The Morgan Library and Museum has placed a brilliant spotlight on the first writer whose name is recorded in global history, Enheduanna.1 She was the daughter of Sargon the Great, the founder and leader of the Akkadian Empire from circa 2,334 to 2,279 B.C. in southern Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq. In addition to being the ancient culture’s high priestess and a political adviser to her father, Enheduanna was also a poet whose works were copied in scribal schools for hundreds of years, such as her exaltation of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love and war and the Queen of Heaven. Many of her concerns are strikingly modern—the physical abuse suffered by Sumerian women, for example—and her work represents the first-known instance of first-person narrative in poetry. Enheduanna is joined in this exhibition by other women who dispel the notion that women were inactive outside the home in these patriarchal ancient societies. Women in fact played major roles in the cultures of Sumer and Akkad from 3,400 B.C. to 2,000 B.C. Though scholars have never fully acknowledged their importance, Sumerian and Akkadian women inherited property, participated in the economy, and had rights that exceeded those of women in premodern and even some contemporary cultures. 

Tablets inscribed with “The Exaltation of Inanna” in three parts, Mesopotamia, possibly Larsa (modern Tell Senkereh), Old Babylonian period, ca. 1,750 B.C. Courtesy of the Yale Babylonian Collection. Photo: Klaus Wagensonner.

Our knowledge of this period comes from two major sources: cuneiform tablets of clay, which preserved significant cultural and religious texts, and cylinder seals, small objects of hard, precious stone usually no taller than an inch and carved in meticulous relief with specific themes. Used like a rolling stamp, the seals were impressed onto objects like jars, doors, and clay documents. Some were even worn as amulets. The Morgan has one of the most impressive collections of cylinder seals in the world, and its curators are largely responsible for an understanding of the iconographic seals as art and not merely as archaeological artifacts. 

A paragon of an installation, the exhibition succeeds in bringing to life these obscure objects made five thousand years ago. The show is organized in two major parts, one focused on Sumer, the other on Akkad, civilizations which coexisted in the same region. Thematic groupings within each part of the exhibition focus on both motherhood and the emergent roles of women in society. The material is so clearly presented that a viewer can grasp the nature of ancient celebration, daily work, and ritual without the crutch of wordy text labels. But the included labels should not be skipped as they add depth to our appreciation of the objects as expressions of creativity.

Queen Puabi’s funerary ensemble, Mesopotamia, Sumerian, Ur (modern Tell el-Muqayyar), Puabi’s Tomb Chamber, Early Dynastic IIIa period, ca. 2,500 B.C. Courtesy of the Penn Museum.

Conceived by Sidney Babcock with Erhan Tamur as co-curator, the installation places three-dimensional figural objects in freestanding plexiglass vitrines. The cases allow the sculptures to be viewed in the round. This approach reveals glorious detailing that otherwise would go unnoticed. Executed in alabaster, a Neo-Sumerian woman clad in a ribbed garment sits with a vessel in her hands, her figure constructed with such consummate skill and precision to make one believe that the sculpture was modeled on a real individual. The vibrantly colored funerary outfit of Queen Puabi, displayed on a mannequin, commands importance with luxurious grandeur: ribbons of hammered gold wrap her hair, a crown with a golden comb of seven curling flowers rests atop her head, large crescent moon earrings hang from her ears, and golden hair curls sway on the sides of her face. A beaded choker with a rosette lay around her throat, and strands of gold, carnelian, and lapis lazuli beads cover her chest. A beaded belt encircles her waist, and a row of interlocking gold disks sits on her hips. Nearby, the tall plaster cast of an Uruk vase, a Mesopotamian masterpiece, displays incised figures making ritual offerings to the goddess Inanna. Without her blessing, Sumerian life would have no sustenance.

Cylinder seal (and modern impression) with birth scene, Mesopotamia, Sumerian Early Dynastic III period, ca. 2,600–2,350 B.C. Courtesty of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

The seals themselves flank the vitrines along the walls, and above them blown-up positive-image impressions display the seals’ content. Every aspect of daily life in Mesopotamia, from the ritualistic to the mundane, plays out in these images. One shows women tending to a mother with a child in her lap, and another, from the third millennium B.C., depicts women forming pottery, weaving textiles, and harvesting agricultural goods, all vital to the city’s economy. Some seals boast two registers of images, one etched atop another. One such seal captures delight in feasting, dancing, and music-making: a large-eyed woman watches two men drink with straws from a big pot, and below them other women play a flute and a lyre as figures dance. The seal was so special that the owner’s name was carved into it. The exhibition also shows a double-registered cylinder of hematite that features a scene of a midwife assisting in a birth. The image is deliberately placed directly below a male figure to evoke the equivalency of gender roles from the period. 

A beautifully designed and comprehensive catalogue accompanies the exhibition, replete with chronology, essays, and plates with descriptive entries of all objects in the show. Every object tells a fascinating story. Take your time to look carefully and you will notice the unique moment of liberation and equality among the sexes found in this ancient period of human history. No rhetoric is needed; these art objects speak for themselves. 

  1.   “She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and Women of Mesopotamia, ca. 3,400–2,000 B.C.” opened at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, on October 14, 2022, and remains on view through February 19, 2023.

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