Museum Researcher Makes
Revealing Discovery

Dr. Naomi F. Miller, archaeobotanist at the Museum, recently exposed some hidden aspects of an ancient artifact.

When asked to identify the gold plant-like ornaments from Lady Puabi's diadem (headdress), she noticed that they had been mounted upside down.

By flipping the ornaments and allowing them to hang as pendants, Miller discovered that these ornaments represented the male and female branches of the date palm. This turnabout upended a long-standing assumption that the ornaments represented ears of grain or a fruiting bush.

How did Dr. Miller know? The key was the double loops on the ends of the ornaments, which proved that these items were in fact pendants.

(Of course, Miller's knowledge about ancient Mesopotamia helped, along with a hunch or two about birds and bees and dates. Read on...)

The Royal Cemetery at Ur, a late 3rd millennium BC site in Iraq (Mesopotamia), was excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s in a joint expedition of the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the British Museum. An assortment of small ornaments of gold, silver, and carnelian were found together with numerous tiny lapis beads near the skeleton of a woman, Puabi, who was clearly a person of great importance.

Detail of Lady Puabi's diadem, incorrectly assembled by Woolley in the 1920s from the assortment of ornaments excavated from the Royal Cemetery at Ur. For years, the identity of these ornaments were a mystery. Were they wheat stalks? Barley? One looks like a small fruiting bush...

The Sex Life of Dates

Male and female flowers of the date palm grow on different trees, and since the male flowers are needed to pollinate the female flowers, groves of palm trees have both male and female trees.

Natural groves have about half male and half female trees, while in cultivated groves, like those of ancient Mesopotamia, many female fruiting trees are pollinated by hand from just a few male trees. An acre of cultivated date trees averages one male palm to a harem of 49 female palms.

Date palms have been pollinated by hand for centuries. See what happens when you "pollinate" the palm branches on the right (use your mouse)... notice any "family resemblances" between the plants and the jewelry?

Miller thought the gold ornaments resembled the male and female branches of the date palm tree:

Flowering branch of the male date palm.
The male blossom is fluffy white and star-shaped. Female blossoms resemble beads on a string.

Fruiting branch of female date palm.
About 7 months after pollination, dates are ready for picking.

photos of date palms courtesy Arboretum at Arizona State University

Old Dates: the Pits?

The date palm was very important in ancient Mesopotamia. Date pits were found in the Royal Cemetery itself, and plant remains from other Mesopotamian sites include date pits as well as wood of the palm. Many texts from this and later periods concern date orchards and related matters; there is even a word, defined in the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary, that refers to an item of jewelry in the form of the flowering branch of the date palm.

In ancient Mesopotamia, the date palm undoubtedly had symbolic significance. Remember that in cultivated date groves the female fruiting trees are pollinated by hand from the male trees. Miller reasons that it is just a short, um, conceptual step from the fertility of the date palm to that of human sexuality. This connection is reinforced: the Mesopotamian goddess Inanna, known for her part in the "sacred marriage" ritual, considered herself "the one who makes the dates be full of abundance."

It is perhaps not surprising that so much jewelry symbolic of fertility and renewal was put in a tomb that is practically an advertisement for the good life in the afterlife. Think about it!

Dr. Miller's research influenced the Museum's decision to deconstruct Puabi's diadem. Its gold ornaments and lapis beads are now thought to be from several different pieces of jewelry.

Miller, Naomi F.
2000 Plant Forms in Jewelry from the Royal Cemetery at Ur. Iraq 62: 149-155.

contact Naomi F. Miller, Near East Section - Research Project Manager
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
headline graphic based on actual postcard © Western Resort Publications & Novelty