Sixty Women of Ancient Tushhan

Posted on May 13, 2012


My archaeology news source sent me an article from Britain’s The Independent, posted online on Wednesday, that has caused a little stir because it reports on a “previously unknown language”.

But what caught my attention was this sentence:

The tablet revealed the names of  60 women – probably prisoners-of-war  or victims of an Assyrian forced population transfer programme.

I have to admit that, despite decades of work in archaeology, I still find the idea that we can (sometimes) identify named people amazing. The sense of connection that entails is extraordinary, even though I know that “names” recorded in documents are often not what people were called in everyday life. Names aren’t stable, or even singular. Sometimes, they aren’t even names, but actually titles that we either misrecognize or simply use out of a sense of convenience. But they entail a kind of connection that is of a different order than the categorical invocation of “women” does.

The actual research paper on the tablet, published in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, is short, technical, and very carefully argued. The full article is only available to subscribers. Anyone can see a preview of the first page.

It reports on one cuneiform tablet from a building identified as the Governor’s Palace in Tushhan, along the Tigris river in modern Turkey. Dating to the Neo-Assyrian period— when different sources agree that an Assyrian empire was consolidated between 745 and 612 BCE– the building is understood to have served as the administrative center of Neo-Assyrian controlled Tushhan, today the archaeological site of Ziyaret Tepe. (Archaeologist Tim Matney has done a fabulous job giving an overview of the site and the work of the team in his 2011 blog.)

The new article describes the text preserved on a burned tablet recovered in the throne room of the palace. Here’s how the author, John MacGinnis, described the content:

The tablet lists women who must have been under the authority of the palace administration. The women are listed either by name or by an entry stating how many are assigned to specific villages, or to the granary, or those at the disposal of named supervisors; three are recorded as having died. The total number of women available to the administration is apparently 144.

Press coverage has followed the article in emphasizing its importance as evidence for a previously unrecognized language provided by the names.

At the same time, the text, as translated by MacGinnis, also gives tantalizing hints of the life of women under the control of the empire.

The way the names are introduced, MacGinnis notes, is “characteristic of lists of deportees” moved by the empire from one area to another. Some of the women named are accompanied by their sons. While he considers other models for the possible origin of the population of women (prisoners of war, or locals under palace control), he leans toward seeing them as a deported population from present-day western Iran, writing

this strikes me as particularly plausible as it is certain that the Assyrians deported populations from Iran to other parts of the empire.

If that is the case, what was life like for these women– for Impane and her son, for Irsakina and Atude and all the rest?

News coverage fills out the gaps in the original article with what seem like poorly grounded stereotypes, in some cases actually contradicting what MacGinnis wrote.

Britain’s New Scientist starts its coverage with an empathetic invocation of how it might have felt to be deported from a homeland, left with no connection to your mother tongue beyond your name. But in fact, according to MacGinnis there were at least 45 women with names from this likely unknown language– which might suggest something more like a foreign enclave, able to speak the home language among themselves (and possibly maintain a degree of private conversation that would otherwise be impossible).

While the New Scientist blog imagines that the deported women all worked in the palace, the cuneiform text actually describes many as assigned to different work sites, at least four villages under the authority of the government of Tushhan.

The Independent gets that point right, mentioning that some of the women were assigned to specific villages. It imagines them

almost certainly being deployed by the palace authorities for some economic purpose (potentially a female-associated craft activity like weaving).

That is nicely concrete, but also curiously unsupported by the reports of the actual archaeological project, or by studies of Neo-Assyrian gendered activities.

A 2011 article in the journal Anatolica briefly discusses this particular cuneiform tablet (ZTT30) and describes it as a listing of agricultural workers.

The website for the project describes a previously transcribed and translated cache of cuneiform tablets from another administrative building, tentatively associated with an as-yet unidentified temple to the goddess Ishtar. Receipts for grain are prominent here.

The 2011 article mentions loom weights in its discussion of this building. A 2003 Anatolica article describes one of the tablets found there as “a witnessed list of textiles”, reinforcing the possibility that textiles were either produced or collected there.

But this is not the location of the newly published tablet naming 45 women in an unknown language. The temple of Ishtar is unlikely to have been the administrative entity that would have controlled the women listed in this tablet from the governor’s archive.

It doesn’t appear that the project discusses weaving at all in the blog of the 2011 field season. Nor for that matter, do they discuss any specialist craft production in any of the materials I have reviewed, although Lynn Rainville has conducted studies of micro-debris that she tantalizingly says “provide information about domestic technologies, craft specialization, and household activities” at the site.

The one explicit site of work mentioned in the cuneiform tablet text is a granary, where three women were assigned.

With these details in mind, we can begin to reconsider how women figured in the administrative world of the Neo-Assyrian empire. Two studies from the University of Helsinki help address this question. In 2005, Saana Teppo wrote a thesis on Neo-Assyrian women’s lives and agency. Her 2012 doctoral dissertation (under the name Saana Svärd), Power and Women in the Neo-Assyrian Palaces, pursues the topic in further depth.

On her website, Saana Svärd summarizes the life of women associated with the palaces, which she notes were far-flung economic institutions:

The royal palaces had many kinds of female residents. In addition to the queen and king, there were female musicians, weavers, cooks and maids residing and working in the palaces. Most of the high-ranking women led active lives, also in economic terms. Many were also highly educated: they could read and write, and corresponded with the learned men of the Assyrian empire.

If any of the women named on the newly translated tablet worked in the governor’s palace itself, they were likely to have done so in the support roles Svärd lists here: as “weavers, cooks and maids”. Based on her research, we can probably dismiss the possibility that the women named on the newly published tablet were weavers.

In her doctoral dissertation, Svärd discusses evidence for textile production within both royal palaces and provincial locations referred to by the phrase bet isati, “house of women”. Tushhan is one of the provincial locations with a bet isati. Svärd mentions two texts recording deliveries of grain to the “house of women” there. Another text from Tushhan mentions a high-ranking woman’s title that Svärd demonstrates was most likely that of a female administrator who was in charge of the queen’s households. Again, she is described as receiving grain.

Svärd suggests, based on these texts and similar ones from other locations in the Neo-Assyrian empire, that there were specific households headed by noted female administrators in at least some provincial capitals, made up primarily of women laboring under the supervision of these proxies for the queen. The small group of texts from Tushhan don’t provide evidence for weaving as a concern of the “house of women” there. In other instances where women were weavers in palace contexts, they are explicitly identified with that professional title.

In any event the “house of women” in Tushhan was unlikely to have been located in what today is identified as the governor’s palace. We are left to conclude that the women listed on the newly translated tablet from Tushhan were not weavers, not special workers under the direction of a female administrator, but most likely– as their assignment to outlying villages and to the granary in Tushhan itself suggest– basic laborers.

Which does not mean they were unimportant. The emphasis in the Tushhan texts to date on the receipt and storage of grain suggest that agricultural production was critical here. While uprooted and translated to a place not their own, the women named in these texts were participants in the core work of the Neo-Assyrian empire. And that raises a few, final, questions about the ability to influence their own lives and the society in which they came to live.

Svärd provides a particularly sophisticated analysis of women’s power in the Neo-Assyrian empire, drawing on contemporary concepts of heterarchy, defined by Carole Crumley as

the relation of elements to one another when they are unranked or when they possess the potential for being ranked in a number of different ways.

Heterarchy is actually very familiar in practice, although too often archaeologists emphasize simple hierarchies to the exclusion of considering the cross-cutting rankings within any society. For example, someone with political office may have no authority in a religious setting, and vice-versa, in a specific time and place. The two different rankings we might come up with by tracing religious authority and political authority in such a society would be a partial depiction of a heterarchy, even though each might be represented as a hierarchy on their own.

Heterarchy really comes into its own when we add consideration of less recognized exercises of power, such as those that might come with skill (the authority of an experienced weaver, potter, of cook acknowledged by those learning from or working with her) or with family position (the accepted authority of elders in family matters, or of mothers or fathers in some specific domain of family life).

Svärd shows that women with active roles recorded in texts either explicitly (embodied in letters, legal cases, and economic transactions) or implicitly (through their naming as professionals) can be understood as having agency, or exercising power, in a Neo-Assyrian empire seen as heterarchical: with temples and palaces occupying distinct hierarchies, with skill authority asserted by craft specialists and family authority exercised in marriage contracts for dependents.

She stops short of following the feminist archaeological arguments for exercise of a degree of control over life by even those in what might appear to be the least powerful positions. The women named in the new Tushhan text would seem to be completely without power: moved from their homeland and allocated to work sites without consultation, in at least three cases dying in the process.

But… I come back to two telling details. First, there are those women who managed to bring their sons with them. MacGinnis comments that perhaps there is some administrative rationale for mentioning these children. While he perhaps has in mind their potential as a labor force for the palace– as Svärd demonstrates was the case for the children of palace maids– these women were able to maintain their hold over their own children in the most subjected position possible.

And then there is the fact that 45 of them maintain their foreign names, which survive today as the only evidence of their people’s language. Something allowed or compelled them to be accounted not anonymously, or with meaningless (or demeaning) invented names, but with names of their own.

In her earlier thesis that more broadly treated women in Neo-Assyrian society, Svärd (then Teppo) wrote that

Most of the women known by their names appear in unspecified lists of women… Forty-nine women appear in lists of food rations. Ten of these are “dependents”. This might imply that there was some obligation to provide food for the workers. In lists of deportees 15 (two weavers included) women appear.

The newly translated tablet falls into this category. The fact that the palace was obliged to keep track of them, by name, is an enduring sign that their utility to the empire allowed there to be demands on those nominally holding all the power. Without their work, there was no empire.

[A note on orthography: Tushhan is used here because it is how the University of Akron team spells the name on its blog. The new article uses a spelling with a diacritic– an inverted “^”– over a single “s” in a spelling Tushan, for which I cannot reproduce the diacritic in this blog, apparently. Apologies to anyone confused by this.]