Ur Project: September 2014

September 30, 2014

Gold Fit for a Queen (or) How to Wear a Headdress
Spotlight on Puabi’s headdress (museum numbers B17711, etc.)
Display of jewelry on model heads

Royal Cemetery grave PG800 was excavated in December of 1927 (announced in a telegram of Jan 4, 1928). It contained the burial of a woman identified by a cylinder seal at her shoulder as “Puabi” (originally read Shub-Ad) followed by the word NIN, meaning “The Lady.” The presence of the title with no reference to a husband “The King” might well mean that she ruled as Queen in her own right.

Whether or not she ruled as regent, co-regent, or not at all, she was certainly adorned like a queen. The summary description of her headdress alone takes up a page or more in Woolley’s publication Ur Excavations 2: The Royal Cemetery. Gold ribbons criss-crossed about her head, four wreaths of gold leaves sat atop (B17711), and gold rings hung down over her forehead. Large gold earrings (B17712), carnelian, lapis and gold beads as well as a large gold comb with gold flowers (B16693) completed the ensemble. The total weight of this gold and semiprecious stone crowning jewelry was over three kilograms.

Model head created by Katharine Woolley for display of Puabi's headdress. Penn Museum Archival Photo 191121
Model head created by Katharine Woolley for display of Puabi’s headdress. Penn Museum Archival Photo 191121.

Woolley believed that it all sat atop an exaggerated hairdo, likely a padded wig. He removed the gold ribbons from the ground intact, retaining as closely as he could the measurements of the hair on which they would have sat. It amounted to a hefty 38cm—more than twice the typical diameter of a skull from ear to ear. His wife made a model head and wig onto which the jewels were placed and originally displayed in the 1928 exhibition at the British Museum, before the artifacts were sent to Penn. Since Puabi’s skull was badly preserved, Katharine based her reconstruction on a plaster cast of a skull from the nearby site of Tell el’Ubaid.

The reconstruction of the face, head, and hairstyle led to some controversy, however.

Penn’s Babylonian Section Curator, Father Leon Legrain, felt the model didn’t look anything like Sumerian sculpture, which he believed was a more accurate depiction of personal appearance in the minds of the Sumerians themselves. For example, artwork almost always showed eyebrows meeting in the middle over the nose, whereas Mrs. Woolley’s reconstruction showed separated eyebrows.

Model head created by Leon Legrain for display of Puabi's headdress. Penn Museum Archival Photo 8312.
Model head created by Leon Legrain for display of Puabi’s headdress. Penn Museum Archival Photo 8312.

In 1929, Legrain set about making his own model head, on which the jewelry would be displayed at Penn for a few years. He based his model on a particular sculpture, known as “la femme a l’echarpe,” housed in the Louvre. The Penn museum has a plaster cast of this artifact, museum number B15573, obtained in 1924. The original comes from the site of Tello (Girsu) in the time of Gudea of Lagash, some 500 years after Puabi, which was one of Woolley’s many objections to Legrain’s reconstruction. But Legrain felt it was the best model of feminine features in the ancient Near East, saying in a Museum Journal article for winter of 1929: “She has the high cheek bones, large nose, and large eyes under powerful eyebrows of a true oriental beauty.”

Plaster cast of Musee du Louvre object known as 'la femme a l'echarpe'. The cast is accessioned at the Penn Museum as object B15573.
Plaster cast of an artifact from Tello. The cast is accessioned at the Penn Museum as object B15573 and formed the basis of Legrain’s model head reconstruction.

The hairdo on the Tello sculpture scales up to much less than Woolley’s measures for Puabi’s coiffure, but Legrain suggested this was because the ribbons ran from front to back rather than side to side and that they held a fold of hair raised at the back. Even in this position, his model didn’t have enough room for all four wreaths and he called into question whether Puabi could have worn them all at the same time. Woolley responded by saying that the question was moot. Whether she could have worn them or not, she was unquestionably buried with them on her head.

There are a number of interesting letters showing the disagreement between various parties in the question, with the Penn Museum director, Horace Jayne, trying to remain impartial. That he was not fond of model heads and their controversy is shown by his final word, in a post-script of a letter dated December 23, 1932: “P.S. Legrain’s head of Queen Shubad is abandoned. We have the coronets and comb separately shown. It is a considerable improvement.”