It starts with a single footprint. Impressed some four thousand years ago by an anonymous Sumerian into a mud brick in the royal city of Ur, and recovered there a century ago, this mark makes a simple declaration, but one that lies at the heart of all human culture: “I was here.” The first object the visitor encounters upon entering, it is an apt beginning to the story that unfolds across the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s newly renovated and expanded Middle East Galleries, which opened to the public on April 21.
Click Image to Enlarge
Through some twelve hundred objects—more than half of which have never before been on display—this suite of three spacious, well-lit galleries chronicles no less than the emergence of human civilization across millennia, from the earliest villages and towns to increasingly complex urban settlements that paved the way for the modern metropolis. “These galleries tell you a story about how ancient peoples changed their way of life to stay in the same place all year round,” says museum director Julian Siggers. “This led to the formation of the world’s first cities, in ancient Mesopotamia. Urbanization dramatically speeds up innovation and introduced many of the issues—good and bad—that are still with us today. So this story really resonates with all of us because it is our story.”
The artifacts come from more than two dozen excavations by Penn archaeologists in the so-called Fertile Crescent (mostly in modern-day Iraq and Iran) that revolutionized our understanding of the ancient world. Perhaps the most dramatic discoveries sprang from the joint Penn/British Museum excavations of the Royal Tombs at Ur led by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s and 1930s. These include the famous Ram in the Thicket statuette of gold, silver and lapis; a silver boat-shaped lyre decorated with a stag; and the centerpiece of the museum’s Middle East collection, Queen Puabi’s headdress and jewels.
In January 1928 Woolley sent a breathless telegram (in Latin, for secrecy) to Philadelphia. Translated, it reads: “I found the intact tomb, stone built and vaulted over with bricks of Queen Shubad [Puabi] adorned with a dress in which gems, flowers, crowns and animal figures are woven. Tomb magnificent with jewels and golden cups.” This royal burial chamber, dated to around 2450 B.C., contained not just the body of the bejeweled queen, which was laid out on a wooden bier, but also those of her attendants—six men and sixty-eight women who, as reward for their service, were bludgeoned to death and buried with their queen, along with a trove of royal artifacts, all remarkably well preserved.
Queen Puabi’s headdress is truly spectacular to behold. It includes more than twelve meters of gold ribbon, which was wound around her voluminous hair (think Princess Leia in Star Wars). Above this she wore three wreaths composed of strands of carnelian and lapis beads and festooned with gold leaves. Each leaf is a single piece of gold hammered into shape and folded at one end into two loops that attach the leaf to the strands and the strands to one another. The most ornate wreath features two- and three-pointed willow leaves tipped with carnelian beads, and flowers with petals of lapis and shell. A frontlet joins three strands of lapis and carnelian with twenty gold rings. Atop it all, a large gold comb erupts into an array of star-shaped flowers. A pair of boat-shaped gold earrings completes the ensemble.
According to Jane Hickman, a specialist in ancient jewelry and editor of the museum’s Expedition magazine, Queen Puabi had on more than twelve pounds of ornamentation when she was discovered. “The hair comb itself weighs a pound!” Hickman and her colleague, collection keeper Katy Blanchard, note that all of the materials used in the headdress had to be imported from neighboring regions—the gold from present-day Afghanistan or Syria, the lapis from Badakhshan in Afghanistan, the carnelian from the Indus Valley—indicating the enormous wealth of the queen, as well as the far-flung trade networks that had already developed at this early stage of civilization.
A modern proverb admonishes us that “you can’t take it with you,” but the ancients seem to have had other ideas. Although much is unknown about Sumerian burial rites and beliefs, the fact that people of importance were buried with their treasures, and warriors with their weapons, suggests a belief that these objects would be of further use to their owners. Blanchard notes that Queen Puabi’s diadem is “more correctly a series of necklaces.” One possible explanation is that these earthly treasures were intended to serve as currency in the afterworld. “Maybe in every level of the underworld she’s handing over a necklace to make it through to the next place,” says Blanchard. “So she took it with her as payment. These are questions we still have.”
Indeed, nearly a century after they were unearthed, these treasures still have many secrets to divulge, and research on the collection is ongoing. Interactive kiosks in the galleries utilize digital technology to allow visitors to take a deeper dive into some of these topics of interest, including what the motifs on ornaments and vessels tell us about the flora, fauna and agricultural practices of the region, many of which continue in various forms today.
Later excavations at sites such as Rayy, near present-day Tehran, yielded artifacts from the Islamic period, which fill much of the third gallery. These include many rare manuscripts such as an illustrated copy of the Khamsa of the twelfth-century Persian poet Nizami and an illuminated Qur’an, as well as everyday objects such as cooking vessels and textiles from the Ottoman period.
The legacy of Near Eastern archaeology cannot be separated from the area’s more recent history and the often troubled relationships between its modern-day inhabitants and the West. “We can’t open galleries from this region of the world without noting that the deep material, human and cultural heritage of the region is also under attack,” says Siggers. With this in mind, the Penn Museum has launched a Global Guides initiative with funding from the Barra Foundation. Through this program, the first of its kind in the nation, the museum has hired as tour guides immigrants from Iraq and Syria. These men and women will, according to associate curator Stephen Tinney, “pair the history of ancient Mesopotamia and surroundings with stories drawn from their own unique experiences growing up in the Middle East,” giving visitors a broader perspective on the region’s long history of continuity and conflict.
Fostering such connections between ancient and modern experience was a stated goal of the Penn Museum’s transformation of its Middle East collections, the first in an ambitious series of planned renovations to the institution’s signature galleries. Indeed, one emerges from these galleries with the sense that our histories—and therefore our destinies—are much more intertwined than we are often led to believe, and that the key to our shared humanity lies in our creativity and the innovative solutions each culture arrives at in addressing the common problems we face.
The Penn Museum is located on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, 3260 South Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104. Visit their website at www.penn.museum.
David Updike is an editor at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where his current projects include exhibition catalogs on Marcel Duchamp and the Art to Wear movement. His profile of designer Wendy Stevens appeared in Ornament, Vol. 40, No. 2. For this issue, he ventured across the Schuylkill River to another Philadelphia cultural treasure, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, to tour its newly renovated Middle East Galleries. His visit left him with a renewed respect for the common, ancient roots of human civilization, and a little bit in awe of Chaldean superstar, Queen Puabi.