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Work A grimacing mask

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Levant

Grinning mask

© 1993 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Near Eastern Antiquities

Duclos Alain

Between the 7th and 2nd centuries BC, Phoenician craftsmen disseminated original anthropomorphic terra-cotta masks throughout the Mediterranean region. The masks may have been used during religious ceremonies or theatrical performances, and were also placed in tombs to protect the deceased from the demons of the otherworld.

A fine example of a Carthaginian terra-cotta mask

In the late 9th century BC, the Phoenicians founded, in present-day Tunisia, a "new town" called Qart Hadasht, which the Romans corrupted to Carthage. This life-sized terra-cotta mask was discovered during 20th-century excavations of the necropolis. It depicts a grimacing figure with decorative discs on its forehead and cheeks. Lines are drawn to represent wrinkles. The term "mask" is used by archaeologists to refer to plastic representations of the face with openings for the eyes and usually for the mouth. These masks were common products made by Phoenician craftsmen. They were widely distributed in the Western world and are found in Greece, Cyprus, Sardinia, North Africa, and Spain.

The various types of mask

The oldest discoveries in Carthage were male masks, like this one. "Grotesque masks" and "grimacing masks" are frequent, and the grimacing group is the bigger. The two groups date to the 7th century BC and were produced until the 2nd century BC. Although the first group used forms and techniques that quickly became obsolete, the grotesque features and standardization of the grimacing masks were accentuated as time went on, displaying remarkable technical skill, as can be seen by the holes for adding jewelry and the flat curves around the mouth to emphasize the grimace.

The function of the masks

The openings for the eyes and mouth suggest that the masks were produced to be worn by living beings. Some are life-sized and may have been worn by priests or worshippers during religious ceremonies. That may be the case, for example, of the masks found in Cyprus and those in the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia at Sparta, Greece. Other, smaller masks may have been placed on dummies and statues. The masks found in tombs, such as this one, are frequently thought to have had an apotropaic function: masks in a funerary setting were there to protect the deceased by frightening away demons.

Technical description

  • Grinning mask

    Late 7th century-early 6th century BC

    Carthage, Tunisia

  • Terracotta

  • Gift of P. Gauckler

    AO 3242

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Mediterranean world
    Room 313

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