The first images of masks in Africa appear in Egypt around 3100 BCE. The painted reliefs appear on pottery and other objects. These images show animal headed figures performing rituals and ceremony. It could be at this time that these figures were seen as deities, however there are some examples that show a very obvious human wearing an animal head, as form of costume-even though they were referred to as a deity. Perhaps there was modelling of a sort for the painted images. So it could be said that these are the first “mask” images in Egypt history.
The first mask artifacts show up in Egypt around 2800 BCE, the first intermediate period. The masks were of a simple variety; they were wooden, in two pieces and held together either with pegs, or of stiffened papyrus sheets. These masks were wooden in their mold and had three dimensions features. The eyes were large, the “wigs” were long and wooden. They had the lower chest part painted for both men and women, often with carved beads. Plaster masks were also used during this time., with a very basic mould. The plaster poured and then hardened. Reliefs were painted on the plaster. The moulds were of a basic variety. These masks had less detail and possibly were made for either lower classes, or for those of a “less” status in the hierarchy. What is interesting to note is that men and women were given different colours for their masks; men had a red tone to their painted “skin”, women had a pale yellow. Both sexes often had their status represented on their masks-the more ornate the “jewelry”, the higher the station.
The more well known gold and beaten metal masks appear around 1570 BCE. Probably one of the most well known is the mask of Tutankhamun, or King Tut. His gold mask, was discovered adorned his mummy shrouded body by Howard Carter in 1922. However, masks were just not for the dead; artefacts of masks of Anubis and other Egyptians gods have been found, the masks also appearing on Egyptians hieroglyphs. Masks were important to the Egyptians as a way of preserving their dead: The masks found on sarcophagi help to “hold” the face in place, in order for the deceased to retain in their image into the next world.
There is also some suggestive evidence they were used in ritual for the living as well. Anubis mask artefacts have been found that are big enough to fit over the head, possibly suggesting a clergy use during funeral ceremonies, however this has not been completely confirmed. Mask artifacts of this type are rarer in find. This combined with the painted ritual reliefs seem to indicate that masks were worn by the living for various ceremony.
When the Roman times came to Egypt, in approx 30 BCE a different type of “mask” started to replace the plaster/papyrus/metal three dimensional masks. A painting of the deceased, on the lid of the sarcophagus, found its way into use. The paintings, lifelike images of the deceased, have been found in Roman era burial sites in Egypt. The Romans perhaps liked the masks, but wanted a more “real” interpretation of the deceased, and started the painted mask reliefs. As more Roman influence came into Egypt, the earlier Egyptian values and ritual decreased. The final appearance of mask type aspects were found in the latter part of Roman occupation. Linen shrouds, with an imprinted image of the deceased, were wrapped around the dead, a linen “mask” portraying the deceased. This type of mask is the last known of masking ritual before the end of mummification practices in Egypt.
Around 300 AD we find Phonecians inhabiting Northern Africa. Mask artifacts have been found that seem to link to ritual use. These masks were made of Terra Cotta, and were often very detailed in the face, including deep set eyes and detailed teeth.