History of Clay Masks

Updated November 21, 2016

From the death masks of ancient Egypt and other civilisations, to the masks of ancient Greek theatre and beyond, masks have a wide and varied history. While masks have been made out of a variety of materials throughout the centuries, clay masks are thought to be among the first and oldest types.

Clay as a Medium

Clay is made up of a mixture of different minerals and occurs naturally in the soil in various geographical locations and climates. When clay is combined with water and hardened, it becomes a very durable and useful material for many different applications. Some of the earliest pottery and other artefacts, including masks, dating back to prehistoric times are made of clay.

Earliest Clay Masks

There is evidence that clay masks were used in ancient times in many tribal rituals and celebrations and, in some cases, to scare away enemies. Clay and other materials were used to make death masks, and the majority of American Indian "spirit" or "totem" masks were also made from clay.

The Psychology Of Masks

There are many theories as to why masks were worn and why they are still made and used in different societal applications. According to, from an anthropological perspective, it makes sense that humans, once they established that they were different from the animals and the world around them, searched for ways to establish connections with the natural world.
Many people also wore masks depicting evil spirits in an attempt to make these frightening figures seem less frightening. Throughout history, masks have also served as a way to hide and conceal a person's true emotions and feelings.

Types And Purposes

Early clay masks were often combined with leather, bone and other materials and used ceremonially. American Indians and African peoples created masks depicting various types of animals as well as masks meant to represent the changing of the seasons. In ancient Japanese culture, masks made out of canvas, leather and clay were used in many Buddhist, Shinto and other religious celebrations, as well as in theatre and dance.

Modern Masks

Clay masks are still used today in theatre performances and in religious ceremonies all over the world. The practice of wearing masks in general lives on most strongly in the traditions of Halloween, the night when people wear costumes and masks in an attempt to conceal their true identities and emulate other people, animals and evil spirits and to represent ideas and events.

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About the Author

Hazel Baker has been writing professionally since 2003. She covers e-commerce, technology and legal topics for various online publications. Baker has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism with a minor in history from Point Loma Nazarene University.