24 December 2013

Sex Play in Ancient Canaan (Part II)

(Part I click here)

If this isn't love, tell me what it is....

Minet el-Beida, N.Syrian coast, c. 1300 BCE. H. 7.3
What's the message of this naked woman on the gold pendant (left), pictured in some detail with Hathor hairdo, thick necklace,  and holding long-stemmed lotus flowers and papyrus plants in each hand?

She's not pornographic.

She's scarcely even erotic.

Rather, she seems profoundly and proudly vulvic. 

If that's what she's saying, her message is redoubled by the  pear-shape form of the pendant itself which recalls as clearly as it can the shape of her pubic area.  You can hardly doubt what she's telling you about.  In that she is typical of the Canaanite nude females.  Whether reduced to the barest female essences of face, breasts, navel and broad pubic triangle (e.g., the first two pieces in Part I) or picturing the full body, all the ladies lead, so to speak, with their pudenda. 

L O V E, what is in me?
L O V E, oh, if this isn't love

Yet a tiny detail makes us pause: those little punched-out star discs running around all sides of the pendant.  That's the only hint that the scene is not entirely of this world.

Minet el-Beida, N.Syrian coast, 14-13 C BCE. H.8.4
There are other clues that these nude females are more than mere mortals.  Unlike the ladies moulded on clay plaques (Part I), those pictured on gold pendants commonly have one or another suggestion of the supernatural -- whether or not they themselves are meant to be goddesses.  For example, the jewelled lady (left) wears above her Hathor hairdo an additional headdress consisting of horns -- a sure sign of divinity.  Instead of holding the lotuses which grow along her sides, she grasps two rams by their feet, so that they hang upside down on either side of her, in the well known symmetrical pose of the so-called Mistress of Animals.  

In this role, she has a male counterpart, the Master of Animals, a well-known figure in the ancient Near East -- already appearing in Mesopotamia and Egypt from at least the 4th millennium onwards.  Yet the Mistress  of Animals didn't really become a fixture until the late second millennium ... and even then she scarcely made a splash outside of the Aegean area, far to the north.  There, she is shown
Agate Minoan-Mycenaean gem ca. 1370
bare-breasted in the good old Minoan style (right), but was always covered up from the waist down.  So, while the Canaanites may have borrowed the image and her pose, they didn't stint on full nudity.  Traditionally, both Master and Mistress of Animals display their powers by hoisting pairs of wild beasts which can be a visual description of the powers that maintain order in a wild, wild world -- and, thus, by extension, a symbol of religious or royal domination over natural forces.

The Canaanite Mistress has some sisters.

Uluburun shipwreck, ca. 1318 BCE.  H 9.1
This golden girl loaded with jewellery was found in the Uruburun shipwreck not far out to sea from Kas off the Turkish coast near Rhodes.   The pendant was tucked away with other gold treasures in the stern of the ship, presumably to be used as bullion (clipped or melted down) if needed during the voyage.

Her hair is braided into long strands and topped by a tall cylindrical crown, another probable sign of divinity.  She wears a many-stranded necklace, heaps of bracelets and anklets.  She, too, is a Mistress of Animals, holding in each hand an upright horned gazelle. 

If one divine sign is good, two must be better and redoubling yet again better still. 

Why take any chances? 

Double, double toil and trouble
Fire burn, and caldron bubble

Minet el-Beida, Syria, 1450-1365 BCE. H.5.5

So here is a nude bejewelled female with Hathor hairdo (apparently, hair styles are interchangeable), who has pulled out all the divinity stops:

1.  She wears a low cylindrical crown (divine sign);

2.  She holds upright gazelles in her hands (Mistress of Animals);

3.  She is standing on a lion (a position restricted to heavenly divinities);

4.  Interwoven serpents emerge from behind her waist (netherworld?);

5.  The background is filled-in with embossed dots that indicates the starry heavens.

It's impossible not to wonder who she is. 

The A-team

Anat, Astarte, Asherah and Athirat are the 'A' goddesses known from texts written in Ugarit which mostly date to the 13th C BCE.  The A-team players are thus prime candidates to be identified as those nude females depicted with (or, for that matter, without) divine attributes.  Still, there were many other goddesses gadding about Canaan at the time: some we know by name, such as Shapsh, Kotharat, Pidray and many of the daughters of the great god Baal/El as well as such clusters of female deities as the seven goddesses involved in pregnancy and childbirth.  Yet other cherished sexy goddesses remain (to us) nameless:
The two wives are the wives of El,
The wives of El, and forever.
He stooped: their lips he kissed.
O, how sweet were their lips,
as sweet as pomegranates;
from kissing came conception,
from embracing, impregnation....
Both of them crouched
and gave birth to Shahar [the morning star] and Shalem [the evening star].*
The problem in a nutshell is that it is difficult, if not impossible to consider the pendants as presenting a coherent picture of any one specific goddess -- a problem tackled very recently by Kim Benzel of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.**  As she explains, whichever way you look at the A-team, it may feel like a good fit here and there ... but, then, on the whole it does not.  

Scholars used to call these nude females plaques and pendants after the Canaanite goddess Astarte who was primarily associated with sexuality and war -- and, a little later, with fertility having been confused or merged with the 'A' of Asherah.  Astarte is frequently shown nude and on horseback and wearing the Egyptian feathered atef crown, so it must be because of her nakedness (rather than horses or her menacing weapons or that crown) that links her to our nude females.  That's not enough to identify her on the pendants and plaques because those nude females never display any other of Astarte's attributes.  One A-goddess down.

Anat is another Canaanite goddess connected  with violence, war and hunting, but she is also famed for her beauty.  Like Astarte, she is often seen with weapons such as axes or clubs (armed goddesses were common in the ancient Near East) and/or wearing the atef crown.  A woman acting as a man (preeminently "the victorious" warrior) doesn't strike me as a really good candidate for the nude female images.  Second A-goddess down.

The image of Asherah remains a mystery.  After the discovery of three texts reading "To Yahweh ... and his Asherah" at the 8th century Israelite trading station Kuntillet Arjud in the Sinai desert, and again at Khirbet el-Qom near Hebron (Judah) a veritable Asherah boom, if not craze began to 'reinstate' the divine woman in Judaism.  Alas, current evidence makes it impossible to decide if the Israelite Asherah is a goddess, and perhaps Yahweh's consort, or a cultic symbol in the form of a stylized tree.  This is not an argument that I am going to get into (even if I had the expertise) but would simply warn against any claim to be certain that this or that image shows us Asherah: Asherah objects multiplied like mushrooms after the rain, so beware -- there are many poisonous ones.***.  Her Canaanite counterpart from Ugarit is the last of the A-team, Athirat, the 'Great One', chief goddess of the teeming Ugaritic pantheon.  Athirat is the creator and 'mother of the gods', with 70 sons, perhaps (or perhaps not) fathered by El.  The only problem is that she's a senior goddess and probably not the nubile, young, if not adolescent images seen on the plaques and pendants. If Asherah and Athirat are one and the same, you'd think there would be at least one picture of Asherah with her name on it.  But, no, there isn't.  Which leads us to a conundrum: the visual identification of Asherah can only be made if she is equated with another elusive divinity called Qedeshet.  So, with the A-team eliminated, it is time for the Q-question to step forward. 

A hop, skip, and a jump into 2014

Unfortunately, Christmas is upon us and I have run out of time.  So, I must postpone the Q-question and Kim Benzel's proposed solution to the identity of the nude females on the plaques and pendants until a third post.  With any luck, Part III will appear at the very start of 2014.

So, along with the whole A-team, I wish you all 'Happy Holidays' and hope to see you again on my blog early next year.

L O V E, oh, if this isn't love

(Part III: click here)

*N. Wyatt, Religious Texts from Ugarit,  Sheffield 1998 [KTU 1.23 V 50].

** K. Benzel, 'Ornaments of Interaction: Jewelry in the Late Bronze Age', In (J. Aruz, S.B. Graft, Y. Rakic, eds.) Cultures in Contact from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean in the Second Millennium, MMA, New York (2013) 258-267.

***  R. Kletter, The Judean Pillar-Figurines and the Archaeology of Asherah, Oxford (1996) 77.

Sources: Those used in Part I, as well as Othmar Keel, Christoph Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses and Images of God in Ancient Israel, Continuum, 1998; J. Kien, Reinstating the Divine Woman in Judaism, Universal Publishers, 2000.  Jennifer Hudson If This Isn't Love Lyrics.


Top left: Gold pendant with nude female, Minet el-Beida, c. 1300 BCE. National Museum, Aleppo, M 10450 (via Benzel, note ** above, Fig. 3).

Left 2: Gold pendant with nude goddess, Minet el-Beida, c. 14-13th C BCE, Louvre Museum, AO 14.717 (via Cornelius, The Many Faces of the Goddess, Pl. 5.27). NB: a colour photograph may be viewed on KacMac Syria Guide web page but the quality was not good enough for reproduction.

Right: Agate amygdaloid engraved gem said to be from Mycenae. L. 3.0, W. 1.7 cm. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, CMS VI 315 (Photograph courtesy of ARACHNE). 

Left 3: Gold pendant with nude female, Uluburun shipwreck. Dated by dendrochronology 1318 p/m 2 (references in Cornelius, The Many Faces of the Goddess, Cat. 5.29).  Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology, KW 703 (Photography via Beyond Babylon [Part I] Cat. 213).

Lower Left: Gold pendant with nude female, Minet el-Beida, 1415-1365 BCE.  Louvre Museum, AO 14.714 (via Benzel, note ** above, Fig. 4).

10 December 2013

Sex Play in Ancient Canaan

When is a Sex Goddess Not a Goddess?  

Tell el-Ajjul, Palestine, ca 1600-1500 BCE. H 3.5 cm
The perfumes of seven tamarisks
The odour of coriander and [the purple of] murex.*

That's the scent of an ancient goddess, her own heavenly creation.  What more do you need to set the scene for a little Canaanite hanky-panky?

Glittering gold, that's what.

Perfume and gold ... and the image of a woman (left) reduced to her simplest female essences: face, breasts, navel, and a decidedly hairy pubic triangle.

Gold pendants like this may have been made to hang from a necklace or, more likely, I think, from a girdle tied around a woman's waist.  Early excavators considered that these images represented the Canaanite goddess Astarte but, equally, she could have been any other sexy Canaanite goddess, such as Anat, Asherah, or Quedeshet.  Or something even worse, a promiscuous mortal. 

Whores of Babylon

When nude-female golden pendants were first found, scholars assumed that they were part of some unspeakable 'Canaanite cults of lust'; or had once belonged to sacred prostitutes known to generations of Bible-thumpers as the eternal seductive 'whores of Babylon' (Revelation 17, 18).

The pendants certainly are explicit.  

Tell el-Ajjul, Palestine, 1600-1500 BCE
Yet, if we look up from the startling pubes, we see faces that strongly resemble the Egyptian goddess Hathor -- not a surprising borrowing at this time since Egypt was establishing imperial authority over  the whole Levant.**  Most faces are based on the so-called Hathor masks (below right): triangular-shaped flat frontal faces with the cow ears of Hathor's familiar animal rather than human ears, and which may or may not be framed with a wig ending in 'Hathor locks' with its two characteristic symmetrical curls.

Not just a pretty face

Among her many virtues, Hathor, 'the Golden One' was a goddess of joy, beauty and love, including sexual love.  In Egypt, women prayed to her for help, particularly with the conception and safe delivery of children.

Women would supplicate the Golden One:

For a good child of this house, happiness and a good (virile) husband.

Hathor watched over pregnant women, preventing  miscarriage, protecting them during childbirth, and ensuring the survival of healthy offspring.  Throughout the second millennium BCE female figurines were dedicated to Hathor both in her public temples as well as in simple household shrines. 

But Egyptian goddesses like Hathor were almost invariably pictured fully clothed and mortal Egyptian women, too, were normally modestly garbed.  What happened?

Sensuous Nudity

Two very different traditions collided in Canaan.

Babylonia, ca. 1900-1750 BCE. H. 12 cm

At some time in the 18th to 17th centuries BCE, the Mesopotamian open-mould technology for mass-producing inexpensive clay objects was taken across the Euphrates River and adopted in Syria.  While Mesopotamian craftsmen manufactured many different clay images, both male and female, the nude female (invariably shown in full frontal pose, such as the lady on the left) was undoubtedly the most common.  Syrian craftsmen, in turn, could have easily produced any number of religious figurines in such moulds but, for reasons unknown, they used the new technique exclusively to make nude-female plaques.  The Syrian plaques further emphasized some sexual features -- usually depicting  women with especially prominent navels and genitals -- yet they are also shown with surprisingly small breasts; while almost all are dressed in their jewellery and nothing else.

By the middle of the second millennium BCE, the manufacture of nude females (and only females) moulded in low relief on clay spread throughout the lands of Canaan. 

Tell ed-Duweir (Lachish), Palestine. H. 8.5 cm
Thus, the religious fashions from Syria to the north (nudity and jewellery) and Egypt to the south (Hathor masks and/or Hathor's hair style) came together to produce a new nude-female Canaanite look. This naked woman from Lachish (left) has the typical Hathor hairdo with long locks ending in curls reaching down to her breasts.  She wears armlets and anklets and perhaps a single-strand necklace.  She holds two long-stemmed lotus (?) flowers, another Egyptianizing touch.  We do not know who was responsible for designing such moulds but the finished plaques were apparently manufactured by local potters: this plaque, for example, was found within a potter's workshop.  Presumably, the potter made and distributed nude-goddess plaques along with his household pottery.  

Flowers and Snakes

Beth Shemesh, Palestine. H. 9 cm
A plaque from Beth Shemesh (left) also shows a nude female holding a lotus in each hand.  Flowers of one kind or another are indeed the most common object held by the naked ladies, with sinuous snakes as a second popular attribute.  Unlike the women pictured on gold or silver pendants who, as we shall see, have a variety of attributes as well as wearing occasional caps or headdresses, the nude females on the plaques don't do or present a lot of different things.  

This woman is broad-hipped with a markedly large genital area.  She boasts four bracelets around each wrist and possibly a pair of earrings.  Her hairdo is unusual (neither the standard Hathor coiffure nor simple flowing locks).  She is adorned with an elaborate design of flowers (?) curling like garlands around her shoulders and perhaps behind her head, dropping to the feet and thus almost encircling her body.

Less is more?

Gezer, Israel, c. 1300 BCE. H. 12 cm
Another nude female with curling Hathor locks (left) combines two themes: her long-fingered hands clasp her small breasts  in a display gesture while the lotus flowers make a frame for her body: one lotus pair with upright flowers rises from below her feet reaching under her elbows; a second pair bends over and touches above her head at the top of the plaque.  The lady is pictured with multiple necklaces, bracelets and anklets.

Some nude females appear without any extraneous attributes at all.  For example, she may simply clasp her hands over her abdomen -- sometimes, but not always swollen as if to indicate pregnancy.  Or she cups her breasts in her hands (left and below left) inadvertently drawing attention to their quite moderate size.  Nude females occasionally simply stand empty-handed, with arms and hands hanging down along her sides (below right), neither holding anything nor gesturing.  

Battered Women

Although many plaques look complete, that's because most have been well repaired in modern times: when they were excavated they were usually found in pieces, often broken right across the women's bodies.  Facial features, too, are frequently badly damaged and sometimes almost obliterated.  

Terracotta plaques from Ugarit, N. Syrian coast

Whether intentionally broken before being discarded or not, the plaques were clearly not further treated as holy objects: they were commonly recovered together with all sorts of urban rubbish from within houses, inside storage and craft areas, or even from streets, pools, and cisterns.  They are rarely found in graves and are absent from the major sanctuaries and shrines.  This had led to the view that nude-female plaques were connected with 'private piety' within the home, where they were presumably associated with the women of the house.

But just how did women use the plaques and the associated gold pendants?  Their purpose continues to be disputed.  While few archaeologists today would claim that the figures are of goddesses -- still less 'whores of Babylon' -- the more general idea is that they are either fertility talismans or magical implements of some kind.

'Be Fruitful and Multiply'?

Minet el-Beida (Ugarit), 13th C BCE. H. 9.2 cm
Around the turn of the 20th century, scholars went whole hog for ancient female fertility.  Rites and rituals once associated with astral events or protective magic were now understood as fertility rituals, the purpose of which was procreation -- of human, animal, and/or plant life.  The female body, above all when nude, became the personification of a mysterious power of fertility that was active in the world.  Inevitably, female figurines became identified not merely with the concept of fertility, but were understood to represent the universal 'Earth Mother' or 'Fertility Goddess'.  The only argument was whether there was one 'Great Mother Goddess' or a whole bevy of them.

Fertility certainly played a role in ancient life as it still does, although fitfully, even in a modern world of birth control and tiny nuclear families.  Yet the goddess's fertility function was wildly over-emphasized  by 20th century scholars as was the idea of a 'Mother Goddess'.  There is, for example, no evidence that Yahweh's command to "be fruitful and multiply" extends much beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition.  As far as we know, no Mesopotamian or Syrian god ever commanded his people to multiply.  On the contrary, the gods of the pre-biblical flood myths destroyed mankind not because they had sinned but because the land was overpopulated and they made so much noise that it disturbed and distressed the gods in heaven.

Nakedness does not equal fertility

Western scholars still tend to split the functions of the pendants and plaques into those concerned with an almost numinous sexless conception and childbirth on the one hand, and sexual pleasure on the other. In ancient Mesopotamian culture sexuality and fertility (or maternity) were not inextricably linked;  fertility was not the excuse for sex.  The 'Fertility Goddess' belongs with her kindred 'Earth Goddess' in the dustbin of history.

So, having dusted down some very old furniture, let's keep three things in mind:

1. The figurines, whether made of cheap clay or precious metal, were used in polytheistic religions in which a perfect kaleidoscope of deities acted and interacted in ways as far as might be imagined from religions centred on a single, archetypal 'Mother Goddess', or for that matter 'Father God'. 

2. Figurines of similar appearance may have represented different beings, whether mortal or supernatural; and the same type of figurine might have had more than one function. 

3. While there was a multitude of goddesses, there were even more women than goddesses.

Follow me further, if you will, into the 21st century.  What does the current crop of scholars think about fertility, sex, and the place of sexually-explicit plaques and pendants in the lives of Canaanite women?  Luckily, some new work has just appeared: we'll look into that, consider female personal piety, and see more gold pendants in Part 2 of this post -- coming next week.

Part II: Click here.

* N. Wyatt, Religious Texts from Ugarit, Sheffield, 2006 (KTU 1.7 R15, V35); slightly revised. 

** The Levant is roughly that part of the Middle East bounded on the north by Anatolia (modern Turkey), to the East by Mesopotamia (largely Iraq) and to the west by Egypt.  In the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age (ca. 1500-1000 BCE), the region was broadly known as Canaan.  It includes most of the territory of the modern states of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine.

Sources: P.R.S. Moorey, Idols of the People: Miniature Images of Clay in the Ancient Near East, OUP 2003; I. Cornelius, The Many Faces of the Goddess, AP Fribourg, 2004;  J. Aruz, K. Benzel, J. Evans (eds.) Beyond Babylon, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2009, pp. 347-9;  K. Benzel 'Ornaments of Interactions: Jewelry in the Late Bronze Age',  in (J. Aruz, S.B. Graff, Y. Rakic, eds.) Cultures in Contact, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2013, 258-67; S.L. Budin, Images of Woman and Child from the Bronze Age, CUP 2011; G. Pinch, Votive Offerings to Hathor, Oxford 1993, Ch. 1.3, 2.6.

(in descending order)

1.  Gold pendant "representing the Canaanite goddess 'Astarte' "(repoussé). Late Middle Bronze Age.  BM 130761.  Photo credit: © Trustees of the British Museum .

2. Paul Cézanne, The Eternal Feminine (oil on canvas) ca. 1877.  Photo credit: Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program.

3.Gold pendant with schematic representation of nude female.  Tell el-Ajjul, Jewellery hoard 1299.  Late Middle Bronze Age.  Israel Dept of Antiquities and Museums 35.3842.  Photo credit: via K. Benzel,  Ornaments (source, above) Fig. 1.

4. Faience Hathor masks, miniature columns and sistra from Serabit el-Khadim.  Photograph EES Archive, after G. Pinch, Hathor (source, above) Pl. 29.

5. Ashmolean Museum 1924.499.  Babylonian terracotta mould-made plaque of nude woman standing on a podium, dated ca. 1900-1750 BCE.  Photo credit: Via Moorey, Idols (source above) Pl. 7.

6.  BM 1980,1214.2266, from potter's workshop, Tell ed-Duweir (Lachish), dated 1300-1050 BCE.  Photo credit: © Trustees of the British Museum.

7. UM 61-14-1655, Penn Museum, from Beth Shemesh, Stratum IV.

8.  Ashmolean Museum AN1912.621, 'Qudshu' placque from Gezer, Israel, ca. 1300 BCE.

9.  Two terracotta plaques from Ugarit.  Left: National Museum, Damascus 7064; Right: Louvre AO 18524.  Photo credit: via Benzel, Ornaments (source, above) Fig. 10, 9.

10. Louvre Museum AO 14716.  Embossed gold leaf plaque, 13th C BCE,  Minet el Beida, port of Ugarit, Syria: "A few tombs in Ugarit that have survived intact have given up a rich hoard of jewelry. This gold pendant, representing the nude figure of the great goddess of fertility, was part of a necklace consisting of several pieces of gold leaf and carnelian beads."  Photo credit: © 2004 RMN/Franck Raux.

03 November 2013

How a Prince Became a Princess (Part II)

Part I: Click here

What's Up With Etruscan Gender?

As all the world now knows, the loving couple buried together in the recently discovered elite Etruscan tomb in Tarquinia (620-610 BEC) has had a quick sex change. 

First reports announced that the skeleton resting on the wide stone platform on the left, who was interred with a spear, was a warrior, more precisely a warrior prince.  That's because a spear = male.  Whereas the partially incinerated bones on the narrower platform opposite, with a jewellery box nearby, was declared to be the remains of his wife.  Jewellery = female.  It could hardly be clearer: the archaeologists decided the sex by gendering their grave gifts. 

Osteological analysis of the bones, however, quickly turned their speculations upside down.  The skeleton with the spear turned out to be a female, aged 35-40 when she died, whereas the cremated bones were the remains of a male.*  

Instead of toying with the idea that, in ancient Etruscan society, there was no a priori reason why men couldn't be buried with jewellery and females with a spear, the director of excavations, Alessandro Mandolesi, Professor of Etruscology and Italic Antiquity at the University of Torino, had this to say:

"It's not usual to find the body of a woman with a lance.  After having had the results of the anthropological analysis of the skeleton, and having found the [ashes of] the male, we have a clearer picture of the situation.  The lance, in all probability, was deposited as a symbol of the union between the two deceased." (my translation)

So the newly-identified lady still isn't credited with her own lance.  The spear that hitherto made the man was transmuted into a symbol of marital bliss -- despite the fact that it was placed between her bones and the tomb wall, about as far from her supposed husband as was possible given the size of the tomb. The thought didn't even arise that it might be a symbol of her power and authority rather than the weapon of a warrior. 

As bioarchaeologist Katy Meyers noted on her blog, Bones Don't Lie, "...when the skeleton was male the lance was a sign of royal status, and now that the ‘prince’ is a female the lance is a sign of marriage unity between the two individuals. Isn’t this secondary interpretation just as biased as the first one?" 

Yes indeed, and what we're hearing sotto voce is their desire to keep the spear gendered as male ("it really belongs to him") -- thereby imposing our persistent western ideas of gender and bias on the past.  As anthropologist Prof. Rosemary Joyce (Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives) put it:
If the spear head was associated with the body originally, considered property of that person, then it is inconsistent to change its ownership.

That’s conservation of gender: Spear points are male. So the lady cannot own one.

Phallic spear disappears in a puff of smoke. 

Funerary gifts found on the platform just beyond the feet of the female skeleton logically belong -- exactly like the spear -- with her body. You really shouldn't pick and choose.  So, what have we there?  On the right of the photograph above, you can see the skeleton's feet and then, to the left, two bowls -- one still holding traces of food offerings, the other a large bronze basin probably  once filled with water -- and my red arrow pointing to a small bronze-plated cylindrical box with a lid, known as a pyxis

There are two exciting things about this pyxis (left).

First, it is much older than the burial, perhaps as much as 200 years older, and it was made from 'recycled' bronze parts, possibly taken from a 8th-7th century BCE warrior's shield. 

Second, X-rays (below) show that the box contains five bronze and silver needles as well as a reel-shaped object, perhaps a spindle whorl, and, astonishingly, even a bit of thread.
The evidence spoke for itself: "It's a purely feminine form," said Prof. Mandolesi, "rather like a modern vanity case." Undoubtedly, "[t]hen, the noblewoman devoted herself to making precious embroideries." (my translation)

Alfonsina Russo, Superintendent of Archaeology for Southern Etruria agrees, "This object and its contents identifies the woman as an embroiderer. It is well known the Etruscans were skilled in textile activities. Indeed, several tombs in Tarquinia feature frescoes depicting finely embroidered draperies."

What a relief!  In no time flat, the tomb was rebaptised "The Embroiderer's Tomb".  Whereupon that pestilential spear vanished from Italian media reports like an ill-omened harpy.

This is conservation of gender with knobs on. 

I don't doubt that this noblewoman -- like almost all women everywhere before the modern age -- could sew, weave, and/or embroider.  That's not the question.  Rather, why did she take this pyxis with her to the grave?  To boast of her embroidery skills?  Possibly.  Yet the pyxis was as much as 200 years old when it was placed in the tomb.  Could it be a treasured family heirloom, handed down for generations and not necessarily something she herself ever used?  Perhaps.  Still other scenarios are possible.

Rejigging Gender

I was thinking about the bronze of which the pyxis was made.  If it originally came from an old shield (as the embossing on the lid [left] suggests), why was it preserved in this way?  Etruscan bronze-smiths of the time were the best in the world. Why, then, did they 'recycle' bits of plate instead of melting the scraps to make a shiny new pyxis for the ancestor of this princess?  Did they, did she, know who had once owned that shield and that that was the important thing?  This is only speculation, of course, but if this explanation is even plausible, does that gender-bend the pyxis? 

"It's not usual to find the body of a woman with a lance'  says Prof. Mandolesi, and that is certainly true.  Is this tomb unique?  Or are we looking into a mirror of our own making?  Until recently, sex determination was mostly based on gendering grave goods rather than any scientific bone analysis.  If every corpse buried with weapons was sexed as male, willy-nilly there can be no females in the sample.  Spear = male?  The jury on Etruscan princesses is still out.  But taking the spear out of her hands and embroidering a story with needles in the pyxis will not necessarily bring a true verdict.

* The male is now thought to be aged 20-30 years; perhaps her son? Further laboratory work is meanwhile underway, indeed on both sets of bones. It is also being reported that his is a later burial.  Unless interred with obviously later goods (which have not been pictured), I'm not sure how they could have determined this so quickly.  Stay tuned.

I am grateful to Elvira Bevilacqua whose comment on Part I of this post (20 Oct. 2013) first alerted me to the Embroidery development, and to another, anonymous commenter (22 Oct. 2013) who also urged me to write about it.  My thanks, too, to Rosemary Joyce for her call-out on the underlying gender system, 'Law of the Conservation of Gender', on Ancient Bodies/Ancient Lives (22 October 2013); and to Katy Meyers for her stimulating post, 'The Prince is Actually a Female (and other gender misconceptions)' on her blog, Bones Don't Lie (22 October 2013); and to Ellie Rose Elliott for reminding me of what may have been lost in wrongly identified 'warrior burials' over the last 200 years.

Sources:  Viterbo News 24: E' la tomba della Ricamatrice. Sepolti insieme alla donna anche aghi in bronzo e argento e un rocchetto; and (Alessandra Pinna) Il direttore degli scavi: ''La pisside, un pezzo senza confronti''; CIVONLINE (Cronaca Tarquinia): Trovati aghi in bronzo e argento nella tomba inviolata; Discovery News (Rossella Lorenzi): Entombed Etruscan Was Expert Embroiderer;  and Etruscan Tomb's Contents -- Up Close Photos.


Etruscan Tomb's Contents -- Up Close Photos.  Photo credits:  Top - Rossella Lorenzi; X-ray of pyxis - Colapietro-Tarquini, Istituto di Cristallografia-CNR and Rome's Sapienza University; all others - Archaeological Superintendency for Southern Etruria.

06 October 2013

How a Prince Became a Princess

Quick Sex Change in Etruria

Just last month, Italian archaeologists discovered a remarkable, intact Etruscan burial at Tarquinia in the heartland of Tuscany.  On 21 September, Alessandro Mandolesi, Professor of Etruscology and Italic Antiquity at the University of Torino, and his team removed a perfectly sealed stone slab door to enter the newly discovered rock-cut tomb.

This is what they saw.

The skeleton on the left platform with the spear beside the body (marked by arrow)
Within the burial chamber was the complete skeleton of an individual resting on a stone platform with an iron spear lying alongside the body.  Brooches on the chest indicated that the man (for, presumably, the spear makes the man) had been dressed for his funeral in a cloak fastened by those brooches.  Gold jewellery and engraved sealstones were found, while a still unopened jewellery box on the opposite narrower platform hints at more treasures to come.  On that platform, too, were the incinerated remains of a second person, presumably his wife.

Cleaned up a bit, her pile of ash and burnt bones looked like this:

The tomb and its contents date to ca. 610-600 BCE.  The fact that the burial chamber lies on the very flank of the giant tumulus of the so-called Queen’s Tomb, dated a little earlier to mid-7th century BCE, indicates that it belonged to one of the princes of Tarquinia,  who would have been closely related to the founders of the Queen’s Tomb.*  It was tempting (and who can resist the temptation?) to connect this new-found prince with Tarquinius Priscus, the legendary fifth king of Rome from 616 to 579 BCE.

Imported Corinthian vases confirm late-7th c. BCE date
In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera,  Prof. Mandolesi said that the last time a comparable tomb had been discovered intact was more than 30 years ago, but that it collapsed before it could be excavated. “It’s a unique discovery, as it is extremely rare to find an inviolate Etruscan tomb of an upper-class individual." And he added, "This one is completely intact and may well reveal further surprises."

A rare find indeed.

World media reacted swiftly:

Italian archaeologists hail discovery of Etruscan warrior prince's tomb (Daily Telegraph)

Etruscan Prince's Tomb Found Intact In Italy After 2,600 Years (Huffington Post)

Tomb of Etruscan Prince Hints at Ancient Society's Secrets (Discover Magazine)

Ancient Etruscan Prince Emerges From Tomb (Discovery)

The story had everything: royalty, rarity, and mysterious Etruscans.  It lacks only one thing.  There is no prince. 

Or, at least, it's not his skeleton.

Now you see him, now you don't.

“There are two [stone] platforms," Prof. Mandolesi said, "one bigger and the other narrower. It was probably for a couple, especially if you consider the objects. The point of an iron spear is male...while other objects such as a jewellery box are female."

Not necessarily, my good sir. 


While jewellery boxes are indeed gendered female (although Etruscan men wore jewellery, too), all that means is that there was a woman in the tomb.  Since Etruscan tombs are family tombs, that's no surprise.  What is a surprise, however, is that the skeleton with the lance is female.  Osteological analysis (reported on 26 September) indicates that the body on the bigger platform was that of a woman who was 35 - 40 years old when she died.  And the incinerated corpse on the narrower platform belonged to a male.  In other words, gendering the grave goods got it backwards.

"It's not usual to find the body of a woman with a lance," explained Mandolesi.  "After having had the results of the anthropological analysis of the skeleton, and having found the [ashes of] the male, we have a clearer picture of the situation.  The lance, in all probability, was deposited as a symbol of the union between the two deceased." (my translation and my italics).

So the newly-identified lady still doesn't get credited with her own lance.  The thought doesn't even arise that it might be a symbol of her power and authority rather than the weapon of a warrior.  Downplayed like this, this major revision of the original story dropped like a stone into the media pool without leaving so much as a bubble behind.** 

Why is it so difficult to understand that the ruling class of Etruscan society was made up of both men AND women? 

And that some Etruscan women were tough as old boots?

Their exceptionally emancipated status is perfectly clear from the surviving stories that harp on their scandalous behaviour.  The Greeks and Romans, who wrote everything that has survived, were enemies of the Etruscans and despised them for their way of life.  And they certainly did not like what they saw of Etruscan women's relatively free and easy-going habits. Take Theopompus, for example, a Greek historian of the 4th c. BCE:
Sharing wives is an established Etruscan custom. Etruscan women take particular care of their bodies and exercise often, sometimes along with the men, and sometimes by themselves. It is not a disgrace for them to be seen naked. They do not share their couches [when dining] with their husbands but with the other men who happen to be present, and they propose toasts to anyone they choose. They are expert drinkers and very attractive. 
The Etruscans raise all the children that are born, without knowing who their fathers are. The children live the way their parents live, often attending drinking parties and having sexual relations with all the women. It is no disgrace for them to do anything in the open, or to be seen having it done to them, for they consider it a native custom.
Lust, luxury, nudity, and indiscriminate whoopie-making.  How unlike our dear Greek women, who know their place and stay in the women's quarters.  The famous story of the Rape of Lucretia (told by Livy, writing at the turn of the 1st c. BCE/CE) starts off, too, with those notorious drinking parties.  Livy contrasts the licentious Etruscan women -- whooping it up with young male guests -- with the virtuous Roman matron who spends her evenings with her maidservants spinning wool.
While [the men] were drinking at Sextus Tarquinius' house, where Tarquinius Collatinus was also dining, the conversation happened to turn to their wives. Each one praised his own, and the discussion heated up. Collatinus said there was no need for all the talk as only a few hours were needed to prove beyond a doubt that his wife was the most virtuous. 'We are young and strong. Why don't we get on our horses and make a surprise visit. Then we'll see with our own eyes how our wives behave when we're not around.'  The wine had got them fired up. 

'Let's go!' they cried and flew off towards Rome, which they reached as twilight was falling. There they found the daughters-in-law of the king [= Etruscan princesses] in feasting and luxury with their friends. They continued on ... to check on Lucretia [wife of Collatinus], whom they found, not at dinner like the others, but in the atrium of the house, with only her maidservants, working at her wool by lamplight.

There was no question who won the contest.

Paintings from Tarquinia provide ample evidence of elegant Etruscan ladies reclining with men on banquet couches amid festivities, with musicians, dancers, and youthful naked servants bringing food and drink. In contrast to the male world of the Greeks and the Roman paterfamilias, the Etruscans included the women of the ruling noble families in their public life.  Such mingling of the sexes seemed, in their eyes, to be a serious breach of decorum which could only lead to gross indecency ... and worse; much worse.  

According to Livy, the wives of the Tarquins played a major role in acquiring royal power for their husbands.  Tanaquil, wife of the first Tarquin, could foresee the future and so urged her husband to leave Tarquinia and seek his fortune in Rome: they worked together to get him chosen as king.  Her prophetic ability helped, but she  could also plan and plot with the best of them: later, by covering up the violent death of her husband, pretending he was still alive and issued orders, she bypassed the true heirs and raised her son-in-law Servius Tullius to the throne.  The deeds of his younger daughter, Tullia, in turn, show off Etruscan muliebris audacia ("the daring proper to a woman") in the most dramatic ways possible. Our Lady Macbeth could take lessons from Tullia.  Tullia  murdered her sister and then her own husband in order to marry her brother-in-law, Lucius Tarquinius, whom she pushed into taking over the throne. To accomplish this, she went so far as to drive her chariot over the body of her father, King Servius Tullius, spattering herself with his blood.  This was going a bit far, and eventually led, in 509 BCE, to the overthrow of the monarchy.  Her husband is thus the last king of Rome.  He, his murderous wife, and their sons were sent into exile to the Etruscan city of Caere, not far from Tarquinia, where they continued to make mischief for the new Roman Republic. 

I can well imagine Tanaquil or Tullia being buried with a spear by her side.  Or any other of their female kin, for that matter, who displayed a lively dose of muliebris audacia. 

As inspired by the image of the Etruscan goddess Menarva (Minerva/Athena), perhaps.

Well, that's how the Prince from Tarquinia became a Princess.  And not just another pile of ashes.

Ancient women are so confusing!

Part II of this post continues with What's Up With Etruscan Gender?

* The designation of the largest tomb in Tarquinia as the "Queen's Tomb" is entirely conventional.  No human remains, male or female, have yet been discovered.  The tumulus covering the tomb is 40 meters in diameter, similar to that of another monumental tomb, 200 meters/yards away, the so-called King’s Tomb. Hence, the conceit of King and Queen.  A staircase descends about 7 m (left) into a room built from large limestone blocks. Some of the walls were covered in a  gypsum plaster that has close parallels in Cyprus; the crypt's design resembles the royal tombs of Salamis on Cyprus. A horizontal band of red paint once ran around the walls, a treatment that also appears in the new tomb from Tarquinia.  On recent excavations in the Queen's Tomb, see 'Etruscan Necropolis Yields Fresh Discoveries', 05 August 2010.

** Despite intense searching, the only notice I've come across appeared in Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival 33 on Kristina Killgrove's blog, Powered by Osteons, on 30 September -- which linked to the Italian report in Viterbo News 24, with Prof. Mandolesi's response.  I warmly thank Dr Killgrove for the reference, which certainly got my attention.

Sources.  In addition to those cited in the post, I have made much use of L. Bonfante, 'Daily Life and Afterlife', Ch. VII, in Etruscan Life and Afterlife: A Handbook of Etruscan Studies (Detroit, 1986), 232-254; V. Izzet, 'Etruscan Women: Towards a reappraisal', in (S.L. James, S. Dillon, eds.) A Companion to Women in the Ancient World (Blackwell, 2012), 66-78. I also happily credit two posts from Rosemary Joyce's blog, Ancient Bodies/Ancient Lives for their inspiration: Ancient Women Are Confusing and Powerful Women Existed in Moche Society: Now Move On.


Top: The complete skeleton of an individual resting on a stone bed on the left (

Upper left: Grave goods, including large Greek Corinthian vases and precious ornaments, on the floor of the tomb (

Lower Centre: Le Sarcophage des épouxPainted clay sarcophagus from Caere (Cerveteri), ca. 520-510 BCE.   Photo credit: Louvre Museum, dist. RMN/Phillpe Fuzeau.

Bottom centre:  Banqueting men and women, Tomb of the Triclinium, near Tarquinia, ca. 470 BCE.  As preserved in a watercolour made in 1895 by Gregorio Mariani.

Bottom left: Bronze mirror engraved and inscribed with Menrva (Athena) holding the child Maris Husrnana, from Bolsena, 330-300 BCE. British Museum 1868,0606.1, AN256892. Photo credit: Courtesy of the British Museum.

Footnote: Current excavations in the Queen's Tomb at the Doganacci necropolis, Tarquinia.  Etruscan Necropolis Yields Fresh Discoveries, 05 August 2010.  Photo Credit: © Copyright ANSA

27 September 2013

Wild Land Ahoy!

In the Oostvaardersplassen.

Oostvaardersplassen?  A pithy way of saying, more or less, "The place through which ships sail on the way from Amsterdam to the East Indies".

As ships once did.  When the land was a sea. 

But the Dutch never saw a sea that they didn't want to dehydrate. Especially when it washed the shores of Holland, the most heavily populated part of a very crowded country. So, in the 1930s,the Dutch began to dyke off and dry out four massive areas of land to the east of Amsterdam, at the southerly end of the Zuiderzee.  However, even the best laid plans of Dutch hydro-engineering can go astray.

And inadvertently become the subject of the most amazing film I've seen in years. 


By 1968 three great polders were created, with all of the reclaimed land earmarked for industry, agriculture, and sparkling new towns such as Almere (now pop. 200,000) and Lelystad (76,000).  That wave of development crashed in 1973 thanks to the oil crisis and economic recession.

One large area covering about 56 square km (22 sq mi.), the Oostvaardersplassen (where the arrow points on the map above) -- which had never been fully drained -- was left behind and became home to egrets instead of factories.

Sensing opportunity, a determined group of conservationists set out to "strategize, proselytize and wheedle" the Oostvaardersplassen into being as a nature reserve unlike any other: a tract of re-wild land in the heart of one of the world's most densely populated nations.

Today, the Oostvaardersplassen is the world’s most visible example of rewilding, the idea of reintroducing the megafauna that man wiped out as he spread across the globe.

The New Wilderness

The idea of reintroducing the large fauna that lived there thousands of years ago came from Frans Vera, a government biologist working for the state forestry service, an organization charged with managing the nation's nature reserves. Unfortunately, most of the needed species are now extinct, killed off by humans as they moved in and cultivated European lands.  So Vera stocked the new wilderness with their nearest modern equivalents: Heck cattle, a German attempt to recreate aurochs, the original wild cattle of Europe, and Konik ponies from Poland, said to be descended from tarpans, the last of Europe’s wild horses. He shipped in red deer, which were among Europe’s original inhabitants.

These large grazing animals are kept out in the open all year round without supplemental feeding, and are allowed to behave as wild animals (without, for example, castrating males, or vaccinating or tagging animals).  The ecosystem developing under their influence is thought to resemble those that would have existed on European river banks and deltas before human disturbance -- vast, grassy plains where wild horses, cattle and red deer move in massive herds.

The Real Twitter

Vast numbers of birds flew in, including 29 endangered species:
Marsh harriers flapped and cruised overhead.  Red-headed smews paddled, dipped. A flotilla of coots chelped companionably as they cruised down-dyke. White butterflies settled on scat. The landscape felt riotous with life.
...Overhead, a goshawk—the first wild one I had ever seen—lifted from the grass and glided away, scattering smaller birds as it flew. A sea eagle took flight from a willow, leaving the tree-top shivering, dipping off on its vast wings, its primary feathers stretched out like a swimmer's fingers. 
Sea eagles came here of their own accord five years ago, moving down into the area from Scandinavia. They were charismatic proof of the conservation ethic of the Oostvaardersplassen: increase scale, reduce management inputs, resist species farming, avoid deliverables and goals, and let wild nature take its course as far as possible.*
 The world before humans

EMS FILMS had exclusive access to the Oostvaardersplassen in all seasons, and they worked there for three years. Their new feature film, De Nieuwe Wildernis (The New Wilderness) has just been released. It is magic.  I was lucky enough to attend the première -- with the Metropole Orchestra playing the powerful theme music, live** -- in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on Monday evening!

Open the trailer now. 

Great Nature in a Small Country

For once, there's not too much hyperbole about it: this spectacular film enters into the soul of an extraordinary experiment:
We simply need…wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.  For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures—a part of the geography of hope.  (Wallace Stegner, Wilderness Letter,1960)
The beauty of nature in the Oostvaartsplassen is overwhelming yet the film makes no bones about the struggle of animals left to their own devices.  Nature's 'circle of life' (for better and for worse) is red in tooth and claw, and dazzling, in De Nieuwe Wildernis.  

Yesterday, the film opened in 90 theatres in The Netherlands and Belgium.  Text is minimal and dialogue non-existent so you don't have to wait for translation into your native language before begging or buying (or, if need be, stealing) a DVD of this unforgettable film.

* Robert Macfarlane, 'And there's another continent', writing in The Economist's Intelligent Life magazine, November/December 2012.  He erred, however, in ascribing the death of the trees to 'dehydration' (in The Netherlands, of all places!?!); rather it was a consequence of overgrazing.

** Now released as a single by Don Diablo:

Sources: In addition to the website of De Nieuwe Wildernis, I have used 'Amsterdam's Wild Side' in The Economist, 14 Sept. 2013; Robert Macfarlane, 'And there's another continent', Intelligent Life magazine, November/December 2012; Emma Marris, Conservation Biology: 'Reflecting the Past, Nature 462, 30-32 (2009); Elizabeth Kolbert, 'Recall of the Wild', The New Yorker, 24 December 2012; and Wikipedia's on the Oostvaardersplassen .


Modified Google map via Wolfstad.com (Our Visit to Oosvaarderplassen).

Common Kingfisher (in Dutch, IJsvogel), one of a pair, possibly the first specimens to be spotted in The Netherlands in our lifetime. Photo credit: Wolfstad.com (Our First Dutch Kingfishers): Every few minutes they dove in the water and picked up a small fish. If the fish was still moving the bird would hit it really hard against the branch until it stopped and then swallow it. This was a lot of fun to see, and the tiny birds ate an exceptionally large amount of fish.

Other illustrations from the website of De Nieuwe Wildernis

08 September 2013

The Zenobia Scandal

Will not -- shall not -- every American look with pride -- an honest, noble pride -- on this marble effigy of Zenobia, because it is the ideal, the production, of an American, and that American a woman.*

Zenobia-in-Chains, an over-life size (7 foot, 208 cm) marble statue made by the American artist living and working in Rome, Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908), was one of the most famous — and controversial — objects produced during the golden age of American classical sculpture in the mid-19th century.**  It was long assumed to be lost or destroyed, but after 123 years, it is again on public display at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California. 

In contrast to typical classical sculptures of captive women -- naked, in shackles, and with downcast eyes (as, for example, Hiram Powers' titillating Greek Slave) -- Zenobia is dignified, fully dressed and holding the chains in her hands, as if she has ownership over her captivity.

It was a bold statement for any woman artist of the time to make. While many Neoclassical artists depicted mythological figures, Hosmer was chiefly drawn to female characters whose stories could be viewed as allegories for her strongly held feminist beliefs.  As she said,
Every woman should have the opportunity of cultivating her talents to the fullest extent, for they were not given her for nothing.
She began working on the monumental statue in 1858, taking new studio space to match the statue's size.  That December, she wrote to an American friend:

I wish you could raise your eyes from this paper to see what at this particular moment of writing I can see.  It would be a huge, magnificent room ... with a monstrous lump of clay, which will be ... Zenobia.

Harriet Hosmer ca. 1855
Soon afterwards, the American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne (author of, among other books,  The Scarlet Letter) was in Rome and visited Hosmer in her new studio:
Zenobia stood in the centre of the room, as yet unfinished in the clay, but a very noble and remarkable statue indeed, full of dignity and beauty.... I have seldom or never been more impressed by a piece of modern sculpture.
The visit a year later of Sir Henry Layard -- English explorer, archaeologist, and trustee of the British Musum (an institution today loaded with treasures from Layard's excavations at Nimrud) -- was to bear spectacular fruit in the promotion of her career:  "I want to hear about your Zenobia", Layard wrote to her afterwards.  "Is she yet turned into a pillar of marble, for the admiration of posterity, or does she still stand in her frail mortal clay?"  He continues:
You have probably heard that there is to be a great universal exhibition in England in 1862....  I hope you will be induced to send something, that the women and men of England may know what a young lady of genius, with the estimable qualities of perseverance and determination, can effect. 

And so the statue travelled to the world fair in London to be set alongside the work of John Gibson -- the Welsh sculptor in whose Roman studio she had trained and where she had until recently worked -- in a place of high honour, thanks to Layard's influence.  With characteristic pride and modesty, Hosmer wrote to an American friend and patron (March 1862):
You don't know what a grand place they have assigned the Zenobia in the English exhibition.  A small octagonal temple is to be erected, with niches on four sides, to be lined with Pompeian red.  Into three of these go Mr Gibson's  colored statues, and into the fourth my own unworthy one.  This structure is to be just in the centre of the Exhibition.
That location also put Harriet Hosmer herself at centre stage in the most important international exhibition of the decade.  Her work was well received.  In three weeks, over 15,000 people paid to view the statues in their little temple.  Critics described Zenobia as "a figure of command", "a noble figure of Queenlike dignity" (no little praise when Victoria was on the British throne), and more poetically as "a high, heroic ode". 

Hosmer was on the verge of claiming a very high rank among the sculptors of the day.  

Harriet Hosmer 1857
But what if she hadn't actually made this giant statue? 

What if Zenobia was, in fact, carved by another hand?

On September 1, 1863, The Art Journal published an anonymous letter which complained about the meretricious charms of Zenobia -- said to be by Miss Hosmer but really executed by an Italian workman at Rome. Soon after, the prestigious British fashion and style magazine The Queen repeated this claim in a widely-read article.  


Are these her assistants or take-over artists?
Hosmer with her Italian workmen (1861), posing before her 'Fountain of the Sirens'.
When she produced the towering Zenobia, the work was quickly met with disbelief that a woman created it.   Some critics questioned whether a work of such sublime expression, on such a scale, and requiring such power of hand and arm in the carving could have been done by a woman.  In a way, The Art Journal and The Queen were pushing at an open door.

We won!  The enemy queen is our war trophy.

Harriet Hosmer saw it quite differently:
When [my brother artists in Rome] declared that I did not do my own work, I felt that I must have made some progress in my art; otherwise they would not have been so ready to attribute that work to one of their own sex.


That Roman rumpus is the subject of a new book, The Zenobia Scandal: A Meditation on Male Jealousy by New York artist Patricia Cronin.**  Cronin explores Hosmer's life in Rome leading up to the events as they played out after the Great Exhibition.  In the Zenobia Scandal,  Cronin lets everyone speak in their own voices: "Since all the characters involved, whether it was Henry James or Nathaniel Hawthorne or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, were major figures in the arts, I realized [that] I didn’t need to write this narrative.  I just let them speak in their own words, friends and foes alike.  So I sequenced their quotes to chronicle this event and Hosmer’s clever response that also really resonated with me."

So, early on, we hear Hosmer's lament: 
I had not been long in Rome before I was informed that an artist, with whom I was upon the most friendly terms, had engaged in spreading a report that the work which I claimed as my own was in reality the production of a paid workman.
As Cronin reflects, "While I was trying to figure out how and why Harriet Hosmer got erased from history, I learned ... exactly how people try to wipe you out: destroy your reputation, damage you financially so you just disappear."

Harriet Hosmer, however, was not about to disappear.
I hope and trust I may soon be involved in a law suit,  For seven years it has been whispered about that I do not do my own work but employ a man to do it for me.  This scandal has now reached the point when I am accused of being a hypocrite and a humbug.... 
The appearance of this damaging slander in print finally gave her the ammunition to initiate a libel action against the man responsible for starting the hare running and The Queen which had run with it.

The matter was put into the hands of a London lawyer, with Hosmer claiming damages of 1000 pounds -- a small fortune at the time.  The editor of The Queen quickly folded: if she withdrew her suit, he would print a fulsome apology and pay all costs.  She accepted his offer on the further condition that the grovelling apology also be inserted in The Times of London and the Galignani Messenger, (an English-language newspaper published in Paris, which circulated among the English-speaking community on the Continent -- rather like today's International Herald Tribune).

So Hosmer won, hands down. 

Zenobia was Hosmer's personal statement.  She chose Zenobia as a subject when all the men were choosing sexy suicidal Cleopatra – that’s how they saw women.  But Hosmer, as Patricia Cronin sees it, chose to depict a strong woman ruler at a moment of potential humiliation who, through her own agency persists, perseveres and prospers. This subject choice, as she says, is intentional.

The last word, of course, belongs to Harriet Hosmer:

I honor every woman who has strength enough to step off of the beaten path when she feels that her walk lies in another; strength enough to stand up to be laughed at, if necessary. That is a bitter pill we must all swallow in the beginning....[I]n a few more years it will not be thought strange that women should be preachers and sculptors, and every one who comes after us will have to bear fewer and fewer blows."

"I would love that," says Patricia Cronin. "Nothing would make me happier."

I entirely share her sentiment.

* Anonymous author, The Saturday Evening Gazette, March 26, 1865, Harriet Hosmer Papers, Watertown Public Library, Watertown, MA.

** On Harriet Hosmer and Zenobia-in-Chains, see my blog posts Zenobia Lost and Found (10/07/09), The Huntington Makes Space -- for Zenobia (06/06/09).

*** Published by the book division of Zingmagazine, the SoHo-based art magazine  for contemporary/alternative  art projects.  Cronin will be having a solo museum exhibition in Rome (Italy) at  the Musei Capitolini, Centrale Montemartini Museo, opening October 2013.

The primary source is, of course, Patricia Cronin's The Zenobia Scandal, with most of the quotations in italics coming from that book. In addition to the blog posts listed in note **, sources include Alison Yarrington, "'Made in Italy': Sculpture and the staging of National Identities of the International Exhibition of 1862." In (M. Pfister - R. Hertel, eds.) Performing National Identity: Anglo-Italian Cultural Transactions. Amsterdam-New York (2008) 75-99.


Top: Zenobia-in-Chains, marble, 6 ft 10 in (208 cm).  Photo credit: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Purchased with the Virginia Steele Scott Acquisition fund for American Art.  Object Number: 2007.26.

Upper left: Photograph (salted paper print; photographer unknown) of Harriet Hosmer (ca. 1855).  Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Object number: NPG.84.150.

Next left: Portrait (oil on canvas) of Harriet Hosmer dressed in riding clothes (1857) by Sir William Boxall. Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Object number: NPG.95.6

Centre: Hosmer with her Italian workmen (1861).  Photo credit: The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Below left: Cover of The Zenobia Scandal: A Meditation on Male Jealousy by Patricia Cronin (2013). Publisher zingmagazine.

Below centre: Close-up of legend on the pedestal of ZenobiaHarriet Hosmer carved me in Rome 

Below left: Hosmer on ladder in her Rome studio with commissioned statue of Thomas Hart Benton (ca. 1860-1862); statue erected in St. Louis in 1868.  Photographer:  Mariannecci.  Photo credit: The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Blog Archive