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Diary of Margaret Isabella Jones - Great Mesopotamian Archaeologist

Introduction:

Mesopotamia is one of the most oldest civilisation in the world. In ancient civilisations, a woman’s life revolves around marriage and bearing children from childhood.

Today, you will viewing contents from the diary of Margaret Isabelle Jones 1 , a famous archaeologist well known for her work in Mesopotamia, Persia and Ancient Egypt. You will be reading her diary content written while she was on a dig at the city of Nuzi after excavations at Assur, Mari, Sumer, Ur, and a few others - present day Iraq and Syria.

XX/XX/1909

 Raux.  Fragmentary figurines of women . 2004. A statue of a headless woman's body while she holds her hands at her waist.

Raux. Fragmentary figurines of women. 2004. A statue of a headless woman's body while she holds her hands at her waist.

XX/XX/1909

It has been ages since I have arrived at Mesopotamia. After our dig at Mari, we've arrived at Nuzi. We have had various fascinating artefacts recovered from the site as far. Law books, relics, evidence of trading… but I am most interested in marriage customs and childbirth.

Marriage was an important passage in life for the Mesopotamians where it was given much attention to, as it is for us British and the rest of the world.

Thus far, it appears that young women are often married off anywhere from the age of 14 to 20 in most Mesopotamian cities. That reminds me of the Assyrian text we found that described them as three feet high, although it's likely an exaggeration to depict how young they were.

XX/XX/1909
Yet another day spent in Nuzi. Our excavation today led us to rituals and customs of matrimony. 

Typically, the fathers of the groom and bride meet to negotiate about terms. There will be a written agreement if any monetary exchanges are involved, such as bride price and dowry 1 . Otherwise, it is verbal. However, the bride price in Nuzi differs from those of other cities.

  1. Margaret is fictional character inspired from Gertrude Bell[1]
    [1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gertrude_Bell
  2. Dowry: given to the bride by her family for herself in case of husband’s death, or to manage the household and her children. Bride price: given to the father of the bride by the father of the groom.

The practice, established in Old Babylonia, was worth a silverpiece. In Sumeria, it was often a large gift of foodstuff for a feast before the wedding. In Nuzi, bride price was often worth  40 shekels of silver. This can be gifted in the form of silver or domestic animals. There is some evidence that the amount is worth a slave girl...

Now, bride price secures the engagement. If the groom changes his mind, the bride price will be forfeited. However if the father of the bride changes his mind, bride price has to be returned.

A classic agreement found in Nuzi is seen in Mesopotamian marriages. This is between fathers of the bride and groom:

  1. The couple is to live in the husband’s home
  2. The husband can take another wife if no children are born
  3. A man has the right to take a concubine

However, in Nuzi, there is also some evidence of an uncommon practice:

  1. A man has the right to take a concubine
  2. He can degrade his wife AND promote his concubine
  3. The eldest son receives a double share in inheritance

Appalling indeed. Something else that surprised us was that Mesopotamian marriages were non-ceremonial celebrations, spanning a good 6-14 days! The closest thing to rituals include knotting the hem of the bride’s robe in the bride-payment and the father veiling the bride before the wedding while the groom takes it off later. Although in Assyrian times, women continued to wear the veils. It is so significant that prostitutes and concubines are forbidden and are punished for wearing them.

 
 JMiall .   Sumerian Headress & Necklace . 2010.   A mannequin from chest onwards is draped with white cloth and wears an intricate headwear with three metallic flowers at the top of it. It also is adorned by head necklaces of varying lengths, including a choker.

JMiall. Sumerian Headress & Necklace. 2010. 

A mannequin from chest onwards is draped with white cloth and wears an intricate headwear with three metallic flowers at the top of it. It also is adorned by head necklaces of varying lengths, including a choker.

 

XX/XX/1909

Continuing with marriages today… After the wedding, the women maintains the title ‘bride’, also known as ‘Kallatum’, until she gives birth to her first child. However, if the King marries a foreign princess, her title always is ‘bride’. I wonder if indicates that she can never truly be an 'insider' or be compared to a local bride. Such double-standards for inter-marriages!

As per traditions, consummation usually follows after the marriage and is often anticipated by the family members as it results in a child and continuity of lineage.

However, the brides can be of tender age. In these circumstances, the bride is to stay in her parents or in-laws’ house before consummation. Consummation takes place in the bride’s father’s house if she stayed there. Consummation and virginity are greatly important as it ensured that the groom’s lineage is exclusively sustained in the family.

Matters of virginity were scrutinised to the extent where the best men witnesses  the copulation to guard the bride against demons who are known to steal the virginity of the bride. I can't even imagine what must have happened that they had to resort to doing so!

Furthermore, to prove the virginity of the bride, they display the sheets covered with the bride’s blood released during the copulation. Good Lord! I certainly wouldn't want anyone to parade bed sheets stained by my bodily fluids! 

XX/XX/1909

It appears that despite all these scrutiny, the Mesopotamian believed that sex was something was meant to be enjoyed. This belief was that Ishtar, advocated for and took pride in. Divine intervention was also relied upon for proper loss of virginity as Goddess Ishtar was called upon during the first marriage’s intercourse. 

XX/XX/1910

Goodness it is a new year! I look forward to many more excavations this year as well.

On to today's discovery! Although I suppose this is no surprise. Having children was very important to Mesopotamian families as sons were expected to support the family and women who fail to bear a child will face repercussions such as divorce and competitions from other spouses of their husband.

A woman who bears a son has a higher status and divorce becomes more difficult. The husband was sometimes allowed to take a second wife if the first wife could not produce offspring. This brings me back to when we found evidence showing that in Assyrian times, the couple had to be childless for at least three years before the husband could marry another.

Here in Nuzi, the husband would not be allowed to take another wife, in case the couple were ever able to conceive. Law-books ensured that the rights of the first wife was protected. Being a woman has been hard, however, the silver lining is that the rights first wives are well protected! I only hope they were practiced as much it was written.

XX/XX/1910

My team and I found that were many risks associated with pregnancy and some of these risks included human and supernatural intervention. One bizarre account of human intervention was that pregnant women had a possibility of being hit by people. These attackers may be strangers or even people who were known to the expecting mother. I certainly hope that these was due to hustling streets and people not paying attention to each other rather than people hitting a pregnant woman on purpose! Goodness, I cannot imagine such horrifying acts to take place, especially when having children was important to the Mesopotamians. There doesn't seem to be any mention of punishments for it in lawbooks, which makes me wonder how frequently such things truly happened. Regardless, it is not known why there were such occurrences pregnant women were made to stay home to protect the fetus.

XX/XX/1910

 
 Rama.  Protection plaque against Lamashtu.  2007. A bronze surface with Lamashtu - A female bodied, strange headed figure with horn stands on a donkey with a snake in each hand. She is surrounded by plants, vases and fishes at the bottom. Accompanying her on the left is an anthropomorphic creature that stands on two legs and appears to be a tiger.

Rama. Protection plaque against Lamashtu. 2007. A bronze surface with Lamashtu - A female bodied, strange headed figure with horn stands on a donkey with a snake in each hand. She is surrounded by plants, vases and fishes at the bottom. Accompanying her on the left is an anthropomorphic creature that stands on two legs and appears to be a tiger.

 

Oh good Lord, what a horrific figure! Our team discovered that a plaque of Lamashtu, a particular female demon that the Mesopotamians believed will lurk around to kill the mother and the fetus by touching the mother’s stomach seven times

 Seshet.  Lamastu . A anthropomorphic bird looking creature, Lamastu that is kneeling on one knee while that holding her arms raised with a snake in each hand.

Seshet. Lamastu. A anthropomorphic bird looking creature, Lamastu that is kneeling on one knee while that holding her arms raised with a snake in each hand.

XX/XX/1910

 
 Frank K.  Mother Goddess . 2008. A terracotta statuette of Goddess of fertility is shown giving birth from her seat. This is from retrieved from Çatal Hüyük in Anatolia.

Frank K. Mother Goddess. 2008. A terracotta statuette of Goddess of fertility is shown giving birth from her seat. This is from retrieved from Çatal Hüyük in Anatolia.

 

Giving birth can be a dangerous period for both the mother and the infant.  I have heard women stay in labour for hours!  In fact, the Akkadians even had a phrase to describe a problematic childbirth. 'Munus La.ra.a' ( munus la.ra.a(h.kam) / mušapšiqtu = woman who have difficulty giving birth (problematic childbirth)) is the phrase to recognize a woman who is experiencing a difficult childbirth.

Many rituals were followed in hopes that the delivery was swift. The fetus was expected to come out smooth and easy as a serpent, and fast as a gazelle would. A woman in labor was given the bark of a tree of chew, her stomach was massaged with ointment, and followed by using the staff of eru wood to roll the belly.

The birthing process was considered a religious event to the Ancient Mesopotamia, hence, many treatments were seen as important rituals to them.

 
 Seshet.  Pazuzu . A stone statue of a bony creature stands like a man with one hand raised as a fist at shoulder height. It has a single horn in the middle with feathered wings like a butterfly. 

Seshet. Pazuzu. A stone statue of a bony creature stands like a man with one hand raised as a fist at shoulder height. It has a single horn in the middle with feathered wings like a butterfly. 

 
 Seshet.  Pazuzu . A drawing of a bony creature stands like a man with one hand raised as a fist at shoulder height. It has a single horn in the middle with feathered wings like a butterfly.

Seshet. Pazuzu. A drawing of a bony creature stands like a man with one hand raised as a fist at shoulder height. It has a single horn in the middle with feathered wings like a butterfly.

 

We discovered that women in childbirth wore amulets or a picture that depicts Pazuzu (a demonic god) to counter Lamashtu. Although a demon himself, Pazuzu is believed to be able to force Lamastu back to the underworld by countering her evilness. Often, the image of his head was hung around the necks of pregnant women and their dwellings. Rituals and incantations were also incorporated into the birthing process. Most customarily, it was figures of Lamashtu being killed and destroyed to ensure smooth delivery of the child.

 
 Raux.  Plaque for protection against the female demon Lamashtu . 2009. Plaque showing Pazuzu with standing on two legs with its tail and. Pregnant women used it as protection against the demon Lamashtu

Raux. Plaque for protection against the female demon Lamashtu. 2009. Plaque showing Pazuzu with standing on two legs with its tail and. Pregnant women used it as protection against the demon Lamashtu

 

XX/XX/1910

Today, we uncovered a bull sculpture and someone shared a fabled myth with us.

 
 Larieu/Lourve.  Statuette of a bull . 2001. A stone statue of a bull on four legs with two horns and a single ear (due to angle) stands.

Larieu/Lourve. Statuette of a bull. 2001.
A stone statue of a bull on four legs with two horns and a single ear (due to angle) stands.

Screen Shot 2018-04-27 at 7.22.53 PM.png
 

This myth may be a reason why it was not uncommon to see incantations of cows and cattle to aid the process of giving birth. The story of The Cow-of-Sin is recited to women in labour.

 
  Legrain.  Plaque with Nursing mother . 1930.  A stone carving depicting a Mesopotamian woman who is sitting and breastfeeding her child.


Legrain. Plaque with Nursing mother. 1930.

A stone carving depicting a Mesopotamian woman who is sitting and breastfeeding her child.

 Pierre et Maurice Chuzeville / Louvre Museum. Babylonian terracotta relief plaque, nursing mother.  1930.  A stone plaque showing a nursing mother who standing and is carrying her baby in her arms.

Pierre et Maurice Chuzeville / Louvre Museum.Babylonian terracotta relief plaque, nursing
mother. 
1930.

A stone plaque showing a nursing mother who standing and is carrying her baby in her arms.

 

XX/XX/1910

 
 Mariusz Matuszewski.   No title  . 2015.  A tablet with cuneiform writing is displayed.  The BAM 248 tablet was found to be recorded in cuneiform writing such as this artefact which recorded ancient Sumerian scribblings. 

Mariusz Matuszewski. No title. 2015.

A tablet with cuneiform writing is displayed.

The BAM 248 tablet was found to be recorded in cuneiform writing such as this artefact which recorded ancient Sumerian scribblings. 

 

I received great news today! The tablet BAM 248 that I excavated in Assur 2 years ago had been successfully translated! It turned out to be a comprehensive tablet that collated treatments to help a pregnant woman give birth easily. I was told that the sources even dates back to Neo-Sumerian and Old Babylonian rituals. Therapies include rituals, use of potions and salves, herbs and plants and also dietetic prescriptions. One commonly found plant in Great Britain is also used as a therapeutic measure! They are known as fox grapes or grape vines as we better know it.  

 
 Bailey, Miller.  Cyclopedia of American horticulture . 1906. A sketched drawing of grapes.

Bailey, Miller. Cyclopedia of American horticulture. 1906. A sketched drawing of grapes.

 

Oh, good Lord! How I miss those luscious grapes back home. It shows how important childbirth was that such information was collated and preserved in meticulous writings!

XX/XX/1910

 
 Dennis Jarvis.  Child Burial.  An infant skeleton with it's skulll on partially broken jar. 

Dennis Jarvis. Child Burial. An infant skeleton with it's skulll on partially broken jar. 

 

I may have had one of my most depressing excavations today... Initially, I thought we struck gold when we unearthed some jar fragments, but they turned out to be burial jars… for infants.

We uncovered these jars in what we believed was a domestic household in the city of Nuzi. The jars were found buried beneath the living-room floor.

Infants were buried in a position such that it symbolises the return of the fetus to a mother’s womb where the jar symbolises the womb. We found a jar in the shape of a breast was found as well. Perhaps, it may be a way to comfort the grieving mothers by symbolising the infant’s return to its mother as a burial act.

 
 Salman.  Infant burial in jar.  2016. A ceramic looking broken jar with infant bones.

Salman. Infant burial in jar. 2016. A ceramic looking broken jar with infant bones.

 

I have pondered… and one reason for recording those treatments and therapies could be due to the high infant mortality rate. While it is impossible to put an accurate estimation to the infant mortality rate in Mesopotamia, from my knowledge, it is estimated to be 20% to 30%. I believe that the ancient Mesopotamians recognize the threat of infant loss and therefore, took active actions to combat it.

In a Neo-Assyrian text from the library of Asshurbanipal, it was found that Mesopotamians sacrificed lambs after the birth of a child. High Infant mortality rate could also account for this ritual where it could have been in gratitude to the gods for the child’s survival.

However, even after a safe delivery, the infant faces danger. If the mother is unable to breast-feed the child and the family cannot hire a wet-nurse to do so, the child usually dies. Breastfeeding was also used as means of birth control as women are relatively infertile during that period. Breastfeeding can be done so by someone other than the mother. However, one individual may only breastfeed one child at a time. The Laws of Hammurabi forbid her to take a second baby simultaneously.

For instance, in the royal court of Sumerian Ur, nurse Rabbatum was the nanny of a princess and letters from the City of Mari showed how attached she was to this women, usually named ‘Mother’.

It reminds me of this Neo-Assyrian poem which showed the despair of a heartbroken mother who had most likely birthed a stillborn.  

 
Screen Shot 2018-04-27 at 11.36.00 PM.png
 

It can be observed that the woman's relationship with her husband, and her life, was no longer the same. Treading down a path from where she can never return. It is never easy to face death. I can just imagine the mother’s pain as I write this entry with a heavy heart… She must have felt so much pain and isolation. The infant burial jars was a great find for me as an archaeologist, but as a mother… it pained me as I struggle with my feelings of love for my daughter.

 

CITATIONS

1) Stol, M. (1995). Women in Mesopotamia. Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 38(2), 123-144. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.gate.lib.buffalo.edu/stable/3632512

2) Chapter Twelve. Women in the Middle East, 8000 bce to 1700 CE http://www.blackwellreference.com.gate.lib.buffalo.edu/subscriber/uid=427/tocnode?query=ancient+mesopotamia+women&widen=1&result_number=34&from=search&id=g9780631223931_chunk_g978063122393115&type=std&fuzzy=0&slop=1&authstatuscode=202

3) Mesopotamian Civilization - The material foundations - D.T.Potts https://books.google.com.sg/books?id=OdZS9gBu4KwC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

4) Women Roles in Ancient Mesopotamia https://www.academia.edu/873588/Womens_Roles_in_Ancient_Mesopotamia

5) Therapeutic approaches to childbirth in 1st millennium BCE
http://scielo.isciii.es/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0211-95362014000200002

6) Thesis Paper : Unveiling Women’s experiences in Ancient Mesopotamia
https://search.proquest.com/openview/3d286e08762bea73ded9a0d37c12ce46/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y

7) God, Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia
https://www.scribd.com/doc/115326532/Gods-Demons-and-Symbols-of-Ancient-Mesopotamia

8) Women of Babylon, Gender and Representation in Mesopotamia - Zainab Bahrani https://catalog.lib.buffalo.edu/vufind/Record/002320680

9) Ancient Mesopotamia : New Perspectives. Jane R. McIntosh and Jane McIntosh. 2005. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/buffalo/detail.action?docID=265469

10) Women's Writing of Ancient Mesopotamia : An Anthology of the Earliest Female Authors https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/buffalo/reader.action?docID=5101588&query=