Preserving Cultural Heritage: The Lady of Warka's Journey

Categories: MuseumWar

Both Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” and the ancient masterpiece known as “The Lady of Warka”, also called the “Mona Lisa of Mesopotamia”, are highly regarded for their depiction of the human face. The Lady of Warka, a relief sculpture from approximately 5000 years ago, provides important insights into Mesopotamian civilization (Iraqi Artifact, 1). Despite lacking a practical purpose, her remarkable precision and detail in facial features make her an invaluable educational resource (Banerjee, 1).

Studying ancient Mesopotamian arts and culture not only enriches our knowledge but also deepens our understanding of art development, particularly in sculptures.

Following the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in 2003, chaos and looting spread across the streets, affecting places like the National Museum of Iraq which housed a wealth of ancient Iraqi artifacts such as the Lady of Warka. Although theft of artifacts is often underreported, it occurs frequently and robs people from diverse backgrounds of the chance to explore history and human progress. To protect valuable artifacts like the Lady of Warka during times of turmoil in countries like Iraq, they should be kept in an international museum situated in a secure nation for both safeguarding and global accessibility.

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Unearthed in the 1930s in Uruk (Warka), this artifact is seen as one of the Mesopotamians' greatest cultural accomplishments. Scholars were impressed by its meticulous craftsmanship, including details like the woman's parted hair and earlobes. Tragically, in 2003, it was stolen from the National Museum of Iraq (Parry, 1).

One of the most significant losses in history was the theft of this artifact, along with other stolen items.

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Through a joint effort between the U.S. military and Iraqi police, the artifact was eventually located and returned to the museum. An investigation by Iraqi police revealed a broken sculpture buried in a farmer's yard inside a plastic bag, believed to have been illegally obtained by the farmer who attempted to sell it but found no buyers due to its value and significance in the art world. Despite being recovered in fragments, the artifact has since been restored to its original state (Parry, 1).

The looting caused a significant loss to the art and history communities on a global scale, sparking international concern. In an effort to prevent the stolen artifacts from being smuggled across borders, several foreign museums pledged to refrain from purchasing Iraqi artifacts until they were recovered by the National Museum of Iraq, as requested by director Donny George. Despite these efforts, George expressed concerns about the high risk of illicit trading, particularly with private collectors who operate with little scrutiny. Numerous foreign governments, organizations, and institutions collaborated in the recovery process, with both the United States Congress and the Italian government providing substantial financial support to restore the museum to its original state. Additionally, the FBI, Interpol, and UNESCO offered their assistance in restoring and reclaiming any artifacts that may have been unlawfully transported internationally (Banerjee 1).

Donny George, Director of National Museum of Iraq, called the looting "the crime of the century" with severe repercussions for both the Iraqi people and all humanity (Lawler, 1). The theft of precious artifacts such as the Lady of Warka is a serious wrongdoing driven by greed. These stolen objects are unlawfully traded on the black market at high prices, depriving mankind of valuable insights into human progress and history. Exhibiting these priceless relics in public museums helps us enhance our understanding of our past and recognize the significance of protecting our cultural heritage.

Artifacts provide insight into history and impact our current cultures. The removal of the Rosetta stone for private trade would hinder understanding of hieroglyphs and ancient scripts, emphasizing the need to safeguard artifacts to prevent knowledge loss. Purchasing stolen items perpetuates theft, contributing to a harmful cycle. Collectors can aid in halting illegal smuggling and preserving knowledge by refusing to buy stolen artifacts.

The lack of security and publicity in Iraq, especially for its cultural centers, is a major concern for ancient artifacts. The National Museum of Iraq has faced challenges due to wars and political unrest, leading to closures and looting. Considering Iraq's unstable situation and limited tourist visits, it might be prudent to move certain national treasures such as the Lady of Warka to a secure institution in a more stable country. This would enable broader access and appreciation for these invaluable artifacts.

Selling off the artifacts to another museum could have prevented the Iraqi museum from losing a significant part of its history and could have brought in substantial revenue. This action would have benefitted both museums and possibly the economies of both countries, ultimately benefiting humanity as a whole. By sending the most valuable artifacts to a country with a high tourist population, more people would have been able to appreciate and learn from these priceless items. The success of the looters was facilitated by the open borders of Iraq during the chaotic times, making it easy for them to smuggle the artifacts out of the country, resulting in the permanent loss of many valuable pieces.

Luckily, the Lady of Warka was too well-known to be smuggled and sold, according to an undisclosed trader of illegal artifacts. They stated, "Something like [the Lady of Warka] is so famous we must not touch it… Whoever wanted to sell it abroad must have been very stupid" (Badkhen 1). However, one cannot rely solely on an artifact's fame to prevent international smuggling and loss. The focus should be on ensuring the security of invaluable artifacts like the Lady of Warka, rather than prioritizing their homeland. Many pieces of ancient history have been lost due to theft from inadequately secured museums in unstable countries. It is illogical to risk leaving such priceless artifacts in places that are unpredictable and rarely visited as international tourist attractions.

While it may be a reasonable and strong argument to keep an important item in its homeland, the benefits of sending it to a different country are more significant when considering the constant security risks. In an article by Malcolm Bell III, he suggests a fair way of deciding whether an artifact should be repatriated or exported to a foreign institution.

He suggests that artifacts should have four rights: "The right to continued existence… The right to proper conservation. The right to the preservation of relevant historical or archaeological documentation. The right to public access. The right to consolidation when a work exists in fragments" (Bell III, 1). I think that Bell’s approach should be applied in discussions about repatriating artifacts. If the Lady of Warka is sent to a trustworthy, renowned museum abroad, it would receive all the mentioned rights.

Anna Badkhen's article in the San Francisco Chronicle discusses the return of Iraq's 5,200-year-old Lady of Warka mask, which was looted from a museum in April and found in a farmer's yard. The article is available on Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center through Gale and was accessed on March 23, 2012.

Banerjee, Neela. "Once Looted and Forlorn, An Iraqi Symbol Revives." New York Times 31 Mar. 2004: G6. Gale Student Resources In Context. Web. 23 Mar. 2012.

Bell III, Malcolm. United States. Embassy. "Who's Right? Repatriation of Cultural Property." (2010). Web.

Andrew Lawler's article "Saving Iraq's treasures" was featured in Smithsonian on June 1, 2003. The initiatives to protect Iraq's cultural heritage are available via eLibrary and were accessed online on March 23, 2012.

Richard Lloyd Parry discovered a statue worth 20 million pounds in a garden, as reported by The Times [London, England] on September 18th, 2003. The information was found on Academic OneFile and accessed online on March 23rd, 2012.

According to The New York Times, an Iraqi artifact was recovered on September 18, 2003 (A12) from the Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center accessed through Gale on March 23, 2012.

Updated: Feb 21, 2024
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Preserving Cultural Heritage: The Lady of Warka's Journey. (2017, Jan 25). Retrieved from

Preserving Cultural Heritage: The Lady of Warka's Journey essay
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