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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Women and Archeology: The Queens of Ancient Ur

The course Women and Science has two areas of emphasis. One of these focuses on the obstacles women scientists encounter due to gender dynamics, as well as the many contributions women have made despite these obstacles. The other area of emphasis examines how gendered perspectives influence the substance of science: How scientists see the world through a gendered lens, and how gender biases can influence our interpretation the data. 

Earlier in the semester, as the class was reading Londa Schiebinger's Has Feminism Changed Science?, I was reflecting on Schiebinger's discussion of how the archeological record is often subject to interpretation based on contemporary gender stereotypes.  Schiebinger's attention to this topic reminded me of the Archeology Series, a special collection of historical fiction published by Hadley Rille Books, wherein the lives of ordinary women are reconstructed based on sound archeological evidence.  I decided to contact the author of one of these novels, Shauna Roberts, and to my delight she was willing to provide a guest post that touches upon this topic.

Shauna Roberts, Ph.D., is a novelist, short-story writer, and editor in California.  She writes primarily science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction. A 2009 graduate of the Clarion Writers' Workshop, she won the 2011 Speculative Literature Foundation's Older Writers Grant.  Her publications include short stories, and the historical novel Like Mayflies in a Stream, based on the "Epic of Gilgamesh". Her new fantasy novel Ice Magic, Fire Magic will be released from Hadley Rille Books in 2013. You can visit Shauna at http://shaunaroberts.blogspot.com.

As a side note, I also want to let our readers know that Hadley Rille Books will celebrate its birthday this weekend, and that ALL its electronic titles, including the Archeology Series, will be on sale for $0.99 (Kindle and Nook editions). Browse Hadley Rille's great collection of historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy, for quality gifts and great holiday reading.


Did Queens Sometimes Rule Ancient Ur?

Even the greatest archaeologists can be led astray by the prejudices of their era. Sir Leonard Woolley, who with colleagues excavated the ancient city of Ur in Mesopotamia from 1922 to 1934, was ahead of his time in the carefulness of his excavations, the exactitude of his notes, and his respect for his Arab workers.

Even so, some of his practices and interpretations have not stood the test of time. His correlations of his finds with events in the Bible were often invalid. After excavating 2,000 graves at Ur, Woolley threw out almost all of the skeletons, never guessing that radiology, computed tomography (CT), DNA analysis, isotope analysis, and other technologies would one day make skeletons priceless goldmines of information. Woolley also assumed that all rulers in ancient Mesopotamia were male. Thus, when he excavated the “Royal Graveyard” at Ur, he labeled the elite men as kings and the elite women as wives or relatives of kings.

Headdress and jewelry of Queen Puabi
as reconstructed and displayed by the
University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Object 17711. Courtesy of the Penn Museum.
That interpretation was challenged in 2008 by Kathleen McCaffrey (1), then a graduate student at University of California at Berkeley. Her reanalysis of the graves and/or grave goods of three women suggests that they were ruling queens, not queen consorts.

The sixteen burials Woolley designated “royal tombs” at Ur date to 2600 to 2450 B.C.E. Each burial included one person of obviously high status: The person occupied a separate chamber within the tomb and wore jewelry of gold and precious stones. The small chamber often contained an identifying cylinder seal (which was used to “sign” legal, accounting, and other documents) and luxury goods.

The main portion of the tomb contained more luxury goods and food … as well as one or more adult bodies carefully positioned and aligned with compass points. Recent CT scans of two skulls revealed that these grave attendants were killed by blunt force trauma to the head, perhaps from being hit by a battle axe (2). This study and another recent study (3) of the alignment of bodies suggested that after death, the grave attendants were washed, dressed, and added in separate groups to the tomb.

McCaffrey noticed that in Woolley’s itemized records of the contents of tombs, the gender of the grave goods did not always match the sex of the presumably royal body. According to McCaffrey, Woolley inventoried royal graves accurately, but his interpretations were founded in stereotypes of sex and gender. In cases of sex-gender mismatch, he came up with ad hoc explanations for the mismatches, “normalized” the artifacts (for example, referring to weapons as “tools” when they accompanied an elite woman), and/or avoided talking about the mismatched grave goods.

In three cases, graves that would ordinarily have been identified as belonging to kings were not, because the elite occupants were women.

Case 1. The elite woman in tomb RT/1054 wore a dagger at her waist. Her grave goods included some male-gendered items such as a bronze axe, a whetstone, a bronze hatchet, a spare man’s gold headdress, and a king’s seal bearing the name Meskalamdug. Woolley assigned ownership of most of the male-gendered items to attendants—even though the items were made of precious imported metals, the attendants were poorly dressed, and Woolley had repeatedly asserted that attendants were buried with no grave goods of their own. Woolley concluded that the royal seal in tomb RT/1054 could not belong to its occupant because she was a woman.

Cosmetic box lid buried with Queen Puabi. The box was made
of silver. The lid is made of shell and lapis lazuli and
shows a lion eating a ram. Object B16744A.
Courtesy of the Penn Museum. http://www.penn.museum
Case 2. Queen Puabi (tomb RT/800) had a lavish burial with incredible wealth and 26 attendants. Her grave goods included gold and silver spears, axes, daggers, saws, and chisels and were nearly identical to those of a man Woolley identified as a king. However, Woolley and others assumed that Puabi was not a ruler, both because she was a woman and because her seals identified her as a nin. Archaeologists usually translate nin as “queen” in the sense of “the wife of a king.” However, the meanings of the word “nin” are far more nuanced and complex (4).

Case 3. Tomb RT/1050 was stripped by looters in ancient times. However, the robbers missed a cylinder seal. The text on the seal is in the standard format for a king’s seal: The first line of text lists the king’s name, the second line lists the city name, and the third line identifies him as lugal (king, owner, master). A rule follows, and the fourth line lists a name and identifies that person as the spouse. The seal read:

            (of) Ur
            the lugal
            A-kalam-dug, his/her spouse

However, that’s not the translation Woolley’s linguist, Eric Burrows, published. A-u-sikil-am6 is a female name, and A-kalam-dug is a male name. Burrows found it easier to believe that the sealmaker made three major errors in engraving the seal than that a woman could have been lugal. So he rearranged the lines and published the translation as:

            A-kalam-dug, his/her spouse
            (of) Ur
            the lugal

We know that Burrows’ translation was rearranged because Woolley and his colleagues followed the good practice of publishing the rationales for their interpretations. As a result, scholars today can look back at their evidence, logic, and conclusions and decide for themselves whether the reasoning was sound. Unfortunately, not all current scholars follow the same good practice.

McCaffrey concluded that Meskallumdug, Puabi, and/or A-u-sikil-am6 were ruling queens of Ur. She said, “scholars project current assumptions about gender into the past when analyzing mortuary remains…. We see the binaries of our own gender logic in the material record because deeply ingrained preconceptions prevent us from seeing anything else.”

We can look to other cities in the ancient Near East for possible supporting evidence. Archaeologists from Johns Hopkins University have discovered a possible royal cemetery at Umm el-Marra in western Mesopotamia (present-day Syria) dating to 2300 B.C.E. (5). Some of the people buried with riches and attendants are women. Their graves raise the same questions—and may have the same answers—as the graves at Ur.

Also, according to the Sumerian King List (6), a woman was lugal of the city of Kish and ruled Sumer sometime between 2500 and 2300 B.C.E. This woman, a former tavernkeeper called Kug-Bau in Sumerian-language sources and Kubaba in Akkadian-language sources, must have done a memorable job: Her son and grandson succeeded her as lugal, she was deified after her death, and shrines to worship her sprang up in Mesopotamia and later in other areas.

Kug-Bau’s example makes clear that women did rule in Mesopotamia. A fresh look at the tombs of Ur suggests Kug-bau was not the only ancient lugal.

References and Footnotes

(1) McCaffrey, Kathleen. “The Female Kings of Ur.” In Diane Bolger, Editor. Gender through Time in the Ancient Near East. Lanham, Maryland: AltaMira Press, 2008, pp. 173–215.

(2) Baadsgaard, Aubrey, Janet Monge, Samantha Cox, and Richard L. Zettler. “Human Sacrifice and Intentional Corpse Preservation in the Royal Cemetery of Ur.” Antiquity 85:27–42, 2011.

(3) Vidale, Massimo. “PG 1237, Royal Cemetery of Ur: Patterns in Death.” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 21: 427–451, 2011.

(4) The word “nin” was sometimes used as a title for gods, both male and female. John Alan Halloran’s Sumerian Lexicon (Los Angeles: Logogram Publishing, 2006) defines nin as queen, mistress, proprietress, lady, and lord. The etymology of nin suggests that it may have originally meant a person who is much feared or respected. Even more confusing, the cuneiform character for nin (MUNUS.TÚG) also meant eresh. Halloran defines eresh as lady, mistress, proprietress, queen, and wise one. Its etymology is complicated; it may have derived from the combination of e (speaking, prayer), ri (to throw, to cast, to expel, to beget, to inundate, and several other verbs), and isi (mountain). Scholars continue to debate both the difference between the two words and when to read MUNUS.TÚG as nin and when to read it as eresh.  University of Pennsylvania researchers currently believe that eresh is the correct reading Puabi's title.  Even though McCaffrey based her argument on reading MUNUS.TÚG as nin, I believe her general point is still valid:  We do not yet understand the full meaning of Puabi's title, so we cannot say it excludes her as ruler of Ur. 

(5) See page 3 of the project’s Website at http://neareast.jhu.edu/uem/index.html.

(6) http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section2/tr211.htm. Note that although this translation (and all others) uses “he” and “son,” the characters so translated meant “he, she, it” and “child” in the original Sumerian. Thus, Kug-Bau may not be the only woman ruler on the list.