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Roberta Binkley's First Impressions on Seeing Enheduana's disk in the University of Pennsylvania Museum
Dr. Roberta Binkley has written extensively on Enheduana
for various publications, conferences and the web.
Her PhD dissertation, "A Rhetoric of the Sacred Other from Enheduanna to
the present: Composition, Rhetoric, and consciousness" was presented
English Dept. at the University of Arizona in 1997. (See Bibliography Link below.)
The Disk of Enheduanna
Saturday, July 8, 2000
It is a delightful early July Saturday morning on the University of
Pennsylvania campus in downtown Philadelphia as Boyd and I look for a parking
space. We carefully feed the parking meter of the space we finally find with
all the quarters we can pool between us to buy as much time as possible and
then begin to wend our way through the winding streets of the campus looking
for the Museum of Anthropology and Archeology. The sound of percussion
instruments and marching band music seems to be all around. For a moment I
think it is fall and football season, but it turns out to be the Atlantic
Drum and Bugle Corps Competition creating the same excitement and bustle on
the campus as a football weekend. It resonants with my own excitement too,
finally I am about to see the fabled disk of Enheduanna. For years I've
looked at pictures. I knew it would be on display because a telephone call
earlier in the week assured me that Museum Object #CBS 166665 was on exhibit.
The Museum, built sometime around 1887, is one of those old gracious public
buildings with high ceilings and a grandly broad marble staircase. Still,
its three capacious floors are not large enough to allow display of all the
objects collected from 350 research expeditions. These objects number almost
a million and constitute a hoard of historical treasures from all over the
world. Like most people now I'm of two minds about such collections and the
colonial mentality involved in the way they were amassed. Maybe in an age of
images and pervasive electronic communication we'll eventually find ways to
return these objects and simultaneously open up their access.
"Today is free" says one of the two young men hanging around the imposing
entrance to the museum, both dressed not as guards but in the uniform of
college students, t-shirts and jeans. Signs and information point us to the
third floor to the Mespotamian room described in the museum information
brochure as containing the "world's oldest wine jar, statuary, cuneiform
writing, cylinder seals."
Boyd's knee is bothering him again so we climb the stairs slowly. Elevators
were obviously a post-construction frill that the architect of this old
building did not envision at the turn of the century. The building is
largely empty except for the two guards at the top of the staircase passing
time with each other, their voices reverberate through the high ceilings of
the echoing rooms. We worry that they will not let us photograph the
exhibit, but they seem unconcerned by the sight of the camera.
We come across the disk immediately to our right in the first glass case as
we round the corner into the Mespotamian room. Photographs give you near
likenesses of things, but the actuality of an object is always somewhat
different. In the photographs of the disk, the top of Enheduanna's head
appears barely higher than the other figures, but on the restored disk her
dominance of the scene is clear in what Harvard Art Historian Irene Winter
describes as the violation of isocephalyâ*“only one head touches the upper
margin of the frieze to symbolize the dominance of that figure.
Boyd struggles with the light refracting and blurring images through the
glass case. The dark blue background helps to set off the objects in the
case, but the light and glass set up reflections that make photographing more
difficult. Also there is the question of what to photograph, there is such a
richness of images contained in the case.
The thickness of the disk surprises me. As restored it's nearly four inches
thick, and a prepossessing size compared to the other objects in the case
which are mostly small. Artifacts from Mesopotamia are mostly small and
that's why, perhaps, they are still in existence, largely overlooked by
scavengers because of their size and common clay materials. The color of the
disk is a soft creamy beige, I suspect the color of the restoration material
because the restored pieces are white.
Her face has clearly been restored, and her profile is as enigmatic as ever
to me. Who really was she? I know a lot about her, this first known writer
I know her passion, so evident in her hymns to Inanna. She was intimately
acquainted with the goddess and perhaps even a part of her. Scholar William
W. Hallo maintains that she may have later been confused with Inanna. Her
sacred duties as high priestess certainly consumed her and molded her in ways
I as a modern women cannot know so dominated has been my intellect and
imagination--and yes, my very soul--by thousands of years of patriarchal
sacred images. Yet her intellect and creative voice remain so powerful even
after 4300 years that she is creating an epistemological renaissance--she
brings into question all knowledge and particularly the ways we interpret it.
Certainly, she has done this for me. My life has been completely altered by
her work. I struggle with questions of meaning and how meaning is made in my
own professional field and in my own life. She has enriched my vision and my
imagination far beyond the rules and the interpretations of the patriarchy.
As I continue to stare at the disk, gradually I come to notice the
interesting juxtaposition in the placement of objects in the case between
Enheduanna's face as restored and the object just above the disk, the head of
a statue of the Goddess Ningal, consort of Nanna, the mood-god.
beautiful large eyes are outlined by a thin line of black paint and her
pupils set with lapis lazuli.
Museum exhibits are designed by curators who must be the most cautious human
beings on earth in terms of written explanations and descriptions. For
example, the case is titled "City States: Development of Writing." The card
describing the disk of Enheduanna only states:
Disc of Enheduanna, daughter of King Sargon of Akkad. She was High priestess
of Nanna, the mood-god, and High Priestess of Ur. The Inscription identifies
the principal figures in the flounced dress as Enheduanna. She is
participating in a libation ceremony.
Akkadian period, ca. 2334-2154 BC. Joint expedition of the British Museum
and the University Museum, 1935 B1665.
It does not mention that she is the oldest known writer thus far even though
the title of the case is "Development of Writing." In addition, the exhibit
of the disk is set up with are two very interesting juxtapositions. The one
I mentioned above that of Enheduanna's face and the goddess restored in the
same style. As several scholars have mentioned, Enheduanna may have been
identified as the goddess Ningal as well as the daughter of that heavenly
The second interesting juxtaposition on the left below the center of the disk
and in suggestive proximity is a small seated marble figure.
The card reads:
Seated female figure in a flounced dress. The style of the dress shows she
was a person of importance.
Ur II Period ca. 2112-2004 BC
Loaned from the Philadelphia Museum of Art
The delicately carved figure is headless yet seems to sit serenely, her hands
folded in her lap.
The joint expedition of the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania
in 1925-26 found the disk of Enheduanna smashed in the inner giparu of the
temple at Ur. The giparu was the place where she lived after her ordination
according to scholar Joan Westenholz. Perhaps the small seated figure was
also a portrait of Enheduanna--the curator seems to suggest this by the
juxtaposition of images--but like so many artifacts from the ancient world,
heads are broken off, particularly the heads of statues of goddesses and
women. Heads and faces of women, those marks of individuality and personhood
are still, perhaps in more subtle ways, effaced in our own culture just as
they were in the ancient world.
The back of the disk has eleven columns, but only one column, the first,
inscribed with several cuneiform symbols that translated, according to
Winters, identify Enheduanna as the "wife (dam) of Nanna [the Sumerian moon
god] and daughter of Sargon" (192).
Against the dark blue background of the reflecting glass case I see my own
face faceted and vaguely refracting back an expression simultaneously of both
awe and ignorance.
I know so little of the past. I can, like the curator of the objects in that
glass case, only suggest connections and try to read, through my own
conditioned and situated knowledge, the juxtaposition of images.