I left behind one of the most famous museums in Europe, the Prado, together with my colleague intensely studying in front of the Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch, and I headed off to the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid. I caught the bus and after twenty minutes I entered the air-conditioned edifice full of ancient artefacts of Egypt, Nubia, the Middle East, Greece, and obviously, Iberian Peninsula of different periods.
Before the Romans Came
Particularly, the pre-Roman epoch was of my special interest. It covers the cultures that developed between the beginnings of the Iron Age and the process of Romanization, that is to say, the First Millennium BC. It was marked by several Mediterranean cultures, namely Iberian, Celtic, Greek, Phoenician, semi-legendary Tartessian, and finally Carthaginian. Many objects in this collection come from archaeological excavations and finds carried out in the Peninsula and its islands since the nineteenth century and even before. The set of Iberian statues are exceptional for their quality and quantity; these are the so-called Ladies of Elche, Baza and Cerro de los Santos. Among them, the most famous is definitely the graceful yet mysterious Lady of Elche – one of Spain’s most famous icons. The statues are usually said to be sculpture made in limestone. However, Adrien Nash (2021) has lately paid my attention to the fact that the Lady of Elche should be actually a hollow casting, and not a sculpture. Such a claim is based on the photos of the head, showing it empty as much as the part in her back (Ibid.).
Treasure Found Without a Map
The enigmatic sculpture was unearthed by chance in 1897. It is believed that a young farm worker found it while he was clearing an area for planting on a private estate at l’Alcúdia in Elche (part of the Spanish province of Alicante, Valencia). Once he overturned one of the stones, he came across an amazing find. To his surprise, he noticed the woman’s head, neck and shoulders, extending down to her chest.
The place of discovery is now an archaeological site, and the Lady of Elche herself has initiated a popular interest in pre-Roman Iberian culture. Shortly after the discovery, the land owner of the sold it to a French archaeological connoisseur, Pierre Paris, and the artifact became a part of the Louvre collection, where it had remained until the beginning of the 1940s, when it was returned to Spain. Initially the artefact was displayed in the Prado Museum, and in 1971, it was relocated to National Archaeological Museum in Madrid, where it has been preserved up to now. Without doubt, the Lady of Elche is one of the most valuable objects housed in this museum edifice. Its replica, in turn, was produced and exposed in the local Museum of Archaeology and History of Elche. The original bust was sent and displayed in Elche only once, in 2006.
Princess Leia from Iberia
The sculpture features a woman wearing an elaborate headdress, composed of two large coils known as rodetes positioned symmetrically on either side of the head and face. Once considered to be just huge spools of hair, they are actually a massive headgear of some sort, which is installed over the Lady’s head and neck.
A number of researchers interpreted it as a highly advanced technological device linking the sculpture with the civilization of Atlantis. It is also somehow reminiscent of the headdress worn by Princess Leia in Star Wars (makers of the movie may have been actually inspired by its design, while creating the character). Actually, the wheel-like carved adornments look like huge flattened snail shells, and some scholars think that their original model was once probably made of basketry or metal. After one theory, it may have been a ceremonial headdress of a priestess, or even a goddess. Accordingly, some scholars associate the statue’s representation with Tanit, the Punic-Iberian fertility deity of Carthage, while others have proposed the Lady reflects an Atlantean Goddess.
Refined Female Face
Furthermore, the headdress runs across the forehead, with a pattern of raised marble-shaped bumps. Tassel-like long earrings hang in front of the ears down to the shoulders, and elaborate and heavy necklaces adorn the elegant chest. After Bernardo Graiver (1980), similar peaked headdress topped with a veil was worn in Tunisia into modern times. On the other side, the design of jewellry has Phoenician and Carthaginian analogues. Yet, after Bruno Nua (2021), in terms of the style of the statue, there may be a connection even with ancient Anatolia in Turkey.
The female delicate and refined face contains an expressionless gaze of royal dignity, also characteristic of another bust representing the famous Egyptian Queen – Nefertiti. For some the representation has the appearance of a portrait. Others have also indicated the woman’s uniquely Caucasian facial features.
Mystery History (2017). “High-Tech Ancient Queen” Found In Spain?” In: Youtube Channel.
Other Noble Ladies
According to some scholars, the bust of nearly 54 cm high (21 inches) may originally have been the part of a larger, full-body statue, depicted in a seated position (Lady of Baza) or a standing one (Gran Dama Oferente).
The Lady is carved from limestone with traces of red and blue polychrome, which means it was originally covered in vivid colours. The stone used suggests it was carved not very far from where it was found centuries later. The statue is generally believed to have been created within the Iberian culture, though the artisanship suggests strong Hellenistic influence. The sculpture is unique, however, there are some less known similar examples, dated back to around fourth century BC. One of them is indisputably the Lady of Guardamar, also known as The Lady of Cabezo Lucero.
As its name signifies itself, the statue represents a female bust as well, 50 cm high, discovered in fragments in the Phoenician archaeological site in Guardamar del Segura in Alicante province, in 1987. The Lady of Guardamar is adorned with similar, though not identical, jewellery and wheel-like rodetes. The latter seem smaller and of less intricate design without earrings but the resemblance between these two objects is striking. The Ladies’ necklaces with their pendants are also similar to those found on the Lady of Baza. Moreover, all the statues have been discovered in the south-eastern Spain, in Alicante region.
The most interesting feature of the statue, however, is her unusual anatomy, namely the remarkable protrusion of a large and significantly elongated skull, covered with a conical cap. It cannot be noticed until the bust is viewed from its profile.
In the same museum, there are many examples of Iberian figures with elongated heads but hidden from view under their headdresses. Does this mean that some Iberian people were longheads? Or it was just a stylisation or a fashionable haute couture headgear. If so, why did they follow such a style in dressing up their heads at all? There is no answer … Still there is a hope this sculpture may create a new wave of speculation in where the other elongated head peoples originated.
An Elaborate Hoax … ?
The origin of the sculpture and its purpose is baffling and has sparked lively, sometimes heated, debate. There are scholars who argue that the statue is, in fact, a forgery. Art historian John F. Moffitt argues that the sculpture of the Lady of Elche is too elaborate to have been carved in pre-Christian Spain. This argument has been dismissed by dating the pigments left on the object back to the fifth century BC. Some independent scholars suggest the work comes from a much earlier period though. The bust might have been a funerary vessel as there is an aperture in the rear of the sculpture, which indicates it may have been used as an urn. On the other hand, the cavity in the Lady’s back could have contained something different from human remains, such as an unknown object or documents revealing her mystery. All at once, it could be a depiction of a goddess, or an Iberian princess. The Lady of Elche’s origin can never be known for sure, which leaves the debate open, especially in case of the correct creation date and its obscure origins. Nevertheless, it is widely believed to be one of the most striking examples of sculpture work found on the planet.
Let Her Speak …
The disputes and theories regarding the Lady of Elche prove the importance of the sculpture itself. As an ancient icon of Spain, the artefact slightly unveils the ancient past, not only of Spain, but of the whole human civilisation. I hope the disputes and theories about the bust will continue in order to resolve its riddle. At the same time, I hope by all that the artefact will remain safely preserved as a culturally significant symbol of ancient and mysterious history.
Featured photo: “The Lady of Elche, once polychrome stone bust discovered by chance in 1897 at L’Alcúdia, believed to be a piece of Iberian sculpture from the 4th century BC, National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid”. Photo by the User Butko (2015). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.