Women and Weaving in the Ancient Near East

From earliest times in the Near East, women were the producers of cloth for garments and usage inside the home. In ancient Mesopotamia activities relating to the production of cloth were ideologically linked with women and femininity. Some archaeologists suggest that increasing poverty due to the annexation of privately owned land left many families and women in particular, with no choice but to offer themselves for employment within (or be sent to) these powerful estates. Women were the acceptable labour force for the production of textiles as there was, within Mesopotamia, an ideology that linked women and cloth.

There are few representations of textile workers in the archaeological record of archaic Mesopotamia and the ones we do have are difficult to interpret. Figures are not always clearly depicted, and sometimes the types of activities are not always obvious. Objects such as cylinder seals, sculpture and other art forms all indicate those involved with textile production were women.

Reconstructed house of the 8th century BCE with warp-weighted loom.

Reconstructed house of the 8th century BCE with warp-weighted loom.

A number of 4th millennium cylinder seal impressions from Susa depict women undertaking a number of different tasks, including weaving: for example a woman with long hair tied back seated on a stool with her legs tucked under her, before a warping frame.

4th millennium cylinder seal impression from Susa, possibly showing women weaving

4th millennium cylinder seal impression from Susa, possibly showing women weaving



Vessel from Tell Agrab showing women holding what may be balls of wool and a spindle.

Vessel from Tell Agrab showing women holding what may be balls of wool and a spindle.


Early evidence for spinning includes a figurative scene on a vessel from Tell Agrab dating to the early 3rd millennium. Three figures are shown, and although neither their gestures nor their identity are clear, it is quite possible that they each hold a ball of unspun fibre in their right hand, from the base of which emerges a stick which could be interpreted as a spindle. Shown in silhouette, their body shape is feminine with narrow waists and rather wide hips.






A 2nd millennium mosaic plaque depicting pairs of spinners from Mari indicates that women worked in groups to wind the spun thread onto each others’ hands.


Stele from Susa, 1st millennium BC showing a woman spinning.

Stele from Susa, 1st millennium BC showing a woman spinning.



On a 1st millennium relief from Susa, a noble woman with highly embroidered clothes, an elaborate hairstyle and wearing a number of bracelets spins thread using a high-whorl spindle. She is perched on a stool, one leg tucked under the other, similar to the position shown on the much earlier Susa seal impression.





Stele from Marash, 1st millennium. Woman spinning accompanied by a scribe.

Stele from Marash, 1st millennium. Woman spinning accompanied by a scribe.



From a grave of 8th to 7th century Marash comes an Aramaic relief showing a woman seated on a backed chair, holding up a spindle upon which is wound a length of thread. A smaller figure stands facing her, and is identified as a scribe.







Pictorial evidence from Egypt and the Aegean also strongly indicates that in ancient times spinning and weaving were activities associated with women.

Egyptian women weaving

Egyptian women weaving

A number of Athenian vases depict women spinning, using dropped, low-whorl spindles as well as weaving on warp weighted looms.

Image from Greek vase showing a woman spinning with a low-whorl spindle

Image from Greek vase showing a woman spinning with a low-whorl spindle

The uniqueness of each Tell Ahmar figurines with their personal features of ornamentation, hairstyle and the presence or absence of a child suggests individual manufacture within figurine-making conventions.

In the absence of solid evidence to the contrary, it appears most likely that the figurines, found in an industrial context, belong to the material culture of the people involved in this work. Workers involved with fabric manufacture in the ancient Near East were women.

I believe that the figurines from Iron Age Tell Ahmar represent a class of objects created by female textile workers and that the figurines were used to make a statement about the social structures that characterised their lives.


A very good question…



Leave a Comment

Filed under Textile workers, Women and weaving

Slavery in the Ancient Near East: Weaving Factories

Tablets from Tell Ahmar tell us that workers were bought by Hanni to presumably to labour in his Workshop and likely in his private quarters as well. We don’t know the ethnicity of these workers, unfortunately, though it is my belief that because the objects they used were found amongst the figurines (which are of a local manufacture and style), that it is at least possible that the workers were also local.

In her study of the textile industry of the Ur III period (3rd millennium BCE), Dr Rita Wright concludes that the status of the female weavers employed by temple and state workshops was that of chattel slaves or semi-free workers without land.

sale of a male slave and a building in Shuruppak, Sumerian tablet, circa 2600 BCE

Sale of a male slave and a building in Shuruppak, Sumerian tablet, circa 2600 BCE

These workers are referred to as either geme, who were legally dependent persons forced to work as weavers or millers or sag, which denotes a person who is a slave. Geme are wholly state property and slaves who work in temple or palace workshops should be referred to as ‘dependent workers’, while those in private ownership have the status of ‘chattel slave’. A distinction was made between geme who were employed in agricultural tasks and those involved in domestic chores, including weaving.

As semi-free or enslaved workers, it is very unlikely that they owned any land. Instead they were most likely paid in food rations, which for female workers was among the lowest distributed. Wright also suggests that these women had little family life; they are listed by name only, rather than being described as ‘wife of…’, and their children are termed orphans at their death, further implying that the women were not married.

Recruitment of workers came from two sources: families in poverty who paid their debts by selling kin into slavery; and populations of regions captured in war. Several texts from Mari mention women who are recorded as female prisoners of war taken from a place named Kulmish, captured by Zimri Lim. Among the prisoners were groups of priestesses known as ugbabatum, who were spared the indignity of the textile factory to which most of the women were sent. It is likely that the temple and palace workers were the most marginalised group within Mesopotamian society. Either disenfranchised by their family or alienated from society as deported foreigners, these women had few rights or opportunities.

Assyrian captives, relief sculptures from palace at Nineveh, 668–627 B.C. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Assyrian captives, relief sculptures from palace at Nineveh, 668–627 B.C. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The rise of the temple and palace-based factories in the 3rd millennium in Mesopotamia, effected increasing power of these institutions over the former kin-based industry. The large scale factories were to become the model for 2nd millennium enterprises throughout Greater Mesopotamia. Vast numbers of people, both free officials and semi- or wholly-dependent workers, spent their lives producing the textiles for the internal consumption of these immense households and for the external trade upon which the economy was based.

The factory at Guabba is estimated to have had over six thousand workers, while that of Ur had approximately nine thousand, and that the industrial workshops of the 2nd millennium, such as Assur, Mari and Alalakh continued to employ large workforces. Numbers of workers, if not explicitly stated in the records, may be calculated through examination of ration lists. Workers, often slaves, were given quantities of food such as barley and oil, as well as cloth with which to make their own garments, and were apparently housed within the factory complex. According to documents from Mari, an official named Mukannisum, presiding over gangs of textile workers, was responsible for producing the textiles to clothe one hundred to three hundred palace workers.

The bodies of female slaves were available sexually to their owner; if a man other than her owner has intercourse with a slave, that man was perceived to have committed a crime against the owner rather than against the slave herself. The concept of ‘rape’ was unknown because slaves were not considered legal persons. Children born to slaves were also considered the property of the slave owner.

In the city of Lagash during the Ur III period the number of male children in the workshops was always less than female children, suggesting that boys were purposely excluded from the weaving workshops. Men also did not seem to take part in the actual activities of textile manufacture, though they may have had a dominant, supervisory role. The administration of wool production at temple workshops of the Ur III period involved the employment of male overseers who were provided with the raw materials for processing and were accountable for these and the output of the slave-girls in their teams. The supervisors of gangs of female weavers are sometimes recorded under a term gala which may be used in references to men who were feminine in some way.


Diakonoff, IM. 1976.”Slaves, helots an serfs in early antiquity”, in J. Harmatta and G. Komoroczy (eds) Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft im Alten Vorderasian, Budapest: Academiai Kidao, pp.46-78.

Englund, RK. 1991. “Hard work: where will it get you? Labor Management in Ur III Mesopotamia”, in Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 50, pp.255-280.

Jacobsen, T. 1970. “On the textile industry at Ur under Ibbi-Sin”, in WL Moran (ed), Toward the Image of Tammuz and other Essays on Mesopotamian History and Culture, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Maekawa, K. 1980. “Female weavers and their children in Lagash – pre-Sargonic and Ur III”, in Acta Sumerologica, No.2.

Postgate, N. 1987. “Employer, employee and employment in the Neo-Assyrian Empire”, in MA Powell (ed) Labor in the Ancient Near East, New Haven: American Oriental Society Series 68.

Wright, RP. 1996. “Technology, gender and class; worlds of difference in Ur III Mesopotamia” in RP Wright (ed), Gender and Archaeology, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp.79-110.



Leave a Comment

Filed under Neo-Assyrian Empire, Slavery, Textile workers, Weaving

Discovering Identity: Weavers and Figurine Makers?

As mentioned in previous posts, the context in which artifacts are found is crucial to their interpretation. Of all the sites in the Upper Euphrates Valley where figurines of the 7th century have been found, only Tell Ahmar provides, to date, a stratigraphically secure and well-documented deposit. Unfortunately, the circumstances under which the figurines from Deve Hüyük, Kefrik and Merj Khamis were acquired prevent contextual analysis, while the excavation reports of the Yunus Cemetery and Carchemish mention only briefly the find spots of their figurines.

More recently, excavations in the middle-city of Kar Shalmaneser (ancient Tell Ahmar) have yielded Neo-Assyrian remains. A complex of buildings have been revealed, labelled C1 and C2, the former being slightly earlier in date. There is no evidence of occupation below the Neo-Assyrian levels. Therefore, we have an undisturbed period of time, around 50 years, in which to investigate the material culture, including the figurines.


Area C, Tell Ahmar. Building C1 is on the right, C2 on the left.

Area C, Tell Ahmar. Building C1 is on the right, C2 on the left.


Tablets found in Building C1 Room XII mention the name Hanni. The dates of the Assyrian kings recorded in the texts range from 683 to 648 BC. The tablets appear to be a business archive of Hanni, suggesting that he is the owner of these buildings. They also suggest he was a person of some wealth. The final abandonment of the building probably occurred in the first half of the 6th century. I refer to building C1 as Hanni’s Workshop.

Believed to have been initially constructed as a residence, Hanni’s Workshop appears to have become an industrial site where textile manufacture and craft production took place. Large numbers of loom weights and spindle whorls found in these rooms suggest that large-scale weaving may have taken place. Residential and reception suites were then constructed to the north.

The production of textiles seems to have centred around two parts of the building. The first is within the rooms to the south of the main courtyard, namely Rooms X, XI and XV. The second centre is located in Room I of Hanni’s Workshop, and Rooms I and II of the second building, which seem to be incorporated into a single architectural unit.

Clay loom weight.

Clay loom weight.


Around sixty loom weights were found in Room X. There are four basic shapes: cylindrical (sometimes slightly ovoid), ‘hourglass’ (or ‘diabolo’), thick, discoid with a central perforation (‘dough nut’ shaped) and bell-shaped. The first form was most frequent. It is possible that at least some of the discoid shaped weights were used with spindles, but only those of very even shape and well-centred perforation would be appropriate.



Numbers of bone spatulae may have been used in the textile process as well. Other types of objects included the occasional bead or perforated shell, as well as bronze fibulae fragments. Also found were a number of basalt pestles and basins, possibly used in cooking.

Spindle whorl ancientfigurinesSpindle whorl ancientfigurines

Clay spindle whorl. Also related to fabric manufacture were the two spindle whorls of stone and unbaked clay, while reused sherds and a clay wheel may also have functioned as spindle whorls.

To the north, Room I of Hanni’s workshop contained over one hundred and fifty loom weights and several spatulae, while five stone spindle whorls, one with decoration on the base comprising five concentric circles and another disk-shaped, attest to spinning as well as weaving. In addition, a considerable number of basalt objects, including grinders, pestles, bowls and platters were found.

Rooms I and II of Hanni’s workshop each yielded five spindle whorls, all except one of which were made of polished steatite and abut 4cm high. Basically hemispherical in shape with very smooth sides and a rough base, two were decorated on the base, one with sixteen circles each with a central ‘dot’ (shallow perforation) and another with five plain circles. A conical stone spindle whorl was found in Room I, Building C2, while an unusual whorl of ivory, broken but fortunately reconstructable, was discovered in Room I, Building C1, although there is no evidence for ivory carving in this room.

Room XI contained further evidence of weaving activities. A mass of over seventy loom weights, several spatulae and items that might conceivably have functioned as spindle whorls, such as stone and bronze disks, were recovered. The object assemblage also included, as in Room X, beads, pins and fibulae. Evidence for textile production was also recovered from Room XV, where over one hundred and fifty loom weights were recovered. A spindle whorl and spatulae were also found, as well as the ubiquitous beads, pins and fibulae. A large amount of burnt wood may represent the remains of a loom lay across the room.

The standing figurines and most of the horse and riders are closely associated with areas where there is substantial evidence for textile production.

Who lived and worked in Hanni’s household?

Did they make the figurines?



Leave a Comment

Filed under Ancient Figurines from Ancient Near East, Context, Cuneiform tablets, Figurine Interpretation, Weaving, Weaving Equipment, Women and weaving

Tentative Steps Back To Archaeology…

Before I knew it, I’d hit send.

I gulped. I’d just sent an application to present a poster at the American Schools of Oriental Research 2014 Meeting to be held in San Diego next month.

“So what?” I hear you ask. “It’s only a poster. It’s not as though you have to stand up in front of all those incredibly knowledgeable people and speak’’.

I know, that’s not you speaking. It’s the conflicting voices inside my own head.

I’m awash with emotions. Thrilled that my application to show a poster was accepted; terrified that I’m going to be knock-kneed and tongue-tied trying to discuss it. Denigrating my contribution to the conference (“only a poster”) as if that was some kind of poor cousin to a spoken conference presentation. I’ve been quite good at that in the past, putting myself down.

I also feel a bit of an imposter, a fraud almost, which is ridiculous as I have a first class doctorate degree from the University of Melbourne, but…I haven’t done any archaeological fieldwork nor in-depth research for 15 years and I’ve published just one article which is now completely out-of-date and a bit of an embarrassment.

Who am I to think that anyone would be interested in my little poster?

Right. That’s enough wallowing! Pull yourself together. There’s work to be done before I get on that plane including sending my rewritten thesis to the typesetter. This is the academic version of the thesis with all the bits that non-archaeologists might find dull, such as footnotes, measurements of each and every figurine, details of context and lots and lots of passive sentences. I do believe that archaeologists should share their findings with the general public and have published a lay-persons version and another for teenagers both of which will be available on Amazon in a matter of weeks.

The Iron Age Figurines From Tell Ahmar Victoria Clayton


I am terribly excited about the conference and about visiting America for the first time. I’m calling it my “Great Archaeological Museums of America” tour. On the itinerary is the Oriental Institute in Chicago, the Kelsey Museum in Ann Arbor, the Semitic Museum in Boston and the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia as well as several in New York. Apologies to any equally Great museums which didn’t make it onto the list this time round.

Feeling very ignorant but fascinated by American history and again, as with the museums, I’m sure there are hundreds of historical sites significant for so many reasons, but I’ve had to narrow it down to the earliest days of the colony at Williamsburg, the period of slavery with antebellum mansions in the south and the struggle for freedom with the Underground Railway. Apparently there are many extant ‘stations’ on the Freedom Trail to visit in New York and Boston.

When I first started this blog it was intended to be an account of my journey back into archaeology and this is very big step on that road. I’m thrilled to be going to the conference for three big days of Near Eastern archaeology and to be part of the proceedings is just the icing on the cake!

Leave a Comment

Filed under ASOR Meeting 2014, Colonisation, Slavery, Trip to USA

Breasts = good things, aren’t they?

“Americans are….?”

I looked expectantly around the room the sea of faces equally expectantly gazing back at me. Such is the nature of being a student-centred teacher in a classroom of teacher-centred students.

There was a patient silence. They knew I’d give them the answer if they waited long enough.



“Americans are massive”.

Sniggers erupted around the speaker, a lean boy in the back row.

Stereotypes. In my cross-cultural communication class we were thinking about how cultural stereotyping affects international business.

I thought about my American colleagues at the Xian Jiaotong University City College (Xian, China) where I was teaching English.

Alice was very overweight and when she returned to the US the voluminous skirts she lefte behind made good puppy-beds for the strays I would adopt. Susannah, on the other hand, was lean. Alice was from the south, Susannah from the north. I’ve never been to America. I wondered if place of origin had something to do with diet. Climate or food traditions? Generosity of portion sizes?

Stereotypes again.

Archaeology is full of them and figurines seem particularly susceptible.

Take breasts, for example. Many figurines have them but they by no means are modelled in the same way. Some breasts are indeed massive, others tiny points. Breasts have a number of uses and meanings. Massive breasts may mean discomfort and inconvenience for the bearer, dollar signs for the profiteer. Swollen breasts mean dinner for a newborn, interrupted nights for the new mother.


Figurine of sitting women. Limestone. Asia Minor, neolithic, 6th millenium BC. NG Prague, Kinský Palace (source: By Zde (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Just resting!
Figurine of sitting woman. Limestone. Asia Minor, neolithic, 6th millenium BC. NG Prague, Kinský Palace (source: By Zde (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

What do breasts on figurines mean for archaeologists?

Figurines with breasts = fertility = abundance and plenty in a parsimonious world = successful human pregnancy = bringing home the bacon = all manner of good and lovely things = dispersal of nasty and unwanted things.

Who says?


I've got bosoms! Or maybe just a nasty stomach ache?   Brown marble, Akrotiri, the end of EC I period, 2800-2700 BC. Prehistoric Museum of Thira N 26. (source: By Zde (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve got bosoms! Or maybe just a nasty stomach ache?
Brown marble, Akrotiri, the end of EC I period, 2800-2700 BC. Prehistoric Museum of Thira N 26. (source: By Zde (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

I am not suggesting breasts are not good things; I am questioning how we know that ancient people believed that breasts would be an appropriate symbol for good things. It seems to make common sense to us, that a part of a woman’s body which nurtures babies should be a symbol for good things in life. But while not everyone today would agree that breasts are the only appropriate symbol of good things (think about it, breast feeding in public was until recently not the ‘done thing’ and in many places is still frowned upon), others might think that there are more suitable symbols such as bunches of flowers, or nicely wrapped gifts, or a warming bowl of soup, or a good book, or a dog resting his chin on your knee.

It’s personal, isn’t it?

Perhaps figurines have nothing to do with stereotypical theories of bringing good things and averting bad things. Maybe figurines have something to do with personal choice.

So how do archaeologists find personal choice in the material record when the aim is reconstructing a historical context or determining whether excavated bones represent a domesticated animal? In other words, does the culture-history or the processualist schools of archaeology allow for a study of more than society-as-a-whole?

If archaeologists only study society-as-a-whole, don’t we fall into trap of stereotyping the people of the ancient past?

What do you think?


Leave a Comment

Filed under Archaeological interpretation, Archaeological theory, Breasts, Culture-history school, Fertility Cult Theory, Figurine Interpretation, Processualist Archaeology, Theory