All the objects in the Penn Museum have incredible histories. Few of them have a journey as enigmatic and evolving as Queen Puabi’s diadems. In fact, the three individual pieces of diadems seen in the Middle East Galleries right now were once displayed as a six-piece set, and prior to that were all part of a monolithic object. So, how was this pile of 10,000 lapis lazuli beads and golden pendants originally assembled? Did Queen Puabi ever wear them, and if so, how? It is precisely our inability to give a definitive answer to these questions that makes this adornment so unique and utterly mysterious.
Puabi’s diadems (Fig. 1) are part of the Royal Tombs of Ur collection, which includes spectacular objects that were excavated in Ur (located in present-day Iraq). In fact, the splendor of some of these items makes it hard to believe that these pieces were once buried deep in the ground for almost 4,500 years. It wasn’t until Sir Leonard Woolley and his team made their famous excavation in the 1920s and 1930s that these royal tombs were found. One distinctive burial chamber belonged to Queen Puabi: a five-foot tall woman buried ca. 2500 BCE, who was surely a grandiose figure for the ancient Sumerians. She was so revered by the Sumerians that unlike most other cylinder seals that belonged to women at the time, her seal did not include her husband’s name.
The reason why it is almost impossible to tell the original arrangement of the beads and pendants is that the roof to Puabi’s tomb chamber had collapsed, causing the strings and the table it was placed on to disintegrate over time and the original arrangement to lose its order. In fact, the identity of the pile of material was so nebulous that initially Woolley identified the object as a “Gold Crown.” It was not until he discovered another tomb chamber in 1929 (PG 1618), containing a gold frontlet and an earring attached to the remains of a wig, that he concluded that Puabi’s pile must be a “diadem” instead.
Woolley imagined this diadem to be a monolithic object sewn onto a sheet of fabric or leather, which led to the arrangement seen below (Fig. 2). Nobody really touched nor questioned this arrangement until 1998, when a Penn Museum traveling exhibition titled The Royal Tombs of Ur required the reexamination of the materials that were going to be a part of the exhibition. During these reassessments, led by curators Richard Zettler, Donald Hansen, and Holly Pittman, it became clear that Woolley’s arrangement had to be reworked.
Firstly, based on the shape of the suspension loops, it looked like the pendants belonged to multiple diadems. Another obvious issue was that the golden vegetal elements were placed on the beaded background upside down, in a way that the loops of suspension were at the bottom of the pendants.
Now, one might very well wonder why Woolley oriented these pendants in such a counter-intuitive way. One possibility is that Woolley wanted to stay loyal to the way he observed these beads on the ground when he first discovered them since these orientations represent the sketch that Woolley made in the field. Or, as Holly Pittman put it humorously during my interview with her, it could be just that “Woolley was not a girl.”
It is worth noting that Woolley’s sketch of the pile of beads was not detailed enough to inform the original arrangement of the diadem, unlike other jewelry he found on the body. This is understandable since all he found was a group of beads and pendants that were mixed after the roof’s collapse.
When the diadem returned from its “trip” around the country in 2003, Naomi Miller and Holly Pittman, Penn Museum researchers who played key roles in the reconstruction of the diadems, had the opportunity to study this enigmatic object further. For the Iraq’s Ancient Past exhibition that opened at the Penn Museum in 2009, the pendants were grouped according to their types and were displayed as seven individual diadems (Fig. 3). This configuration was meant to allow the pendants to hang towards the same direction. Although the seventh piece that consisted of golden rosettes appeared to be a separate set of jewelry, they were displayed with the ensemble identified as Puabi’s diadems since they were found in the same pile.
The identity of the vegetal elements also had to be reassessed when the pendants were oriented in a way that let them dangle. Naomi Miller’s closer examination of each pendant suggested that what Woolley identified as “ears of corn” were in fact the inflorescence of the male date-palm, the “branches of shrubs in gold with gold and carnelian pods” were female dates on the stem, and the “cluster of pomegranates” were apples. This made sense since apples and dates are both associated with the goddess Inanna, who was an important part of ancient Sumerian culture and literature. Inanna represented love, fertility, and abundance, which may shed light on the symbolism behind these pendants. Animal pendants had been correctly identified by Woolley as rams, stag, gazelle, and bull. Naomi Miller later theorized that the gold wires were ropes that were used to assemble the sheep before milking. She based her argument on the similar shape of the rope that is still used in rural Syria and Turkey to have sheep face each other.
This diadem was most certainly a source of inspiration for the final interpretation of Puabi’s diadems. However, when Holly Pittman and Naomi Miller got together to reassemble the final version before the opening of the Middle East Galleries in 2018, they decided to prioritize aesthetic appeal. Given the lack of evidence, the best they could do was to re-imagine the diadem in a way that was visually appealing and consistent with the historical context. Lynn Grant, Head Conservator at the Penn Museum, sewed the pendants into the new arrangement. It is the historical symbolism, the intricacy of the golden pendants, and the room for interpretation that make this assemblage a true work of art, currently displayed in the Middle East Galleries (Fig. 1).
In short, the life of Puabi’s diadems in this Museum has been anything but boring. So, next time you take a glance at this majestic object that appears to be perfectly intact, you will know that it carries questions that might never be fully answered. Perhaps one of the beauties of archaeology and conservation is starting with a pile of questions and reconstructing answers that are a little bit closer to reality, and then reconstructing again to get even closer. Sometimes that process leads you to a work of art like Puabi’s diadems!
Many thanks to Holly Pittman and Naomi F. Miller for their valuable contributions to this blog post.
Behind the Exhibit: Iraq’s Ancient Past. (n.d.). Retrieved July 25, 2018, from https://www.penn.museum/sites/iraq/?page_id=5
Miller, Naomi F. (2013) Symbols of fertility and abundance in the Royal Cemetery at Ur, Iraq. American Journal of Archaeology 117: 127-133.
Pittman, Holly and Naomi F. Miller (2015). Puabi’s Diadem(s): The deconstruction of a Mesopotamian icon. From Ancient to Modern: Archaeology and Aesthetics, eds. J.Y. Chi and P. Azara, pp. 106-130. Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York.
The Penn Museum. (n.d.). Retrieved July 25, 2018, from https://www.penn.museum/collections/highlights/neareast/puabi.php
Zettler, R. L., & Horne, L. (Eds.). (1998). Treasures from the royal tombs of Ur. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.