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Iraq’s Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur’s Royal Cemetery
October 27, 2009, Volume 56, No. 09



Penn Museum’s world-renowned Mesopotamian collection from Ur is the centerpiece of Iraq’s Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur’s Royal Cemetery, a new long-term exhibition exploring Iraq’s ancient cultural heritage.

In 1922—the same year that Howard Carter made headlines with the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt—the Penn Museum and the British Museum embarked upon a joint expedition to the ancient site of Ur in southern Iraq. Led by British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley, this expedition astonished the world by uncovering an extraordinary 4,500-year-old royal cemetery with more than 2,000 burials that detailed a remarkable ancient Mesopotamian civilization at the height of its glory.

Iraq’s Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur’s Royal Cemetery brings many of the details of that famous expedition vividly to life through field notes, photographs and archival documents—and more than 220 extraordinary ancient artifacts unearthed at the excavation. Iraq’s Ancient Past looks to the present and future as well, exploring the ongoing story of scientific inquiry and discovery made possible by those excavations, and the pressing issues around the preservation of Iraq’s cultural heritage today.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is the collection of famous ancient artifacts uncovered and, in some cases, painstakingly conserved, including five objects that art critic and former Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Thomas Hoving has called “the finest, most resplendent and magical works of art in all of America” (artnet.com): the Ram-Caught-in-the-Thicket, the Great Lyre with a gold and lapis lazuli bull’s head, Queen Puabi’s jewelry, an electrum drinking tumbler, and a gold ostrich egg—as well as the Queen’s headdress and other treasures, large and small.

“Ram Caught in a Thicket” (Height: 42.6 cm) of gold, lapis lazuli, copper, shell, red limestone, and bitumen—materials typical of early Mesopotamian composite art. The statuette would have supported a tray and was found in the “Great Death Pit,” a mass burial at the bottom of a pit where the bodies of 73 retainers lay. Ur, ca. 2550 BCE.

“Bull-headed Lyre” (Head Height: 35.6 cm; Plaque Height: 33 cm) from the Woolley-coined “King’s Grave” royal tomb of Private Grave (PG) 789, constructed with gold, silver, lapis lazuli, shell, bitumen and wood, ca 2550 BCE at Ur. The lyre’s panel depicts a hero grasping animals and animals acting like humans—serving at a banquet and playing music typically associated with banquets. The bottom panel shows a scorpion-man and a gazelle with human features. The scorpion-man is a creature associated with the mountains of sunrise and sunset, distant lands of wild animals and demons, a place passed by the dead on their way to the Netherworld.


Iraq’s Ancient Past recounts the formation of the joint Penn Museum/British Museum expedition to Ur, setting up the “expedition house” for the excavation team, and the many excavation challenges that Woolley’s team faced.

Known today as “Tell al Muquayyar,” or “mound of pitch (tar),” the site of Ur, near present-day Nasiriyah, was thought to be “Ur of the Chaldees”—the birthplace of the biblical patriarch Abraham. During his excavations, Woolley hoped to uncover Abraham’s home and other biblical evidence. In 1929, he interpreted a deep layer of river clay he uncovered to be the remains of a “great flood” from the biblical story of Noah. Like so much discovered at Ur, his sensational story made international headlines.

His major discovery, however, was the site of Ur’s royal cemetery. With a crew of hundreds, he began this massive excavation in 1926, eventually uncovering nearly 2,000 burials. Sixteen of these he named “royal tombs” based on their style of construction, evidence of royal attendants who were interred at the same time, and the sheer wealth of the graves’ contents. The three most celebrated tombs were PG789, the looted tomb of a king, PG800, the remarkably preserved tomb of Queen Puabi, and PG1237, which he dubbed “the Great Death Pit” since it contained 74 carefully laid out and richly adorned bodies (all but six female).

The famous excavations attracted the attention and involvement of a number of interesting personalities whom the exhibition also highlights. For example, T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) was instrumental in securing the excavation and Woolley’s participation, while Agatha Christie, who eventually married Woolley’s assistant Max Mallowan, wrote Murder in Mesopotamia to mark her experience on site.

New Discoveries

Since the excavations came to a close in 1934, scholars have continued to study the Penn Museum’s Ur collection, incorporating new evidence from other ancient sites and using improved conservation practices and new scientific techniques to further investigate the material. For example, because almost nothing excavated from the royal tombs could have been created from locally available materials, the exhibition details how scholars are rebuilding the story of 4,500-year-old trade networks across the Near and Middle East. Similarly, conservation and research on individual artifacts has yielded new information about life at Ur—sometimes directly contradicting Woolley. When he found the bodies of dozens of funeral attendants in the Great Death Pit, each with a cup nearby, he proclaimed they had willingly imbibed poison to join their Queen in the afterlife. New evidence from CT scans performed at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania reveal another story.

Queen Puabi
Ostrich Egg- Ur
Queen Puabi’s headdress. (Comb Height: 26 cm; Diameter of Hair Rings: 2.7 cm; Comb Width: 11 cm) The headdress of gold, lapis lazuli, and carnelian includes a frontlet with beads and pendant gold rings, two wreaths of poplar leaves, a wreath of willow leaves and inlaid rosettes, and a string of lapis lazuli beads, discovered on Queen Puabi’s body in her tomb at the Royal Cemetery of Ur, ca 2550 BCE. Vessel in the shape of an ostrich egg (Height: 4.6 cm; Diameter: 13 cm) of gold, lapis lazuli, red limestone, shell, and bitumen, hammered from a single sheet of gold and with geometric mosaics at the top and bottom of the egg. The dazzling array of materials came from trade with neighbors in Afghanistan, Iran, Anatolia, and perhaps Egypt and Nubia. From the Royal Cemetery of Ur, ca 2550 BCE.

Related: Interpreting Iraqi Artifacts Through Context and Association by Richard L. Zettler, Co-curator of Iraq’s Ancient Past, and Associate Curator-in-Charge of the Near East Section


Almanac - October 27, 2009, Volume 56, No. 09