Masks in context: representation, emergence, motility and self

Ben Elliott, Chantal Conneller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


We are all now aware of masks and their affects. In the last 18 months, they have proliferated and in doing so replicated most of the major tropes of material culture studies. In Europe and the US they have shifted from exotic objects to, variously, symbols of collective responsibility or state control; they guard the purity of the body and mark distinctions between the domos and the agrios. They are vehicles for expressing identity, though rather less so than other items of clothing; sombre black or surgical masks remain the most common. Perhaps, this sameness of the masks we wear marks out the erasure of identity we feel in donning them. Despite covering only part of the face, it is difficult to recognise people we don’t know well, or read facial expressions. And in popular Western culture, the link of masks with death has re-emerged. Fears around mask-wearing and the pandemic have coalesced in the figure of the plague doctor, a black figure with a beaked mask, in the seventeenth century the height of scientific disease control (Mussap 2019), subsequently a venetian carnival mask, currently stalking our children’s nightmares. On the global scale, some cultures with established traditions of public mask wearing have also been challenged by the recent rise of the standardised clinical mask, and the tangible influences of globalised crises and unilateral intervention that this represents (Bablis 2020). Others, specifically those which combine traditions of ceremonial masking, with social veiling and recent histories of respiratory epidemics, have found the broader uptake of surgical masks less unsettling (Leone 2020).

This volume, at once timely and untimely, explores practices of masking across contents and millennia. Unlike the surgical masks we wear, the masks discussed in this volume produce new faces: one or more of humans, animals, ancestors, gods and spirits. The images of masks in this volume seem to collapse distances in space and time, bringing the past and present face to face with a viscerality seldom matched by other forms of material culture. The powerful affects they produce hinge upon a shared concern for the face across cultures and the consequences of attempts to materially fix its form. From the researcher’s perspective, this hints at a desire to materialise the suite of familiar relations associated with the face, in a way, which facilitates further manipulation through donning, doffing, display and concealment. As such, masks play an unequivocally powerful role within the archaeological imagination, and beyond. The broader academic interest in masks from the perspectives of fine art, anthropology, performance and theatre studies attests to this, but beyond the academy, Clementi’s (2019) discussion of the role that gold and silver gilded funerary masks have played in Greek/Macedonian nationalist discourse demonstrates the political realisation of this power.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)655-666
Number of pages11
JournalWorld Archaeology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 19 Oct 2020


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