With vacant sockets and jaws agape, they stare at you like the skulls of the dead. They are 9,000-year-old masks found in the Judean Desert and Hills, and they are going on display for the first time next week at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Opening ahead of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which is traditionally celebrated with masquerade, “Face to Face: The Oldest Masks in the World” features 12 limestone cult masks from the Neolithic Age that have never been displayed together before.

Weighing in at one or two kilograms apiece, each of the artifacts represents a oval visage with glaring ocular cavities, toothy maws, and a set of holes along the outer edge. They were likely painted in antiquity, but only one has remnants of pigment. Each of the 12 is unique, and possibly depicts individuals. Some of the faces are old, others appear younger. One is a miniature, the size of a brooch. They may represent ancestors venerated as part of an early Stone Age religion.

“It is important to say that these are not living people, these are spirits,” said Dr. Debby Hershman, curator of prehistoric cultures at the Israel Museum, who organized the exhibit. She was reluctant to place a mask from the exhibit over her face out of reverence for bygone traditions.

Over the course of a decade, Hershman and her colleague, Professor Yuval Goren, an expert in comparative microarchaeology from Tel Aviv University, teamed up to assemble the masks for the first time and analyze their origins and significance and compare their features and functions. Additional analyses of the masks were conducted at the Computerized Archaeological Laboratory at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem by Dr. Leore Grosman and her team.

Dr. Debby Hershman, curator of prehistoric culture at the Israel Museum, holds up a neolithic mask in the museum's laboratories. (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

Dr. Debby Hershman, curator of prehistoric culture at the Israel Museum, holds up a neolithic mask in the museum’s laboratories. (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

The people who created this artwork were among the first humans to abandon nomadic life and establish permanent settlements. Because the masks predate writing by at least 3,500 years, there is no record of their usage. Based on years of attribute analysis of their iconography, however, Hershman believes that the carved limestone masks were used as part of an ancestor cult, and that shamans or tribal chiefs wore the masks during a ritual masquerade honoring the deceased.

“They are the first glimmerings of existential reflection,” said James Snyder, the museum’s director. He noted that the masks possessed a “striking connection” to 20th century artwork, saying they looked like something Picasso might have created.

By examining the type of stone and the patina on the surface of the masks, Goren determined that all of the artifacts originated from an area of the Judean Desert and Judean Hills approximately 50 kilometers (30 miles) in radius.

Photo of Israel Museum's map of mask origin sites (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

Photo of Israel Museum’s map of mask origin sites (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

“Other groups likely made other masks from other materials” that did not withstand the test of time, Hershman said. These fortunate few were made of stone and were preserved in the arid desert climate.

James Snyder, director of The Israel Museum, stands in front of four neolithic masks in the museum's laboratories. (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

James Snyder, director of The Israel Museum, stands in front of four neolithic masks in the museum’s laboratories. (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

Two of the pieces hail from the Israel Museum’s collections (including one donated by Moshe Dayan that still has his name inked on the inside), while the remaining 10 were lent by private collectors Judy and Michael Steinhardt of New York. 

Some of the masks were found by Israeli archaeologists Ofer Bar Yosef during excavations at the Nahal Hemar cave in 1983. The cave, perched in the limestone cliffs above the shores of the Dead Sea, yielded a cache of neolithic artifacts at least 9,000 years old which included baskets, beads and the world’s oldest known glue and masks. Another was found at Horvat Duma, a site in the Judean Hills near Hebron.

After a decade of examination, “it really is an opportunity for investigation, research, reflection, conjecture,” Snyder said.

The 12 masks will be on display from March 11 until September 13 in the Israel Museum’s archaeology wing. In keeping with the Neolithic theme, Snyder compared the display to England’s Stonehenge. Twelve glass pillars arranged in a circle will hold the masks at eye level so visitors can see them from all angles.

“They are timeless treasures, priceless,” said Hershman.