chapter  1
An exploration of the world of women in third-millennium Mesopotamia
Pages 18

Attempts to reconstruct and understand the past are, by the nature of the evidence, always incomplete. Some artefacts and some groups are far more visible in the past record than others and are therefore easier to identify. Men’s activities are generally easier to identify than women’s and the public sphere, often thought to be predominantly male, is more accessible than the private. This inevitable incompleteness is exacerbated by the fact that scholars have frequently been rather selective in their fields of study, interested only in certain areas: in specific classes of artefacts, such as seals or metalwork; in the activities of certain classes of person; or in constructing a certain picture of the past. This approach can mean that even such evidence as exists is not fully exploited or is distorted, but with persistence and ingenuity it is possible to throw light on less visible and more neglected areas. It is generally accepted today that there are other reasons too for this imbalance

in the fields of study. In the past the relative lack of women in the archaeological profession and their generally junior status contributed to a certain myopia in scholars and to a tendency to overlook the female world of the past. For example, Trigger has written that in the 1980s “It was also demonstrated that the marginalization of women (in archaeology) had resulted in biased and androcentric interpretations of archaeological evidence” (Trigger 2006:458). Since then the situation has changed, more women are to be found in senior positions and a more holistic approach to the study of the past has begun to emerge, but problems still remain and new approaches and new models are still needed (Gilchrist 1999). In addition, all models of the past are consciously or unconsciously coloured

by the cultural and ideological background of the interpreter. This can be a particular problem when western scholars are dealing with non-Western European societies. One minor example of such a cultural bias, which is frequently quoted in the literature dealing with women in the past of Mesopotamia, is the concept

of the harem, which defines the place of many women in Islamic times. This model, largely derived from the writings of early travellers in the Islamic world, coloured much of the early Western work on women in pre-Islamic times, too, even though it has yet to be shown that it is a relevant model. Recent work suggests that it is almost certainly an inappropriate concept in Mesopotamia in the later third millennium BC (al Zubaidi 2004). The issue of the veiling of women, another “oriental” custom, has also been much discussed, but there is little or no evidence for this custom either, prior to the later second millennium. Both these stereotypes need to be excluded from studies of women in early Mesopotamia (Bahrani 2001, Westenholz 1990). Initially, scholarly work on the role of women in the early states of south

Mesopotamia concentrated mainly on the professional roles of individual women. This paper will begin by reiterating and expanding the evidence for professional women, especially in the later part of the third millennium, and will then go on to suggest that these women were often based in a world that was distinct from that of men and that might best be described as a parallel universe from which they made major contributions to public life. Finally the paper will consider the relationship between the male and female worlds. It is hoped that these proposals will lead to a re-balancing of our picture of life in Mesopotamia and to a more accurate assessment of the complexity and sophistication of society in the second half of the third millennium. Finally, some new questions for future research will be briefly explored.