Style in the Dawn of Civilization

Graduate student Aubrey Baadsgaard studies the role of fashion in ancient Mesopotamia.
February 28, 2008
The frenzy caused by New York Fashion Week and red-carpet style at the Oscars may give the impression that contemporary society is particularly clothes-obsessed, but the research of Aubrey Baadsgaard, an anthropology doctoral student at Penn, shows that the concept of fashion is as old as human history itself. Baadsgaard is writing her dissertation on how clothing and ornamentation both reflected and helped construct gender and gender roles in ancient Mesopotamia during the Early Dynastic Period (circa 2900 – 2100 B.C.), considered to be one of the ‘cradles of civilization.’

“Early Dynastic Mesopotamia was a time of emerging social ideas about gender identity and its intersection with political and religious authority and local and occupational roles, Baadsgaard says. “This had a profound impact on later and contemporary social forms and standards.”

Baadsgaard is relying on artifacts, artwork and written texts to reconstruct how and why kings and queens of the era dressed as they did. Particularly important to her research are elaborate hair and body ornaments found in “royal graves” in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur. These tombs were discovered between 1926 and 1934 by Sir Leonard Woolley during a famous excavation sponsored by University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the British Museum. Among Woolley’s discoveries were the intact tomb chamber of a queen named Pu-abi and a mass grave called the “Great Death Pit” holding the remains of 74 sacrificial court attendants.

While Baadsgaard has been traveling to institutions around the world to study these artifacts, she has also benefited from the proximity of “world-class collections” housed at the Penn Museum. In one instance, she found the crushed skull of a sacrificial maiden from the “Great Death Pit” wearing elaborate necklaces and head ornaments. Baadsgaard sent the skull to the Radiology Department at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania for a state-of-the-art CAT scan procedure being used in research by archaeologists and physical anthropologists.

“In doing the CT scans, I made some important discoveries related to how the maiden was killed and was treated before death, including the mummification and post-mortem dressing of her corpse,” Baadsgaard explains.

Baadsgaard’s findings thus far highlight the importance of female rulers in Early Dynastic Mesopotamia, a subject on which she says there is relatively little research since most studies focus on male rulers. Baadsgaard found, for example, that Ur’s prominent royal women wore elaborate headdresses that were normally reserved for kings or for divine figures, and they wore clothes associated with goddesses. By wearing ornaments made of materials that could have only been secured through long-distance trade (e.g. gold from Afghanistan, Iran and Anatolia and carnelian from the Indus Valley), royal women may have also been representing their knowledge of foreign lands. In a paper Baadsgaard presented at the 2007 Annual Penn Graduate Student Conference on Women, Gender and Sexuality, she writes that these royal women “embodied ‘high fashion’ and in so doing were able to showcase their knowledge of feminine ideals as linked to notions of power, authority, divinity, and beauty, even as participating in the construction of such ideals through their dress.”

“Dress and fashion were highly imbedded in the social, political and religious institutions of the day,” Baadsgaard says. “Better understanding the dress of female rulers and others in ancient Mesopotamian society is crucial for our understanding of this early civilization as a whole.”