UofT researcher honoured for discovering ancient queen through books alone

TORONTO — The University of Toronto is honouring one of its researchers who discovered a long-lost Mesopotamian queen using books alone.

Tracy L. Spurrier, a PhD candidate in the department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, found Queen Hama, a young royal, by poring over books at the school's library.

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"There's often pressure that we need to be in the field and digging to make new discoveries and collect data, but we're all learning that's not necessarily true," she said.

Spurrier, 37, is one of three winners of the inaugural University of Toronto Libraries' Graduate Student Exhibition Award and will have her work on display at Robarts Library until the end of February.

Queen Hama's story began some 3,000 years ago in the lost city of Assyria and is closely tied to another royal, Queen Mullissu-mukannishat-Ninua, who placed a curse on the tomb she'd be buried in.

"Anyone later who removes my throne from before the shades of the dead, may his spirit receive no bread!" the inscription reads.

The tombs were lost until the late 1980s when researchers excavated a palace in Nimrud, near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Inside they found the bones of the queen who laid the curse along with those of several other unidentified queens.

The archeologists also discovered a treasure trove of gold, Spurrier said.

"It's amazing, it rivals King Tut in terms of detail and quality," she said.

But soon after the discovery, the Persian Gulf War broke out.

"Few papers were being published, so the academic community was not getting information," Spurrier said. "War takes precedence."

She said documentation of the discovery wasn't great beyond the one queen and the information that was published wasn't widely spread.

Spurrier, who is American, completed her undergraduate studies at Boston University in archeology studies then moved north to do her master's degree. In 2010, she enrolled in the doctoral program at the school to study archeology of Mesopotamia — ancient Iraq.

In 2011, she began reading up on the research by Donny George, one of Iraq's most famous archeologists, who was coming to Toronto to give a talk. He played an instrumental role in recovering thousands of exhibits that were looted from the Iraqi National Museum in 2003 after the U.S. invasion.

George died of a heart attack and never made it to that talk. Yet his work inspired Spurrier.

During her research she came across a rarely studied book, "Nimrud: A City of Golden Treasures," by Amer Suleiman and Muzahim Hussein, who discovered the tomb in 1989. The book, published in 1999, was brought over from Baghdad by one of the university's professors and placed in the department's rare book archive.

The text contained a wealth of information about the Nimrud tombs, said Spurrier, who also started taking osteology and paleopathology classes.

She came across a paleopathology report about the bones found in the tombs, written in German, and after studying that document and others, she found inconsistencies.

"I looked at the skeleton report and the history and then I realized there's a woman in this one coffin," she said. On the woman's head was a gold crown.

The reports also said there was a stamp-seal pendant near the woman's neck and Hussein's book contained photographs of it.

"It's gold and gorgeous," Spurrier said. "It has a woman standing in front of a goddess, around the rim it has her name: Queen Hama."

She tried to look for information about Queen Hama.

"But it's a patriarchal society and most women aren't mentioned," she said. "Many texts say there's a queen, but not a name."

She published her findings in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies in 2017.

Queen Hama's bones were last seen in the 1990s stuffed in a bag at the museum in Baghdad, said Spurrier, but she hasn't been able to get confirmation from the staff that they're still there. The gold and the queen's crown, which were photographed by the U.S. army after the 2003 invasion, should also be there, she said.

Spurrier had hoped to one day visit the tombs, but Islamic State militants blew them up in 2015.

"I thought a few things that you can't print, but screw ISIS, we can still find a lot of stuff," she said.

"We live for rubble, we can put things back together."

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