A Pre-Roman Artifact Found in Spain in 1897 is Still as Mysterious as Ever
A Pre-Roman Artifact Found in Spain in 1897 is Still as Mysterious as Ever

A Pre-Roman Artifact Found in Spain in 1897 is Still as Mysterious as Ever

Jennifer Conerly - July 20, 2017

A Pre-Roman Artifact Found in Spain in 1897 is Still as Mysterious as Ever
The Lady of Elche, front view. Wikipedia Commons

We don’t know who The Lady of Elche is or who she represents. The most popular theory is that she is the representation of a goddess, but even that is the subject of some debate. Some scholars believe that she is Tanit, the chief goddess of Carthage. Others think she may have been an Iberian princess or local aristocrat. Even if we don’t know who she was, there have been some theories on the function that the statue served. Her shape and function have sparked considerable debate. At first glance, she is a limestone bust, but if you look closer, she looks like she was part of a larger piece, as if she was once a full statue.

In 2005, traces of pigments found on the Lady of Elche were tested and confirmed to come from materials that were used to make paint in the ancient world. In 2011, scientists proved the long-standing theory that the Lady of Elche was a funerary urn. They examined particles present in the hole in her back, confirming that they were ashes of human bones. Later comparisons found that the ashes dated from the pre-Roman period, confirming the piece’s authenticity.

A Pre-Roman Artifact Found in Spain in 1897 is Still as Mysterious as Ever
Altamira Castle, home to the Elche Archaeology and History Museum. Wikipedia Commons

Since her discovery, the Lady of Elche has been passed back and forth between Spain and France. Very soon after her discovery, a French archaeologist saw the piece and recognized its value. He contacted the Louvre Museum in Paris, who bought the Lady of Elche for 4,000 francs at the end of August 1897. The Lady of Elche stayed in the Louvre until the start of World War II, when the French moved her to the castle of Montauban near Toulouse for protection. In 1941, the Vichy government in France negotiated the Lady of Elche’s return to Spain to the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Thirty years later, in 1971, the Lady of Elche was transferred from the Museo de Prado to the National Archaeological Museum of Spain.

The Lady of Elche remains one of the National Archaeological Museum of Spain’s greatest treasures, and it stands to reason that they wouldn’t want to let it go. Still, the city of Elche wants the statue returned to its hometown. In 1965, the statue was briefly brought back to Elche for a two-week exhibition of Iberian culture. Over thirty years later, in 1997, the mayor of Elche fought to have the bust returned to celebrate the city’s 2,000th year for a special exhibit, but the museum denied the petition, stating that the statue was too fragile for the journey.

A Pre-Roman Artifact Found in Spain in 1897 is Still as Mysterious as Ever
The Lady of Elche, full view. Wikipedia Commons

The mayor of Elche suggested that the reason he was turned down was not that the statue was too fragile. Pieces more delicate that the Lady of Elche get moved all the time, and she had already been home in the 1960s. He suggested that the real reason that the museum won’t lease the statue back to its hometown was that it feared that the town would not return the piece. Other regions of Spain have recently begun to explore their own cultural identity, and other localities may follow suit and want their pieces back and not return them.

Finally, in 2006, the Minister of Culture of Spain temporarily leased the Lady of Elche to its hometown. From May to November of that year, the statue presided over the inauguration of Elche’s Museum of Archaeology and History at the Palace of Altamira and an exhibition called From Illici to Elx: 2500 Years of History, detailing the history of Elche from its founding to the present day. At that time, the statue insured for over 15 million euros. After the end of the exhibition, the statue was returned to the National Archaeological Museum of Spain in Madrid, where it remains today. Elche currently owns a replica of their most famous archaeological find.

The Lady of Elche is possibly one of the most important archaeological finds in recent history. The Roman empire spread so far and wide that its influence is still with us today. Finds like the Lady of Elche remind us that there were important, sophisticated cultures besides the Romans and they were capable of great things. The discovery of the Lady of Elche awakened interest in the pre-Roman Iberian period, a little-studied period at the time of her discovery.

Since her discovery, people have been fighting over who “truly” owns her and where she belongs. Does she belong in the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid, housed with other pre-Roman Iberian sculptures, where thousands can marvel at her beauty? Or does she belong in her hometown, where her life began?

Advertisement