Ishtar Adorned: Embedded Power in Ancient Mesopotamian Jewelry
Laleh Javaheri-Saatchi in Conversation with Dr. Kim Benzel, Curator in Charge of the Ancient Near Eastern Art Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Today, we’re taking a deep dive into the Power of Jewelry from an ancient perspective, with guest contributor Laleh Javaheri-Saatchi. In a conversation for the podcast Ishtar Diaries (© The Trustees of Columbia University), Laleh discusses the beauty and multi-dimensional meaning of ancient Mesopotamian jewelry customs with Dr. Kim Benzel, Curator in Charge of the Ancient Near Eastern Art Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Before we get into their conversation, let’s learn more about Laleh & Dr. Benzel:
Laleh Javaheri-Saatchi is a graduate student in Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University studying the arts of ancient West Asia and currently completing a Masters thesis. Her area of interest and research is in ancient forms of bodily ornamentation. Her passion for jewelry is rooted in her family history, Laleh comes from a multi-generational family of jewelers and watch dealers.
In her studies, she repeatedly encounters the theme of layered meanings embedded in ancient jewelry. Ancient jewelry pieces, beyond objects of mere external beauty, carry a multitude of enmeshed meanings: in the materials chosen, the colors, shapes and forms, the iconography displayed, as well as in the techniques of making. In this sense the study of ancient jewelry is akin to an investigation into embedded messages hidden beneath the superficial layers. This is a topic that Dr. Kim Benzel, Curator in Charge of the Ancient Near Eastern Art department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art knows very well. A scholar of ancient West Asia, an expert on ancient jewelry and a goldsmith herself, Dr. Benzel has written extensively on the inherent power and meanings embedded in the materials that make the exceptional jewelry pieces of the ancient world.
For a podcast episode produced by Columbia University, Laleh had the opportunity to explore this subject further in conversation with Dr. Benzel. Through an intimate knowledge of materials and techniques, Dr. Benzel shares invaluable information about what it is that made jewelry so meaningful in ancient West Asia.
The following are transcribed excerpts from the interview, which is available to listen in its entirety as a podcast
episode entitled Ishtar Adorned.
LALEH JAVAHERI-SAATCHI: Jewelry in ancient Mesopotamia was so much more than mere bodily decoration. We know from textual sources that materials, namely stones and metals such as lapis lazuli, carnelian, gold, or silver, were valued for their special inherent attributes, providing the wearer with protective and healing qualities. In addition, the manipulation of materials allows for yet another level of meaning. Can you speak to us a bit about the importance of the process of making and of meanings in materials?
DR. KIM BENZEL: In my writings what I focus on is not the making in isolation, it is really the chain of activation that starts with the materials. We know from textual sources that all the materials were very important, not only for outward qualities but for inner properties.
Gold for example is charged, not just because it is beautiful, but it is still listed today as among the noble metals because it is so pure and does not tarnish. In the ancient world gold was also given a special status, it was conceived as related to the divine from the very beginning. Its properties of not tarnishing, immutability, purity and shine were all aspects of Mesopotamian aesthetics that were highly valued and that were also equated with the divine. With gold, you have this material that we as humans from antiquity on have perceived as a pure material. There are all these rituals in ancient Mesopotamia that require human manipulation and intervention, gold does not need that. The material is already charged, and only then you add the craftsman or the jeweler. I would argue that in some of the jewelry that was made, especially the jewelry that is made for cult statues and is intimately associated with the divine, the making or manufacturing aspect is in many cases meant to erase the hand of the maker. It goes to this biblical tradition, and this is where it comes from, of a mortal cannot make things that are associated with the divine. There is anecdotal textual evidence that illustrates aspects of that. With the jewelry of Puabi, from The Royal Cemetery at Ur, which I was able to study up-close, what was really evident there was the process of not using solder, which they did have, but using pieces of gold and repeating a very labor-intensive process of heating and hammering, so as not to cut or solder and keep the gold pieces intact and seamless making it hard to perceive that there was a hand behind it. This exceedingly labor-intensive method was another way of activating the divine. It is this ritualized chain of activation from materials to making that in some way removes the hand of the maker. It is very prescribed and rarely does it vary. It just seems to me that the ritual prescription of how to make something was not only to create beauty, but for the expressed purpose of activating the next step, and in my opinion in Ur to activate those dead bodies to become perhaps divine in death or appear divine in death.Ancient Mesopotamia refers to a region in West Asia that would have occupied modern day Iraq and parts of Iran, Turkey and Syria. The term refers to the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Puabi is the name of a Mesopotamian woman of high status from the 3rd millennium BCE whose rich burial was uncovered at the Royal Cemetery of Ur.
The Royal Cemetery at Ur refers to a group of burials excavated at the site of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur (modern day Tell al-Muqayyar in Iraq), these burials were particularly rich in their contents thus believed to have belonged to the highest echelon of the elite of the time.
LALEH JAVAHERI-SAATCHI: On representations on Mesopotamian cylinder seals of the goddess Ishtar, we see the goddess wearing bracelets, necklaces, or the cross halter she is often seen adorned with. And in the textual sources we see her adorning herself with special stones such as lapis lazuli and carnelian before going into battle or before any great transformative event. Dr. Benzel, we understand why humans need this extra layer of protection, but why do gods?Ishtar is the great Mesopotamian goddess of love and war.
DR. KIM BENZEL: [As mentioned before], the ultimate purpose of this chain of activation from materials to making and then adorning was to do something to the body. In the case of some jewelry produced in ancient Mesopotamia, it was intimately and directly involved with the divine. Much of the jewelry we know from ancient texts was made specifically to adorn cult statues of gods and goddesses, and as such they were the belongings of those gods and goddesses. We do not have many of these cult statues that have survived, presumably because the bodies of the statues were generally made of wood, they were then literally dressed in fine linen and jewelry and cared for like a biological deity. But on that assumption, that jewelry was not just only adorning the divine, it was an essential part of creating that divine image.
DR. KIM BENZEL: In terms of Ishtar, I would say that it is not so much why the gods needed the protection, but it is actually an essential part of being divine for Ishtar. There is no more persuasive argument for that than the very famous text that is titled The Descent of Ishtar. In short, Ishtar is going down to retrieve her lover from the underworld where her sister rules, and on her way down in order to enter the underworld she is required to take off one of her pieces of jewelry at each level as she descends. And when she gets to the bottom all her jewelry is off and it is at this point that we presume she is deactivated, she is no longer in possession of her power and no longer a threat to her sister, the queen of the underworld; and when she returns back up, she gets her jewelry back. And it is all those same pieces of jewelry, the bracelets and the anklets, the head jewelry, and the cross halter.
DR. KIM BENZEL: There are also many other examples from Mesopotamia of rituals [involving jewelry]. There is a text from the site of Mari where it is the jewelry of Ishtar that is displayed and worshipped in its own right. If something has been on a body and has been in contact, sort of this idea of contagion, is it imbued with the same power as the biological deity itself?Mari is an important ancient Mesopotamian city which would have been located in present day Syria.
There are so many ways of manifesting and representing the divine in ancient Mesopotamia. The fact that this jewelry presumably had touched Ishtar, made it a substitute or a surrogate for Ishtar, as powerful and as imbued with this much agency as the goddess herself. There are also from the 3rd millennium BCE to the 1st millennium BCE many curses in burials warning about jewelry being taken off the body. The jewelry is specifically called out. So it is a very charged category of object in the ancient world, much more so than the agency that we assign today to stones or particular metals with healing or protective properties or particular jewelry pieces we are attached to. It’s on a whole other level in the ancient world.
*Copyright: Dr. Kim Benzel, from “Ishtar Adorned”, Ishtar Diaries podcast series. Podcast produced by graduate students at the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University and Columbia Global Centers | Istanbul, and led by Zainab Bahrani, Edith Porada Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Art & Archaeology. © The Trustees of Columbia University
For more on this topic, you can listen to the full conversation from Ishtar Adorned episode of the Ishtar Diaries podcast series here.
You can follow Laleh Javaheri-Saatchi on Instagram @the_body_ornamented, and learn more about Dr. Kim Benzel here.
Thanks to Laleh Javaheri-Saatchi for sharing excerpts of her conversation with Dr. Kim Benzel with us. Interview transcript adapted for print by Laleh Javaheri-Saatchi; adapted from “Ishtar Adorned”, Ishtar Diaries podcast series, produced by graduate students at the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University and Columbia Global Centers
(© The Trustees of Columbia University).
Images provided by Laleh Javaheri-Saatchi, via the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art: www.metmuseum.org.
Feature edited and compiled by Future Heirloom Editor Jackie Andrews.