As with all major conflicts, the Balkan Wars of the 1990’s was accompanied by large scale theft and looting of cultural treasures. A fascinating example of this phenomenon is a Balkan Celtic golden face mask now in the Burgmuseum in Deutschlandsberg, Austria.
Such life size golden masks of gold and bronze were created across Europe in the 1st millennium BC; the practice of placing funeral masks on the deceased’s face being particularly common in ancient Macedonia of the sixth and fifth centuries BC. As a constituent part of the grave furnishings, funerary face-masks or golden foliage covering the eyes and mouth have long been known in great numbers from sites such as Trebenište near Ohrid, Beranci near Prilep, Sindos near Thessalonica, and other sites in Macedonia and Halkidiki.
Golden funeral masks from Trebenište near the ancient city of Lychnidos / Λύχνιδος (modern Ohrid) on the shores of Lake Ohrid in today’s (FYR) Macedonia (6/5 c. BC)
The history of the discovery of royal golden masks from the necropolis near the villages of Trebenište and Gorenci (10 miles north of Ohrid) has a long tradition. In this necropolis five funerary masks have been found on three separate occasions over the last century. The first two masks were found by accident in the spring of 1918 by Bulgarian soldiers during the occupation of this part of Macedonia. At the height of the military occupation, excavations were carried out by the Bulgarians which revealed seven royal tombs from which the material was removed from Macedonia and taken to the Archeological Museum in Sofia, Bulgaria, where it is still located today.
In 1919, Macedonia was occupied by the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians (Kingdom of S.H.S.), when part of the lake Ohrid shore with 22 Macedonian villages were transferred to Albania. In 1930-1934, Serbian archaeologist H.Vulić revealed six other royal graves in the same cemetery, and discovered 2 further golden masks, all of which were taken to the Serbian National Museum in Belgrade.
A 680 g. golden mask discovered in August 2004 in a burial in the Svetitsa tumulus near Kazanlak, Bulgaria (4th c. BC)
Numerous examples of such human masks have also been found across western Europe. Mostly these are geographically, chronologically and contextually isolated finds of metal masks, such as the bronze masks from Tarbes in the Pyrenees, Blicquy in the Belgian province of Hainaut and Vieil-Evreux; two silver masks from Notre-Dame-d’Allençon, two bronze masks from the Compiègne forest, Garancières-en-Beauce, as well as a tin example from Bath, all belonging to the period of the 4th – 1st c. BC La Tène civilization.
The Deutschlandsberg mask is 14.7cm high and 11.3cm wide, and made from carefully cut, beaten and filed gold sheet metal. The face has round eyes with accentuated eyelids, a long, well-defined nose and tightly closed lips under which is a strongly defined chin. The arched eyebrows are marked out by numerous cuts running from the middle to the sides; the top of the mask is ornamented by small locks of hair.
The Balkan Celtic Golden Mask
(after Guštin 2009)
This mask was first published in 1998 in the exhibition catalogue of the Gebrüder Steffan Fund (Kelten 1998, 36) with the subtitle Ostkeltische Totenmaske aus Goldblech, and presented in the well-known exhibition dedicated to Celtic culture and heritage in Castello di Gorizia – published in its exhibition catalogue (Echi della Terra 2002, 87, fig. 86; see Guštin 2009).
The mask has holes which indicate that it was originally affixed to another object — perhaps an organic or metal surface, for cult purposes – a practice known from the western Celtic sphere. In terms of artistic execution, it differs considerably from the earlier Balkan examples, and the style is similar to that to be observed on the Gundestrup Cauldron and other Celtic artifacts from the later Iron Age (Guštin, loc cit). Thus, it would appear that this is the last representative of a long Balkan tradition, and the use of such masks in funeral and cult practice in southeastern Europe.