Masks Unmasked

Rethinking Concepts of Personhood 40,000- 4,000 BC

Forty thousand years ago, someone skilled in the working of mammoth ivory laboriously carved the earliest known statuette: a figure with a human body and the head of a lion. Yet the lion man is not unique: between 40,000 and 4,000 BCE most human representations, whether statuettes or cave art, have animal heads or facial features obscured by headgear. Clay, organic and ochre masks, often decorated with beads, obscured the faces of the dead. Masks made from animal heads were deposited in lakes and rivers. Masks have been a significant part of human culture for around 40,000 years, since the appearance of Homo sapiens in Europe, yet have rarely been studied. Why have masks remained so important across these different hunter-gatherer contexts, and what can they tell us about the changing world-views of those who made and used them?

In this project we aim to explore the meaning and significance of the use of masks in the European Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic, a period spanning the appearance of our own species to the emergence of agricultural communities. We will investigate how masks were made, what they looked like, when they were worn and how these practices changed over this long period of time. While masks today are seen as disguising the wearer, studies of contemporary hunter-gather groups reveal they are often viewed as powerful objects that can have more fundamental effects on the body of the wearer: they can transform people into animals or act as windows into other worlds, for example. A series of in-depth case studies will allow us to consider the broader significance of masks in relation to the beliefs of the time, their role in ritual practice and why they were sometimes worn by the dead.

This project is the first to investigate masks in early prehistoric Europe and their relationship to the earliest human representations. Masks are important because they offer a window into very different ways of life in the remote past: masks can help us understand what it meant to be a person and how the nature of the human body was understood; they can inform on the social and spiritual significance of particular animal species; ideas about death and, more broadly, ancient worldviews. By taking a different approach to bodies of evidence that are key to the history of humanity, this project has the potential to offer substantial new insights into past lives.

Project Leader: Dr Chantal Conneller

Other Staff / Project Team: Dr Ben Elliott

Sponsors: The Leverhulme Trust

Project Dates: 2019 – 2021

Publications or weblinks: Elliott B, Knight B, Little A. Antler FrontletsIn: Milner, N; Conneller, C; Taylor, B, ed. Star Carr Volume 2: Studies in Technology, Subsistence and Environment. York: Whiterose Press, 2018, pp.297-333.