Repatriation: Switzerland Returns 2,000-Year-Old Marble Head to Libya


Swiss federal authorities announced on Tuesday that they have repatriated a marble head of a young woman dating back to the Hellenistic period, approximately 2,000 years old. The artifact, deemed an “archaeological vestige of great value” and an “exceptional testimony to Hellenistic expansion in North Africa,” was originally discovered a decade ago in a warehouse in Geneva.

According to a press release from the Federal Office of Culture, the 19-centimeter-high sculpture is believed to belong to the period between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD. It is likely sourced from the archaeological site of the ancient city of Cyrene in the Cyrenaica region, present-day Libya.

Unearthed in 2013 during an inspection in a customs warehouse in Geneva, the sculpture was formally handed over to Bern on Tuesday by the director of the Federal Office of Culture at the Libyan embassy in Switzerland.

Three years after its discovery, the Geneva public prosecutor’s office initiated proceedings, suspecting that the sculpture might have been acquired through “illicit excavations.” However, despite the legal investigation, the precise origin of the sculpture and the manner in which it reached Switzerland could not be conclusively determined.

The marble head, measuring 19 centimeters in height, is entirely covered with a reddish patina, providing clues about its origin. The Federal Office of Culture notes that the Cyrenaica region stands out as one of the few areas in the Mediterranean basin where such high-quality “terra rossa” and marble are found.

The press release underscores the threat to Libyan heritage, particularly UNESCO World Heritage sites like Cyrene, which face the risks of looting and destruction. In 2015, the International Council of Museums issued a red flag list of Libyan antiquities in danger, aiming to combat the illegal trade and destruction of cultural property.

Both Switzerland and Libya, the latter experiencing political turmoil since the downfall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, are signatories to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Prohibition of Import, Illicit Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.