As described in a recent column in The Atlantic Armenia is opening a fascinating new front in the battle over heritage and repatriation:
To the British Museum, she is “probably Aphrodite,” the Greek goddess of love and beauty. To most Armenians, she is Anahit, an ancient Armenian goddess of fertility. Whoever is on the 1st century BC female bronze head with wavy hair and aquiline nose, it may serve as a political prop in Armenia’s looming parliamentary election campaign.
The bust, housed in the British Museum, is featured on Armenian beauty parlor logos, coins, banknotes and stamps alike. It is better known in Armenia than even the country’s state emblem, a recent TV opinion poll indicated. If asked, many Armenians most likely assume that the head, and a companion hand, are in Armenia itself.
And, now, Education Minister Armen Ashotian, a leader of the governing Republican Party of Armenia, along with the party’s Armenian Youth Foundation (AYF), want to make sure that, one day, they will be. In February, Ashotian and the AYF launched an online campaign to gather petition signatures aimed at having the British Museum turn over to Yerevan ownership of the 1st century BC hand and head.
The innovation here is that the bust was not found within the borders of the Republic of Armenia and spirited out of the country to feed the colonial appetites of the British public (a la the Elgin Marbles). Instead, the bust was found in what is today northeastern Turkey but had been since at least the early 5th century BC part of a territory named Armenia.
The Republic of Armenia’s claim on the bust is thus specifically cultural, a link defined by genealogy but separated from the national territorial by the political consequences of invasion, imperialism, and the Armenian Genocide. Yet the claim has a distinctly modern political consequences. Affirmation of Armenia’s claim to the bust is a de facto recognition of Armenia’s claim upon the territory of eastern Turkey/western Armenia. It is thus a deft sublimation of irredentism into the far more subtle lexicon of global cultural heritage, of landscape into materiality.
It will be fascinating to see how this develops to shape politics within Armenia, between Armenia and Turkey, and within the global heritage community.