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23 September 2018
Early Neolithic miniature masks

All Neolithic cultures in the Near East made masks. Why? What were the rituals and ideas behind the masks? Oliver Dietrich, Jens Notroff, and Laura Dietrich wrote about these mysterious masks in an in-depth article published in The American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) Web magazine.
     Ancient stone masks from the Judean Hills weigh up to 2 kilograms, bearing almost expressionistic facial features - each is individual, as if depicting specific human beings. Some have holes around the rim, probably to allow them to be attached to something, or to even be worn. The oldest of these Southern Levantine masks date back to the mid 9th and 8th millennia BCE.
     Since examples excavated in the Nahal Hemar cave in Israel during the early 1980s were found in a 'cultic' assemblage, a ritual use of these masks was assumed. At Jerf el Ahmar, a site in northern Syria dating to the 10th millennium BCE and characterised by round and rectangular buildings with limestone foundations, two little stone heads were reported which show a conspicuous concave cavity on their back. They are made from pebbles, only about 4 cm high and show eyes, a nose, and mouth.
     Another miniature stone mask or depiction of similar size is known from Nevalı Çori in southeastern Turkey. Eyes, nose, and mouth are again depicted, and the back is concave. Nevalı Çori has become well known as the first place where an important characteristic element of architecture of the region was discovered: T-shaped, apparently anthropomorphic, pillars. These link it to another nearby site that also has produced a number of comparable masks: Göbekli Tepe.
     Three of the masks found at Göbekli Tepe have similar styles to the example from Nevalı Çori, with non-individualized faces. However, at Göbekli Tepe the mouth is not depicted, while the Nevalı Çori mask almost gives the impression the face is screaming. Together with the finds from other sites, a large repertoire of masks in different styles is suggested. All types, with and without mouths, more individualized or abstract, are also well attested for in the large repertoire of limestone sculpture found at Göbekli Tepe.
     Burial rites at Göbekli Tepe seem to have been applied to the hierarchical system of anthropomorphic depictions. The enclosures' central pillars are abstracted and clearly anthropomorphic. The surrounding pillars are also stylized, but smaller and contain zoomorphic decoration. During backfilling of the enclosures, a selection of fragments, mostly (masked?) heads, and complete masks, was placed inside the fills, most often near the central pillars.
     If we assume that the stone masks are miniature or supra-sized representations of real organic masks worn by humans, they might attest that ritual activity at Göbekli Tepe and other sites included masquerades, where people acted out parts of a complex mythology. When enclosures were put out of use, masks and miniatures were buried with them, freezing rituals in time and space.
     During the early Neolithic in the Near East, masks and masking played a significant role in rituals re-enacting mythological narratives closely related to death, taking place at sites with special purpose buildings and rich iconography. This importance apparently justified the time-consuming and complicated manufacture of these paraphernalia as well as miniature and larger-than-life-sized representations. A small number of masks in stone are all what remains of what was likely a widespread Early Neolithic tradition of ritual masquerade.

Edited from Asor.org (September 2018)

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