Swiss federal authorities announced on Tuesday that they have repatriated a marble head of a young woman dating back to the Hellenistic period, approximately 2,000 years old. Discovered a decade ago in a warehouse in Geneva, the 19-centimeter-high sculpture is deemed an “archaeological vestige of great value” and an “exceptional testimony to Hellenistic expansion in North Africa,” according to a press release from the Federal Office of Culture.

Originating from the period between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD, the artifact likely hails from the archaeological site of the ancient city of Cyrene in the Cyrenaica region of present-day Libya. The sculpture surfaced during a 2013 inspection in a customs warehouse in Geneva, and it was formally returned to Bern on Tuesday in a ceremony at the Libyan embassy in Switzerland.

Despite a three-year investigation by the Geneva public prosecutor’s office, which was initiated due to suspicions of the sculpture being linked to “illicit excavations,” the precise origin and route by which it arrived in Switzerland remain elusive. Covered in a reddish patina, the marble head provides clues about its origin, with the Federal Office of Culture noting that the Cyrenaica region is distinctive for possessing “terra rossa and marble of such quality.”

The press release underscores the threat to Libya’s cultural heritage, especially UNESCO World Heritage sites like Cyrene, due to looting and destruction. Both Switzerland and Libya, despite the latter being in a state of chaos since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, are signatories to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, which aims to prevent the illicit import, export, and transfer of ownership of cultural property. The announcement serves as a reminder of the global efforts to combat the illegal trade and destruction of cultural artifacts, particularly in regions facing significant challenges such as Libya.

Piers Potter

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