What’s on : Lectures

When The Mask Slips: reconsidering human-animal relations within the Early Prehistoric communities of Northen Europe

1 Mar 2023
Start time
7:30 PM
Dr Ben Elliott, UHI
When The Mask Slips: reconsidering human-animal relations within the Early Prehistoric communities of Northen Europe

Event Information

When The Mask Slips: reconsidering human-animal relations within the Early Prehistoric communities of Northen Europe

Dr Ben Elliott, Lecturer, University of the Highlands and Islands


Mask making and wearing practices are ubiquitous within the global anthropological record, and can be traced archaeologically into the far reaches of the Upper Palaeolithic. The latter can take a variety of opaque and often confounding forms; be they depictions of humanoid bodies with non-human crania, human figurines with deliberately obscured facial details, materials applied to the heads of the dead, or organic objects which seem to have been made to be adorn the faces of the living.  Conventionally “Western” understandings of what masks are and what masks do, which draw down historically from the theatrical masks of the Classical World, often struggle to make sense of this ambiguous record. In this lecture, I will outline an emerging approach to the study of these materials, developed under the auspices of the Leverhulme-funded Unmasking Masks project between 2019 and 2021. This approach challenges some of the common and foundational ontological assumptions that archaeologists make about materials, objects, and bodies. In doing so, it opens the door for alternatives; ways of seeing and being in the past which hold the power to unsettle and challenge the primacy and singularity of the way we understand the world around us today. The focus of this discussion will be placed firmly on animals, and the manner by which Early Prehistoric societies may have thought about, engaged with, and transformed the non-humans with whom they shared the landscapes of Northern Europe. In doing so, it will draw from examples of Upper Palaeolithic cave art, Early Mesolithic traditions of mammalian skull modification, and the embellishment of heads and faces within the Mid-Holocene cemeteries of the Baltic region.


Ben completed a BA in archaeology at the University of York in 2007 and was the winner of the YPS “Charles Wellbeloved” award in his final year.  Ben remained in York to study for an MA in Mesolithic Studies in 2008. He then secured AHRC funding to undertake doctoral research on a project entitled Antlerworking practices in Mesolithic Britain, under the supervision of Dr Nicky Milner. This involved the application of traceological analysis to the full corpus of antler artefacts and debitage recovered from Mesolithic sites across Britain. During this time, Ben also took part in the excavation of a series of wetland Mesolithic sites in the Vale of Pickering, including Star Carr.  Ben completed his PhD in 2012.

This lecture will be held on Zoom at 7.30pm (GMT) and invitations will be sent to YPS members and the general mailing list two days before the event. This is a free event but non members can help to cover our lecture programme costs by donating here:

Member’s Report:

A former Charles Wellbeloved Award winner, Ben Elliot began this research as a part of the team working on the Mesolithic site of Star Carr, in the Vale of Pickering. Star Carr is well-known for finds of deer frontal bones that appear to have been adapted as masks or headgear, prompting questions about the place of masks in Early Prehistory. Elliot showed examples of human and humanoid figurines from the earliest occupation of Europe by modern Homo sapiens, the Aurignacian culture of 46-34,000 years ago, including the remarkable ‘Lionmensche’ that may represent a man wearing a lion’s head mask. Subsequent Upper Palaeolithic cultures made humanoid figurines that have only sketchily indicated faces, and quite separate representations of heads that have more detailed facial features. By the final Magdalenian phase, cave art and figurines include human-animal composites and apparently masked human figures. Masks continue in Mesolithic cultures of the Post-Glacial period, with deer crania such as those found at Star Carr, clay and ochre masks, and strings of animal teeth laid across the faces of human burials.

Why masks? Elliot reviewed the use and purpose of masks in our recent western culture, to deceive or conceal, arguing that this particular view of masks has heavily influenced our interpretation of prehistoric examples. Anthropologists now place more emphasis on asking what masks do rather than what they look like. What materials are involved and is the mask something to be looked at or through? Masks can also act as a means of corporeal transformation, enabling the wearer to assume the physicality of some other life form or entity. Masks reflect cultural ontologies, the rules by which a society believes reality is structured and works. The challenge is for our understanding of prehistoric masks to get beyond our own cultural ontology to catch at least a glimpse of the beliefs and assumptions that generated and used them.

Terry O’Connor