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Switzerland Returns 2,000 Years Old Marble Head to Libya

Swiss federal authorities announced on Tuesday the repatriation of a marble head depicting a young woman from the Hellenistic period, estimated to be around 2,000 years old.

The sculpture, discovered a decade ago in a warehouse in Geneva, is considered an “archaeological treasure of significant value” and a remarkable testimony to Hellenistic influence in North Africa, as highlighted in a press release from the Federal Office of Culture.

Measuring 19 centimeters in height, the sculpture dates back to the period between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD and is believed to originate from the archaeological site of the ancient city of Cyrene, located in the Cyrenaica region of present-day Libya.

The discovery of this sculpture occurred in 2013 during an inspection at a customs warehouse in Geneva. It was officially returned to Bern on Tuesday by the director of the Federal Office of Culture at the Libyan embassy in Switzerland.

The Geneva public prosecutor’s office initiated proceedings three years after its discovery, suspecting that the sculpture might have been uncovered through unauthorized excavations. Unfortunately, the investigation failed to pinpoint the exact location of the sculpture’s discovery or how it ended up in Switzerland.

The marble head bears a distinct reddish patina, offering clues about its origin. The Federal Office of Culture notes that the Cyrenaica region stands out as one of the few places in the Mediterranean basin where such high-quality marble and “terra rossa” can be found.

Highlighting the vulnerability of Libyan heritage, especially UNESCO World Heritage sites like Cyrene, the press release underlines the significant threat posed by looting and destruction. In 2015, the International Council of Museums flagged Libyan antiquities as endangered, aiming to combat the illicit trade and destruction of cultural assets.

Both Switzerland and Libya are signatories to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Prohibition of Import, Illicit Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which aims to safeguard cultural heritage against illegal trafficking and exploitation.

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