Archaeologists in Turkey Unearth 2,400-Year-Old Dionysus Mask

The terracotta likeness was likely used in rituals associated with winemaking

Mask of Dionysus
Dionysus is the Greco-Roman god of wine, ecstasy and theater. Courtesy of Kaan Iren

Archaeologists in western Turkey have uncovered an almost perfectly preserved terracotta mask depicting Dionysus, the Greco-Roman god of wine and ecstasy, reports Ahmet Pesen for the state-run Anadolu Agency.

The team—led by Kaan Iren, an archaeologist at Mugla Sitki Kocman University—discovered the 2,400-year-old mask while excavating the ancient city of Daskyleion’s acropolis.

“This is possibly a votive mask,” Iren tells the Anadolu Agency. “More information will become available over time with more research.”

Popular legend suggests that donning a Dionysus mask freed worshippers from their hidden desires and regrets. This sense of liberation—and the lavish ceremonies thrown by the god’s followers—contributed to the development of Dionysian theater, encouraging actors to “fully embody their roles [and transform] into the characters on stage,” according to Anna Wichmann of the Greek Reporter.

As Iren tells Hyperallergic’s Hakim Bishara, the newly unearthed mask was likely used during rituals associated with winemaking.

“Excavations at Daskyleion are 32 years old, and this is the first time that we [have] unearthed a mask which is nearly intact,” the archaeologist says.

He adds that the mask appears to dates to the end of the fourth century B.C.

The terracotta likeness is one of many intriguing objects found at Daskyleion to date. Located near Lake Manyas in the Bandirma district of Balikesir, the site was first excavated between 1954 and 1960. Archaeological work resumed in 1988, according to Jona Lendering of Livius.

Earlier this year, Iren and his colleagues discovered a 2,700-year-old Lydian kitchen cellar in the city’s acropolis. Per the Anadolu Agency, the researchers are now analyzing organic matter present in the soil surrounding the structure to learn more about the city’s cuisine.

A previously discovered bronze mask of Dionysus
A previously discovered bronze mask of Dionysus I. Sailko via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

Daskyleion was reportedly named after Lydian King Dascylus, father of the better-known Gyges. Established around the time of the Trojan War, the city eventually came under control of the Phrygians, Lydians, Persians and Macedonians, according to Livius.

At its peak in 546 B.C., Daskyleion served as a satrapal, or administrative center, for the Persian Empire. But the arrival of Alexander the Great’s forces in 334 B.C. marked the beginning of a shift toward Hellenistic culture.

Speaking with the Daily Star’s Michael Moran, Iren says the city was extremely multicultural. Many different groups lived there together in peace.

“Every season, archaeologists unearth a lot of interesting artifacts of those different ethnicities,” he tells Hyperallergic.

Masks are a recurring theme in Dionysian lore. Known as the “masked god” in recognition of his numerous aliases, Dionysus was widely invoked in theater and revelry—both of which boast ties to masking.

“If we view performance as the ability to draw another identity out of ourselves through the experience of emotion, then the mask represents, or at least assists this process,” notes Brown University’s Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology.

Wine, meanwhile, affects inhibitions and vision (think of the phrase “seeing double”), essentially creating a wilder second persona.

“Dionysus was the great liberator through wine,” the Joukowsky Institute observes, “and he would free men of their inhibitions and their very selves.”

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