A Queen, Dethroned (For Now)

November 5, 2014

Queen Puabi, The complete ensemble.

The centerpiece of the Museum’s Iraq’s Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur’s Royal Cemetery exhibition, and indeed a highlight of our entire collection, is the headdress and jewelry of Queen Puabi. Dating to some 4,500 years ago, her elaborate adornments included earrings, wreaths, rings, a comb, and a hair ribbon made of precious materials like gold, lapis lazuli, and carnelian—as well as 86 individual strings of more than 1,600 magnificent beads. The whole ensemble comes together as a stunning display of ancient ornamentation, and a window into a funerary occasion that seems practically other-worldly from where I’m sitting.

Beginning in February of 2015, this set of objects—as well as several others from our Near East Collection—will be included as part of From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics, a temporary exhibition at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) at New York University. In preparation for this object loan, a handful of staff members here at the Penn Museum converged on our Iraq’s Ancient Past exhibition this past Monday, to embark on a day of deinstalling the Queen’s ensemble—as well as compensating for the absence with a different set of items from the same excavation site. I was there to snap photos of the action—click on any of the photos below to enlarge.

PR_14_ReplacingPuabi_TAS_003It goes without saying that this process requires great care and expertise, so Monday’s activity involved staff from a variety of Museum departments—all of whom I managed to fit into this photo. From left, we have Katy Blanchard, Keeper of Collections in our Near East Section; Matt Gay, Preparator and Mountmaker; Ben Neiditz, Chief Preparator; Bob Thurlow, Registrar, Traveling Exhibitions and Special Projects; Lynn Grant, Head Conservator; and Anne Brancati, Registrar, Loans. This shot, at about 9:30 am, jumps us into the beginning of the deinstallation process, during which the case over Puabi was to be listed off.

PR_14_ReplacingPuabi_TAS_006This stage is facilitated by hand-held suction cup lifters, which are essentially detachable handles that operate through the use of suction. Here, Katy prepares to slide her hand over the queen’s comb as an extra barrier between the object and the glass case being removed.

PR_14_ReplacingPuabi_TAS_012With the cover safely removed, Katy and Anne took a moment to admire the condition of Puabi’s beads.

PR_14_ReplacingPuabi_TAS_013Before the team got into the thick of the deinstallation process, Lynn brought in a bit of extra lighting from the nearby conservation lab.


It should be noted that Katy and Lynn were extremely well-prepared for the day’s events. Sure, they’re professionals and they always bring their A-game to work—but working with a set of objects as prolific as this can nerve-wracking, no matter how many times you’ve done it. So for good measure, both Katy and Lynn wore their special “Puabi handmaiden” t-shirts for the occasion.

PR_14_ReplacingPuabi_TAS_017By about 10:00 am, the team got to work removing pieces from the display, beginning with the queen’s belt—which features tubes of gold, carnelian, and lapis lazuli in ten rows of alternating colors.

PR_14_ReplacingPuabi_TAS_023Each piece has to be removed from the display individually—here, Katy removes of the queen’s earrings.

PR_14_ReplacingPuabi_TAS_028The objects go into secure boxes, with all 86 strings of beads sharing a box in sequential order.

PR_14_ReplacingPuabi_TAS_034I was pretty surprised at the quickness of this particular day’s deinstallation, which has lasted as long as several hours during previous instances. This photo, representing the removal of the final piece, was taken just 45 minutes after the glass cover came off.

PR_14_ReplacingPuabi_TAS_037With everything packed and ready to move, Lynn and Katy pushed everything through the Museum (we’re closed on Mondays) on its way to Near East Section storage…

PR_14_ReplacingPuabi_TAS_040…Where Katy proceeded to begin photographing objects. While our Online Collections Database features good information about objects associated with Puabi, and good photos of the queen’s ensemble as a whole, it is somewhat lacking in terms of photos of some pieces on their own (but not for long!).

Stage 1—Deinstallation complete.


PR_14_ReplacingPuabi_TAS_042Flash forward a few hours to 1:00 pm, back in the gallery. Pictured here, standing patiently by, is Queen Puabi’s stand-in—a handmaiden figurine, representative of one of the many attendants with whom the queen was buried.

PR_14_ReplacingPuabi_TAS_049Matt and Ben were back to help remove the base for Puabi’s display from the gallery, and to replace it with a smaller base for the handmaiden.

PR_14_ReplacingPuabi_TAS_050In comes the guest of honor…

PR_14_ReplacingPuabi_TAS_054..And the staff carefully hoists her onto her platform.

PR_14_ReplacingPuabi_TAS_062From there began the collaborative process of dressing up the handmaiden with her various adornments—starting with a gold hair ribbon…

PR_14_ReplacingPuabi_TAS_070..Followed by a beautiful frontlet, and a glimmering golden wreath…

PR_14_ReplacingPuabi_TAS_078…Until, in even better time than Queen Puabi took to deinstall, the handmaiden’s adornment was complete.

PR_14_ReplacingPuabi_TAS_085The team lifts the newcomer’s glass case into place…

PR_14_ReplacingPuabi_TAS_088…And there you have it. The Queen has been overtaken by her handmaiden—well, until July of next year. We hope you’ll come and see this newest addition to our offerings on display for yourself in the coming months. Or, if you’re visiting Manhattan early next year, stop by ISAW and say hi to Puabi for us—she’ll be on display there from February 12 through June 7, 2015.