Note this is an updated version of part 1-I will be going through and re-editing my entries based on my newer research.
Europe: Neolithic to Iron Age (30000 BCE-1200 BCE
Today we put on masks for various reasons, and think little of where it all started. When did we start putting on masks, and why? Masks have been a part our world and our lives since the Neolithic period. With the exception of Antarctica, masks have a history on each of the continents in our world. In this part we will look at each of these continents and establish a historical timeline of masks in each, ending in modern day. The purpose of this chapter is to get a better understanding of how the mask came to be used in these societies. Masks have been used for many things during this time; spiritual ceremony, theatre, celebration, and burial are among the uses. So did we get from a world of masks in our caves to wearing a latex mask at a celebration? The answer, and our journey, begins in post-modern human France.
Masks by their very nature make us question reality, so it seems appropriate that the first physical mask would be one of debate. Found in La Roche, France, the stone artefact seems to certainly appear like the upper part of a face. It appears to be a flat stone with a “brow” across the top. There are indentations below the brow, that look to be carved. Wedged between the two “sockets” is a piece of bone, obviously deliberately placed there. The whole appearance gives the view of brow, eyes and nose. The debate ranges about the mask, believed to be carved by Neandrathal about 33,000 years ago. While there is a contingent that believe that it was carved, and the implanted stone supports that they feel, another group feels that there isn’t enough evidence that the item in question is actually made to look like a face, but possibly some other artifact or even a naturally occurring rock with an implanted bone for whatever reasons. It is also debated whether they had the mental and abstract ability of their Cro-Magnon counterparts. It certainly is an interesting idea that abstract and artistic reaches this far back in history. There have been Neanderthal graves found with items such as stone tools, suggesting that they already were thinking about life after death. Currently there is more support for the “mask” theory, but it is far from definitive. We will see shortly which mask holds the title as an “early example” of mask making.
Moving forward about twenty thousand years, the mask would make its first “official” appearance in cave paintings dating from 13000 BCE. In Ariege, France, there is a painting in which there appears to be a human figure wearing a goat head. Dubbed “The Sorcerer” by archaeologists, it is suggested that the figure represents what appears to be a Shaman performing a ritual. The figure is not believed to be a hybrid goat and human, as if it were some new species, but a human wearing a mask. The common belief is that the cave could very well have been a place of worship and ritual. It is one of the earliest examples of the possibility of masks and ritual being used together. The figure being represented may have been someone who used masks in ceremony, possibly trying to channel the animal world or commune with spirits. Little more is known about the actually significance of the painting, other than there are other caves with similar images in Europe and elsewhere. The appearance of these “mask” wearing images do provoke discussion.
Moving forward to the Neolithic period, approximately 7000 BCE, we can find the oldest confirmed physical mask artifacts, as they have been defined by archeologists as “true examples” of early masks. They are stone in manufacture, with a plain face, with eyes, and open mouth. One such mask is found in the Musée de la bible et Terre Sainte, France. While we don’t know their significance, it is has been thought, that, like “The Sorcerer”, it is believed they had a ritualistic use. Unlike The mask of La Roche, there is general consensus that this is indeed a mask and not something else. The carving is too deliberate, the eye and mouth openings are in their correct position, and the shape in oval, like that of a human face. What it does suggest again is that humans were using masks as a way of understanding the world around them and a way of understanding themselves since before the Common Era. With abstract thought came the concept of “me”. The idea is that they were trying to figure out themselves as their own identity, and differentiate themselves from other animals, and from other humans. Stone mask artifacts are found elsewhere as well. In modern day Yugoslavia, there are also artefacts from the Neolithic period. They are statues of what appear to be people wearing masks. Unlike the stone masks, these show variety in shape and expression. The statues also had sculpted hair, showing different physical appearances from 3500 BC towards the beginning of the Common Era. Also during this era the Ain Ghazal in Jordan were making stone masks to bury their dead. The masks were detailed and looked more “human” than that of the mask in Terre Sainte.