We consider Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” to be one of the greatest works of art known to man. People discuss how perfectly proportionate her face is, and how great a portrayal of the human face it is. However, no one comments on a similar work of art from a much, much earlier time; “The Lady of Warka”. The Lady of Warka is considered to be the “Mona Lisa of Mesopotamia”. It is one of the earliest relief sculptures known to man (Iraqi Artifact, 1).
This wonderful artifact teaches a great deal about how rich in culture and literacy the Mesopotamian civilization was. The Lady of Warka is a life-size sculpture of a woman’s face dating back around 5000 years (Banerjee, 1). It is shocking how detailed and accurate the face is, considering the time when it was made. Though not important as a functional item, the Lady of Warka is very useful educationally.
Not only does it help us learn more about ancient Mesopotamian arts and culture, but it also provides a great understanding of the development of art, particularly sculptures.
In 2003, following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, chaos and looting took over the streets of Iraq. One of the places that were looted is the home of many ancient Iraqi artifacts including the Lady of Warka, the National Museum of Iraq. The theft of artifacts, though not always highly publicized, takes place quite frequently. The theft of these items is wrong as it denies people from all walks of life the chance to look into the past and understand the development and progress that humans have made.
I believe that because of the instability of countries such as Iraq, artifacts such as the Lady of Warka, should be kept in an international museum in a stable country. This should be done to ensure that these artifacts are as safe as possible and that people from all over the world can come to see them.
This great work of art was discovered in the 1930s, in the town of Uruk (Warka), and is considered to be the greatest cultural achievement of the Mesopotamians. What struck historians the most was how detailed the artifact is. The sculpture included details not usually seen in sculptures so ancient. The parting of the woman’s hair, and the details of her earlobes were two of the most surprising details included in the sculpture (Parry, 1). In 2003, the artifact was looted from the National Museum of Iraq.
Amongst other artifacts stolen, perhaps this was one of the greatest historical losses ever. Luckily, the artifact was found and returned to the museum by a joint U.S. military – Iraqi police force. People complained about something buried in a farmer’s yard, and the Iraqi police investigated it and discovered the sculpture broken and buried in a plastic bag. It is believed that the farmer bought it illegally and tried selling it, but due to the artifact’s importance and fame in the art world, no one wished to purchase it (Parry, 1). Though the artifact was recovered in pieces, it has since been restored.
The looting was such a massive loss to the art and history worlds that it became an international issue. In order to help ensure that the stolen artifacts were not smuggled internationally, many foreign museums promised Donny George, director of the National Museum of Iraq that they would not purchase Iraqi artifacts until they were returned to the museum. However, George insisted that the risk of illegal trading was still quite high as the artifacts could be traded to private collectors who are not often questioned. Many foreign governments, organizations, and institutions were involved in the recovery of artifacts. The United States Congress and the Italian government both donated sizeable amounts of money after the looting to the museum in order to return it to its original state. Another example of the international attention given to this issue is that the FBI, Interpol, and UNESCO volunteered to help the museum restore and recover artifacts that may have been smuggled internationally (Banerjee 1).
“[The looting was] the crime of the century. And it’s not just a loss for the Iraqi people, but a loss for all mankind.” – Donny George, Director of National Museum of Iraq (Lawler, 1) The theft of artifacts is obviously wrong, as the theft of anything is considered wrong. Thieves choose to steal these items, smuggle, and sell them on the black market for very high prices (the Lady of Warka was estimated to cost around 20 million pounds on the black market). These thieves act out of pure greed and inconsideration. They do not consider how much good is being done for humanity by having these works displayed in a publicly accessible place such as a museum. If people see priceless artifacts such as the Lady of Warka, they can understand a great deal about human development, humanity’s past, and perhaps even their own past.
These artifacts are almost like a time machine showing us the events of the past that shape our lives and cultures today. Consider if the Rosetta stone was stolen and sold to a private collector. The understanding of hieroglyphs and other ancient texts would not be as developed as it is today. We would not know just how important numerous artifacts are due to our lack of understanding. This would happen simply if someone greedy enough stole the artifact and sold it to a private collector. The private collectors who buy these stolen goods are perhaps the biggest thieves of all as they are the ones who are allowing this theft to occur. If private collectors were to stop buying stolen artifacts, many people would stop smuggling the artifacts in the first place. Also, the private collectors are not only buying stolen goods, but they themselves are stealing knowledge from humanity! I believe that Donny George’s quote at the top of this paragraph explains the situation perfectly in two short sentences.
The lack of security and publicity of Iraq and its cultural centers is a massive issue with regards to ancient artifacts. The National Museum of Iraq has seen multiple wars and political turmoil, all of which have led to the museum being closed or looted. As a relatively unstable country that is not often visited by tourists, Iraq should not be allowed to keep some of the national artifacts discovered there. Some items such as the Lady of Warka should be sent to an internationally recognized, commonly visited institution in a relatively safe, stable country. If the National Museum of Iraq had allowed some of its most priceless artifacts to be displayed elsewhere, more people would be able to see and experience the items.
They would not have lost such a large piece of their history, and there is much money to be had by the Iraqi museum if they should sell the artifacts off to a different museum. All of these things would benefit the museums involved, they would probably benefit the economies of both countries and, most importantly, they would benefit humanity as a whole. If the most priceless of artifacts were sent to a country with a very high number of tourists and a higher population, there is a higher chance that more people can see these incredible items, appreciate and learn from them. The looters were especially successful because, as often times is the case, the borders of Iraq were open due to the chaos at the time. It was very easy for a looter to smuggle items across the Iraqi borders and therefore many artifacts were lost forever.
Luckily, the Lady of Warka was too famous to be smuggled and sold. As it was described by an undisclosed trader of illegal artifacts, “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, how many times can people hope that an item as invaluable as the Lady of Warka will not be smuggled internationally and lost forever simply because it is famous? The security of artifacts such as this should be the priority, rather than the homeland of the artifact being the priority. Much of ancient history has been lost due to the theft of artifacts from low-security museums in unstable countries. It simply does not make sense to leave an artifact that should be appreciated by the world in a place that is unpredictable and rarely visited as an international tourist attraction.
The argument for keeping an item of this importance in its homeland is also a reasonable and strong one. However, when simply weighing the pros and cons of both sides, it is obvious that there is more benefit from sending an artifact to an institution in a different country if the security of the artifact is constantly at stake. I conclude with an article I found very interesting. Malcolm Bell III argues that there is a fair way of determining if an artifact should be repatriated or exported to a foreign country.
He says that this is by taking into account four rights that the artifacts should have, “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 believe that Bell’s method should be used in many of the arguments regarding the repatriation of an artifact. In the case of the Lady of Warka, the artifact would receive all of the rights mentioned if it is sent abroad to a world-renowned, safe museum.
Badkhen, Anna. “Iraq’s Treasured Lady of Warka Returns home; 5,200-year-old mask looted in April from museum turns up in farmer’s yard.” San Francisco Chronicle. (Sept 24, 2003): A2. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Gale. LIRN. 23 Mar. 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.
Lawler, Andrew. “Saving Iraq’s treasures.” Smithsonian. 01 Jun. 2003: 42. eLibrary. Web. 23 Mar. 2012.
Parry, Richard Lloyd. “Looted Pounds 20m statue is found buried in garden.” Times [London, England] 18 Sept. 2003: 18. Academic OneFile. Web. 23 Mar. 2012.
“Iraqi Artifact Is Recovered” The New York Times. (Sept 18, 2003): A12. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Gale. LIRN. 23 Mar. 2012