Mask of Warka from Ancient Mesopotamia

Hi everyone! Today is International Museum Day (IMD). It is held annually on or around 18 May, coordinated by the International Council of Museums (ICOM).  The theme for the 2023 IMD edition is Museums, Sustainability and Well-being. Museums are vital contributors to our communities’ well-being and sustainable development. Today I want to talk about one of my favourite pieces of art from ancient Mesopotamia: The Mask of Warka, which I saw in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in 2018 for the first time.

The Mask of Warka, also known as the ‘Lady of Uruk’ and the ‘Mona Lisa of Mesopotamia’ is a stunning marble face that dates back to around 3100 BCE. It was found in the city of Uruk, presently known as Warka, which was an ancient city of Sumer (and later of Babylonia). It is the earliest known representation of the human face that was most likely an embodiment of the Goddess Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, war, beauty, sex and fertility. It is so realistic and detailed that it almost looks like a photograph.

The mask is probably a depiction of Inanna, the goddess of love and war in Sumerian mythology archaeologists She was the patron deity of Uruk, and had a temple dedicated to her there. The mask may have been part of a larger wooden statue that stood in the temple, or it may have been attached to a wall as a votive offering.

The mask is made of white marble, which was a rare and precious material in ancient Mesopotamia. The eyes and eyebrows were originally inlaid with shells and lapis lazuli, a blue semi-precious stone. The ears had holes for earrings, and the forehead had metal studs for attaching a wig or a headdress.

Lapis lazuli legends are among the oldest in the world. Historians believe the link between humans and lapis lazuli stretches back more than 6,500 years. The gem was treasured by the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome. It was valued higher than any other material, even gold. Lapis lazuli was one of the commodities in greatest demand for the decoration of temples and for personal adornment.

In the Old World it’s found in abundance on the southern shores of Lake Baikal and in the Kerano-Munjan district of Afghanistan. The metamorphic structure of the lapis lazuli found in Sumerian sites in Mesopotamia seems to indicate that it came from Afghanistan, over more than 1200 miles of rugged mountains and extensive desert areas.

The myth of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, and her descent and return from the underworld may date from as early as 4,000 BCE. Inanna entered the underworld bearing the insignias of her rank, including a lapis lazuli necklace and rod.

The mask was discovered by a German archaeological team in 1939 and has been in the Iraq Museum ever since. However, it was looted from the museum during the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, when widespread looting of Iraqi treasures occurred. A joint investigation by U.S. military police and Iraqi police recovered it in September 2003 in an orchard a few miles north of Baghdad following a tip from an informant. It was returned to the museum in 2004 and is on display since then. 

The Mask of Warka is a unique and priceless artefact that reveals the artistic skill and cultural achievements of the ancient Sumerians, who lived in Mesopotamia more than 5000 years ago. The mask is a testimony to their religious beliefs, their aesthetic values, and their respect for human dignity. It also gives us a glimpse into the culture and religion of one of the oldest civilizations in the world.

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