Saturday, March 17, 2012

Armenia lays claim to the Satala Aphrodite in the British Museum

Gevorg Martirosyan is the organizer of a campaign called "Bring the Goddess Home," and asked me to discuss it here. This campaign is aimed to repatriate "the remains of Armenian pagan goddess Anahit's statue" from the British Museum to the Armenian people". The campaign has a petition: and a Facebook page:

The head and hand of a Hellenistic bronze statue were found about 1872 by a farmer digging his land in the ancient city of Satala (modern Satagh/Sedak), north-eastern Turkey in what the campaign considers "Armenian lands" (presumably the conquests of Tigranes the Great). The head made its way via Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and Italy to the dealer Alessandro Castellani, who eventually sold it to the British Museum. The hand was presented to the Museum a few years later (despite rumours that the whole statue had previously been found, the body has never come to light). The statue was believed to represent nude Aphrodite, her left hand pulling drapery from a support at her side, like the famous statue of Aphrodite at Knidos by the fourth-century sculptor Praxiteles. But the Armenian campaigners say the statue represents the Iranian goddess Anahita:
Anahit is the goddess of fertility and beauty and her statue statue is from 4th-1st century BC. It was discovered by farmers in 1872 in historic Armenian lands. Ever since then, the statue has been at the British Museum as the statue of "Aphrodite" (but not Anahit) without stating its Armenian origins. In a matter of few weeks we have gathered more than 1100 "online" signatures and we are receiving positive response from the British Museum, however, they are only willing to temporarily display it in Armenia. An organization in Armenia has collected more than 20,000 paper signatures.
Armenia has put a picture of the head on a banknote and a postage stamp. I wrote (Mar 18) to Mr Martirosyan (who had offered to answer any questions I might have) asking:
What makes you so sure it is Anahit? There is no inscription, no temple, so why her? Who actually identified the statue as Anahit, and when was that? How long has she been put on Armenian banknotes and stamps (etc)?Why is it specifically Armenian (where was the boundary of the "Armenian lands" in Hellenistic times to which you refer? Are you suggesting it was removed from Turkey illegally, if so, why should it go to Armenia - several hundred kilometres from where it was found, rather than go to Turkey, the territory from which it was taken?
So far, however, I have received no answer to these questions, either the campaigner does not know or does not want to say.

The British Museum website might be the source of the Armenian claim:
The size of the head suggests that it came from a cult statue, though excavations made at Satala in 1874 by Sir Alfred Biliotti, the British vice-consul at Trebizond, failed to discover a temple there. The statue may date to the reign of Tigranes the Great, king of Armenia (97-56 BC), whose rule saw prosperity throughout the region. The thin-walled casting of the bronze head suggests a late Hellenistic date.
I am not sure I see any justification for the BM permanently relinquishing this object, it seems to have been legally acquired under the market conditions legitimate at the time, and it seems to me that the Armenian claim is extremely tenuous.

UPDATE 22.03.12:
See now: 'How a Mythical Fertility Goddess Could Help Steer Armenia's National Election', The Atlantic March 17th 2012. Mr Gevorg Martirosyan has still not bothered even to acknowledge he received my questions, let alone attempt to answer them.

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