves near the Dead Sea to prevent their plundering by antiquities thieves and to discover artifacts before their archaeological contexts are destroyed.

The recently discovered mask already stands to elicit legal challenges should it eventually go on public display in Israel, which captured the West Bank in the 1967 war. Most of the international community considers the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, to be occupied territory, and international law prohibits occupying powers from the “illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property” from territories under their control.

The Second Protocol to the Hague Convention of 1954, to which Israel is not a party, prohibits archaeological excavations in occupied territories except to safeguard or preserve cultural property, and in cases where that becomes necessary, close cooperation “with the competent national authorities of the occupied territory” is required. Israeli digs on the West Bank rarely involve Palestinian archaeologists.

Following news of the Neolithic mask's discovery, Xavier Abu Eid, a negotiations adviser for the Palestinian Liberation Organization, tweeted, “Seems that Israel, the occupying power, is not stopping the theft of archaeological artifacts from #Palestine.”

Lupu told conference attendees that after a series of tests on the mask’s soil patina and on other Neolithic artifacts found at the site, archaeologists determined that the stone face was “from the same world” as those displayed at the Israel Museum in 2014 and was authentic.

“It sits well in the context, in the location, in the world of the southern Hebron hills and the Judean Desert,” Lupu said. “It sits well with the other masks that are documented from the area.”

Scholars believe the stone masks may have represented ancestors who were venerated as part of an early Neolithic religion. These worshippers were some of the first humans to begin abandoning nomadic life to instead settle permanently as full-time farmers. Along with that transition came a “change in social structure and a sharp increase in ritual-religious activities,” said Omry Barzilai, head of the IAA’s Archaeological Research Department.

It remains unclear whether such masks were worn as part of a ceremony or mounted, but many, like the one found this year, have holes drilled on the sides. 

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Ilan Ben Zion is a Jerusalem-based reporter for the Associated Press and a freelancer journalist. He holds a master's degree in diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, graduating with honors in Near and Middle Eastern civilizations, Jewish studies and English.

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