In 2003, the United States, joined by our allies in the United Kingdom and several other countries, marched into Iraq to depose the tyrannical rule of notorious dictator, Saddam Hussein.
It was a brutal conflict born in the wake of the September 11th attacks, but one that many argued was a long time coming. However, in all the fire and bloodshed, a priceless piece of that nation’s history disappeared and it would fall to the American military to relocate it…
The Iraq War really started in 1991, when President George H.W. Bush, in response to Saddam Hussein’s unprovoked invasion of Kuwait, sent the US Army to expel Iraqi forces from their occupation. In 2003, after years of stability, if not peace in the region, the US came back to depose Saddam Hussein once and for all.
But a country under siege is an unstable thing and people will do just about anything to survive. Violence erupted in the streets and people began looting anything they could, including the National Museum of Iraq. On April 12 of that year, looters stole 40 of the country’s most valuable and beloved artifacts, including the legendary Mask of Warka…
The Mask of Warka, otherwise known as the Lady of Uruk, was first discovered in February of 1939. Dr. A. Nöldeke, acting on behalf of the German Archaeological Institute, had been excavating in the city of Uruk, just south of modern Baghdad, when he uncovered a peculiar piece of masonry. When he turned it around, he found that it was a carved human face, possibly part of a statue, but he’d soon learn it was much more than that.
The Lady of Uruk
The Mask was found in the Eanna (or Ianna) district of the city, which had been named for the goddess whom the temple was dedicated to, Inanna. Dr. Nöldeke dated the mask from 3100 BC, which meant it was one of the earliest representations of the human face. It was also more accurate than other previous attempts, meaning that it was near-enough priceless…
Archeologists surmise that the carved marble female face is probably a depiction of the goddess Inanna herself. Before it was stolen, it measured about 8 inches tall, and may have been part of a larger statue. The mask was without parallels in the period and was essential to understanding that period in Iraq’s history: and now it was missing.
In all the hullabaloo of the invasion and the hunt for Saddam Hussein, the remaining Iraqi police were somewhat overstretched trying to keep peace and order. Thus it turned to the US armed forces to assist in helping recover the missing looted artifacts, if that was indeed possible. On April 21, 2003, Marine Reserve Colonel Matthew Bogdanos gave the order for the hunt to begin…
With help from the Iraqi Police, the US troops began their search of the city. This was, as expected, an exhausting task. But they did have some informants throughout the area to help them find rumors of the artifacts’ movement through the black market. One of them, an Iraqi, had heard stories about the day the Mask disappeared.
One day, that same Iraqi informant, walked into the refurbished National Museum of Iraq, which was the base for all recovery efforts, with a tip that he knew where a number of stolen antiquities were being held. He didn’t identify the mask, but did know of a boy and a farm somewhere where the artifacts may have been buried. Colonel Bogdanos decided it was worth checking out…
The tip led to a frightened boy, which in turn led them to a smuggler, who knew about the farm and where it was located. The first step was conducting a reconnaissance of the location, just in case there was any chance of a violent reaction to the presence of armed troops coming onto the land.
Eventually, Colonel Bogdanos gave the okay for the raid. MPs acted on the informant’s tip and members of the investigation who were still in Baghdad went to that location and charged in. It was a long shot though, for even if they found some artifacts, the Mask might be missing…
Bogdanos’ hopes for the raid were not initially high and indeed at first, they didn’t find the Mask. They did however find the owner of the farm, which was located in northern Baghdad. After a mild interrogation, the farmer admitted that he had the artifacts, some very rare, buried in the back of the farm.
There She Is
Finally, after digging beneath a mere six inches of dirt, the Iraqi police and US troops found a mass of objects wrapped in filthy rags and stuffed into a plastic bag. There in the dirt were a number of priceless artifacts including the 5,200-year-old sculpture of a woman’s head. They had found the Lady of Uruk at last…
More Than Artifacts
Another tip led them to a garden near Tikrit. However, it was no buried trove of stolen ancient artifacts that investigators found there, but something much more troubling. The US soldiers dug deep and found a buried cache of weapons, including 23 missiles capable of shooting down aircraft.
Dozens of Times
As for the so-called Mona Lisa of Mesopotamia, she had changed hands quite a lot since she had gone missing. In the maze of Baghdad’s back alleys and clandestine antique shops, the Lady of Uruk had been passed from dealer to dealer. No one seemed to want to hold onto it for too long, lest they got caught with such a rare find…
Part of a Whole
As we stated earlier, the mask was most likely originally part of a whole life-sized statue, likely made of wood, and with only the exposed areas of “skin”, arms, hands, feet, and most obviously the head, being the only ones made of white marble: a material that was much rarer and more valuable in those days.
Much More Valuable
The back of Inanna’s head would have been enhanced with bitumen and then colored with metal like gold leaf or copper. The eyes would have been inlaid with jewels or shells as well. Meaning that even in those days 5,200 years ago, it would have been a valuable and sought after piece of artwork. After it was cleared by the US troops, the Mask finally went home…
Members of the U.S. Army’s 812 Military Police Company, the same group who had helped track down the Mask of Warka, returned it to the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad. Because the country was still embroiled in war there was little pomp or celebration, but those in the know appreciated what had been done.
Once again, the mesmerizing life-size face of this beautiful Sumerian woman gazes out of her case at the workers and visitors. Her marble was a bit dirtier and more stained that it had been before, but she was none the worse for wear. Unlike the rest of the country, she had no idea of the turmoil the rest of her homeland was dealing with…
Reborn and Revived
The Sumerian civilization, from which the Lady of Urka hails, are believed to be the first civilization to invent writing. These days, many years after the capture and execution of Saddam Hussein, the Mask’s place in the museum is a perfect symbol for a nation being reborn.
Sadly, workers at the Baghdad museum recently compiled a list of the artifacts still missing since 2003. A stunning 13,000 artifacts are still missing since the postwar looting. The museum is confident that the relics will eventually be returned when the conflict in the region is done. But it’s still just a matter of time.