Humanity, Antiquity, and Three Special Women

By Jane Moon


History may seem to be about the deeds of men, with the role of women limited to domestic tasks and indirect influence. But sometimes we find women who played a special part in the advance of civilization. Here are just three of them.

What makes us human? It seems that the gap between us and intelligent animals such as dolphins or apes gets smaller all the time. New scientific discoveries tell us that chimpanzees mourn their dead, and dolphins name their young. But some things are still uniquely human, and go back as far as we know: poetry, for instance, and the study of history, and in these some of the earliest steps recorded were taken by women.

The world’s first literature was discovered at an ancient city near to Dagharah, in Qadissiyah Province. We do not know who wrote these compositions, impressed on clay in the Sumerian language, or even the ancient name of the city (today the ruins are called Abu Salabikh), but they include hymns and other literary works, and date back to around 2,300 BC. A century or so later we come across the first author whose name we actually know: she was the princess Enheduanna, whose day-job was high-priestess in charge of an important religious establishment at Ur, near modern Nasiriyah. The outline of the great edifice she lived in can still be seen in the ground at the ancient city. Enheduanna was the daughter of the conqueror King Sargon, and clearly very well-educated. She composed in the Sumerian language, though scholars believe that it may already have been a ‘dead’ official language by that time, while the spoken language was already Akkadian (related to Arabic and Hebrew). Her surviving works are of a religious nature, remarkable for the way her individuality shines through. Although her official position was as priestess of the Moon god Nanna, her most passionate creations are for her personal favourite goddess, Inanna, whom she saw as having vital influence over the affairs of humans, and whose sanction was essential before any of the other gods took a decision. Enheduanna describes how she composed her poetry: she liked to do it at midnight, with incense around her, and she finishes each hymn with a sort of signature: ‘The author is Enheduanna. No-one has created this before’. And nobody read them again for over four thousand years, when they were translated into English in 1968.

Even the simplest tribal communities have a sense of history, in that their oral traditions invoke the past, in songs, poems and myths. However, the actual study of artefacts, to find out more about the people who made them, is something that comes with urban civilization. The first museum we know of was assembled by a woman in the 6th century BC. She too was a princess, and she also lived at Ur, which was still a major city. In fact, she lived in the same building as Enheduanna, much altered in the 1,700 years since the latter composed her hymns, but still on the same site in the complex still devoted to the Moon god. This lady was called Ennigaldi-Nanna, and her father was Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon. He had excavated some of the items in the museum, as had a previous king, Nebuchadnezzar, but it was Ennigaldi who collected them together and wrote ‘labels’ in three languages. Pieces included a building inscription, an ancient boundary marker, and a fragmentary statue of Shulgi, a Sumerian king of Ur, by that time already dead for the best part of 2,000 years.

Moving on another two millennia, the national museum of Iraq was founded by a woman who was not born in Iraq, but who loved Iraq and its history, and is buried in Baghdad. Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), is perhaps best remembered as a controversial figure in the politics surrounding the creation of the state of Iraq, but in her earlier career she was a linguist, an archaeologist and an explorer who travelled widely in the Middle East, recording ancient ruins. King Faisal appointed her Iraq’s first Director of Archaeology in 1922, and she facilitated the first Antiquities Law, whereby foreign archaeologists could no longer take all their finds away with them: they were limited to half of any duplicates (excavations produce large numbers of similar objects such as broken pots), while anything unique had to stay in Iraq. Sir Leonard Woolley, excavating Ur for the British and Pennsylvania Museums, was outraged to find he did not get favourable treatment, but was made to abide by the Law. Gertrude also overruled the advice to the government of T.E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’) that finds made by German archaeologists before the Great War should be sent to the British Museum: she insisted on fair play. For many years now, all excavated material stays in Iraq, and the Iraq Museum, served by many women on its staff, including at the most senior levels, has survived damage and looting to once again enchant visitors young and old, from far and near.

The past evokes strong emotions. Many of us find that exploring history reassures us of the invincibility of the human spirit. Some, regrettably, find it so frightening they feel driven to destroy the physical evidence for it. History can be twisted and misused for political purposes or worse, but it cannot be erased. Artefacts can be damaged or destroyed, but the information they impart is not destructible. The worst damage is caused by looters who unearth objects illegally, destroying in the process the place they rested in, thus losing most of what they had to tell us, and reducing them to mere curiosities for the acquisitive to covet. Iraq has many thousands of ancient sites, and archaeologists have not given up on Iraq. Though greatly reduced in number and severely challenged by financial restraints, they are still exploring. Local specialists work alongside experts from outside, striving together to bring to light more discoveries to fascinate and delight generations to come.


Dr Jane Moon is Co-Director of the Ur Region Archaeology Project, excavating in Thi Qar Province since 2012, and previously on many other projects all over Iraq.

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