It is International Women’s day! To celebrate, we are taking a closer look at just a few of the historical women represented within the Garstang collections.
Living around 5000 years ago, at the very beginnings of written history, Neith-hotep was the first woman in the world to have her name written down (that we currently know of). Neith-hotep, who was active during the Proto-dynastic Period, is generally thought to be the consort of King Narmer and mother of King Hor-Aha – both men have been credited as the first king of a unified Egypt. The history is probably far more complex, but it is clear that Neith-hotep was a member of the ruling family during the period of Egyptian unification.
Here at the Garstang Museum of Archaeology we have been carrying out Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) analysis on clay seals from Neith-hotep’s impressive tomb at Naqada. This photographic technique revealed that Neith-hotep’s name is sometimes written in a serekh, a symbol only used to represent an independent ruler – in other words the king or queen regnant, never a queen consort. Very little is known about the political structures of the proto-kingdoms in Egypt before the unification. Her name in serekh form suggests that Neith-hotep was a ruler of one of these states, and that her union with King Narmer was a major factor in the very creation of ancient Egypt as a nation!
Hatshepsut was the step-mother to Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III, who was only a child when he ascended the throne. While acting as co-regent for her young step-son, Hatshepsut declared herself Pharaoh too. She capitalised on the reputation of her illustrious father (Thutmose I) and even claimed to be the daughter of the god Amun, granting her sovereignty and making her the primary ruler of Egypt.
During her reign she led a colossal building program across Egypt that was equal to anything her male predecessors had achieved. Her spectacular temple at Deir el-Bahri is a testimony to her power, decoration on its walls document her diplomatic policies, which stretched from Cyprus to Nubia, to the mysterious Land of Punt. Egypt prospered under her reign, trade blossomed, temples were restored and peace was maintained across the unified country.
After Hatshepsut’s death, her successors campaigned to remove her from history. Her name was erased from monuments, replaced with names of later (male) Pharaohs, and she was omitted from supposedly complete lists of kings going back to Narmer and the foundation of Egypt itself. Despite all these attempts to blot Hatshepsut out of history, she persisted.
The Candaces of Meroë
Meroë was a capital city of the ancient African Kingdom of Kush (modern-day Sudan). Candace (Kandake, kendake, or kentake) was the title given to powerful female rulers and is sometimes taken to mean “royal woman”. There is evidence that the Candances of Meroë enjoyed power equal to, and sometimes greater than, their male counterparts, with some Candances ruling entirely under their own authority. The earliest recorded Candace is Shanakdakhete (c. 177-155 BC), who is said to have ruled without a king. Bas reliefs of Shanakdakhete (dated circa 170 BC) show her dressed as a warrior, wielding a spear. Candace Amanirenas is one of the best known Kushite queens, famous for leading an army against the Roman Empire in a five-year war (27-22 BC). Here at the Garstang Museum we have a Candance depicted in relief on a sandstone block discovered at the ancient city of Meroë.
Flavia Julia Helena Augusta
Flavia Julia Helena Augusta (also known as St Helen, patron saint of archaeology) was Empress of a world usually associated with masculinity and patriarchy; the Eastern Roman Empire. Born to humble beginnings, not much is known of her early life, although there is some evidence to suggest she was from the province of Bithynia in Asia Minor. She rose to prominence within the Roman court, eventually marrying Constantius who became Emperor in 293 AD. As Helena was considered too low-status to be Empress, Constantius divorced her before he assumed leadership, and Helena was removed from the imperial court. Their marriage did produce one son – the boy who would become Constantine the Great.
When Constantine became Emperor Helena was welcomed back to the imperial court. She was granted the title Augusta in 325, making her Empress and an ‘honoured woman’ within the imperial family. As an ‘honoured woman’ she could issue her own coinage, wear imperial regalia, and even rule her own court. It was around this time, it seems, that she converted to Christianity, travelled extensively, undertaking pilgrimages and (allegedly) finding lost relics associated with her new religion – including fragments of the true cross. Her piety greatly influenced Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and his decision to make Christianity the official religion of the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, changing the religious landscape of the world.
Marie Garstang was the wife and colleague of John Garstang (first professor at the Liverpool Institute of Archaeology and the museum’s namesake). Although we know Marie Garstang worked with her husband in Egypt, Sudan and the Near East, it is hard to determine the extent of Marie’s contributions to her husband’s work. In a time when it was very difficult for women to gain independent academic recognition, her working relationship with John may have been one of mutual intellectual collaboration, interest and respect. She is acknowledged in introductions to John Garstang’s publications and in his 1934 Jericho field report John recognised Marie for her expertise in ceramic conservation.
The museum’s extensive collection of glass plate negatives gives a far greater insight into Marie Garstang’s working life, photographs show her excavating at Meroë, exploring Sundanese pyramids, and pouring over fragments of ancient pottery. Beyond archaeology, Marie served as a nurse with the Voluntary Aid Detachment during the first-world-war. At a time when women were demanding the renegotiation of their place in society, Marie Garstang followed in the footsteps of her ancient predecessors, proving that a skirt won’t slow you down.
(Find more about Marie Garstang, and other women in archaeology, at Trowel Blazers: https://trowelblazers.com/marie-garstang.)
By Gina Criscenzo Laycock, Lauren Darsham, Eleanor de Spretter, Sarah McBride, Juliet Spedding, Ceri Stanford & Julia Thorne.