Behind a glass case in the British museum resides a 2,000 year old bust that has become a huge cultural and political ordeal between the two nations of the U.K. and Armenia. According to the British Museum’s website, She is a “bronze head of a goddess, probably Aphrodite,” to the Armenians, She is Anahit, Goddess of fertility, healing, wisdom, water, and war. The bust’s image is featured on Armenian coins, banknotes, and stamps. A recent TV opinion poll found that the bust was more well known in the country than Armenia’s state emblem.
The fragments of Anahit’s bronze statue were discovered by a farmer digging in his field on the ancient site of Satala, Turkey in 1874. Satala is believed to have once been part of an Armenian kingdom, but was also fought over by the Greeks, Romans, and Persians. The bust made its way via Constantinople and Italy to the dealer Alessandro Castellani, who eventually sold it to the British Museum.
However, some question why Armenia has any claim on the bust, for several reasons.
- At the time the bust was discovered, Armenia was still a part of the Ottoman Empire. The site it was found on is several hundred kilometers away from modern day Armenian borders.
- Is the bust Anahit? A leading expert on Armenian art from the Hellenistic period, Zhores Khachatrian, says that the “Armenian origin of the statue still has to be proven.” He notes that it is more probable that the bust is of Roman origin, because the bust was found near the site of a Roman camp inhabited at the time of the bust’s creation.
- The bust was neither illegally exported from the country, nor was it a war trophy.
I heard from one webpage on the issue that the bust will soon be put up for auction at a starting price of 850 Euro, but was unable to verify that information with other sources. If so, Armenia will have the opportunity to purchase the bust. But in the meantime, Armenia doesn’t have a legal claim to the bust and must rely on the goodwill of the British Museum to bring Anahit home.