The city of Elche in southeastern Spain is a beautiful tourist attraction, home to a perfect blend of beauty and history. Many of the buildings and sites have been standing for centuries. It boasts The Palm Grove of Elche, one of the largest palm groves in the world that was declared a World Heritage site in 2000. Altamira Castle, which currently houses the Elche Archaeology and History Museum, is still standing after being built in the twelfth century. Although trade has dwindled in recent years, Elche is an important agricultural center, growing and exporting fruits such as dates and pomegranates.
It is also a famous shoe manufacturer in Spain, shipping major brands all over Europe from its nearly 1,000 shoe factories. What the city is best known for, however, is not its beautiful sites or export businesses – it is a mysterious artifact that was found there in 1897 and sparked the study of the pre-Roman Iberian period: The Lady of Elche.
At L’Alcùdia, an archaeological site about a mile and a half south of Elche, the limestone bust of a woman was found hidden in a wall on the estate on August 4, 1897. Carved in the 4th century BCE, the Lady of Elche is an Iberian artifact with Greek characteristics. She is most recognizable for her wheeled headdress, which suggests that she was a priestess. Scholars found traces of red, white, and blue paint on the limestone, as well as traces of an unknown material in the opening behind her head.
There are two different versions of the discovery of the Lady of Elche: the popular version tells the story that a young worker named Manuel Campello Esclapez, a young boy of 14, overturned a stone while he was working and found the face of the bust. The more official version, however, written in the record by the local scribe Pedro Ibarra, details that a man named Antonio Macia, one of the farm workers clearing the southeast end of L’Alcùdia for agricultural purposes, found the bust. Either way, she was excavated, and the locals nicknamed her “Reina Mora” (“Moor Queen”), a reference to the North African Muslim occupation of the area after the fall of the Roman empire.
Part of the mystery that lies behind the Lady of Elche’s mysterious gaze is how she comes to us almost intact in a region where a variety of cultures with different religions settled the area. Originally colonized by the Greeks, the Carthaginians later settled the Iberian Peninsula, the southwest corner of Europe that is home to modern-day Spain and Portugal, in the sixth century BCE. Archaeological evidence has been found at L’Alcùdia, traces left behind of when the Carthaginians settled the area.
The Romans absorbed Carthaginian territories in Spain after they defeated Carthage in the Second Punic War in 201 BCE. The Romans then settled the area near Elche, making it one of their many colonies spread over their vast empire. The Romans lost their Spanish colonies to the invading Germanic Visigoths as the Roman empire fell at the end of the fifth century. A Muslim army defeated the Visigoths in the 8th century and remained in the Iberian Peninsula until James of Aragon took back the Spanish lands for the Christians from the Muslims in the Reconquista of the 13th century.
We don’t know who The Lady of Elche is or who she represents. The most popular theory is that she is the representation of a goddess, but even that is the subject of some debate. Some scholars believe that she is Tanit, the chief goddess of Carthage. Others think she may have been an Iberian princess or local aristocrat. Even if we don’t know who she was, there have been some theories on the function that the statue served. Her shape and function have sparked considerable debate. At first glance, she is a limestone bust, but if you look closer, she looks like she was part of a larger piece, as if she was once a full statue.
In 2005, traces of pigments found on the Lady of Elche were tested and confirmed to come from materials that were used to make paint in the ancient world. In 2011, scientists proved the long-standing theory that the Lady of Elche was a funerary urn. They examined particles present in the hole in her back, confirming that they were ashes of human bones. Later comparisons found that the ashes dated from the pre-Roman period, confirming the piece’s authenticity.
Since her discovery, the Lady of Elche has been passed back and forth between Spain and France. Very soon after her discovery, a French archaeologist saw the piece and recognized its value. He contacted the Louvre Museum in Paris, who bought the Lady of Elche for 4,000 francs at the end of August 1897. The Lady of Elche stayed in the Louvre until the start of World War II, when the French moved her to the castle of Montauban near Toulouse for protection. In 1941, the Vichy government in France negotiated the Lady of Elche’s return to Spain to the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Thirty years later, in 1971, the Lady of Elche was transferred from the Museo de Prado to the National Archaeological Museum of Spain.
The Lady of Elche remains one of the National Archaeological Museum of Spain’s greatest treasures, and it stands to reason that they wouldn’t want to let it go. Still, the city of Elche wants the statue returned to its hometown. In 1965, the statue was briefly brought back to Elche for a two-week exhibition of Iberian culture. Over thirty years later, in 1997, the mayor of Elche fought to have the bust returned to celebrate the city’s 2,000th year for a special exhibit, but the museum denied the petition, stating that the statue was too fragile for the journey.
The mayor of Elche suggested that the reason he was turned down was not that the statue was too fragile. Pieces more delicate that the Lady of Elche get moved all the time, and she had already been home in the 1960s. He suggested that the real reason that the museum won’t lease the statue back to its hometown was that it feared that the town would not return the piece. Other regions of Spain have recently begun to explore their own cultural identity, and other localities may follow suit and want their pieces back and not return them.
Finally, in 2006, the Minister of Culture of Spain temporarily leased the Lady of Elche to its hometown. From May to November of that year, the statue presided over the inauguration of Elche’s Museum of Archaeology and History at the Palace of Altamira and an exhibition called From Illici to Elx: 2500 Years of History, detailing the history of Elche from its founding to the present day. At that time, the statue insured for over 15 million euros. After the end of the exhibition, the statue was returned to the National Archaeological Museum of Spain in Madrid, where it remains today. Elche currently owns a replica of their most famous archaeological find.
The Lady of Elche is possibly one of the most important archaeological finds in recent history. The Roman empire spread so far and wide that its influence is still with us today. Finds like the Lady of Elche remind us that there were important, sophisticated cultures besides the Romans and they were capable of great things. The discovery of the Lady of Elche awakened interest in the pre-Roman Iberian period, a little-studied period at the time of her discovery.
Since her discovery, people have been fighting over who “truly” owns her and where she belongs. Does she belong in the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid, housed with other pre-Roman Iberian sculptures, where thousands can marvel at her beauty? Or does she belong in her hometown, where her life began?