30 January 2015


Is this the face of a real, once-alive Amazon?  

This woman, whose face can be seen by us for the very first time today, was about 25-28 years old when she died.  Her body was discovered inside a Siberian burial mound (kurgan) a little more than 20 years ago.  She had been placed in a hollowed-out log dug deep within the mound, where she froze into a solid block of permafrost ice.  And that's why she -- and the six chestnut-coloured horses buried with her -- were so amazingly well-preserved.

They had all been alive around 500 BCE -- just about the time when Herodotus [9.27] was writing about the Amazons.  He recorded a speech in which Athenians boasted of the glorious deeds done by their ancestors -- even as the citadel of Athens was burning and the Greek army prepared for battle against the Persians at Plataea in 479 BCE:
It is our belief that we are gathered for battle with the barbarian, and not for speeches; but ... we must prove to you how we ... have by virtue of our valor a hereditary right to the place of honor.

[We have] on record our great victory against the Amazons, who once came from the river Thermodon and broke into Attica, and in the hard days of Troy we were second to none.
Thus, among the examples of Athenian bravery taken from the mythical history of the city, the battle against female warriors, the Amazons, is right up there with the epic of the war against Troy.  In fact, Homer knew of Amazons, too.  In the Iliad (6, 168-95; 2, 811-15), they already appear as a mighty band of warrior women who fight against men, and with whom conflict is dangerous even to the bravest of male heroes.   'Fearless in battle', and the 'equals of men', the Amazons were said to live somewhere to the north and east of the Black Sea, across the Caucasus Mountains and eastwards throughout the vast plains and steppes of central and northern Asia.  This was a world inhabited, in fact, by countless nomadic tribes of many different histories and languages but all sharing a horse-centred nomadic warrior lifestyle with similar weapons, artistic motifs, and burial practices.  To the Greeks, those people were known collectively as 'Scythians' -- and ancient Greek historians, including Herodotus, identified Amazons as one of these real tribes of Scythia. 

Lured on by pastures, [they] live in camps and carry all their possesions and wealth with them.  Archery, horseback riding, and hunting are a girl's pursuits.

One of Herodotus' earliest informants (whose work is almost entirely lost to us) was the poet and miracle-worker Aristeas.  Aristeas had travelled to those distant regions some time in the late-7th century BCE and he was the first to link the Amazons to the Scythian nomads who actually inhabited those lands ... and so began the colourful, intricate, tangled threads of fact and fiction about Amazons and Scythian women, "bow-legged from riding since childhood and scarred by battle, buried with their weapons and horses in the vast landscape" of the steppes.

Princess Ukok's shoulder, with tattoo of a fantastic animal, and a drawing of it.
So, who is this woman who now stares at us from the top of this page,* whose burial was adorned by six sacrificed horses with trappings including bridles made of gold?  She is called 'Princess Ukok', named after the high altitude plateau in the Siberian steppes where she was discovered.  A tall woman (about 5'6"; 168 cm), her left shoulder was decorated with a brilliant blue tattoo showing a twisting deer with extravagant antlers and a falcon's beakMore tattoos ran down the remains of her arm, with images of a mountain sheep and a panther or leopard.  

Princess Ukok's burial is one of more than a thousand ancient 'Scythian' tombs excavated across the Eurasian steppes from Thrace to Mongolia.  In recent years, our understanding of these people has radically changed.  New ways of studying skeletal remains have turned their 'male' and 'female' burials quite upside down.  It used to be simple: burials with weapons and tools belonged to men; spindles, jewellery and mirrors meant that the body was female.  But, really, all we were doing was reinforcing our own gender biases.  Now, thanks to osteological science, we know that, in some cemeteries on the steppes, as many as 37% of tombs with weapons, tools, and armour contain female skeletons. 
The armed women were buried exactly as the armed males were, with similarly constructed graves, sacrificed horses, funeral feasts, food offerings, weaponry, and valuable local and imported grave goods.
Not only that, but their bones and skulls sometimes bear battle scars identical to those of male warriors, with injuries inflicted by battle-axes, swords, and daggers -- bringing to mind scenes of violent battle and hand-to-hand combat.   

Such discoveries are the starting point for Adrienne Mayor's wonderful new book, The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across The Ancient World.    Mayor takes us on an exhilerating gallop through the archaeological evidence for female 'Scythian' burials with weapons and the scars of war, and of the evidence for the more egalitarian way of life for these horse-nomads in antiquity.

Were the Amazons real?

What do we actually know about this world of warrior horse-women across ancient Eurasia?  Was the Greek story of Amazons inspired by reports of -- and perhaps direct contacts with -- real warrior women among the steppe nomads in 'Scythia'?  

The early Greeks certainly believed that Amazons were real, even if the tribe no longer existed in their own day.  The Athenians portrayed Amazons on the Parthenon metopes when, after they won the battle of Plataea, they rebuilt the temple of Athena.  Little did they imagine that this might have been a most distant echo of the lifestyle of Princess Ukok.

Part II of this post will continue with The Amazons.

The Amazons:
Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World
Adrienne Mayor

Princeton University Press
Hardcover | 2014 | $29.95 / £19.95 | ISBN: 9780691147208
536 pp. | 6 x 9 | 10 maps. |
eBook | ISBN: 9781400865130 |

* The reconstruction was made by Swiss taxidermist Marcel Nyffenegger (below), and published in The Siberian Times, 26 January 2015. Next to hear body was a funerary meal of sheep and horse meat and ornaments made from felt, wood, bronze and gold, as well as a small container of cannabis, along with a stone plate on which were the burned seeds of coriander.

Face of tattooed mummified princess finally revealed after 2,500 years


The book under review.  See also my review of an earlier book by Adrienne Mayor,  The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy  (Times Higher Education).


Top left: Reconstruction of face of 'Princess Ukok' by Marcel Nyffenegger.  Photo credit: The Siberian Times 26 January 2015

Second left: Amazonomachy (battle between Greeks and Amazons). Attic red-figure terracotta bowl for mixing wine and water, attributed to the Painter of the Berlin Hydria.  460-450 BCE.  Photo credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1907. Accession Number: 07.286.86

Third left: An Amazon warrior delivering a Parthian shot. An Etruscan figure from the lid of a bronze dinos or cauldron from S. Maria di Capua Vetere, Capua, 6th century BCE.  Photo credits  http://www.agefotostock.com/en/Stock-Images/Rights-Managed/HEZ-2586947

Centre:  Close-up of Princess Ukok's shoulder, with tattoo of a fantastic animal, and a drawing of it.  Photo credit: The Siberian Times, 14 August 2012

Below left: Red and white sardonyx cameo. First century BCE/CE.  Marlborough Gems, Beazley no. 507.  Photo credit: Classical Art Research Centre

05 December 2014

When Was That Christmas Star?

The star blazed and glittered “like the most beautiful and glorious torch ever seen when driven by a strong wind.”

Thus exclaimed Johannes Kepler when, on the night of 17 October 1604, he saw a brilliant new star shining in the heavens in the foot of the Constellation of the Serpent-Bearer (Ophiuchus).  That brightest of stars -- now known to have been a supernova -- is marked N in the lower centre of Kepler's sky chart (below).

The supernova appeared in the sky not long after a rare conjunction between the planets Jupiter and Saturn which, for the first time in 800 years, came together in one of the five fiery signs, in this case Sagittarius.  When Mars then moved closer to Jupiter, the planets and the supernova formed a heavenly triangle.  A fiery triangle within a fiery astrological sign. 

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was in Prague serving as Imperial Mathematician and court astrologer to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II.  He charted the new star over the course of many months (except when it was too close to the sun to be seen by the naked eye), making his last observation a year later, after which the nova faded from view.  

Kepler believed that the new star was a portent, “an exceedingly wonderful work of God.” He also believed it was connected to astrological forces -- not the power of the zodiac, to be sure -- but  in a kind of dynamic force emanating from the sun that kept the planets in motion.  The planets, in turn,  exchanged this nebulous force among themselves -- rather like magnets attracting and repelling -- which is how other planets could influence events on earth.  In 1606, Kepler published De stella nova in Pede Serpentarii (On the New Star in the Foot of the Serpent-Bearer), arguing that there was a direct correlation between the new star and the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.  Such conjunctions were always potent signs for astrologers and thus, with the brilliant new star bursting onto the scene as well, it must have been especially charged with astrological significance.  Accordingly, Kepler predicted nothing less than the downfall of Islam and the return of Christ.

Yet his true Eureka! moment was not very far.

As a devout Lutheran, Kepler was deeply interested in Biblical chronology, not doubting, for example, that the earth had been created in 4,000 BC -- his starting point for calculations of heavenly movements throughout history.  Now, Kepler calculated that an equally rare  'greater conjunction', also later joined by Mars, had also taken place in the year 7 BC.  Surely, this conjunction was of the greatest astrological significance!  But what?  By remarkable chance, the Polish Jesuit historian, Laurentius Suslyga, had just published a tract which argued that the reckoning of the start of the Christian era (and thus all Anno Domini dates) was in error by four years.  Christ was born not in 1 AD but in 4 BC.  

For, if the author is correct, in order to reckon the Age of Christ, four years must be added to the Epoch of Christianity now in use  It would follow, therefore, that Christ was born one or two years after the great conjunction of the three superior Planets in the first part of Aries or in the end of Pisces, occurring for the sixth time since the foundation of the world.  Hence, the star which led the Magi to the manger of Christ, if it occurred two years before the birth of Christ, could be compared to our star.
The triple conjunction of the planets, thus, was the harbinger of the Star of Bethlehem just as, in his own day, an identical heavenly configuration had called forth Kepler's new star.  He assumed that his brilliant nova had the same relationship to the planetary conjunction in 1604 as had a portentous 'new star' in 7/6 BC, but that earlier star was the true Star of Bethlehem that led the Magi to the Christ child.
The Magi were of Chaldea, where was born astrology, of which this is a dictum: Great conjunctions of planets in cardinal points, especially in the equinoctial points of Aries and Libra,  signify a universal change of affairs; and a cometary star appearing at the same time tells of the rise of a king.... Granted, then, that the new star of the Magi was first seen not only at the same time as Saturn and Jupiter were beheld in each other's vicinity, namely in June BC 7, but also in the same part of the sky as the planets .... what else could the Chaldeans conclude from their, and the still existing, rules of their art [of astrology] but that some event of the greatest moment was imminent? 
Concerning the True Year in which the Son of God assumed a Human Nature in the Uterus of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Kepler published his work on chronology and the year of Jesus's birth in 1614: De Vero Anno quo Aeternus Dei Filius Humanam Naturam in Utero Benedictae Virginis Mariae Assumpsit (English title above).  In it Kepler demonstrated that the Christian calendar was in error by five years, and that Jesus had been born in 4 BC, a conclusion (as we are told by the authoritative Galileo Project) that is now universally accepted.* 

It had come about like this: Christ was conceived about the time that the major planets were in conjunction with the sun.  The Magi arrived in Jerusalem in February 5 BC to see for the second time (as recounted in Matthew 2,9-10) the star which they had seen for the first time in 7 BC (Matthew 2,2). 

What Wise Men Saw

The Star of Bethlehem could not have been the conjunction in and of itself.  No matter how close together two planets come, even if they eventually partially overlap, no Wise Man would mistake them for a single star.  While watching, he would have seen them coming together and, a few nights later, he'd see them separating.  Anyway, in 7 BC (as more recent and accurate reckoning has shown), Saturn and Jupiter never appeared to have approached each other more closely than a distance double that of the apparent diameter of the moon.  Worse still, while Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter did form a triangle in the sky towards the end of February 6 BC, Saturn and Mars, at least, were too close to the sun to be seen with the naked eye. By the time all three were visible in the morning sky, they had already moved apart considerably.

At The Fount of Astrology 

As it happens, Babylonian astrological records exist for the crucial year, four copies, in fact, of a so-called 'Almanac' covering the  Seleucid Era year 305 = 7/6 BC.   This means we have an extremely detailed set of observations and mathematical calculations for the prediction of astronomical movements from Babylonia -- a centre of astronomy and astrology in the Seleucid and Parthian periods -- which was also, according to some versions of the story, the home town of the journeying Magi.  In short, these cuneiform records were written at the right time and in the right place.  There is no doubt that the Babylonians would have been aware of the approach of a conjunction and would have been able to estimate its date within a few days. While the almanac covers the period of the closest approaches of Jupiter and Saturn, the tablets do not allude to these conjunctions.

No conjunction, no unusual heavenly activity.

This rather party-pooping report, of course, does not take into account the miraculous nature of the star itself: "This star was not of the ordinary run of comets or new stars," said Kepler, "but by a special miracle moved in the lower layer of the atmosphere."  Really, I have to admit that the miraculous option is the only one left.  The magic pointing finger created it, as Kepler thought, putting a star between Jupiter and Saturn when they were already fairly close. 

... there shall come a star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel.

Numbers 24.17.  

Have a very happy winter solstice however you celebrate it.   

I wish all my readers the best of health and most interesting of work in 2015.

* Not so fast, Galileo. 'Universal' apparently doesn't mean everyone.  In my opinion, there's still plenty of play room between 8 BC and 4 BC if we want all the stories to fit. It largely depends on when Herod died (the Massacre of the Innnocents has to take place when Christ is two years old), when Christ began preaching -- O lots of things.  Maybe that will be next year's Christmas post.

This is not the first time Zenobia has written about aspects of some Christmas stories.  See The Magi and Christmas , We Twelve Kings of Orient Are, and Whose Christmas Is It Anyway?


I have made much use of the excellent discussion by Rahlf Hansen, Kepler and the Star of Bethlehem; W. Burke-Gaffney, S.J., Kepler and the Star of Bethlehem; A. J. Sachs & C.B.F.Walker, Kepler's View of the Star of Bethlehem and the Babylonian Almanac for 7/6 B.C., Iraq 46/1, 43-55; and William Eamon's blog, Kepler and the Star of Bethlehem. Other sources include The Galileo Project: Johannes Kepler; D. Hayton, Kepler on supernova, theology and astrology PACHS 2009; Robert S. Westman, Johannes Kepler (Encyclopaedia Britannica); and (last but not least), the witty and wise M. Gardner, The Star of Bethlehem, Skeptical Inquirer 23.6 (1999).


Top: Artwork from De Stella Nova showing the Constellation Ophiuchus with the 1604 supernova marked 'N' in the Serpent-Bearer's foot, as observed by Kepler.

Above left: Portrait of Johannes Kepler, Photo credit: Wikimedia

Below left: Kepler and Solar System (http://cosmologybus.typepad.com/cosmology_bus/johannes-kepler/)Photo via Connor from Victoria, Canada, Science Hero: Johannes Kepler.

Lowest left: Late Babylonian cuneiform tablet from Babylon (?).  British Museum 35429 obverse.  Photo via Sachs & Walker (sources, above).

02 November 2014

The Women of Mycenaean Pylos and Knossos (Part III)

(continuing our review of Barbara Olsen's Women in Mycenaean Greece.  Part I click here; Part II here)

The Great Minoan Tradition

During the period that archaeologists call Late Minoan I (ca. 1600-1450 BCE), Crete was at the height of its glory and riches.  The island  was split into at least four regional powers, each ruled from one of the main palaces: Khania in the west, Phaistos/Ayia Triada in the south, Zakro in the east and -- richest of all --  Knossos in the north.*  Despite the damage and shock caused earlier by the volcanic eruption at nearby Santorini, Crete was still peaceful and  prosperous, continuing to trade all over the Aegean and farther afield, with Egypt, Syria, and the Levant.  Palace scribes were keeping their typically Minoan, slightly messy records written on clay tablets in the Linear A script (to this day, undeciphered).  Traditional, distinctively Minoan styles of art and architecture were blossoming; religion and social organization seemed unchanged.

The women of Minoan Crete were always held in high regard -- though it's a mistake to think they ruled the roost.  Very many images clearly show that they held positions of great honour ... and they could appear quite comfortably together with men.**  In matters of ritual and cult, women were probably the supreme gender.  Yet it must be admitted that their public appearances -- as preserved in art -- were apparently limited to religious (and related athletic) activities.

Aristocrats -- whether male or female is unknown -- were busy sending messages from one end of the island to another, using exquisite Minoan gold rings to seal their missives.  Large gold rings -- especially those showing the bull-leapers of Knossos -- were surely used by high officials of the ruling and religious elite.  And someone at Knossos, perhaps of subversive temperament, was exporting such rings to the Mycenaean mainland where many are found in elite burials.

True, there were some clouds on the horizonPossibly, the rulers of Knossos had got too close to the Mycenaean powers.

Whatever the proximate cause, this attractive Minoan world came crashing down in a few short years around 1450 BCE -- when palaces, towns, and settlements across the island were destroyed in a rage of violence.  The perpetrators were almost certainly Mycenaean invaders from the Greek mainland.  When the fires stopped burning, there was only one palace left: Knossos.  And the language spoken in its halls was no longer Minoan but Mycenaean Greek.  Knossian bureaucrats now wrote in Linear B, and the administrative set-up of the economy was remarkably close in all its outward manifestations to that of Pylos.***
Yet the Mycenaean-administered palatial state of Knossos is an entity unparalleled on the Mycenaean mainland.  At Mycenaean Knossos, we encounter not a state like Pylos, where an ethnic Mycenaean population is governed by a Mycenaean administration, but rather a hybrid society of both ethnic Minoans and ethnic Mycenaeans under the authority of a Mycenaean administration.
The Aftermath of Conquest

The Linear B records that remain date from about 100 years after the conquest.  We read of men with  Minoan names who are lower in status (for example, many shepherds) than men with Greek names who occupy most of the warrior and official ranks.  That's hardly surprising: to the victor go the spoils.

But what was it like for the women of Crete?  What happened to their status and rights when the Mycenaeans -- whose women had relatively low status (Part II) -- came to rule over a Minoan society which had accorded women a higher social status? 

To answer this question, Prof. Barbara Olsen looked closely at the gender patterns to be teased out of the written records of Knossos.  Were Minoan gender roles and practices assimilated into Mycenaean ones?  Or were there important differences that might argue for the continuation of at least some aspects of a freer, more Minoan approach to women's rights?  Her findings form the third part of our review of her new book, The Women of Mycenaean Pylos and Knossos.

The Women of Knossos

Detail of KN Ap 639 listing women workers and their children
At least 1200 women identified by the ideogram 'Woman' appear in workgroups at Knossos.  In most cases, these lists are very similar to those recording groups of low-status and slave women at Pylos.  However, the women identified by this ideogram are often also listed by name -- which never happens at Pylos.  For example, the 22 women recorded on tablet KN Ap 639 (note the ideogram, generally the first sign on each line) probably worked in the textile industry, though their exact tasks elude us.  Some bear the name of their home towns (e.g. Phaistia, "she of Phaistos"), which suggests their servile status.  Most personal names are Minoan in origin but five are certainly Greek (e.g. Philagra and another 'Rosie').  One is named ke-ra-me-ja -- from which comes our word for 'ceramics'; the lady is a potter or from a potter's family.  Since it is likely that all 22 women are slaves, such Greek names might have been given them by a Greek master who couldn't pronounce their own funny Minoan names -- a common phenomenon in slave cultures.

From Rags to Rags

More than a thousand such low-status women worked in the Knossos textile industry.  However, the women were not concentrated in and around the palace as at Pylos, but laboured in the many towns and villages of central Crete under the control of their Mycenaean overlords.  The cloth industry was far and away the most important business organized by the palace.  The sheer size of the industry is staggering: over 100,000 sheep, along with their shepherds and shearers (male, mostly Minoan names) are tracked in obsessive detail from the grazing lands to the allocation of their wool, and on through the setting of cloth production targets until the final delivery of the many sorts of finished cloth.  All the work of producing the cloth was assigned to women.

While some of these women were certainly slaves, not all of them were.  Rather, the system made use of obligatory corvée labourGroups of local women were set specific production targets for different kinds of cloth.  The system was forced, of course, but though labouring for the palace, they remained in their local villages.  While pretty gruelling, this was not slavery.  When they had finished their assigned tasks -- varying from an estimated three to six months of work annually -- they were presumably free for the rest of the year.  This allowed the women to sustain themselves and their families at home.

At Knossos itself, there is no sign of the full-time year-round menial females who did the dirty work at the palace of Pylos.  Slaves who performed the unenviable endless tasks for the palatial elite -- maintaining the water supply, personal attendance, and food-processing -- must have been, in some sense, a private concern. 

At the other end of the social scale are the priestesses.  Given their   prominence in art, documentation of the women who officiated in cult is surprisingly sparse.  A 'priestess of the wind' is mentioned three times: one was at Knossos(?), another at Utanos, and a third at Amnisos. Each received a monthly distribution of olive oil as did a number of other cult officials and divinities alike.  That oil was probably intended for cult purposes rather than for their personal use.  Then, there are the enigmatic groups of ki-ri-te-wi-ja women at Knossos, Amnisos, and Phaistos.  These are low-ranking religious personnel, but above the level of slaves and servants.  Trying to guess their function from their name gives bizarre results.  It could mean 'barley-women' -- perhaps those who served an otherwise unknown 'deity of barley', or women who received or distributed that rather low-grade grain.  Other interpretations are more hopeful (if no more certain), the name perhaps derived from 'chosen' or 'annointed ones'.  Whatever their cult function, each group received a very large monthly ration of wheat -- enough to have fed 500 women of a  workgroup for a month. 

There is no mention of land or other goods being assigned to priestesses or the ki-ri-te-wi-ja women.

In fact there is little indication of the priestesses having a broader economic role in the Knossian state; and no personnel, land, or shrine property are associated with female cult officials.... In contrast to Pylos, where we see nearly all of the property attributed to women in the hands of cult officials, the majority of the property associated with women at Knossos is linked with low- to middle-status women.

She Stoops to Conquer

A key difference with Pylos is that some women at Knossos who are not connected with cult exerted control over textiles, foodstuffs such as wheat and oil (sometimes in very large quantities), wool, linen, and, above all, land -- in the form of orchards. We'll go back to the land in a moment but, first, let's have a look at a woman with the unlikely name of po-po

Po-po appears in a supervisory capacity with control over fairly large quantities of raw materials for cloth-making in three tablets (twice linen, once wool).  Her name appears again on two more fragmentary tablets and then on a tablet (Kn L 513) that records her obligation to send a sizeable amount of textiles to the palace: the phrasing indicates that po-po is the person in charge and seems to confirm that she is a workshop supervisor.  The same may be true of other women listed on the textile tablets who have some stated responsibility for the collection or allocation of cloth.  A number of men appear on some of the same tablets with exactly the same obligations as the women: there is no obvious distinction and their obligations are described in the same way. 

Unfortunately, Knossos lacks the careful, detailed records of land-tenure as kept by the scribes of Pylos. We therefore know next to nothing about the land-owning system, and who owned what. Just one series survives: 20 tablets record the ownership or stewardship of groves of fruit-trees. This is enough to show us, however, that men and women held these orchards in a completely analogous fashion.  The phrasing is the same: "[The man] Eriklewes holds an orchard plot".  "[The woman] Perijeja holds an orchard plot".  In another case, a man and a woman are said to have the same kinds of orchards but her holding is five times the size of his.  In short, though the sample is small, the few texts from Knossos look remarkably egalitarian -- with men and women incorporated into the land-holding system in exactly the same way.  

So, overall, Prof. Olsen's analysis strongly suggests that the gender organization of Mycenaean Knossos was not the same as that of Mycenaean Pylos. 

Various women were also attested as having massive amounts of food-stuffs ...raw and finished textile products, and luxury goods .... These women were also held personally accountable for missing property -- further underscoring the notion that the property in question was considered that of these women rather than of their husbands, fathers, or other male relations.  Importantly, none of these property holders were attested to in any context that might suggest they held a religious affiliation, nor were they listed as wives of ranking men.


Nonetheless, they were decidedly the lesser sex.

The property holdings of Knossian women were significantly limited in both size and scope compared to those of men.  Knossian men of all social rankings controlled a wide range of commodities, most of which never appear with a woman's name attached.  On the contrary, men had access to every commodity that women had and, then too, lots more.  The palace never seemed to give women exotic goods such as spices or ointments, objects made of horn or ivory,  metals or metal vases, nor (obviously) weapons, horses, armour or chariots -- the 'must have' status symbols of the ruling elite.  In short, men controlled far more property than women.

Still, Knossian women were better off than their Pylian sisters.

First of all, it is likely that the women in the textile workgroups -- except for those specifically identified as slaves -- were commandeered for only part of the year as corvée labour.  If so, they were in some senses 'free' and their social standing would have been significantly higher than the slaves of the Pylos groups.  Similarly, there seems to have been legal space for some women to run workshops and take responsibility for their own economic identity.

At Pylos, the only women who controlled significant property belonged to the ranks of priestesses, the only institution that elevated  a few women to an exceptional status.   Even so, they did not achieve parity with men since they did not own the land but held it on lease.  In contrast, Knossian women who had no apparent religious affiliation owned their own land, and the palace recorded their holdings in exactly the same way as for male land holders. It would seem that this was the expected norm 

Quite simply, even a century after the conquest of Crete, mainland institutions do not appear to be governing women's role in the economy.  Differences in gender practices between the states of Pylos and Knossos imply that cultural assimilation was partial and far from completeSo, where did these differences come from?
I suggest that these differences may likely be holdovers from an earlier period -- for would Mycenaean Greeks introduce gender practices not their own -- and that the most likely source of those holdovers would be Neopalatial Minoan Crete, where women have long  been suspected of enjoying a more egalitarian  status than other women....
Having finished this richly rewarding book, I can only say to Dr Olsen: "Q.E. (Definitely) D".

Women in Mycenaean Greece

The Linear B Tablets from Pylos and Knossos

By Barbara A. Olsen

Routledge – 2014 – 380 pages

Hardback: $140.00
ISBN: 978-0-415-72515-6

*  Olsen references five or more Minoan palatial states, including Malia and Galatas but excluding Khania.  However, there are no signs that those two palaces (unlike Khania) had any written archives in this period, surely a requirement for the administration of a 'state'.   

** Olsen stresses the gender segregation of the Linear B tablets on which men and women are usually divided into male- and female-only tablets.  While gender isolation extends to iconography at Pylos, it certainly less marked on Crete where both sexes are frequently pictured together in cult scenes on gold rings and frescoes, as well as on some major frescoes from the Mycenaean period -- for example, the Procession fresco, the Campstool fresco, and bull-leaping frescoes from Knossos; also at Ayia Triada (cf.: the frescoes from Casa VAP [above] and the famous painted scenes on the Ayia Triada sarcophagus).

*** Interpreting the Linear B tablets from Knossos is even more challenging than at Pylos.  Scribes at Pylos were well-organized: ca. 1100 tablets were filed by subject matter in a single archive inside the palace. Consequently, 50% of those documents were complete and preserved, on average, 25 signs per tablet.  At  Knossos, on the other hand, ca. 3400 tablets were found higgledy-piggledy in a dozen or more parts of the palace, often fallen from upper storeys, and thus rarely intact: 75% of the documents are fragmentary, and the average number of signs per tablet is only 7.7.  Moreover, the broken tablets are frequently missing headings and ideograms. 

Sources:  Besides the book under review, I have made use of L. Baumbach, 'The Personal Names on Knossos Ap Tablets', in (A.M. Etter, ed) O-o-pe-ro-si , Berlin (1986) 273-278; R. Palmer, 'Wheat and Barley in Mycenaean Society', in (J.-P. Olivier, ed) Mykenaika, BCH Suppl. XXV (1992)


Top left: 'Dancing Lady 'from the Queen's Megaron, Knossos.  Photo credit: Oxford University Fine Arts

2nd left: Gold ring from Nemea, CMS V Suppl. IB 113.  Photo credit: CMS Arachne

3rd left: Gold ring from Arkhanes-Phourni.  Photo credit: OU Fine Arts [Note: the date given for the ring on this site is far too early; it should be LM I) 

4th left: Female taureador (her skin is white, following the Minoan convention [derived from the Egyptian] of picturing females as white, men as red) dressed in male athletic garb: Bull-leaping panel from Court of the Stone Spout, Knossos.  Photo credit: Zenobia (in the Heraklion Museum)

5th left: Detail from a Linear B tablet Ap 639 from Knossos recording women textile workers and their children, around 1375-1350 BC.  Photo credit: Ashmolean Museum

Centre: Reconstruction of the fresco panel from Casa VAP,  LM III Ayia Triada (Heraklion Museum).  Photo credit: Dr Santo Privitera, to whom I am most grateful for the picture. 

Lower left: Detail from Ayia Triada sarcophagus.  Photo credit: OU Fine Arts [Note: the date given for the sarcophagus on this site is too early] 

Bottom left: Bronze statuette of female worshipper, c. 1600-1500 BC, Middle Minoan III-Late Minoan I Crete.  Cleveland Museum of Art.  Photo credit: Boundless blog

23 October 2014

The Women of Mycenaean Pylos and Knossos (Part II)

The Essence of Woman

(continuing Zenobia's review of Barbara Olsen's Women in Mycenaean Greece.  Part I click here)

The Linear B tablets found in the palaces at Pylos on the Greek mainland and Knossos on Crete are the oldest documents ever written in Greek  They are without exception administrative records (inventories, accounts, and lists of names and personnel).  While they record information on some 5,000 men, they also document the palaces' interest in more than 2,000 women.  In fact, these tablets are one of the largest sets of evidence for real women's lives in any period of Greek antiquity. 

Unfortunately for us, the palaces were not interested in reporting on their private lives (loves, friendships, family).  Rather, women are only documented because they are, in some way, connected with the economic institutions of the palace -- whether involved in commodity production, property holdings, land tenure, or cult practice.  The result is that, at Pylos and Knossos, scribes recorded women's economic activities in public or civic -- rather than domestic -- contexts.  Women (like men) are listed either as individuals with names or titles, or as undifferentiated members of collective groups.

Who are these 2,000 women?  How do they compare in status and power to the men who are recorded in the Linear B tablets?  Prof. Barbara Olsen (Vassar College) has brought together for the first time all of the references to women in the Linear B tablets from the two best-documented Mycenaean sites (1400-1200 BCE).  As far as written sources are concerned, it is the low-down on everything there is to know -- or possibly ever will be known -- about Myceanean women.

The Belated Death of Matriarchy

The numbers alone (5000:2000) should be the first red alert: the tablets reflect societies where men's production and holdings were more important than those of women.  Of course, it might also be possible for women to hold the same types of commodities and property as men -- but at approximately 30% of the amount, reflecting their proportion in the tablets.  Alas, as Prof. Olsen irrefutably demonstrates, this is not at all the case. The documents reflect societies where men's production and holdings were much more significant to the palaces than those of women.

The palaces of the Late Bronze Age Aegean were not egalitarian in matters of gender.  If any of my readers still believe that there was a feminist tilt at that time, get over it now.  This book is ruthless in its incidental demolition of any such idea.  Women's holdings differed from men's not just in scale but also in substance.  As a sex, women held significantly less property and received fewer commodities (whether slaves or livestock, foodstuffs, textiles, leather goods, bronze, or precious objects such as gold vases and ivory) than men.
The archives from both palaces reveal strictly gendered societies where an individual's sex opens or limits access to various occupations and to specific commodities or resources and ultimately governs his or her access to civic office, control over property, and public functions.  In short gender is constructed at both Bronze Age palaces in a way so that men and women largely experience their societies in very distinct ways.
Women at both sites had more limited access to commodities, were excluded from the highest political offices, and were socially and economically subordinate to men.  In short, the palaces were patriarchal in their social, economic, and political organizations.  The only ray of light is in the religious sphere, but we'll get to that in a moment.

First the gloom. 

Separate and Unequal 

On the left is The Mycenaean Woman as expressed by a scribe writing in Linear B.*

Lazy bureaucrat that he was, he used a shorthand picture (ideogram) instead of writing out the whole word: just a semi-circle for her head, a skirt, and dot breasts was quite enough to make it clear that he meant 'Woman'.  

What could be simpler?

Except that no Mycenaean scribe ever drew such a neat, clean ideogram.  What Mycenaean scribes actually sketched was much sloppier; like this:

A rag, a bone, and a hank of hair

Who were these carelessly-drawn women?  They could not have been further from the high-priestess Eritha (Part I) in rank, status, and -- especially -- autonomy.  Never personally named or differentiated in any way as individuals, they belong to single-sex female work groups that were assigned by palace officials to menial, labour-intensive work.  They are the anonymous women who, day after day, would card wool, spin thread, weave, sew, and decorate cloths.  These are not Penelopes but some of Penelope's nameless maids.  They are flour-grinders (a perpetual, unhealthy task), sweepers who clean the palace, water-carriers and bath attendants, launderers, or simply personal servants.  For which work, the women (along with their minor children) received standard subsistence rations of wheat and figs.  And that's it.

In a word, they are slaves.

The Slave Women of Pylos
At Pylos, 7 women wool-carders, 4 girls, 4 boys: wheat 240.4 litres, figs 230.4 litres; 1 supervisor(?)
Such servile low-status women make up by far the largest group of women documented in the Linear B tablets at Pylos (more than 750 out of nearly 900 women).  There is no evidence for extra-palatial craftswomen who might have conducted economic activities in their own right.  In contrast to Pylian men, not a single free, economically independent women is listed in any craft or trade.  Female workers always appear without any property of their own, labouring in collective work groups in return for bare subsistence rations.

Except for just one woman -- Kessandra (the meaning of whose name hints at a future Cassandra, "who speaks solemnly to the men"**).  Kessandra receives more than 25 times the amounts of wheat and figs that a workgroup woman would get as rations.  This is the largest, and perhaps only, real property attributed to a Pylian woman who is not expressly in cult service.  Clearly, Kessandra (who appears on five tablets) is a very different mess of pottage compared to the menial laborers who are no more than ideograms to us.  The best explanation is that she is one of the female supervisors whose job may have been to dole out rations to the female workgroups.  Whatever her exact role or status (slave, free, or freed), she is the only such woman in the Pylos archive, an exception that proves the rule.

The Seven Merry Wives of Pylos

Only a handful of named women appear on the tablets without any religious titles.  Six women listed on a single tablet (PY Vn 34+) are all pendants to their husbands: the man's name comes first, followed by the woman's name and the number one. Each couple apparently receives one portion or piece of whatever is being distributed.  Three of the men are known from other sources where we are able to identify them as prominent elite Pylian officials.
[Their] wives would appear to occupy a high level of prestige -- presumably they were aristocrats -- but their high social status does not translate to a similarly high level of economic status.  Put simply, these women have no major property holdings allocated to them as distinct individuals ... and consequently no real economic authority or autonomy.
One couple, however, Metianor and his wife Wordieria ('Rosie'), pop up again as recipients of leather goods from the palace storerooms: he gets 1 prepared hide and 3 red-leather hides; she gets 10 pigskins, 2 deerskins, 1 ox-hide, and two (pairs?) of sandals with matching ox-hide laces.  A second woman  -- perhaps a merry widow since no man's name is appended -- gets pigskins, deerskins and something with fringes(?).  Those skins and sandals are the only non-edible goods, as far as we know, allocated to any woman outside of the religious sphere.  With the best will in the world, we cannot magnify a pair of sandals into female economic power.

Let there be light

Priestess, Keybearer, Servant of the god, Servant of the Priestess, or Servant of the Keybearer

The five titles of female cult officials specifically identity 120 Pylian women as religious functionaries.  These are the only women both named and titled in all of the Pylos texts.  And they differ in nearly every way from their lay sisters.
Religious officialdom not only lends to Pylian women a visibility not accorded to their secular peers but also provides for functionary women an exceptional status where many of the usual restrictions on women's access to resources and economic power are lifted.
First and foremost, these are the only women who exercise control over land at Pylos even if they did not achieve full parity with men.  While all five categories of cult-affiliated women are known to have held land-leases, none is attested as land-owner.  Nonetheless, they shared the ability to redistribute sanctuary resources and land.  The priestess Eritha was at the very top of the pile, able to challenge her community council in a legal dispute over land and to represent herself to make her case.  Other priestesses and keybearers had access to bronze (the key raw material of the time) and received textiles and other goods intended either for use in the cult or for their personal use.  They supervised low- and mid-ranked personnel, owned slaves, both male and female -- one priestess is granted 14 female slaves "on account of the sacred gold" -- and appear on tablets (PY An 1281, Fn 50, Jn 829) alongside male officials listed in ways analogous to the men -- among the very rare cases when both men and women are recorded on the same tablet.

So at Pylos, as eight centuries later in Classical Athens, religion lent certain women an exceptional status in that economic restriction and subordination were overruled for them by the requirements of cult.  Priestly women had, at least to some extent, economic autonomy.  But, of course, it was also the only place where women had any economic power in their own right. As Prof. Olsen puts it, "religion functioned as an economic wildcard in terms of Pylian gender roles."

So much for Pylos! You wouldn't really expect more from those Mycenaean-Greeks; would you? But what about Knossos in the Mycenaean period (after 1450 BCE)?  What was the status, what were the rights of the post-Minoan women of the Knossian state? Were there any real or significant differences between the gender biases of Pylos and those of Mycenaean Knossos where the conquerors governed a mixed Mycenaean and Minoan population? 

The next post follows Barbara Olsen to Crete as she examines the "wildcards" that were played out in the daily lives of women at Knossos under Mycenaean rule. 

Part III: The Women of Mycenaean Pylos and Knossos

Women in Mycenaean Greece

The Linear B Tablets from Pylos and Knossos

By Barbara A. Olsen

Routledge – 2014 – 380 pages

Hardback: $140.00
ISBN: 978-0-415-72515-6

*The comparable ideogram for a man (left) was a simple forked stick, with some slight stress on the shoulder line, and a barest sketch of the head.
Collected ideograms of MUL and VIR from J. Weilhartner, "Gender Dimorphism in the Linear A and Linear B Tablets", in Kosmos, Aegaeum 33 (2012) 287-296, Fig. LXVI 5, Fig. 9: https://www.academia.edu/1777935/Gender_Dimorphism_in_the_Linear_A_and_Linear_B_Tablets.

** Though, of course, it may just be built on the masculine name Kessandros, since it is "not conceivable" that any Mycenaean woman would speak so to men: J.L. GARCÍA RAMÓN, 'Mycenaean Onomastics', in "A Companion to Linear B Vol. 2 (Y. Duhoux - A. Morpurgo Davis, eds) Louvain, 2011, 225, 226.


Upper left: Fresco fragment, the 'White Goddess' from the NW slope, Pylos; end 14th C BCE.  Photo credit: http://www.tumblr.com/search/mycenaean+frescoes

Second left: Fresco fragment, 'La Parisienne' from the Campstool Fresco, Knossos; 14th C BCE. Photo credit: http://onassisusa.intelligentlearningmedia.com/blogos/?p=266

Centre: Fresco fragment, "Women in a loggia" from ramp house deposit, Mycenae.  Photo credit: http://www.ou.edu/finearts/art/ahi4913/aegeanhtml/mycptg2.html 

Below: Fresco fragment, Woman with a decorated ivory box (pyxis): reconstruction of figure from Women's frieze Tiryns.  Photo credit:Wikimedia Commons

06 October 2014

Eritha, A Mycenaean Uppity Woman

Around the year 1300 B.C.E., a priestess named Eritha argued a law suit against the governing council of the district of Pa-ki-ja-na (= Sphagianes, "the place of ritual slaughter").  Eritha was high-priestess of the religious sanctuary at Sphagianes where she served the great Mycenaean-Greek goddess, Potnia (meaning "Our Lady" or "Mistress").  
Eritha the priestess claims that the land she holds is a 'freehold' on behalf of her divinity, but the damos [district council] says that she holds a plot of leased communal land.

Eritha v District of Sphagianes

The legal issue is clear: if Eritha had leased the land from the commune as an individual person, it would be taxable.  Eritha asserted, however, that she held it as "freehold" on behalf of her goddess, and thus it was free of all fiscal and service obligations.  This was no trivial dispute.  The amount of land involved was substantial.  It was also prime arable land located not far from the town of Pylos, where the king (the wanax) who then ruled over this part of Greece had his palace. 

We know about this legal case because it was recorded on a clay tablet (PY Ep 704) written in Linear B (the earliest known form of Greek) by a bureaucrat working in the palace of Pylos.  Faced with two powerful, competing entities -- a senior priestess versus her local governing council -- the scribe either lacked the will or the authority to decide whose claim took priority and simply recorded both claims as items to be dealt with at some later date.  In time-honoured bureaucratic form, he "kicked it upstairs".  Presumably, the king himself would have decided the case ... had not the mortal enemies of Pylos chosen this time to attack his capital.  And so it happened that, in the year that Eritha challenged the district council, the palace went up in flames and the kingdom collapsed. 

Death and taxes

The fire that destroyed the palace unexpectedly baked and thus preserved the Eritha v District of Sphagianes tablet. Like so many other ancient court cases, we do not know how this dispute was resolved nor even if the king had time to hear any arguments before disaster overtook him.  All we really know is that Eritha had an active dispute with the local government of Sphagianes and had challenged them over the classification of a large chunk of land.  

Presumably, every landholder in the community of Sphagianes shared the obligation to pay a certain amount of annual tax to the palace.  If Eritha's property wasn't taxable, the missing amount would have been shared out among the other landholders when the taxman came to collect whatever was due to the king.  The prospect of heavier burdens for the rest of the community (not to mention for themselves) must have prompted council members  to object to Eritha's claim.  Eritha, however, was trying to protect the interests of her goddess and sanctuary (though it's not impossible she had also slipped a bit of private land into the divine freehold).  Both the district council and the sanctuary had the wherewithal to act as independent legal entities.  And both sides tried to get the most out of the system for their supporters and also possibly for themselves.


This seemingly everyday squabble is actually of huge importance in women's history because it tells us, first of all, that Eritha must have had legal access to both private and official land holdings; otherwise there could be no dispute.  Clearly, despite being a woman, Eritha could legally own, or lease, arable land -- the most important commodity in an agrarian economy and the basis of all status and power.  Eight centuries later, Greek women -- at least those of whom we know anything, like the ladies of Classical Athens -- no longer had such rights: they could own personal effects like jewellery, clothes, and household goods, but (with very few exceptions) nothing more.  

Second, Eritha apparently had the authority to plead her own case.  No husband, guardian, or son is mentioned.  Remarkably, she was able to defend her own economic interests against her local governing council. And she did so in public. Again, no later Greek woman, not even a priestess, would have been able to represent herself in a legal dispute, let alone challenge public authorities.  Such audacity cannot have been common.  In fact, we hear of no legal case brought by a male official or landowner.  It is extraordinary (at least from the viewpoint of gender politics) that this is the only law suit recorded in the entire Linear B corpus.

Eritha thus has the dubious distinction of having argued the first legal case ever known in Europe.

An Uppity Woman

As chief priestess of "Our Lady", the great goddess Potnia, Eritha had an exceptionally high status.  She held leases in her own name on rather a lot of different tracts of land in the district, as well as having the authority to disburse some of this land to her own subordinates.  For example, she made a grant of land as a 'gift of honour' to a woman named Huamia, who was described as a 'servant of the divinity' (PY Eb 416; PY Ep 704).  Apparently, she had the right to reassign her own land holdings in accordance with her personal wishes.  Other tablets tell of two of her slaves (or servants) who each held a small allotment of public land: her high rank meant that even her lowly underlings qualified for official land holdings (PY Eb 1176; PY En 609).

Behind every uppity woman is a power base, in this case the cult sanctuary at Sphagianes.  Potnia and her shrine were closely linked with palatial cult and power.  The king of Pylos made monthly offerings to the great goddess and lesser deities connected with her sanctuary.  A unique tablet (PY Tn 316) records gifts to the gods in connection with a religious ritual.  Found in the  central archive of the palace, the tablet lists gifts of thirteen gold vases and ten human beings (8 women, 2 men) to female and male deities in order of descending importance.  Potnia takes pride of place  She is clearly the principle deity for the royal house at Pylos, at least at this time of year [July-August?]:

During the Month of Sailing.
And he [the king?] is performing a holy ceremony.
And he is bringing and carrying gifts to the shrine at Sphagianes.
To Potnia: 1 gold goblet, 1 woman [servant?]

Then, four minor goddesses who reside with Potnia at her shrine are given simpler gold bowls (plus two woman servants).  From the language used, it appears that the primary activity of the event was a procession and ritual performance at which the king offered gifts of gold vessels and female servants to Potnia and associated goddesses.

Beware of Mycenaean-Greeks bearing gifts

Which brings us back to the land at the centre of the dispute between the priestess Eritha and the damos of Sphagianes.  Can it have begun with a lavish royal gift of land given by the king to Potnia? The palace certainly had the power to tax the land of Sphagianes.  Perhaps the king simply comandeered a parcel of their communal land, declared it free of taxes, and presented it as a religious offering to the goddess.  If so, the district council's protest may have been aimed not so much at the alienation of land as the fiscal consequences -- a problem which only the king could resolve.  Thus, the dispute might have involved not two but three centres of power: the king, the damos, and Eritha fighting her corner on behalf of the shrine of Potnia.   

No wonder the palace scribe 'kicked it upstairs' for a royal decision.

A One-And-Only Eritha

This post was meant to review a marvelous new book, Women in Mycenaean Greece: The Linear B Tablets from Pylos and Knossos, by Barbara Olsen (Associate Professor of Greek and Roman Studies at Vassar College).  For better or worse, I got carried away by the extraordinary implications of Eritha v District of Sphagianes.  Eritha, however, was an altogether exceptional woman.  She was not representative even of other high-born women at Pylos, let alone those of the middling or lower classes.  What rights had they?  What kind of lives did they lead?  We'll turn to that in the next post.  Consider Eritha's story, thus, as a kind of trailer for my upcoming review Barbara Olsen's fascinating study of the women at Pylos and Knossos. 

Part II: The Women of Mycenaean Pylos and Knossos


Barbara Olsen, Women in Mycenaean Greece: The Linear B Tablets from Pylos and Knossos, Routledge, London and New York, 2014; Susan Lupack, "Redistribution in Mycenaean Societies. A View from Outside the Palace: The Sanctuary and the Damos in Mycenaean Economy and Society", American Journal of Archaeology 115 (2011) 207-17; T.G. Palaima, "Kn 02 - Tn 316",  Floreant Studia Mycenaea.  Acts of the 10th International Mycenaean Colloquium in Salzburg , Vienna, 1999, 437-456.


Top: Fresco of the "Mycenaean Lady" from the Cult Centre, Acropolis of Mycenae. National Archaeological Museum, Athens inv. no. 11670. Photo credit:

Middle:"Goddess with Sheaves of Grain", Room of the Frescoes, Citadel House, Mycenae. Nauplion Museum.

Below: Two-handled gold goblet, the so-called 'Cup of Nestor' from Shaft Grave IV (Grave Circle A), Mycenae.  Photo credit: http://users.stlcc.edu/mfuller/mycenae.html

28 September 2014

Amta, Daughter of Yarha. Alas!

In the year 113 CE,  a rich Palmyran merchant named Taibul (or TYBL in his native Palmyrene) built a grand underground tomb for himself and his family, for their burials to be secure ... and remembered forever. 

The name of the tomb's founder and date of construction were inscribed on the lintel-stone discovered outside his 'House of Eternity'.  The tomb itself ('H' on the map: click to enlarge) lies about five kilometres southeast of Palmyra, in a large cemetery where all the tombs are subterranean -- so, when you get to the site, you don't see anything except, here and there, low heaps of sand-covered rubble from collapsed towers.  In fact, at the end of the dirt-track that leads to the necropolis, there appears to be only empty stony desert. 

However, the lack of anything to see above ground is more than made up for by what is hidden below: in 2002, Japanese archaeologists discovered this intact tomb from the period of Palmyra's rise to greatness.*  A tomb unlooted, and rich.  TYBL had been twice lucky.

Into the Tomb of TYBL

Leaving the brilliant desert sunlight behind, you pass through a massive single-slab door, descend the stone staircase, and find yourself in a long spacious room.  On the opposite wall there are three separate burial vaults; the most prominent is the central exedra (the semicircular arcade in the middle) with simpler arched chambers on either side.  Taibul lies with his nearest and dearest in the central vault -- set apart from more distant or less prestigious relatives by a great arch flanked by two pilasters with elaborately decorated capitals. Inside the exedra, three elegant stone funerary banqueting couches are arranged as if for a feast in a Roman dining room (triclinium).  Finely-sculpted figures of men, women, and children make up the banqueters.

No inscriptions have been published from the exedra but Taibul, as the family patriarch, is surely the middle figure reclining in the place of honour.  As the centre of the family scene, he would be the first person met by his descendants as they entered the chamber bringing vessels filled with water and wine to drink ceremoniously with their dead ancestors.  On his right sits his wife and son and, to the left (presumably) his brother and brother's wife.  More family members are memorialized on the sarcophagus below.  

Two stone couches placed on either side of Taibul's splendid monument are filled with men and women, surely close relatives, reclining or sitting according to sex and status, with still more family busts below.  Thus, three families are simultaneously joining in Taibul's funerary banquet while also celebrating their own.   

High Relief and False Sarcophagi

At the far end of the tomb, another arched chamber would have been immediately visible to anyone entering the tomb.  In the centre of its back wall, two sculptures in high relief are fitted into a niche. The top piece depicts a man reclining on a couch (although the couch is not actually illustrated), his three children standing behind him.  Below, two men, perhaps an adult son and his (predeceased?) father, take up two-thirds of the relief, leaving little space on their couch for a diminutive wife and two children.  These high reliefs are false sarcophagi.  They imitate the motif of the funerary banquet but are unusable, of course, for the deposition of the dead -- as they hang in the air and have no depth.  So, they are images of the dead for commemorative purposes only.  We really don't know what happened to the bodies of the people depicted on them but they might have been placed in the now-empty loculi which are visible to the left and right of the niche.


Naturally, not everyone is privileged to have sumptuous funerary monuments.

The simpler burials lack elaborate funerary couches and large sepulchres.  Instead, the dead are buried in loculi, narrow coffin-like horizontal spaces cut into the walls of the tomb.  Each loculus was sealed by a limestone slab portraying the head and upper body of the dead person interred within. 

Or rather, as recent excavation shows, the portrait of one of the dead persons within.  For, oddly enough, a loculus was not used for just a single body. Usually several bodies were buried inside even if there were many unused loculi nearby.  Since this is quite a recent discovery, we do not yet have any idea how they chose whose portrait would be used to seal the loculus.  Even odder, the sex of the bodies buried inside does not seem to determine the sex of the bust on the outside of the grave: all we can say is that interred dead males are generally more numerous than females.  Both sexes were placed inside with their heads facing the innermost wall.  And neither sex was buried with any grave goods except for the clothes that they wore on their bodies.  Dead infants, on the other hand, placed in pits in the floor of the funerary chambers, were given some small objects like glass beads and bronze bells to take with them to the other world.  

So, in death, as perhaps also in life, the ties of the extended Palmyran family were enormously strong.  Taibul's tomb served primarily the burial needs of his kin, based, I would think (as with  much of the elite), on cross-cousin marriages.  Publication is still  incomplete but we may imagine a tomb filled to the brim with stone images of Taibul's brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, children, and grandchildren, all commemorated in the tomb's funerary art.

Or, sadly, of what remains of its funerary art.

Two Ladies from Taibul's Tomb

This richly-adorned lady, whose name is lost, is almost certainly the same woman who is pictured on the upper left of the loculi wall above.  Her face, hairstyle and turban match and her pose is the same: right hand holding spindle; index finger in the pointing gesture; spread fingers of her left hand holding her veil.  This is, of course, a very common female gesture.  Her specific jewellery confirms the identification: the bracelet and the shapes, number, and size of her necklaces are identical with the jewels worn by the lady on the wall.  But she is no longer on her wall.  Her grave-stone was jimmied off  and taken from the tomb by looters.  

Alas, Taibul, your luck has run out.

The Tipping Point

The four-year civil war has killed more than 200,000 people and forced millions more to flee their homes. It is also destroying some of the world's most important art, buildings and monuments. As the war grinds on, illegal excavation and the looting of antiquities is running riot.  Sometimes the thieves are soldiers in the Syrian army.  Others are criminal gangs, crazed iconoclasts, or just desperate unemployed and hungry men.  It hardly matters: the resulting destruction of Syria's heritage is the same.  

Amidst the gloom, however, are rare flashes of light, such as the lucky swoop by the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums that recovered the anonymous bejewelled lady from Taibul's tomb (reported on the Palmyra History and Archaeology website, with photographs of recovered loot).

The authorities must sometimes get tip-offs.  In just a single month  this year, they intercepted three different lots of looted Palmyran antiquities on their way to the international market (click for illustrations of the recovered objects): on 6 March 2014, 16 March 2014, and 30 March 2014.  April was much the same.  June and September were worse.**  And so it goes. These objects had all originated from known tomb groups or museum storerooms.  What is perhaps even more disturbing is the consignment seized on 19 June 2014, none of which was known to archaeologists, which means that illegal digging of unexcavated tombs is taking place around the city despite Palmyra being nominally under the control of the Syrian army.  

Amta, Daughter of Yarha. Alas!

The grave-stone of Amta, Daughter of Yarha (left) had also been stolen from Taibul's tomb and was among the group recovered on 26th August.  As she is not pictured on the loculi wall but was registered among the tomb's unpublished contents, it seems all too likely that the thieves have emptied Taibul's tomb of its entire contents.  Can we doubt that all the funerary banquets, sarcophagi, high reliefs, and busts have also been cut from the walls -- and already crossed the border into Lebanon to be sold on to rich European, American, and Gulf collectors? 

Amta will be going back home, it is true, but her context is forever lost. Perhaps because of her beauty, the Syrian authorities gave her a whole page of her own boasting of her recovery.  Amta deserves her 15 minutes of fame.  But then, again, the gloom descends.   'Alas!' is the Palmyran last cry for the dead.  

Amta, Daughter of Yarha. Alas!

*    Prof. Kiyohide Saito and the Japanese Archaeological Mission to Palmyra have been exploring, excavating, and restoring tombs in the Southeast Necropolis since 1991.  Their final research report summary (2004) is available at the Kaken website.

** A few days ago, it was reported that the entire Southeast Necropolis has now been looted. 


Top left: Plan of Palmyra's Southeastern necropolis with location of Talbul's tomb (Tomb H) circled.  Credit: Palmyra History and Archaeology

Centre: Isometric plan of Taibul's tomb.  Credit: Palmyra History and Archaeology

Second left: Exedra of Taibul's tomb. Credit: Sumitomo Foundation

Third and Fourth left:  Inside Taibul's tomb.  Credit: Palmyra History and Archaeology 1, Palmyra History and Archaeology 2

Fifth left: Anonymous lady looted from Taibul's tomb.  Credit: DGAM

Bottom left: Amta, Daughter of Yarha.  Credit: DGAM

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