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

cartoon figures of men and women with gender symbols
Image source: https://www.american.edu/cas/wgss/

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.

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: https://www.eisenbrauns.org/books/titles/978-1-57506-770-4.html

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.



Third Workshop on Gender, Methodology and the Ancient Near East, April 2019

Looking forward to the Third Workshop on Gender, Methodology and the Ancient Near East, in Ghent, Belgium this April! I’ll be presenting “Images of Divinely Sanctioned Neo-Assyrian Queenship at Nimrud’s Northwest Palace.” The preliminary program is here: http://www.gemane3.ugent.be/programme/.

The mission of the Workshop is to “bring together both established and up-and-coming scholars whose work brings gender studies theory to bear on various materials and contexts in order to discuss different methodological approaches to gender studies within the framework of Ancient Near Eastern studies.” http://www.gemane3.ugent.be/call-for-papers/

I’m looking forward to seeing so many international colleagues again and continuing our conversations from the first two Workshops, held in Helsinki (October 2014) and Barcelona (February 2017). It has been an incredible experience to participate in these very rigorous yet highly constructive and professionally supportive Workshops. Since 2014, our collective knowledge and methodologies have grown substantially, and many exciting new collaborations have been established among participants.