“Adornment for the Afterlife: Jewelry and Identity at Ur and Nimrud” Kim Benzell

The second lecture in the 2013 Charles Wilkinson lecture series was associated with the department of Ancient Near East Art at the MMA, and was called “Adornment for the Afterlife: Jewelry and Identity at Ur and Nimrud”. Kim Benzell, who gave the talk, is one of the curators at the museum and is also a trained goldsmith which gave her quite a different perspective on the ornaments she was talking about. There’s a glitch in the video, which meant we didn’t see the introduction to the talk where she sets the scene and explained what she was looking at but I think we managed to figure it out. The bulk of the talk was about the gold ornaments found in two different burials from Mesopotamia. The first was the tomb of Puabi in Ur, who was a queen or priestess buried around 2500BC. The second was the jewellery from the tombs of three queens in Nimrud, who were buried around 800BC. And what Benzell is interested in is how these ornaments signalled or were part of the identity of the women they belonged to, and what it’s possible to say about them from looking at how they were made.

Puabi’s headdress is made of several items of gold, and looks deceptively simple. Benzell explained that actually it would’ve been very difficult to make. Each piece was beaten out of a single piece of gold, and to do that you need not only to plan the ornament well but it also makes it harder to work with. After a while of beating the gold it loses its malleabilty, so you need to repeatedly anneal it (a time consuming and delicate process) to return it to a workable state. And obviously if you make any mistakes then you have to start over entirely. So Puabi’s ornaments signal high status through the degree of difficulty required to make it, although this wouldn’t be apparent to the average viewer. They also show no signs of having been worn before death – this is a large commitment of resources (both time and gold) to a funerary item, so again signals high status.

Benzell also suggests that the form and methods chosen to create the headdress are symbolic. She told us that the word for pure, the word for shine and the word for sacred in Puabi’s language are all represented by the same written form. Which is also a part of the word for gold. And Benzell thinks that this is not accidental – that the culture of the time thought that shininess and purity were sacred, and also inherent qualities of gold. So these ornaments have been carefully produced to enhance the inherent sacredness of the headdress – they have a lot of large, flat, undecorated surfaces. These would catch the light, and shine. And the lack of decoration, and the way that there is no soldering or other joining of pieces of gold, is important for preserving the purity of the gold. Benzell also said that the long and repetitive process necessary to make these pieces was a deliberate choice – there were other gold working techniques known at this time. She thinks the repetition was important in a ritual sense, enhancing the sacredness of the items.

So Puabi’s ornaments are high status in sacred and ritual ways, and the effort required to make them is in some senses hidden. The jewellery of the queens found at Nimrud from a couple of millennia later is at the opposite end of the spectrum. These three tombs contained around 600 items of gold jewellery, far more than the occupants could’ve worn. It showed signs of having been worn in life, rather than made for death like Puabi’s. The forms of the jewellery were varied, and ostentatious. This is jewellery that signals high status by being obviously expensive – Mesopotamian bling, basically. There’s no sense of the ideas behind Puabi’s jewellery – no flat surfaces, every space is ornately decorated. And no avoidance of solder either, so the purity of the finished product isn’t important in the same way.

This was an interesting talk, and Benzell’s perspective as both curator and craftswoman brought out aspects of the jewellery I’d not thought about before. Worth watching the video to see the slides showing the actual jewellery too – particularly the Nimrud stuff as it has only been displayed once in 20 years (and that was only for a few hours to prove it hadn’t been nicked when the museum in Iraq was looted in 2003).