Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Warka Vase

It was the second day of January in 1934 and an expedition of German Assyriologists was in the middle of their sixth excavation at the site of the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk located in the southern region of modern Iraq. History was made on that winter’s day when they discovered one of the greatest of all archeological finds: the Warka Vase.

Logged into the recordings of the expedition as W14873, the Warka Vase is made of alabaster and stands roughly three feet tall with evidence of damage and repairs made millennia ago. The importance of the Warka Vase cannot be overstated for it’s one of the earliest surviving works of narrative relief sculpture, dating back to between 3200–3000 BCE.

The Warka Vase

The vase has three tiers of carving. The lowest tier depicts ears of corn and flax plants as well as water likely representing the sources of life. In addition, above the vegetation is a depiction of a procession of animals. The procession continues up onto the second tier in which we then find depictions of nude males carrying bowls and jars of fruit and grain, which most scholars interpret as worshipers carrying sacrificial elements. Finally, on the top tier the procession ends at the temple area. Inanna, the chief goddesses of Sumer and of the rest of Mesopotamia (Inanna was also known as Ishtar by Babylonians and Assyrians), is shown standing in front of two bundles of reeds. A nude figure is offering her a bowl of fruit and grain. Also depicted is a priest, though some speculate that he might be a chieftain, wearing ceremonial clothing stands nearby facing the procession.

A plaster cast was made of the original vase and kept in the Vorderasiatisches Museum Berlin in Germany. In addition, numerous sketches and photographs exist of the vase along with drawings of the depictions found upon it.

Sketching made of the side of the Warka Vase

Disaster struck in April 2003 when looting occurred during the Invasion of Iraq, some by mobs and some by Bath Party members as well as by museum staff, due to the US forces failing to secure the historical sites of Iraq including the National Museum keeping the vase. The looters smashed the display case holding the vase, forcibly snapped the vase off its base leaving just the foot of the vase behind.

On June 12, 2003, after a declaration of an amnesty for the looters, the vase was return by three unidentified men in their late twenties driving a red Toyota. According to a reporter for The Times:

“As they struggled to lift a large object wrapped in a blanket out of the boot, the American guards on the gate raised their weapons. For a moment, a priceless 5,000-year-old vase thought to have been lost in looting after the fall of Baghdad seemed about to meet its end. But one of the men peeled back the blanket to reveal carved alabaster pieces that were clearly something extraordinary. Three feet high and weighing 600lb intact, this was the Sacred Vase of Warka, regarded by experts as one of the most precious of all the treasures taken during looting that shocked the world in the chaos following the fall of Baghdad. Broken in antiquity and stuck together, it was once again in pieces.”

Upon inspection, the vase was found to have been broken into 14 pieces. In addition, comparison of photographs of the return vase with those maintained by the Oriental Institute in Chicago indicated significant damage to both the top as well as the bottom of the vase.

Before and after images showing the damage to the vase from the looters

Shortly after its return, Iraqi museum officials announced that they would restore it however, there is no way to confirm such claims. In 2006, Donny George, who was the director of the Iraq Museum, fled after receiving numerous death threats. The museum sat without a director until 2012 when the Iraqi parliament finally put the museum under the control of the Tourism Ministry. Renovation of the museum continues today yet at a snail’s pace. Unfortunately, as a result the museum is still closed to the public and available only for special foreign delegations, Iraqi officials and field trips by Iraqi students.

To this day, the current condition of the Warka Vase, one of the greatest archeological discoveries of all time, remains a mystery.

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