Tapputi – c. 2000 BCE – Babylonian Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia, Sumer

Tapputi

Tapputi, a perfumer, is not only the first known female chemist, but the first chemist of any gender known to history. Her title, Belatekallium, meant female overseer, which tells us that she worked at the royal palace in Mesopotamia.

The making of perfume or aromata was an important industry in ancient Mesopotamian life. The preparation of the materials was extensive and highly technical.

We know of Tapputi from a cuneiform tablet which bears her name as well as her own recipe for a perfume which describes using oil, flowers, myrrh and calamus to be distilled and filtered with water. This also is the first known reference to a still.

Full text:

If you prepare flowers, oil and calamus as a salve, and you have tested the flowers; you set up… a distillatory. You put good potable water [into a hairu pot]. You heat tabilu and put it in. You put 1 qa haminu, 1 qa iaruttu, 1 qa of good, filtered myhrr into the hairu put. Your standard in this is the water taken and divided. You operate at the end of the day and in the evening. It remains overnight. It becomes steeped.

"Illustration Acorus calamus0" by www.biolib.de. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Illustration_Acorus_calamus0.jpg#/media/File:Illustration_Acorus_calamus0.jpg

“Illustration Acorus calamus” by http://www.biolib.de. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

You filter this solution… with a filter cloth into a hirsu pot at dawn, on the rising of the sun, you clarify from this hirsu pot into another hirsu pot. You discard the residue. You use 3 qa of purified Cyperus in the solution with the aromatics. Discard the inferior material. You put 3 qa myrrh, 2 qa pressed and filtered calamus in the solution with these aromatics… 1 ½ pure gullu… two beakers… small beakers… you filter… kanaktu in a sieve. You decant the oil in the hairu pout… in the solution [you rub that which was with the solution overnight] [you examine] the comminuted material. You remove [its bad part]. You filter this solution which [you clarified into a distillatory] … 3 qa… [you throw]… balsam into this solution in [a hirsu pot]. [you kindle a fire]. When the solution is heated for admixture, [you pour in the oil]. You agitate with a stirrer. [When the oil, solution, and aromatics] continue to dissolve, [you raise] the fire… you cover the distillatory on top. [you cool] with [water]. When the sun rises,[you prepare] a [container for] the oil, solution and aromatics.

You allow the fire under the distillatory to die down. You remove the distilled and sublimed substances from [the trough of the distillatory].

When the sun [rises],[if] they continue to dissolve in one another and [the fire rises], you cover the [top] of the distillatory. You cool. You prepare a flask for the calamus oil. You put a filter cloth over the flask. You remove the dregs and residue left in the distillatory.

This is the preparation of flowers, oil and calamus for [salve] for the king according to the recipe of Tapputi-Belatekallium, the perfumer.


References

  • Early Arabic Pharmacology – Martin Levy
  • Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century – Margaret Alic 

On Wikipedia:

Enheduanna – 2285 – 2250 BCE – City of Ur, Sumer

Mesopotamia, Sumer

This city – may it be sundered by An!

May it be cursed by Enlil!

May its plaintive child not be placated by his mother!

Oh lady, the (harp of) mourning is placed on the ground.

One had verily beached your ship of mourning on a hostile shore.

At the sound of my sacred song they are ready to die.

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These are the fierce and powerful words of the world’s first known author – Enheduanna from the City of Ur, in ancient Sumer. This remarkable woman was at once princess, priestess and poet.

The daughter of Sargon the Great, Enheduanna was given the office of High Priestess of Ur in a political move which would unite Sargon’s territories. She took the name ‘En’, meaning High Priestess, becoming En-hedu-anna – High Priestess, Adornment of An (the Sumerian sky god). She dedicated her life and her work to the goddess Inanna, whom the majority of her hymns refer to.

Not only was Enheduanna writing at the very beginning of literature itself, she is the first author to put her name to her work and to write in the first person. Enheduanna’s work is full of details not only of her life but, vividly, her own personality. When a rival faction expelled her from the City during her brother’s reign, Enheduanna used her poetry to curse her enemies and call upon her patron Inanna for justice:

At your battle-cry, my lady, the foreign lands bow low.

When humanity comes before you in awed silence at the terrifying radiance and tempest, you grasp the most terrible of all the divine powers.

Because of you, the threshold of tears is opened, and people walk along the path of the house of great lamentations.

In the van of battle, all is struck down before you. With your strength, my lady, teeth can crush flint.

You charge forward like a charging storm. You roar with the roaring storm, you continually thunder with Iškur.

You spread exhaustion with the stormwinds, while your own feet remain tireless.

With the lamenting balaĝ drum a lament is struck up.

From the Penn Museum collections

Disk of Enheduanna – From the Penn Museum collections

Enheduanna set the standard in all three of her roles, as not only were her hymns recalled centuries after her death, but each subsequent king’s daughter was awarded the role of High Priestess of Ur, guaranteeing these women a place of political influence. We know that Enheduanna would have approved of this, as she herself advocated the education of women:

‘The true woman who possesses exceeding wisdom, She consults [employs] a tablet of lapis lazuli.

She gives advice to all lands… She measures off the heavens, She places the measuring-cords on the earth.’ 


Notes:

  • Iškur – Sumerian storm god

References:

On Wikipedia:

Puabi – c.2600 BCE – The City of Ur, Sumer

Mesopotamia, Sumer

Puabi of Ur

Between 1922 and 1934, renowned British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley was working on the most important dig of his career. The excavation project took place in southern Iraq, which was once the heart of ancient Mesopotamia and the cradle of civilisation.

Under the blazing heat of the desert, Woolley worked in the ruins of the Sumerian City state of Ur. There he would uncover every archaeologists’ fantasy; a previously untouched tomb, the likes of which had not been seen since the treasures of Tutankhamun.

An artists' impression of a Sumerian woman's beauty regime

An artists’ impression of a Sumerian woman’s beauty regime

The tomb of Puabi had not been disturbed like so many others nearby, and so still contained everything she had been buried with – a fortune.

It was clear that Puabi had been an extremely wealthy woman in life. There were piles of gold jewellery, elaborate gold leaf headdresses, beads of carnelian and lapis lazuli, rings, earrings, golden dinnerwear, a beautiful silver plated lyre, jewelled hairpins, bracelets and pots of cosmetics.

On top of this, Puabi had been buried with no less than fifty-two attendants; ritual sacrifices to serve her in the afterlife, each dressed as elaborately as their mistress.

Today, Puabi’s headdress is an iconic and visceral connection to the lady herself. It would have been supported by a very large, black wool wig, giving us a clear idea of how Puabi looked when she was alive – dressed in the height of Sumerian fashion.

Puabi was approximately forty when she died and a Semitic Akkadian rather than a native Sumerian. Other than these sparse facts, we know very little about who Puabi was. Her cylinder seal tells us that her title was Puabi Nin – which might mean she was either a Priestess or a Queen.

A headdress from the tombs of Ur on display at the British Museum (taken by me)

A headdress from the tombs of Ur on display at the British Museum

What is interesting about Puabi’s seal is that it does not refer to any man. Usually we would expect to find reference to a woman’s father or husband in burials from this time.

The absence of male presence indicates that whoever Puabi was, she had wealth and status in her own right.


Notes

  • A cylinder seal is a small round cylinder, typically about one inch in legnth, engraved with written characters or figurative scenes or both, used to roll an impression onto a surface – usually wet clay. This acted as a signature for high status people.
  • Some sources refer to Puabi as Shub-Ad based on an earlier mistranslation.
  • I am very grateful to Leonard Woolley’s wife, Katherine Woolley, who is responsible for creating the model head of Puabi which served as the inspiration for my embroidered portrait.

References:

The cylinder seal of Puabi at the British Museum

Penn Museum – Dressing Queen Puabi (with video)

Ur of the Chaldees – Sir Leonard Woolley

On Wikipedia:


Other media:

The Take Back Halloween Project has an excellent page on dressing up as Puabi!