World's Oldest Stone Masks Go On Display In Jerusalem, And Boy Are They Creepy

on March 13, 2014 6:08 PM EDT

stone mask
The Israel Museum is displaying 12 stone masks from 9,000 years ago. The masks are believed to be the oldest known human portraits. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Jerusalem's Israel Museum has opened an exhibition on the oldest known stone masks, and the artifacts are quite creepy--if they had been used in the Courir de Mardi Gras scene on "True Detective," they would not have looked out of place. The 9,000-year-old limestone masks are considered to be among the world's earliest human portraits. Researchers believe they may have represented the spirits of dead ancestors and that they could have been used in ceremonies. 

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3-D modeling of the masks showed that they could have fit on the face (side note: wouldn't it have been easier a researcher to just try the mask on?), giving weight to the idea that the masks were worn. Holes on the side of the mask could have been threaded with a material to bind the masks to the face. Alternatively, the holes could've been filled with tufts of hair to make the masks more "real," or they could've been there to place the masks on walls or pillars. "The eye holes allow for a wide field of vision, and the comfortable apportioning of the mass is suited to human facial contours," Debby Hershman, curator of the exhibition "Face to Face: The Oldest Masks in the World," told Live Science.

The 12 stone masks are all believed to come from within a 20-miles radius of the Judean Desert and Judean Hills outside of Jerusalem. With the exception of two masks already in the museum's collection, the masks have been passed around in private collections for years, and it took a decade of carbon-14 dating to authenticate them. There is no written record to tell researchers anything about the masks, as they predate writing by some 3,500 years

"It's quite exciting," said James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum. "When you go back to objects that are this old, that are so much before the theology that becomes Judaism, Christianity and then Islam, to feel that there is a kind of a connection, that this is all part of a continuous story, is something that is pretty thrilling."

Hershman said that the stone masks come from an important point in history, when people in the Fertile Crescent moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture. The region where the masks were found was among the main centers of early agriculture. "It's the most important revolution that ever happened," Hershman said, adding that the people who created the masks "are actually the founders of civilization."

READ MORE:

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