Illegally Trafficked 2,000-Year-Old Greek Goddess Statue Returned to Libya

Illegally Trafficked 2,000-Year-Old Greek Goddess Statue Returned to Libya

With the aid of the British Museum, a 2,000-year-old funerary statue representing the Greek goddess Persephone will be returned to Libya, according to a report in the Guardian.

Thought to have been stolen from the ancient city of Cyrene in 2011 during the Libyan civil war, the statue was seized at London’s Heathrow Airport in 2013. Experts from the British Museum were called in to help identify the piece, and in 2015, gave testimony in court regarding the item’s provenance . The judge in the case ruled that the object belonged to Libya, which will receive the work via its embassy in London.

The marble statue is remarkably well preserved and dates to the second century B.C.E. Believed to be the Greek goddess Persephone, the statue is wearing snake wristlets—signifiers of the afterlife and rebirth—and is holding a doll figurine, which may represent a souvenir taken into the afterlife. The sculpture would have been made to stand in a niche above “a very high-status tomb,” says Peter Higgs, a curator at the British Museum, who was among the experts who consulted on the work’s provenance.

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The statue is believed to be looted from Cyrene, a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site and former Ancient Greek city. Numerous artifacts buried throughout this archeological site have been looted. The Peresephone sculpture is exceedingly rare for a Cyrenaican statue because it has an intact nose and overall condition. Many similarly dated statues exist today now as fragments—typically all that remains is the head. The quality of the Persephone statue’s surface most likely indicates that it was only recently excavated.

Describing the work as “stunning,” Higgs told the Guardian, “It is a beautiful, three-quarter-length statue, very well preserved with just a few fingers missing. It is technically brilliant in the way it has been carved, with very sharp details, and the face is very well preserved.”

The British Museum has come under fire in recent years for its reluctance to repatriate some of the cultural artifacts—from the so-called Elgin Marbles to its trove of Benin Bronzes—held in its collection, many of which were illegally looted during British colonialism. But this is one instance that illustrates “a happy ending,” says Higgs. “It will go back to Libya and stand in one of its museums as a star piece, it is a lovely feeling to be part of that.”

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