Monday, January 7, 2013

Ur of the Chaldees Part III: Queen Puabi--Royalty, Priestess, or Visitor from the Stars?

Of the sixteen royal graves Sir Charles Leonard Woolley excavated in the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, the most complete belonged to Queen Puabi, a local VIP circa 2,600 BC.  Who was she?  What fabulous treasures accompanied her to the grave?  And why am I now imagining Agent Mulder badgering the long-suffering Agent Scully into examining her remains?  All is (partially) explained below!

A reconstruction of Queen Puabi’s burial headdress resting on a model meant to resemble Sumerian women of her time, assembled by Katharine Woolley and Sir Arthur Keith.  
Photo on display in Gallery 56.

In Ur of the Chaldees, Woolley gives an exciting account of finding two unusually intertwined royal graves holding a man and woman he believed to be husband and wife. His account of excavating these overlapping graves and his description of how they lay in the ground was a bit confusing, so I made this oh-so-sophisticated graphic illustrating a cross-section of the site (as best I understood it) so that I might visualize it better.[i]  Maybe it will help you, too. 

OK, so I’m not winning any graphic design awards.  But it’s not so bad, right?  

Woolley believed the principal occupants of these two related graves were a King A-bar-gi and his wife Queen Puabi.  He proposed that A-bar-gi died first and was buried in the traditional “royal grave” fashion with his stone tomb constructed at the bottom of his ramped death-pit [outlined in black above].  Woolley figured that Puabi wanted to be buried as close to her husband as possible, so when she died sometime later, workers sank her tomb next to her husband’s and placed her death pit--holding her treasures and her attendants—over A-bar-gi’s [Puabi’s burial is outlined above in red].[ii]   

When Woolley found the tombs, A-bar-gi’s had been plundered, but Puabi’s had not.  Woolley speculated that the workers burying Queen Puabi could not resist the treasures they knew to be in A-bar-gi’s tomb and so broke through the floor of Puabi’s death pit into her husband’s tomb to rob it.  Their dastardly deed completed, they placed a large wooden box (found by Woolley positioned over broken ceiling tiles and outlined in blue above) over the hole they made “to hide their sacrilege.”[iii]   

While I haven’t found any modern discussion of Woolley’s dramatic theory of romance and plunder, I have discovered that examination of this exquisitely engraved lapis name cylinder buried with Puabi (and now residing in the British Museum) has caused scholars to reassess some of Woolley’s initial assumptions about the nature of her role. 

Puabi's name cylinder next to a modern impression made from it, displayed in Gallery 56. 

This cylinder has played a crucial role in understanding who Queen Puabi was.  First and most obviously, it told us her name.  Woolley, taking the script for Sumerian, interpreted her name as “Shub-ad,” and that’s what he calls her in Ur of the Chaldees.  Scholars now believe the cylinder should be read as Akkadian, which gives us the name “Puabi.”[iv]   

Furthermore, the absence of any mention of a king on the cylinder suggests that Puabi was a queen in her own right who ruled without a king.  Queens at that time were generally named with reference to their king, so it would be expected that her name cylinder would identify her as something like “Puabi, Wife of A-bar-gi.”  The fact that Puabi’s name appears alone suggests she was the sovereign. [v] (If she and A-bar-gi were married as Woolley believed, does that make him an ancient Sumerian version of Prince Philip?) 

The cylinder also gives Puabi’s title, though there’s apparently some confusion about how it should be translated.  The British Museum website says her title was “nin” and that this word can be translated as “queen” or “lady.”  The Penn Museum says her title was actually “eresh” and that “nin” is a misreading.  Still, the Penn Museum says that “eresh” translates as “queen,” and so it appears we may have what lawyers call a distinction without difference.     

A brief look around the internet, however, reveals that some would translate “nin” as “priestess,” making the nin-versus-eresh question possibly more important, though it’s easy to imagine there might not have been much distinction between queens and priestesses at that time.  As noted above, the British Museum does not translate “nin” as “priestess,” but the Museum’s website still proposes that Puabi may have served as one. 

But, ah Dear Readers, this isn’t even the fun part!  While scholars debate the fine distinctions between “queen,” “lady,” and “priestess,” there are others who identify a far more exciting possibility.  Yes, there are those among us who not only believe that Puabi’s title is properly translated as “goddess” but that this magnificent moniker, this august appellation, is proof that she was, in fact . . . an extraterrestrial!    

Here’s some music to enjoy as you ponder this possibility:

This “theory” isn’t the easiest to wrap one’s head around, but it basically holds that Ur was settled by ancient astronauts and that Puabi was one of them (or possibly a direct descendant?  Like I said, it’s kinda hard to follow).  The Interwebs is full of resources for those who would like to give this idea a little more thought, though my personal favorite is this site where you can read a bit about this extraordinary claim as well as the letter one such believer sent to the British Museum asking to see Puabi’s remains and the (unnecessarily polite) reply he received from a (very generous) curator, Sarah Collins.  [I like how Collins explains that even if he were to have access to the remains, it would be impossible to prove what he’s seeking.  I guess she doesn’t remember that time Agent Scully was magically able to identify a 5th and 6th nucleotide during a routine DNA analysis . . . ] 

But I digress . . . though we may not know exactly who Queen Puabi was or what role she played in Ur society, we do know a few things about her.  We know she died around the age of 40 and stood just under five feet tall.  Assuming she was in fact a queen without a king, we know she probably ruled prior to the First Dynasty around 2,600 BC.[vi]  We also know she was a lady who made a grand entrance at the Afterlife Ball.  As previously noted, Puabi’s was the most complete grave Woolley excavated, and her treasures do not disappoint.  And that’s what we’ll look at next time. 

[i] All information used to construct this graphic comes from descriptions of A-bar-gi’s and Puabi’s tombs in Woolley, Charles Leonard, Ur of the Chaldees (London, 1929) at 46-58.
[ii] Id.
[iii] Id. at 56.
[iv] See the Penn Museum website’s page on Queen Puabi at
[v] Id.
[vi] Id.


Louise M said...

Thank you for this, it was really interesting - I'm off to see Puabi's exhibit this Saturday for a personal project I'm working on.

I had no idea about the extraterrestrial theory, how funny!

B.J. Richards said...

Thanks for stopping by, Louise -- have a great time at the Museum, and good luck with your project!