The Plague Years – Person, Place, Thing with Randy Cohen

I had the opportunity — amidst this pandemic, amidst this sheltering, amidst these daily circumstances of challenge, frustration, and disappointment — to write a very short piece for Randy Cohen’s Person, Place, Thing Plague Years Series. At first I didn’t think I had anything to say. Why me? Then I thought into it. And I stopped thinking about me. I thought about our world, and all the ways we are all connected through things, across places, and across time. I hope these thoughts (which I re-post here) bring someone some comfort, some inspiration, some interest, some joy.

Person ­­– Queen Hama

gold crown of flowers and female figurines
Crown belonging to Queen Hama of Assyria, Northwest Palace, Nimrud, mid 700s BCE (Baghdad, Iraq Museum)

She was laid to rest in Iraq almost three thousand years ago. (Pictured: her crown.) When archaeologists discovered her tomb, in 1989, her identity, her story, her place in history, returned to the world of the living. We believe Hama came to Assyria as a teenage bride from the Levant. She perished just a few years later. She lived and died away from her homeland, away from her family. Then, like most individuals, especially women, she disappeared from memory, from history. When I think about this pandemic, I believe we will remember it for a very long time, but one hundred, one thousand, even three thousand years hence, will we remember the names and stories of any of us who lived or died in it?

Place – her garden

grass yard with small square garden enclosed by wire fence I’m not alone as a novice gardener this spring. Seed delivery is so delayed that we are missing the sowing season, while tomato stakes are strangely sold out. But feeling solidarity with my grandmothers, who created victory gardens during their own stressful and uncertain times, and finding comfort in childhood memories of planting peas with my mom (whom I cannot see as we shelter in different states), I, too, am making a garden. I’ve turned and tilled the soil and built a wonky fence. I want to show my daughter how the dirt will grow green, how seeds become plants. I want to give her the joy on a hot summer day of picking that fat red tomato and biting into it, barefoot in the soil.

Thing – these artifacts

cardboard box of dirty broken nails and bottles - artifacts Can you believe I found all this stuff while digging the garden? Rusty springs, corroded nails, broken bottles, a nylon stocking. They’re filthy and fragmented and beautiful. And they were gone, almost forever, crushed just inches beneath the surface. These pieces of things, a thing someone used, a thing someone touched, are treasures, salvaged artifacts of humanity. I don’t know if I’ll be able to fit any of these pieces together or find some archaeological meaning in them, but, at this moment, they remind me of all the someones who were here before, and that we are each a small part of a much bigger world.

Women’s Lives in the Ancient Near East and Facets of Ancient Near Eastern Womanhood

stone statue of seated woman, broken, headless
Headless statue of a female priestess, YBC 2281, stone, Late third millennium BCE

Perhaps we, as moderns, have been writing ancient women out of history in our facile efforts to include them. We do this, in particular, by emphasizing the absence of women in history, focusing superficially on exceptional images of women, and simplifying women into types that reflect our own expectations and values, and this approach obscures the complexities of ancient Near Eastern womanhood. However, by affording the ancient record its own voice, the individuality and complexity of women’s lives and facets of womanhood emerges to replace, rather than reiterate, the conventional grand narrative on “women” and to remind us that the ancient Near East was not as much of a man’s world as we have made it out to be.

Read more in my recent essay, “Women’s Lives in the Ancient Near East and Facets of Ancient Near Eastern Womanhood,” published in the catalogue for the Women at the Dawn of History exhibition at Yale University (Peabody Museum, 2020).

women at dawn cover

Amy Gansell, “Women’s Lives in the Ancient Near East and Facets of Ancient Near Eastern Womanhood,” pp. 15-23 in Women at the Dawn of History, edited by Agnete Lassen and Klaus Wagensonner, New Haven: Peabody Museum of Natural History and Yale Babylonian Collection, Yale University, 2020.

Worlds Collide in Room F. Michael Rakowitz’s The invisible enemy should not exist (Room F, section 1, Northwest Palace of Nimrud), Jane Lombard Gallery, NYC, February 22, 2020


jane lombard installation
Jane Lombard Gallery( NYC), January 9th – February 22, 2020

I had been meaning to see the latest Rakowitz show in Chelsea. I was waiting for a convenient day. Maybe I’d have some reason to be in the neighborhood. I could swing by then. I figured I’d see it at some point. I’ve been following and appreciating his work for a decade. This was another iteration of his ongoing project The invisible enemy should not exist (2007-).

I’ve also been working on my book about Assyrian queens in the Northwest Palace at Nimrud. This is part of the reason why I hadn’t yet made it to Chelsea. I try to spend my working hours tucked in at the library.

Rarely do I wake up (on a Saturday nonetheless) and say “I have an idea! I have to go write! Sorry dear husband, but can I leave you with little girl for an hour or so? I have to find a quiet place and write this down.” I had an idea about Room F of the palace.

I got myself to a spot, and started to type. Then an iMessage popped up. Oh no, I thought. I probably need to go back home. But that was not it. It was a friend reminding me it was the last day of the Rakowitz show. Ok, I’ll make it happen. We’ll check it out this afternoon.

Family in tow, I walked into the Jane Lombard Gallery about an hour before closing. Perfect timing. But even more perfect, and serendipitous, or psychic, or just crazy, is that I walked right into Room F of the palace!! Maybe somewhere in my subconscious I’d absorbed the show title; maybe I actually, deep down knew the close-date. But I had no recollection of these facts. I’d been operating on the vague notion of “Rakowitz show is up in Chelsea…” I was completely surprised, totally delighted, floored, and down-right freaked out to find myself at the eleventh hour in the room I probably dreamt about the night before.

jane lombard installation
Jane Lombard Gallery, February 2020

I quickly tried to take every picture I could of every element of the show. It was for sale, as one complete installation. I will probably never see this again. I kept imagining it set up in its new home, maybe in Hollywood, overlooking an infinity pool from a room of glass walls. What would it mean there? Would it matter?

The work itself recreates the massive carved stone, once-painted panels that lined the walls of Room F on Nimrud’s Northwest Palace in the 800s to 600s BCE. Room F  is described among ancient Near Eastern specialists as the “back room” or “retiring room” of the main throneroom. It is described in the show as a banquet hall. Sure, banquets might have been held here. I like the idea of imagining the space as it was once lived in. Maybe the new owner will install this in their dining room.

Learning Sites, Inc. simulation of queen in Nimrud's Northewest Palace

The installation consists of five panels, each over seven feet tall, displaying colorful sacred trees and bird-headed, human-bodied, winged creatures (apkallu) carrying cones and buckets with which they ritually treat the blossoming palm (the emblem of the Assyrian empire).

The Arabic words on the collaged scraps of candy wrappers, tea cartons, and newspaper collide with a daintily printed cuneiform text that runs across the panels in gold script evoking the ancient inscription carved on the original stone slabs (“…great king, strong king, king of the universe…”).

IMG_8767 - 8
Rakowitz, Room F, Jane Lombard Gallery, February 22, 2020

The dark patches, cracks, and swaths breaking up the images indicate surfaces lost to the ages. The gaps between the panels remind us of the palace’s more recent losses — these gaps refer to the places where nineteenth-century archaeologists extracted the neighboring slabs, now embedded in Western collections, such as the Assyrian gallery of Met uptown.

Assyrian_Court_1520 met museum walls
Assyrian reliefs from Nimrud’s Northwest Palace, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC)

The wooden beams extending from the panels emphasize their lost architectural context, while also propping these ghosts of recent and ancient memories up in our living world after their most recent tragedy. Rakowitz’s panels reconstruct the sculptures that were still in place at the excavated palace site when Nimrud fell to the hands of ISIS in 2015.

“The act was a crime against Assyria, against Iraq, and against humanity. Destroy the past, and you control the future. – Tom Holland” read a quote at my feet.  Another quote on the floor said “Fueled by an insatiable appetite for Near Eastern antiquities, sites throughout Iraq are being worked daily by teams of looters in search of ‘merchandise.’” These are the words of Dr. Selma Al-Radi, to whose memory, and the memories of two other archaeologists, Dr. Sam Paley and Dr. Donny George, the show is dedicated.

Amy Herritt so kindly took some time to step away from the desk and give me a tour. She was telling me about Rakowitz’s interest in dates as a symbol of the Iraqi people (his Fourth Plinth lamassu was made of date syrup cans) and the aptness of the Assyrian sacred trees he chose to reconstruct being date palms. As she was talking, I was also being tugged by the crescendo of ‘Mommy, mommy, mommy…” and so many layers of so many worlds collided again.

Feb 22 2020 Jane Lombard Gallery

New Book: Testing the Canon of Ancient Near Eastern Art and Archaeology (OUP, 2020)

Testing the Canon of Ancient Near Eastern Art and Archaeology, edited by Amy Rebecca Gansell and Ann Shafer (Oxford University Press, $99).

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book cover showing ancient Near Eastern art and archaeology
Cover art by Jessica Levine, 2019.

With this volume, Gansell, Shafer, and their expert contributors confront canons, as established icons of culture, and ask how they come to be, of what use they are today, and whether they might transform or disintegrate in the future. In particular, this book investigates the ancient Near Eastern canon (Hammurabi’s Code, the gates of Babylon, the biblical sites of Ur and Nineveh…) from academic and native, Middle Eastern perspectives. Ultimately, it proposes to expand and transform the canon from a colonial artifact into a global tool for sharing, celebrating, and preserving the region’s diverse cultural heritage. We hope that this book offers not only seminal academic papers, but hope and a path to peace between people and cultures.



Foreword Irene J. Winter

Chapter 1: Perspectives on the Ancient Near Eastern Canon: More than Mesopotamia’s Greatest Hits Amy Rebecca Gansell and Ann Shafer

Chapter 2: The Southern Levant and the Ancient Near Eastern Canon Rachel Hallote
Chapter 3: Archaeological Research in Pre-Classical Syria and the Canon of Ancient Near Eastern Art and Archaeology Marina Pucci
Chapter 4: The Past, Present, and Future of the Canon of Ancient Anatolian Art Susan Helft
Chapter 5:The Canon of Ancient Iranian Art: From Grand Narratives to Local Perspectives Henry P. Colburn
Chapter 6: “Classical” vs. “Ancient” in the Near Eastern Canon: The Position of Graeco-Roman Art from the Levant, c. 330 BCE-636 CE Elise A. Friedland

Chapter 7: Defining the Canon of Funerary Archaeology in the Ancient Near East Nicola Laneri
Chapter 8: The Canon of Ancient Near Eastern Glyptic on a Roll: Leaps, Hurdles, and Goals Diana L. Stein
Chapter 9: The Canon of Ancient Near Eastern Palaces David Kertai

Chapter 10: How Ancient and Modern Memory Shapes the Past: A Canon of Assyrian Memory Davide Nadali
Chapter 11: Museums as Vehicles for Defining Artistic Canons: The Case of the Ancient Near East in the British Museum Paul Collins
Chapter 12: Beyond the Canon: The Future of the Past in Museum Exhibitions of Ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern Art Rachel P. Kreiter
Chapter 13: The Ancient Near Eastern Canon in the University Classroom, and Beyond: My Colleagues Speak Ann Shafer

Heritage Perspectives
Chapter 14: The Lucrative Business of the Cyrus Cylinder: Commodification of an Iranian Icon Kamyar Abdi
Chapter 15: Between Hazor and Masada-Iconic archaeological sites as symbols of collective memories in modern Israeli identities Gideon Avni
Chapter 16: Past Resurrections Tamara Chalabi
Chapter 17: Earth, Rocks, and Blood: A Wandering Home Sargon George Donabed
Chapter 18: 6,000 Years Maymanah Farhat
Chapter 19: Cultural Heritage Attrition in Egypt Monica Hanna
Chapter 20: Crafting the Ancient Near Eastern Canon: A Personal Reflection Zena Kamash
Chapter 21: The Consequences of the Destruction of Syrian Heritage on the Syrian Identity and Future Generations Youssef Kanjou, translated from Arabic by Nadia Barakat
Chapter 22: Contemporary Art and Archaeology in the Arab World Salwa Mikdadi
Chapter 23: The Assyrians-Then and Now Ramsen Shamon
Chapter 24: Bringing the Past to a Living Room Near You: The Archaeological Heritage of Anatolia on Glass Oya Topçuoglu



Summer Writing 2019

Summer writing is something special for the academic who fails or succeeds but struggles to write year-round. For me, finally free of the clutter and demands of the semester, summer writing is when I remember what it’s like (and how much I love) to write. A seal is broken. One at a time, and occasionally in a great fizz, the ideas bubble up. I let myself indulge in what seem like wild goose chases and crazy maybes because sometimes they lead to incredible little eurekas. Some days I write like the wind. Most days it’s just dribs and drabs. But I’m thinking and discovering. I’m exploring places I never knew existed. That is summer writing, and that’s where I’m at. I’m indulging. I’m writing my book. But it’s not all fun and games.

This summer, it didn’t come easily (it rarely does). During the semesters, I was writing, but to keep up with deadlines: conference papers and grant proposals. My approach was practical and urgent: How can I get this done? What’s next? And I had terrible, gnawing anxiety and guilt: I need to write my book. I want to write my book. How will I ever write my book?!? Actually, I’ve already written a few chapters of the book. But that was just chapter-writing. Now the time had come to write the book.

In April, jet-lagged from a conference on another continent, in the midst of Easter, and with spring in the air at that clearing between midterms and finals, I decided I was ready to start. I’d have a chapter done by June 1st. And hopefully two more chapters over the summer. At this rate, I’d have at least half the book done by September!

Well that June 1st ‘deadline’ totally psyched me out. When the week arrived with no semblance of a chapter in sight, I made sure I was too busy to write. I was disappointed, mad at myself, completely panicked. No chapter by June 1st meant that not only had I failed to write this chapter, but I was most certainly failing to write my book. Of course it was lunacy to expect to write a chapter, from scratch, with new research, in six weeks, while being pummeled with the usual end-of-the-academic-year hailstorm.

The next Monday, I cleaned my house. Tuesday, I scratched that stupid fake deadline off my calendar, and I finally started to write. To help myself now and to give me something to look back on, I’m sharing my Summer Writing 2019 process here, week by week. I hope this might also help other writers, as a reminder that we have good days and bad days, good weeks and bad ones. That writing can be hard, and starting to write can be even harder. Sticking with writing might be harder yet. But we are doing it. And we will keep doing it. And I’ve got to believe that we will get it done.

My personal reality is: I can’t quite keep a full-time schedule. And I still have other work to do. But I’m trying to write at least five days a week. So far I’ve been writing in 30-minute timed stints (inspired by the Pomomdoro method). Sounds rigid, but it keeps me from getting distracted with the celebrities on Yahoo! News. I try to end my day’s writing with a very specific plan for where to pick up. I’ve read that I should read more fiction (maybe I should ditch David McCollough for some Agatha Christie?). I’m signed up for daily writing prompts: But what is helping me most is  tracking my progress. It’s pretty darn motivating to look back and see how far I’ve come. Otherwise, it’s pretty darn scary to look ahead at far I have to go. I also use my weekly progress tracking as a place to set goals, log otherwise invisible accomplishments (got a new idea! found some important evidence!), and do a bit of journaling.

Here’s an abridged version, updated weekly, of my summer writing, though I’ll probably keep making updates til I finish this chapter (and I’m not sure it will still be summer by then!).

WEEK 16 July 29-Aug 4 This is my last full week of summer writing!!

Goal:  My goal is to make consistent progress this week and get myself set up to be able to keep moving ahead in the limited hours I’ll have for the rest of the year. (I am taking one week’s vacation now, after which other heavy commitments editing/teaching/conferences and lecturing) will kick in. I will probably have only 2-5 hours per week to work on my book from Aug into December. Very upsetting, actually… I just got a hive typing this.

Work Time (TOTAL 10.5 hours)

Accomplished: Inter-library loan research ; found some new theories to pursue but they led to a dead end.  I did not finish my chapter. I am not really close to finishing my chapter.  But at least I know what I want to write, need to do, and how to do it. And I have about 20,000 words/80 pages of writing as a huge foundation.

Notes: I was very anxious all this week, knowing it was my last ‘writing week,’  and at the end of the week I didn’t get as much accomplished as I’d hoped. I am trying to have a ‘cup is half-full’ perspective!

WEEK 15 July 22-28

Goal: Begin turning my big mess into a proper chapter. Try to work 15 hours minimum!

Work Time (TOTAL 13.5 hours)

Accomplished: Began massaging and reconstituting ‘mess’ into a chapter. This is gratifying and reassuring.

Began to explore more theory, and found some very relevant material.

Notes: Returning to work on Tuesday after 3 days away, I felt refreshed but nervous that I’d lost my groove. However, it was good: I jumped out of the gates on Tuesday and made major progress writing- and thinking-wise. 3-day breaks can be good for a project!

WEEK 14 July 15-21

Goal: Complete current research. Go set up to return to writing via editing/streamlining/filling in biblio+text references/populating empty sections.

Work-time: (TOTAL 18 hours!!! This is a record!!)

Accomplished: Current research is complete. No writing — this was all research!! Found some very useful stuff!

Had an epiphany, re new title for book! The new title will reference this chapter I’m writing (which I didn’t originally plan to write, and which therefore I was beginning to worry did not even fit this book). Good news: this chapter literally sits at and will function as the is the heart of the book, a vital organ that will bring the whole thing alive.

Notes: I feel guilty and wasteful of my time that I didn’t actually ‘write’ or add any new paragraphs to my chapter. But next week I hope to return to writing, with a fire under my seat! I think the research I accomplished is for the better and will help me move forward with much surer footing.

WEEK 13 July 8-14

Goal: Fill in empty sections in roughed-out chapter.

Work-time: (TOTAL 15 hours), about half these hours were research vs writing

Accomplished: Realized I needed to add another new section (but now I know where to ‘put’ stuff that’s been nagging me! Definitely settled on a final outline for chapter now.

Did a bunch of new research, and it was very worthwhile!

I’m at 20,000 words!!! That’s about 80 pages double spaced (and I haven’t filled in most of the footnotes yet and still have empty sections. This could be a 100-pager. But that’s about twice as long as it should be for this book. Must boil down and hold back.

Notes: Considering how much I’ve written so far, and that I must drastically reduce for the purposes of my book, I’m thinking of writing a new book as an offshoot of this chapter when this book is done. How crazy that a chapter that started out as a few paragraphs in another chapter has not only hijacked my whole summer but it’s now trying to take over my future!

WEEK 12 July 1-7

Goal: Fill in at least two empty sections in roughed-out chapter.

Work-time: (TOTAL 14 hours)

Accomplished: Added even more new sections. Now I’m pretty sure now that the whole chapter is mapped out, but it’s going to be much longer than I thought it would be. I did not meet my goal, but my goal was not realistic.

-new and improved chapter title!

Notes: Feeling worried about how/when I will finish this chapter. I’ve created a monster!

WEEK 11 June 24-30

Goal: Fill in empty sections in roughed out chapter. Be set up with full draft to begin editing and footnotes in July.

Work-time: (TOTAL 14.5 hours)

Accomplished: Couldn’t finish filling in the holes. Instead I added new sections, which created more holes! Wrote about 4000 words this week. I’m pleased with my word count.

Notes: I think I’ll make a blog post about writing this chapter.

WEEK 10 June 17-23

Goal: Rough out full ch.; begin filling in footnotes

Work-time: (TOTAL 13 hours)

Accomplished: Met goal of rough ch.; did not begin footnotes. Roughed out whole chapter though it still has some empty sections. Chapter is ~10,000 words — whoa, wow, how did that happen?!? This is a real chapter! There’s an intro, conclusion, and real narrative in between.

Notes: I’m realizing that this is a really important chapter, both for the operation of the book and as its own contribution to the field.  I really want/need do it right. I should run it by as many people as possible, maybe present it at a conference or two. I need to talk to philologists and anthropologists.

-sent out more consultation emails

WEEK 9 June 10-16

Goal: Begin writing my newly discovered chapter!

Work-time (TOTAL 9 hours)

Accomplished: Met goal. As much as I could ask for. Refocused as writing a new chapter. Nailed an Intro. Roughed out a conclusion. Trying to tease out a structure for body.

Notes: sent out some consultation emails

WEEK 8 June 3-9

Goal: Get back into writing groove. Set up a standard writing-regimen.

Work-time (TOTAL 4.5 hours writing + untimed reading and research)

Accomplished:  Met goal. Figured out that what I thought was part of one chapter, is actually it’s own chapter. I must accept this, even though it adds to my to-do list, instead of gives me something to cross off. Instead of writing a Chapter 3 that is a merge of Chs. 3+4, I’m extracting what I’ve written for that and germinating a completely new chapter. That will be new (newly discovered) Chapter 3. Then my Ch 3+4 merge will be my new Chapter 4.

Notes: I can only hope that after a week off I am in a better place. Maybe I needed that.

-Thinking about spin-off articles I might write after this book is done. For one, I have more to say than fits or suits this book chapter.

WEEK 7 May 27-June 2

Goal: Finish full draft! [Well that was a dumb idea.]

Work-time (TOTAL hours): 0.

Accomplished:  Nada. Met goal? Nope.

Notes: Don’t want to talk about it.

WEEK 6 May 20-26

Goal: Same as last week. Stop reading about what other people think. Figure out what I think. Find a path and just write!

Work-time (TOTAL 9 hours)

Accomplished:  Haven’t found my path yet but seeing a glimmer of light

Notes:  I’m stuck on a topic that I can’t resolve here. Maybe it’s not the topic of my book or chapter. Why is it overtaking/dominating/distracting me and my chapter.

-Changed writing stints to 30 min from 25. 25 doesn’t add up as nicely at the end of the week.

-writing is physical, emotional, mental — need to keep all three in working order. Don’t forget to stand up and stretch!

WEEK 5 May 13-19 (last week of teaching) (away at a conference for 3 days)

Goal: Stop reading what other people think. Figure out what I think. Find a path and just write!

Work-time (did not log hours. Did not write. Read and and wrote out copious notes, longhand with biblio, lists, and crazy diagrams)

Accomplished: Did not meet goal. Stuck on one topic, and can’t stop reading about it.

Notes: Not sure if I need to do all the reading I’m doing. Am I procrastinating, or is this necessary part of my writing process?

WEEK 4 May 6-12

Goal: Begin actively writing my chapter. Try to write 10 hours/1000 words

Work-time (TOTAL 7 hours)

Accomplished:  Didn’t quite meet goal, but 7 hours (vs 10) is not too bad. Noticed that I spend a lot of time-in-the-chair not actually writing. Need to work on maximizing active writing during writing time.

Notes: Thinking about making a blog post about this writing experience

-Not sure if I should measure progress by hours of active writing, pages, or word count.

-I know I need to do some serious research on this topic. Why am I avoiding it? Because what if it tells me all my crazy ideas are actually crazy. And everything I’ve written so far should be deleted

-At conferences I sometimes listen but instead of taking notes on what the speaker is saying I start writing notes about my own ideas/work. Now I’m doing that with reading. I’m reading an article, but instead of taking notes I’m writing my own raw text on a slightly different topic. Maybe it’s like how people playing music in the background while they write. Or maybe this is a sign of insanity.

WEEK 3 April 29-May 5

Goal: Move into section writing for Ch 3

Work-time (TOTAL hours: 2 hours + untimed reading, note-taking, meeting, idea-mapping)

Accomplished: Did not meet goal of doing any writing directly into chapter. But generated lots of ideas.

-Had a daunting but vital consultation-tea with famous scholar. It went just fine. But it didn’t help me figure out what I’m actually going to write for this chapter.

Notes: Placed a ton of Inter-library loans, but they are for a topic in my Intro. That’s not the chapter I’m writing. Why did I do that?? Because last week I thought I might want to work on the Intro and I made a list of books to order for it. But why couldn’t I let that list sit? I need to learn to leave unrelated tasks for later. Not every little thing needs to be done right now. That’s called procrastinating.

-I need to be more focused. I think I’ve been going through mental adjustment to writing, trying to conceptualize chapter as part of whole book, and also getting my brain trained to write and concentrate on writing again. My attention span has not been good.

-Decided to use the Pomomdoro method

WEEK 2 April 22-28

Goal: Start writing a chapter, have first draft by June 1.

Work-time (TOTAL 3 hours active writing + thinking and reading)

Accomplished: Wrote about 600 words.

-Broke the ice.  Decided what to write (I’m now working on Ch. 3, which will be a merge of my original ideas for chapters 3 and 4. I am not working on the Intro. I will save that for next-to-last/before Conclusion).

-Unexpected: I came up with a new title for the book – yay!!!

Notes: Mental adjustment. I’ve told people I’m ‘back to’ writing my book. I’ve read some writing blogs.

-I need some sort of a writing schedule. Should I try to write in more intense condensed shifts? Do I need long stretches of time to think? I need to set daily goals (start low, at 500 words?). I need to figure out how to maximize my time.

WEEK 1 April 15-21 [EASTER-days off ]

Goal: Decide what to start writing!

Work-time (TOTAL 2.5 hours)

Accomplished: Brainstorming, free-writing.  Not sure what I’m doing!! What am I even going to write!? A very slow and murky start here!

Notes: just got back from conference in Europe, very tired and brain-fried. Very anxious.

-Set up this writing log. Hope it will become more useful in a few weeks.







A new course: Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Art around the World

cartoon figures of men and women with gender symbols
Image source:

This year the Women’s and Gender Studies minor at my school (St. John’s University) updated its title and scope. It is now a minor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. To support its new dimension, we need new courses. This is good news to me because I have wanted to teach a course on Ancient Gender and Sexuality since I was first exposed to the subject of ancient Greek sexuality by Professor Helene Foley when I was an undergraduate at Barnard over 20 (wow!) years ago.

Greek kylix, c. 520-510 BCE, Yale University Art Gallery, image source

So I have set about developing a new course: Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Art around the World. In envisioning a course that would be most inclusive and of the broadest relevance to students’ culturally diverse interests, I found my efforts aligned with the disciplinary turn to globalize Art History. However, most courses (most of which are very good!) on ancient Gender and Sexuality focus on the Classical/Near Eastern world, which is my own area of expertise, putting me at a certain disadvantage to expand beyond these bounds. But, my Graduate Assistant (Elizabeth Pamblanco, Museum Administration MA candidate) and I have turned up a lot of material on gender and sexuality in Prehispanic American and Prehistoric European cultures. We’ve also found scholarship on gender and sexuality in ancient India and China. The outcome nonetheless remains remains globally imbalanced, and I’m not sure if it’s a result of the strengths/weaknesses of my own knowledge or if there has simply been more work done on Classical and Near Eastern cultures. It is probably a combination of both factors. But I hope that this course will nonetheless help students to think globally and cross-culturally. And I hope that by teaching it I will learn more so that I can teach more about cultures and topics with which I am presently less acquainted. 

Moche ‘sex pot,’ Peru, c. 500–800 CE, image source

Our research in preparing a course proposal alerted me to two issues that I would like to raise. First, what is ‘ancient’ across cultures? Pre-Columbian cultures, for example, continue to the era of the European Renaissance, but I will include material on Aztec (c. 1300s-1521) gender and sexuality in the course. On the other end of the spectrum, I will also include Prehistoric (Paleolithic and Neolithic) material that falls outside of some definitions of “Ancient World.” Second, so many publication and course titles refer to the “Ancient World,” but this world turns out to be limited to Classical civilizations. Sometimes “Ancient World” more broadly refers to Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures. But very rarely does it refer to the whole world. So that it is clear that this new course aims to cover cultures beyond the Mediterranean and Near East, I’ve preliminarily titled it “Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Art around the World.”

Woman of Willendorf, c. 28,000-25,000 BCE, image source

Please have a look at my proposal with bibliography, posted here. Maybe you are looking for ideas for globalizing your own Ancient Gender and Sexuality course. And/or maybe you have advice for me. I’d love feedback, and especially any suggestions on the course title or additional bibliography on any culture (including those not already represented). Thank you!

Dr. Lamia Al-Gailani Werr


Dr. Lamia Al-Gailani Werr, scholar of Mesopotamian Art and tireless defender of Iraqi Cultural Heritage, passed away January 18, 2019, in Jordan. Here is a video of her 2017 lecture,”Four Wars and the Museums in Iraq“.

drawing of three figures in long dresses standing around abstract tree - Cylinder seal impression from Nimrud

The day I received news of her passing I had been looking at some seal carvings she illustrated from the Nimrud tombs. I am inspired to continue my research on those seals in her honor. Thank you Lamia for always generously sharing your knowledge with us. – Grand Opening – 2019

modern stained glass sculpture in front of window - Tomás Saraceno "Entangled Orbits
Tomás Saraceno, “Entangled Orbits,” 2017 (Baltimore Museum of Art, January 2018) will be three years old this year, and it’s definitely time to use it or lose it. What have I been waiting for? A quiet week on a tropical island, of course! But since I’m not sure when that’s going to happen, I decided the turn of the new year, at a rare pause between writing book chapters, was almost as perfect a time to launch. Happy 2019 everyone, and Welcome to my Blog Grand Opening!

Studying Gender in the Ancient Near East (eds. Saana Svärd and Agnes Garcia-Ventura), 2018

many people standing in group smiling - Helsinki Gender and Methodology in the Ancient Near East Workshop


Studying Gender in the Ancient Near East includes papers presented at the First Workshop on Gender, Methodology and the Ancient Near East, in Helsinki Finland, October 26-28, 2014. The contributions explore how the interpretation of material from the ancient Near East is enriched through the application of diverse methodological and theoretical approaches to studying gender.

The essays increase the visibility of women in ancient history, untangle constructions of masculinity and femininity in diverse contexts, and grapple with big-picture questions, such as the suitability of applying third-wave or postfeminist theories to the ancient Near East. Studying Gender in the Ancient Near East points to a need for—and provides a model of—a more productive agenda for gender studies in furthering our understanding of ancient Near Eastern societies.

In addition to the editors, the contributors are Julia M. Asher-Greve, Stephanie Lynn Budin, Megan Cifarelli, M. Érica Couto-Ferreira, Amy Rebecca Gansell, Katrien De Graef, Amélie Kuhrt, Stephanie M. Langin-Hooper, Brigitte Lion, Natalie N. May, Beth Alpert Nakhai, Martti Nissinen, Omar N’Shea, María Rosa Oliver, Frances Pinnock, Eleonora Ravenna, Allison Karmel Thomason, Luciana Urbano, Niek Veldhuis, and Ilona Zsolnay.

For more information on the volume, see the publisher’s website:

queen dining detail_best detail clarity
Detail of relief sculpture of Neo-Assyrian queen Libbali-sharrat attending banquet with king Ashurbanipal. Stone, l.  ~140 cm. (British Museum inv. no. 124920)

My chapter “In Pursuit of Neo-Assyrian Queens: An Interdisciplinary Model for Researching Ancient Women and Engendering Ancient History” (pp. 157-81, in Studying Gender in the Ancient Near East, ed. S. Svärd and A. Garcia-Ventura, University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns, an imprint of Penn State University Press, 2018). Download the chapter here

Summary: Here I present an interdisciplinary methodology combining art historical, textual, archaeological, ethnographic, experimental fashion design, and virtual reality approaches to uncovering the presence and power of ancient Assyrian queens.

Abstract: This study aims to reintegrate queens into Neo-Assyrian history. Archaeologically, the Nimrud tombs provide evidence for the appearance, treatment, and personal identities of deceased women. Art historical analysis of large- and small-scale images of queens considers not only the nature of the queenly image, but the significance of the contexts in which these artworks would have been viewed. In addition, the royal use of divine and fantastical, often nude, female figures provides a window onto elite concepts of ideal feminine beauty, which royal women would have emulated and embodied. Enhancing the standard triad of textual, archaeological, and art historical evidence, ethnographic comparison can provide models to enliven and reinforce ancient sources, and digital reconstructions can be used to visually hypothesize and more actively analyze ancient realities. Finally, because neither male nor female histories exist independently, the relationship between king and queen is interpreted in the context of the palace, court, empire, and cosmos.