In 1983, a small team of archaeologists led by Harvard prehistorian Ofer Bar-Yosef, excavated a recently looted cave in the southern Judean Desert. Known as Nahal Hemar, the site appears to have been used to store thousands of objects from an ancestor cult. The scientists uncovered rope baskets, wooden beads, shells, flint knives, figurines carved from bone, human skulls decorated with molded asphalt, and embroidered textiles that may once have been ritual costumes.
They also found fragments of two stone masks, approximately 9,000 years old, which now belong to the Israel Antiquities Authority. Strands of hair, preserved for thousands of years in the dry climate, were stuck to the masks in clumps.
Other Neolithic masks have also been unearthed in the area as well. The rare stone artifacts were sculpted by early farmers whose immediate ancestors had given up hunting and gathering and settled in the Judean Hills, the location of the modern city of Jerusalem, and in the fringes of the nearby Judean Desert.
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 them 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.