The Lady of Baza and the Battle to Take Her Home
The Lady of Baza, a statue unearthed in Baza, has long been a subject of contention. Discovered in 1971, it was swiftly removed and taken to Madrid where it has been kept at the National Museum of Archaeology ever since. Almost fifty years later, Baza continues to fight for its return, claiming that the Francoist authorities “plundered” the archaeological remains and requesting that the Spanish Ministry of Culture return them to their rightful resting place.
The statue itself depicts a seated female figure and is a well-known example of a sculpture made by the Bastetani, an ancient people who lived in Iberia before the coming of the Romans. Discovered in the province of Granada, Spain, the Lady of Baza statue is believed to have been used as an urn for holding the ashes of a deceased person. It incorporates various elements that demonstrate its connection with the spiritual realm. The Lady of Baza has been compared with other Iberian statues, such as the Lady of Elche and the Lady of Guardamar.
Images showing the funerary artifacts, including the Lady of Baza, which were discovered at the necropolis of the Cerro del Sanctuario in Baza, Granada, back in 1971. (Eva María González Miguel / Universidad de Granada)
Unexpected Discovery of the Lady of Baza in Granada
The Lady of Baza was discovered in 1971 by Francisco José Presedo, a Spanish archaeologist. In July that year, Presedo was excavating in a pre-Roman necropolis called Cerro del Santuario, which is situated to the north of Baza, in Granada, the south of Spain. As the excavations were going on, a worker’s tool struck something hard in the ground. Initially, the object looked like a piece of colored rock. Presedo was called to inspect the object. More earth was removed, and the face of a woman soon emerged. Eventually, a seated statue measuring 1.2 m (4 feet) in height was unearthed. The statue became known as the Lady of Baza.
The Lady of Baza was sculpted from limestone. Seated on a winged throne, the woman is richly dressed and adorned with jewelry, including earrings and necklaces. These may suggest that the figure is meant to portray an individual of high status. There is evidence that the statue was once painted with bright colors, though only traces of these paints remain today. Along the border of the woman’s cloak, for instance, are red and white squares, whilst her cheeks still show a “rosy blush.”
The Lady of Baza on display at the National Museum of Archaeology in Madrid. (Airin / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Ancient Funerary Urn Connected to the Spiritual Realm
There is a compartment on the right side of the Lady of Baza, in which cremated human remains were found. This is a strong indication that the statue was used as a funerary urn. This is further supported by a number of elements found in the statue’s design that may be associated with the divine and the spiritual realm. For instance, the winged throne is interpreted to be a symbol of divinity. As another example, there is a young pigeon in one of the woman’s hands. The animal is believed to be the intermediary between the woman and her protector goddess.
It is thought that the deceased, whose remains were stored in the statue, was heroicized after her death. It is also suggested that this involved an elaborate funerary rite, based on the accompanying grave goods. For instance, four sets of weapons and armor were laid out at the feet of the statue. These are regarded as offerings to the deceased and suggest that combats between warriors were part of the funerary rituals.
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The Lady of Baza has been dated to around 380 BC. This was a period before the Roman and Carthaginians conquered the Iberian Peninsula. Instead, the peninsula was divided amongst different peoples, including the Iberians. The area around Granada was part of the territory occupied by a people called the Bastetani (or Bastuli).
Unfortunately, very little is known for certain about this ancient people as little has been found in the archaeological record of the settlements of the Bastetani. For this reason, artifacts such as statues serve as an important source of information about these ancient Iberian peoples. In addition to the belief that the Bastetani spoke the Iberian language, scholars have also speculated that their territory extended over much of the southeastern part of the Iberian Peninsula.
Detail of the Lady of Baza statue. (National Archaeological Museum / CC BY-SA 4.0)
More Iberian Ladies Discovered in Alicante
Interestingly, the Lady of Baza is not the only Iberian statue that has been discovered, which means that comparisons may be made between this statue and other similar ones. Another famous example of an Iberian statue is the Lady of Elche (or Elx), which was discovered by accident in 1897, when a young farm worker was clearing an area for planting on a private estate in Elche, in the province of Alicante, Valencia.
The Lady of Elche soon became part of the collection of the Louvre, as the land was bought by Pierre Paris, a French archaeologist and art historian. The statue stayed in France until the early 1940s, when it was returned to Spain. The artifact was first displayed in the Prado Museum, before being relocated to the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid in 1971, where it still remains till this day.
Like the Lady of Baza, the Lady of Elche is also made of limestone and has been dated to the 4 th century BC. Unlike the Lady of Baza, however, this statue is actually a bust, depicting the upper part of a female figure. Nevertheless, there are signs that suggest that the bust had once been part of a seated statue.
Left: 1948 Spanish bank note showing the Lady of Elche, the limestone bust which was discovered in 1897 in Elche, Alicante, and bears some similar characteristics to the Lady of Baza. (Banco de España - Fábrica Nacional de Moneda y Timbre / CC0). Right: The Lady of Guardamar which was also unearthed in Alicante. (Joanbanjo / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Lady of Elche is also thought to have originally served as a funerary urn, due to the presence of an opening in the back of the statue. No human remains, however, were found within the cavity, which means that the idea of the statue being a funerary urn is inconclusive. There are many other unanswered questions about the Lady of Elche. For instance, it is unknown who the statue is meant to represent. From her elaborate headdress, it has been speculated that she may have been a portrayal of priestess, or a goddess, perhaps the Punic-Iberian goddess of fertility, Tanit.
Another example of an Iberian statue is the Lady of Guardamar (known also as the Lady of Cabezo Lucero), which was unearthed in 1987. Like the Lady of Elche, this statue was found in Alicante, though at the site of Guardamar del Segura. The Lady of Guardamar is less famous than both the Lady of Baza and the Lady of Elche. Nevertheless, similarities can be observed between this statue and the other two, most notably in the jewelry that she is wearing.
For now, the local archaeological interpretation center in Baza has this reproduction of the Lady of Baza on display. (Centro de Interpretación de Yacimientos Arqueológicos de Baza)
Will She Ever Make It Home? The Battle for the Lady of Baza
Lastly, it may be said that although the Lady of Baza was discovered in Granada, it has been residing in Madrid. A few weeks after the artifact was unearthed, it was sent to the Spanish capital, where it was cleaned and conserved at the Institute of Restoration. The artifact was then placed in the National Archaeological Museum as a deposit whilst the lawsuit for the property it was found on was being resolved. The lawsuit was resolved in 1976, and the statue added to the museum’s collection, as it was ruled that it belonged to the Spanish state.
In recent years, however, a series of resolutions demanding the return of the Lady of Baza to its place of origin were passed by the Baza City Council, the Granada Provincial Council, and the Andalusian Parliament. The town of Baza celebrates their rich archaeological heritage every summer, including a burial ceremony dedicated to the Lady of Baza. As recently as October 2020, the Sports and Cultural Commission at the Senate approved a motion urging the central government return the statue to Baza. So far, however, the Lady of Baza remains in Madrid, though it is likely that proponents will continue fighting for her return.
Top image: The Lady of Baza, a famous example of Iberian sculpture by the Bastetani, has long been a source of contention. Source: Juan Aunión / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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