Is the Mask of Warka the World’s Oldest Representation of a Human Face?
The once-fertile region of Mesopotamia, cited by many as the cradle of civilization, is a true treasure trove of ancient relics and archaeological wonders. A land where numerous prominent city states existed in history, and where powerful cultures clashed and collided, Mesopotamia is still in many ways an enigma that is slowly being uncovered, day by day. And it’s always sensational when new discoveries are made. When the illustrious Mask of Warka was unearthed, it sent a shockwave through the global scientific and archeological circles. Not only is it enchanting and exquisitely made, but it could also be the earliest known anatomically correct representation of a human face in history!
The Mask of Warka and the Dawn of Civilization
Uruk, known also as Warka, is one of the most important archaeological sites in the region of ancient Mesopotamia, in modern-day Iraq. The ancient city of Uruk had a fundamental role in the early urbanization of the Sumer civilization, in the mid-4th millennium BC. It also gives the name to the Uruk Period, an era in the history of Mesopotamia that lasted from protohistoric Chalcolithic to Early Bronze Age. By the final phase of the Uruk period, around 3100 BC, the city may have had around 40,000 residents, with up to 80,000 or 90,000 people living in its environs. This means that Uruk, at its heyday, was the largest urban area in the world at the time. So, it is no wonder that its ruins house some of the most important ancient artifacts.
In 1939, the German Archaeological Institute was conducting excavations at the site, led by Dr A. Nöldeke. It was during this expedition that archaeologists uncovered the magnificent Mask of Warka. At once, the archaeologists knew that they were onto something unique and very special. The mask, made from white marble, is 21.2 centimeters (8.3 in) tall and made with great attention to detail. Dated to around 3100 BC, it is widely considered as the first accurate depiction of a human face. An earlier find, the Tell Brak Head, dated to 3300 BC, is not anatomically correct, having exaggerated features.
The Mask of Warka depicts a female figure, likely the goddess Inanna, and was originally a part of a larger cult figure. It is commonly agreed that the mask was affixed to a wooden body, where only the face and the arms were made of marble. To date, only the mask was recovered. Its purpose remains uncertain, with theories suggesting it could have been a cultic or ritual object, or a funerary mask. The mask is significant for its insights into the artistic and cultural achievements of the ancient Sumerians.
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A Goddess Immortalized in Stone
Considering its age, the Lady of Warka is carved in exquisite detail. The marble mask depicts the face of a woman with prominent, almond-shaped eyes, a prominent nose, and a small mouth. The facial features are delicately crafted and show remarkable detail. Today, the eyes are simple holes, but it is believed that in the past they were inset with shell and lapis lazuli. The back of the head is flat, with traces of a complex decoration made from copper and bitumen. It is proposed that this decoration would have extended on top and resembled hair. Sadly, the nose of the mask did not survive the ages, and was broken off. Either way, the Mask of Warka is still exceptionally beautiful.
Front and profiles of the recovered Mask of Warka dating back to 3000-2900 BC. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg)/ CC BY-SA 4.0), (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg)/ CC BY-SA 4.0), (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg)/ CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Lady of Warka remains a symbol of the ancient city of Uruk, and a testament to the early cultural development of Mesopotamia as a whole. Together with the intriguing Vase of Warka, this relic is an incredible glimpse into the region’s very distant past, and the religious beliefs of the earliest civilized people in the world. Likely a temple votive statue, the Mask of Warka tells us that the early Sumerians knew both art and devotion, and skillfully combined the two.
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Stone to Flesh
Sadly, the Mask of Warka endured hardships in modern times. During the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, there was widespread looting of the National Museum of Iraq. Amongst many priceless items, the Mask of Warka was also looted. Luckily, it was recovered several months later, buried on the farm of the looter. It was retrieved intact and undamaged by American Special Forces.
The Warka Mask was missing from the Iraqi Museum since the liberation of Iraq. The Al Qanot Police station of the Iraqi Police service and the 812th Military Police Company (MP CO), 519th Military Police Battalion (MP BN), 18th Military Police Brigade (MP BDE), in a joint investigation recovered the Warka Mask during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. (Public Domain)
Today, this item is once more housed in the National Museum of Iraq, and remains one of the most important relics of ancient Mesopotamia. So old and reaching so far back in time, it astounds with its elegance and the high level of craftsmanship. Truly, the peoples of this ancient region were far ahead of their time, and knew how to appreciate art and had an exquisite attention to detail.
Top image: The mask of Warka, from Warka, ancient Uruk, Iraq. 3000-2900 BC. The Iraq Museum, Baghdad. Source: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg)/CC BY-SA 4.0
Bajjaly, F. J. and Stone, G. P. 2008. The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq. Boydell & Brewer Ltd.
Chappell, D. and Manacorda, S. 2011. Crime in the Art and Antiquities World: Illegal Trafficking in Cultural Property. Springer Science & Business Media.
Frankfort, H. 1970. The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient. Pelican History of Art.