AMME seminar: Neo-Assyrian Queens as Images and Agents of Power at Nimrud's Northwest Palace

On March 5, 2020, I had the honor and pleasure of sharing my research at the University of Helsinki’s Ancient and Medieval Middle East Seminar.

I am an art historian, with training in anthropology, archaeology, and Assyriology (the study of ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform texts), and my research incorporates approaches and ideas from all of these disciplines. As an art historian, my focus is very visual — not only do I deal with artworks, but I also think about the aesthetics and appearance of the ancient world. As an anthropologist, people are my starting point and ending point. To better understand and interpret their experience, I turn to archaeological objects, excavated architecture, and written records.

My seminar presentation was a sample from a book I am writing on the beauty and power of ancient Assyrian queens at Nimrud’s Northwest Palace. Assyria refers to an empire (based in northern Iraq, that exerted control over thousands of kilometers), a culture (using a dialect of the Semitic language Akkadian), and a time period (I focus on the late Neo-Assyrian period, c.  800s–700s BCE). Nimrud is an ancient site near the modern city of Mosul, at which the Northwest Palace was the home of ten rulers. In the world of this palace, I focus on queens because they have been traditionally ignored or marginalized by historians on account of the supposedly meager evidence for their lives. However, if we combine clues found in art, archaeology, and texts, there is ample evidence of their importance.

In terms of images, I discussed the appearance of living queens reconstructed from jewelry, headdresses, and garment appliqués excavated from their tombs. The ornately adorned queen, sparkling in gold from head to hem, would have been a remarkable sight. I also proposed that the queen had her own throne room, where she would have held audience and conducted business, “signing” documents with her personal seal, examples of which were found in the tombs. Some seals bore scenes of the queen herself receiving the authority to rule from the divine. As these images circulated on sealed records, they would have been reminders of her exceptional royal appearance and authority. With their regalia, throne room, and seals, the image and agency of Assyrian queens was ritually and ceremonially presented and administratively replicated. With this agency, the queen was not just a pretty thing in the palace, but a force of empire in the own right.