The Long History of Women’s Economic Power


Marta Ameri’s research on artifacts found in ancient tombs disrupts notions of gender roles

Associate Professor of Art Marta Ameri seeks to understand ancient societies through the study of seals, small objects that were markers of identity as well as administrative tools.
By Laura MeaderPhotography by Caitlin Penna
June 24, 2022

In an ancient tomb in Iran, an archeologist found a small bone artifact next to a skeleton’s head. Called a “seal,” it would have functioned as both identification and administrative tool. 

Like most of the others discovered in this cemetery, this seal lay next to a female skeleton. In fact, across Iran and Central Asia, 75 percent of them are found in women’s tombs.

As a graduate student, art historian Marta Ameri wondered what this meant. She didn’t accept the pat explanation that men placed seals in women’s tombs out of respect. Following years of research, she now concludes that the prevalence of seals in women’s tombs indicates not only a social status for women but also evidence of their economic power. 

Ameri’s research has upended longstanding, unsubstantiated assumptions about gender roles in third millennium BCE civilizations. At some sites, it was women, not men, who were primarily responsible for the household and local administration of economic systems used to store and distribute goods, Ameri argues. 

Seal and skeleton at site
Grave 132inf at the excavation site Shahr-i Sokhta showing the location of seal MAI 7152 (13) at the wrist of the deceased. (Piperno and Salvatori 1997, fig, 285, 286)

As an associate professor of art, Ameri draws on tools from art history, visual studies, and archeology in her work with seals. Her research focuses primarily on two civilizations from 3000-2000 BCE: the Indus, occupying parts of modern-day Pakistan, and cultures previously living in today’s Iran and Central Asia.

Ameri contributions to the study of seals include several published articles and an edited volume that brings together scholars studying seals in four key regions of the ancient world.

Her interest in archeology began in childhood. Ameri was 5 when her parents immigrated from Milan, Italy, to New York. To ensure their children didn’t lose their native language, her parents spoke Italian at home. The children also continued to read topolino Italiano—Disney comic books popular in Italy. Ameri’s favorites were when Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck went on adventures as archeologists.

Following undergraduate work in archeology at Bryn Mawr, she enrolled at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts in an art history program. The IFA’s strong background in archeology allowed her to pursue her interest in the Indus civilization and begin her research on seals.

Ranging in size from 3 to 5 centimeters, seals can be round, square, or cylindrical and made from various materials, depending on each culture’s preference and resources. 

Indus seals are square, made from steatite, a variety of talc, and include an image with a line of indecipherable text above it. Seals from prehistoric Iran are roundish, crafted from terra cotta or metal, and often inscribed with geometric patterns.

Seals were markers of identity and prestige, Ameri said. As a type of ancient ID card, they were always visible, typically secured with cord around the wrist or waist. As administrative tools, they functioned to close, or seal, objects—a document, a door, a jug of oil. Seal owners would take a piece of soft clay, flatten it against the object to be sealed, and stamp the clay with their seal, leaving a unique mark.

At excavation sites, archeologists discover these remnants of clay. On one side, there’s an impression of a seal. On the other, an impression of the object it sealed, a doorknob or the outline of a document, for example. By matching seal impressions with actual seals found in tombs, Ameri determined how seals were used in everyday life—and by whom.

For this study, she focused on seals found at Shahr-i Sokhta, a Bronze Age urban settlement in eastern Iran first excavated in the 1960s and ’70s. Archeologists had excavated a graveyard there as well as other parts of the city, where they found multiple seal impressions.

Initially, Ameri had access to only some of the findings from Shahr-i Sokhta. But a fortuitous encounter at a conference with the site’s lead excavator allowed her to explain her early conclusions and earn his support. He eventually granted her access to all the material stored in Rome.

“What I was able to do with this material was look at the types of seals found in women’s tombs, or in tombs in general, and then look at the site and see what kinds of seals were traditionally used to seal things, to lock things.

“I was able to say most of the seals that are used for administration at the site are actually the kinds of seals that are found in women’s tombs. And so that allows you to make that connection and say that there’s actually a link between what you find in the tomb and how it’s used in real life,” Ameri explained. “That is really hard to do archaeologically because the material that’s found in tombs is removed from daily life.”

Ameri is currently expanding her study to see if she can make similar connections at other sites. She’s also working on a book that explores the imagery of Indus seals and their role in the culture of the Indus Valley.

Replicas of seals from the Indus civilization, made by M. Nawaz, a potter from Harappa, Pakistan. In her study of Indus seals, Marta Ameri focuses on the imagery and how it may convey meaning. “If you put several images that have the same characters in them together,” Ameri asks, “does that give you elements of a story, a vernacular? Does that help us recreate what might be in a narrative?”

“I think it’s really important to have art historians in the field of archeology,” said Ameri, the only American art historian studying the Indus civilization. “What I bring is a completely different outlook and methodology.”

Ameri’s work is helping to build a holistic understanding of seals and how they were used. “These small remnants,” she said, “can be as important as large-scale sculptures for understanding ancient societies long after they’re buried.”