Monthly Archives: December 2011

Did Mesopotamians also invent gender equality?

A woman's hand mirror with a handle in the shape of a palm found in a tomb at Nimrud. (Source)

We’ve established the fact that Mesopotamians were really into extravagant burials of their important folk.

Let’s now talk about more than just material wealth and human sacrifice in the tombs of Ancient Mesopotamia.

Let’s talk about what these tombs tell us about the status of women and the issue of gender in Ancient Mesopotamia.

I mentioned in the last post (which has undergone a slight change since I posted it) that the most interesting aspect of the most lavish tombs found in Mesopotamia is that they were the tombs of women who ranked high in their societies.

Queen Pu’abi seems to have been a big deal with her headdress, her 26 attendants and all-around lavish burial fit for a queen, and although nobody knows for sure whether she was indeed a queen or just a high priestess, her extravagant burial serves not only as an indication of her own importance, but that elite women, at least, had the same privileges as men of the elite.

To prove this point further, one need only move about 500 miles north, away from Ur, to the city of Nimrud. Formerly known as Kalhu, the capital of the Assyrian Empire for over 150 years, is where the Royal Tombs of Nimrud were unearthed.

The tombs at Nimrud, along with Queen Pu’abi’s tomb at Ur, further illustrate the fact that social status mattered more than gender in Ancient Mesopotamia.

Although there is limited information about the tombs at Nimrud, the information I found differed from one source to another, making it difficult to put together a comprehensive introduction to this archaeological site. One source states there were three tombs found at Nimrud, while another says there were four. Other details were also murky or just plain scarce. I am going by the source that seems the most recent and detailed.

The tomb of Yaba, according to the source of this picture, which would make it also the tomb of Atalia. (Source)

According to a paper written by Amy R. Gansell, Visiting Assistant Professor at Pratt Institute, the Royal Tombs of Nimrud consisted of four tombs discovered in April 1989 by the Iraqi Department of Antiquities and Heritage. The tombs were located in the Northwest Palace of Nimrud. They contained several bodies and a lot of material wealth, including jewelry, vessels, ornaments and seals, most of which date back to the 8th century BC.

Inscriptions were also found within the Queens’ Tombs, as the tombs were called, which listed the details of those buried inside; high-ranking males or eunuch courtiers, children, and elite palace women.

Of the four tombs, Tomb II was the only one left undisturbed by looters over the centuries, and so it became a window into the lives of women of a certain class in Mesopotamia, particularly in Assyrian society.

Inside Tomb II, which dates to c. 750-625 BC, the bodies of two women were found stacked on top of each other inside a sarcophagus. They were surrounded by jewelry, more than they could wear at once.

A necklace found in the tombs at Nimrud. (Source)

Gansell writes that the women must have died when they were between 30 and 40 years old, and that the women were identified in cuneiform texts as Atalia, the wife and queen of Assyrian King Sargon II, and Yaba, the wife and queen of Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser III.

Other sources listed the names of three queens, each married to a different king, but according to Gansell’s paper, there were only two queens, one of who has two names.

Gansell explains that Yaba is also Banitu, Banitu being the Assyrian translation of Yaba.

Now, these women were the wives of kings, which alone made them important, but based on what was found buried with them in the tombs at Nimrud, it seems these women were important in their own right.

Tomb II contained what Gansell believes are offerings or gifts from mourners along with dowries and the women’s personal assets. Gansell also mentions that the locations of the tombs under the part of the palace where the women may have resided, were supplied with pipes through which sustenance could be sent down to the deceased, making them important enough to keep their memory alive by way of sending offerings of food and such into the afterlife.

A tablet that mentions curses against anyone disturbing a tomb at Nimrud. (Source)

Gansell also writes in her paper that “women managed lucrative estates, lent capital, and commissioned large architectural projects,” in Ancient Mesopotamia.

Tablets mentioning curses that told of doom for anyone who disturbs the tombs at Nimrud were also found.

There are many findings that prove the Mesopotamian obliviousness to gender, and reliance on social status in the distribution of privilege, but the tombs of the likes of Atalia and Yaba, and even Queen Pu’abi, just further provide tangible evidence that the women buried with such extravagance were important during their lives, and their importance would not and did not fade after their deaths.



Posted by on December 29, 2011 in Assyrian, Nimrud, Tombs, Women


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How Queen Pu’abi and other royals got their servants for the afterlife at Ur

“During the burial of a king in the Royal Tombs of Ur, men and women were sacrificed to be the servants of royalty in the afterlife. They were arranged as shown, then they were given poison to drink.” (Source)

I originally wanted this to be one general post that covers tombs in Mesopotamia, but as I often find during my research, there is just too much to write about with due thoroughness in one post. So, in an attempt to give you my best for each of the two burial sites I wish to explore, this is post one of two that will explore the most interesting finds at two burial sites in Mesopotamia. It is pretty wild what those tombs have held for as much as 4,500 years…

When we think about extravagant burials and tombs, our brains are conditioned to immediately travel to Ancient Egypt, and mummy is the word.

But putting the mastery of preserving the dead for thousands of years aside, the Egyptians weren’t the only ones who buried their elite with extravagance, style, and cast curses over those who disturbed such tombs. The Mesopotamians liked to go out with a bang too, and their most interesting and prominent tombs of that nature happen to be those of elite women.

Burial tombs have been unearthed throughout Mesopotamia, dating to different periods and containing all sorts of artifacts that provide glimpses into the ancient civilizations that rose and fell in the land between the two rivers, and the fragile skeletons of those who were part of such civilizations.

I’ve talked about the Royal Tombs of Ur, or rather touched on them, when I talked about the Golden Lyre of Ur Project, but I barely scratched the surface of what happened when an important person died in the ancient Sumerian city.

You remember I talked about British archaeologist C. Leonard Woolley finding the Golden Lyre of Ur in Queen Pu’abi’s tomb? Well, he found a lot more than that during his excavations in Southern Iraq, between 1922 and 1934. What I did not tell you is that Woolley and his workmen found over 1,850 burials at the site, and 17 of those were so elaborate, Woolley dubbed them the Royal Tombs of Ur.

Most of the burials there date as far back as 2600 BC. They are tombs of the elite of society, those who played big roles at the temples and palaces of Ur. Still, of the 1,850 burials there, 137 were private tombs of those who were simply wealthy residents, able to afford a burial in the Royal Cemetery.

Queen Pu’abi’s headdress, made of gold, carnelian and lapis lazuli.

Queen Pu’abi’s tomb is the most prominent of the Royal Tombs, because of how well it was preserved over the centuries, thanks to looters leaving it be, a courtesy they did not extend to the other surrounding tombs.

We know the woman whose remains were found atop an elevated slab is Pu’abi, because of the cylinder seal found with her, which bears her name. There is much debate over who Pu’abi really is, whether she’s a queen or a priestess–no one knows for sure, but Pu’abi is believed to have been 40 years old at the time of her death, and that she was Akkadian. Her name in Akkadian is Pu’abi and translates to “Commander of the Father.” In Sumerian, she is known as Shubad.

Inside Queen Pu’abi’s tomb was not only her skeleton adorned with extravagant jewelry, including an elaborate headdress made of gold, lapis lazuli and carnelian, but also the skeletons of  26 attendants, also adorned with gold and lapis lazuli jewelry.

Woolley also found what he dubbed “The Great Death Pit,” which had 74 skeletons believed to be servants.

The site map of the Great Death Pit. You can click on the blue items and read further details about those items at the British Museum’s excellent website.

Woolley thought all the servants buried with their masters at Ur were willing victims, but later scholars have debated this notion and found ways to prove otherwise.

In early 2011, with the help of CT scanners and forensics, Penn Museum Archaeologist Aubrey Baadsgard and her colleagues did some sleuthing work to find out what really happened to the sacrificial victims found in the Royal Tombs of Ur.

Baadsgard and her team analyzed six skulls taken from different royal tombs and what she and her team found was quite chilling. Results, published in the journal Antiquity, revealed that these individuals died of blunt force trauma, blowing Woolley’s idea that these people simply drank poison and lied down to die in peace right out of the water. The results revealed that these people were dealt lethal blows to the back of the head by what appears to be a bronze battle axe in some cases, the like of which was unearthed at Ur.

And if that’s not a wow-inducing find by itself, then what Baardsgard and her team found next should do the trick. The bodies of these sacrificial victims had been embalmed for preservation with mercury sulphide or cinnabar, and further treated by heat.

Baadsgard’s team interprets this find of body preservation as an indication of an even more elaborate ritual for the burial of royals at Ur than originally thought. The need to preserve these bodies, the Penn Museum team concluded, was to cater to schedule of elaborate pre-burial ceremonies and rituals that could’ve taken days to complete, causing untreated corpses to decompose. You can read in more detail about Baadsgard’s amazing findings here.

And it seems that that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is how Queen Pu’abi and the other individuals who were laid to rest in the Royal Tombs of Ur got their servants to serve them in the afterlife.

Stay tuned for another set of tombs that are sure to make you shiver with excitement very soon!

(There has been a correction made to this article regarding the number of attendants found in Queen Pu’abi’s tomb. Please note that 26 attendants were found with her and not 74 as I originally wrote. Thank you, Jerald Starr.)


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Posted by on December 19, 2011 in Sumerian, Tombs


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8 Gifts for the ‘Mesopotamianiac’

We’re in the homestretch, and gift-giving season is zipping by, so I thought I’d whip up a gift guide for that Mesopotamianiac in your life (who could very well be yourself).

1. Cuneiform Ladies Watch

Nothing says Mesopotamia like cuneiform writing, so why not bring a small chunk of Mesopotamia to everyday life with this classic watch that features cuneiform hours?

This ladies watch is available to order online through The British Museum’s website. Be sure to check out the rest of The British Museum’s Mesopotamian collection for other great gift ideas!

2. “Sumerian Cuneiform Writing” Gift Tie and Cuneiform Script-Babylonian sky God Cuneiform Tie

Sumerian Cuneiform Writing Tie. (

Ties have got to be the most boring gifts I can think of, but when you make them look as cool as the Sumerian Cuneiform Writing tie or the Babylonian Sky God Cuneiform tie, well, you’re just really shaking things up and giving the coolest ties, I think, in the history of humanity.

These are sure to get a big wow at any occasion, and believe it or not, they are silky (silky polyester).

3. Bullhead Cufflinks

I believe cufflinks are the ultimate cool gift to give a man, and these cufflinks are simply awesome. The bearded bull of the Lyre of Ur is one of the most recognized symbols of Mesopotamia, and you can be sure that the man who receives these is going to cherish them for their intricate detailing and association with one of the most fascinating artifacts the world has known.

You can order the cufflinks at Send Museum Jewelry. They are made of pewter and brass and plated with 24-karat gold.

4. Assyrian War Chariot

I can just see this hanging in someone’s office, alluding to sophistication and strength. This replica of a bronze relief depicts warriors charging into battle. The original relief, which dates back to the ninth century BC, was found on the gates of Balawat, Syria.

This beautiful replica is made of faux ebony and muted gold. You can order it at Design Toscano.

5. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon Pelikan Fountain Pen

For the pen enthusiast, who only wants the best and most beautiful, Pelikan has a treat for you. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon Fountain Pen features a 24-karat gold plated nib and pen cap with a recreation of the terraces from the famous World Wonder.

Only 410 of these exist worldwide, so this is the ultimate luxurious gift that even comes with a two-year warranty.

6. Grow Your Own Gardens of Babylon Kit

Forget Chia Pets. This is a much cooler gift, not to mention adorable! The kit comes with a 32-page booklet, and a guarantee of endless compliments on your cute little garden.

Order at

7. Ur Cup

The Institute for Biblical and Scientific Studies Gift Shop has this Ur Cup, with a replica of art from a relief found at Ur. If you can’t bring yourself to drink out of such an intricately designed cup like me, that’s okay. This could serve as a handsome pen holder, or a simple decoration on your desk. With a gift like this, you simply cannot lose.

Also check out IBSS’s Queen Puabi Cylinder Seal replica, which would make another great gift.

8. Babylon Bracelet

Babylon Bracelet. (

I love bracelets, and this Babylon bracelet is simply gorgeous.

The unique and intricately designed Babylon Bracelet is pure gold on silver, handmade and is available to order on It is simply beautiful.


And I hope these suggestions at least point you in the right direction for what to get that Mesopotamianiac in your life (Hey, I think I’ve coined a new phrase!). They are all gifts that will always be remembered, just like the ancient civilization they represent.

Happy gift giving!

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Posted by on December 14, 2011 in Uncategorized


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A Case for Babylon

Walls of Babylon. (Source)

Babylon is a name we hear often, in everything from biblical discussions to reggae song lyrics. Although it is the name of the ancient city on the Euphrates, according to, it is also “any rich and magnificent city believed to be a place of excessive luxury and wickedness.”

Most people know about Babylon being mentioned in the Bible as that place of “excessive luxury and wickedness,” but it’s not just the Bible that portrays the grand city as such. The Greek historian Herodotus does the same.

But why?

Let’s start with a tiny bit of etymology. The name Babylon is the Greek form and is derived from the Akkadian name, Babili, which translates to “Gate of God” or “Gateway of the God(s).”

Many temples were built in Babylon, including the great temple of Marduk with its associated ziggurat. The Tower of Babel, a great biblical icon, is a landmark of the ancient city, even though we only know it existed through written descriptions of it, thanks to the writings of Herodotus and its mention in the Bible.

“The Tower of Babel” by Peter Bruegel (Source)

Now, through this mental picture of a city filled with temples, a city whose name reiterates its homage to a god, I can’t help but deduce that although Babylon might have been a city of excess and luxury, it couldn’t have been all that arrogant. I will explain why I’ve come to this conclusion, and not the conclusion that the city’s inhabitants had such a good relationship with their gods, that they were convinced, to point of arrogance, that the gods would protect them and the walls that surrounded their city from any harm…

Although there was very little covered about Mesopotamia in all my history classes, there was one thing that was driven home by all my ancient history professors: the Mesopotamians feared their gods. Mesopotamians believed that their gods were vengeful beings just looking for ways to hurt their subjects. Mesopotamians believed that their gods were basically out to get them.

One professor went so far as to describe the Mesopotamian mindset as: “We’re all going to hell in a hand basket, might as well make the most of what we’ve got.”

Now, drawing from that, which might be an inaccurate historical assessment for all anyone knows, it’s hard to imagine a people so afraid, so careful to pay homage to their vengeful gods by building temples and making their city a gateway for the gods by naming it as such, that they would think a wall would make them all-around invincible.

The way I see it is if you believed your gods were that vengeful, you would see any force that poses a threat to you as a harbinger of a god’s wrath, that you would think it was all over and there was nothing to be done but sit around and wait for fate.

The way I see it is, complete and utter surrender to fate might have been what the Persian king Cyrus saw when he entered the city after laying siege to it in 539 BC, and not obliviousness to the calamity that has befallen the city and its inhabitants. Herodotus documents this siege of the city, and the Bible does the same, by saying that when the Persians entered the fallen city, they found its inhabitants going about their excessive, luxurious lives, oblivious to the magnitude of the threat of the Persian army right outside their walls.

Given that the only time my professors ever brought up Mesopotamia was when they wanted to compare and contrast other civilizations, particularly Egypt, and sometimes Greece, isn’t it possible that the Babylonians’ reaction to the fall of their city was simply misconstrued as obliviousness, when it was really just complete and utter surrender to something greater than all their grandeur and power?

Let’s think about this for a second: the Bible, though used as a wealthy source and reference for many historical accounts that are scant at best in written form anywhere else, is often questioned by scholars. Scholars believe the Bible is too steeped in moral purpose to report on things without at least some form of exaggeration in order to drive moral lessons home.

Herodotus’s writings give us less morally driven descriptions of the ancient city, mostly because along with the rituals and lifestyles of the Babylonians, he describes the city right down to the number of stories in a typical Babylonian house. Still, scholars believe that Herodotus’s writings are given to exaggeration.

J. Andrew McLaughlin writes in an essay, Herodotus and the City of Babylon, that as much as the Bible is responsible for the portrayal of Babylon as a wicked place of arrogance, Herodotus is just as responsible for Babylon’s reputation as a model of infamy. “Whether or not his accounts of some of Babylon’s morally questionable customs reflect historical reality, he is responsible (at least in part) for its reputation as a place of hubris, hedonism, and depravity,” McLaughlin writes.

McLaughlin also mentions the belief by many that Herodotus might not have even visited the ancient city in the mid 5th century BC or at all, and that his writings were all written down as they would’ve been told orally, a point which reinforces the idea that there is a degree of exaggeration to Herodotus’s description of Babylon and its inhabitants.

One example McLaughlin used in his essay to demonstrate this point is how Herodotus alludes to how fertile Mesopotamian soil is by stating that its wheat yields are in the three-hundredfold range, a number, which, according to a modern scholar referenced in the essay, Georges Roux, is higher than that of Canada’s most modern wheatfield today. (Source)

The Euphrates River bisects the city of Babylon. (Source)

As to the question of Herodotus’s credibility, some of his descriptions of the city, when cross referenced with archaeological evidence, as well as the Bible, have pointed to inaccuracies.

The discrepancies are nothing major, but as they are details that don’t make or break what we know about the city, they are definitely cause for questions that go beyond the element of exaggeration.

For instance, had Herodotus seen Babylon for himself, he might’ve noticed that the royal palace and the great ziggurat are not located on opposite sides of the Euphrates River like he says they were.

Another reason McLaughlin says Herodotus had a hand in giving Babylon such a bad rep is his description of a ritual he calls “sacred prostitution,” in which a man throws a silver coin of any value to a woman on display, forcing her to prostitute herself to him after he utters a phrase that is believed to invoke the gods, after which acts are performed in a room within the Tower of Babel for a night.

I’d like to think that much like we are given to misunderstand the rituals and views of cultures different from ours, perhaps Herodotus was just looking at the city and its people through the eyes of a Hellenistic Greek, from a place where women, at least, are held to different moral standards than those of Mesopotamia, which fueled an unintentionally harsh assessment of a different culture and painted it as an example of all that is bad.

The negative stigma surrounding Babylon may forever live in religious texts and Bob Marley’s songs, but I think that maybe we need to look beyond what we may never understand and focus on what this great ancient city held within its walls, which is mesmerizing…

Babylon is where the Code of Hammurabi came to be, where the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were built by a rather romantic king for his homesick queen and still mesmerizes us simply through description, where powerful queens like Semiramis ruled, and innovation and civilization thrived for centuries.

Panoramic view of the rebuilt ruins of Babylon. (Source)

Should you ever happen to be walking along the fertile Mesopotamian plain of today, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, you just might stumble upon the ruins of Babylon, just 55 miles (89 km) south of Baghdad. And we should all be so lucky as to be in such an amazing spot, where humans were either at their worst or their best, nobody knows for sure.

Either way, they were people who obviously loved life, and there is no wickedness in that.



Posted by on December 12, 2011 in Uncategorized


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