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.

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.