This mask is a rare example of a small group of similar masks. Only five others are known. One, a near pair to the present example, is in the Khalili Collection (Alexander, David: The Arts of War: Arms and Armour of the 7th to 19th centuries, London, 1992, pp. 66-67, no. 25). Another once belonged to the Imperial Armoury in Moscow and is now in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg (Meisterwerke Muhamedanischer Kunst, Munich, 1910, cat. no. 343, pl. 230). Four masks were found in archaelogical contexts, three close to villages south of Kiev, one on the Crimean peninsula (Fedorow-Dawydow, G.A.: Die Goldene Horde, Vienna and Munich, 1973, pp. 63-65, pl. 28).
Masks like these were once attached to helmets and formed part of elaborate suits of armour. This is suggested by one found in Kowali, south of Kiev, where the burial of a warrior in full armour was discovered. Apart from his suit of mail, sword and stirrups, he was found wearing a helmet to which was still attached his war mask. The only other mask surviving attached to its helmet is that in the Hermitage. War-masks had been used since antiquity and were commonly used in Islamic Iran and Anatolia as suggested by pictorial evidence of 13th- and 14th-century miniatures (see Alexander, op.cit, p. 66, footnotes 4 and 5).
With the exception of the mask found in the Crimea (Fedorow-Dawydow, op.cit., pl. 28) all the masks are decorated and share the same facial features: slightly elongated faces, pronounced chins and cheekbones, longish and narrow noses, heavy eyebrows and almond-shaped openings for the eyes. The Crimean mask, on the other hand, is undecorated, the face less sculpted and more rounded. Fedorow-Dawydow calls it "Mongolian" (op.cit., p. 65). Furthermore, all have hinges attached to the upper parts of the masks by multilobed arch-like terminals nailed onto the mask surface.
The decoration on these masks is engraved (on ours it is also gilt) and comprises floral interlace with half-palmette leaves reminiscent of the Timurid style in its elegance and fineness. It resembles the taste established by the Timurid kitabhane and prevalent in various media of the period. While the Hermitage mask is decorated with naturalistic flowers clearly in the Ottoman sixteenth century style on the upper part of the face, our mask and the Khalili example are inscribed on both sides and within the cartouche formed by the terminals of the hinge. The inscriptions on both pieces appear to be fragmentary. Both feature the term al-ustad ("master"). In addition ours is inscribed within the cartouche with what could be read as 'amal Hamz(eh) ("the work of Hamzeh").
A dating to the second half of the 15th century is made on the basis of the engraved decoration, supported, as noted above, by the appearance of such masks in miniature paintings of the fifteenth century and earlier (Alexander, D. and Ricketts, H.: 'Arms and Armour', in Falk, Toby (ed.): Treasures of Islam, London, 1985, no.303, p.298). Given the archaeological evidence from the Ukraine and the Crimea, masks like these must have been encountered over a large area and were likely to have been made in a variety of locations. The fact that they were used in war makes it likely that they were also transported over long distances and deposited far from their places of manufacture, making a precise place of origin difficult to pinpoint. Indeed, one Hermitage mask was called 'Mongolian', while the Khalili mask has been attributed to both Iran and the Northern Caucasus, the latter being a manufaturing centre for both the Turkic and Persian markets. The Caucasian suggestion is enhanced by the use of semi-literate script across the brow. What is certain is that this mask must have been made as a specific commission; the nose of the warrior for whom it was made is very clearly broken!
A metallurgical analysis of this mask, performed by Dr Peter Northover of the Department of Materials, Oxford, sample no.R1080, confirms the proposed dating.