By Tyler brown

staff reporter

On the third floor of Sterling, an unassuming door is kept tightly locked. Behind it lies the Yale Babylonian Collection, a trove of 37,000 documents which are over 5,000 years old.

Last Saturday, the Yale Babylonian Collection hosted “Women at the Dawn of History,” a symposium which shed new light on the lives of women in ancient Mesopotamia. Esteemed speakers discussed legal documents, personal letters and accounts of daily life to gain insight into the nuances of women’s lives. The symposium featured talks from scholars at Yale, Columbia University and St. John’s University. The scholars sought to explore female roles as powerful figures like authors, scholars and business leaders, contrary to their common representation in which they are confined to domestic space.

“The interest in Babylonian women goes back to antiquity, with the Greeks,” said Dr. Eckart Frahm, one of the professors who organized the symposium. He explained that the women of Babylon are interesting because they were unusually prominent and powerful for their time. Frahm said the “masculine” Greek societies would often contrast themselves to the “feminine East.”

Yet Babylonian gender relations were not entirely equitable. Frahm explained that scribes were conventionally male, but Babylonian women headed large institutions and organized the exchange of cattle. “Some women had a significant amount of power,” Frahm said.

According to Frahm, although the symposium focused primarily on the Mesopotamian upper-class, everyday writing was often most informative.

“Most of the women who appear in texts from the Babylonian collection and in texts in general are not elite women,” Frahm said. “There are women who worked in textiles or ground flour, and we have these records that illuminate a whole spectrum of life.”

According to Dr. Klaus Wagensonner, a postdoctoral associate, the medium of the Babylonian collection — clay tablets impressed with cuneiform script — is also remarkably important to understanding the history of women. Wagensonner explained that cuneiform was complex and took years to learn. Although scribal education was often considered elite, there were still women who accessed it.

Agnete Lassen, an associate curator of the collection, explained that peripheral features of the documents provide insight into women’s loves, as well. Many documents are impressed with unique seals that served as signatures and symbols of power.

“The iconography of seals belonging to women, often identical to those belonging to men, demonstrates the potency of women as equal members of society in certain settings,” Lassen wrote in an introductory article for the conference.

Wagensonner explained that the Babylonian collection has modern relevance, and the symposium reflects a shift in historical analysis. Frahm concurred, acknowledging that “It’s important to bring these voices back to life.”

The Yale Babylonian Collection was founded in 1911 by Albert T. Clay.

Tyler Brown | tyler.james.brown@yale.edu