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

Interpreting Iraqi Artifacts Through Context and Association

Richard L. Zettler, Co-curator of Iraq’s Ancient Past, and Associate Curator-in-Charge of the Near East Section

In the late 1880s a group of prominent Philadelphians, headed by the financier Edward White Clark and University of Pennsylvania Provost Dr. William Pepper, supported the first American archaeological excavations in Turkish Arabia, the Ottoman provinces that would later become Iraq. Those excavations at the site of Nippur, early Mesopotamia’s pre-eminent religious center, near modern Diwaniyah, were largely responsible for Pepper’s decision to found a university museum, to house the finds from the excavations. Since that time Penn Museum has been a leader in archaeological research in the Middle East. In fact, Penn Museum has worked in nearly every country or region in that part of the world and its research has included not only archaeological surveys and excavations, but also ethnographic and ethnoarchaeological studies.

Of all Penn Museum’s research, excavations at Tell el-Muqayyar, ancient Ur, Biblical Ur of the Chaldees, birthplace of Abraham, located near Nasiriyah in southwestern Iraq, attracted the most public attention and interest. The excavations, carried out in the 1920s and 30s, were a joint venture with the British Museum and directed by a then little known British archaeologist named Charles Leonard Woolley. Woolley dug on a scale that, for various reasons, financial and methodological, is really unimaginable today. In 12 seasons of digging, he uncovered monumental architecture, including the stepped temple tower (or ziggurat), and private houses alike. He reached the site’s earliest occupation levels 18 meters below the surface of the ruin mound, where he found a layer of water-laid silt that he linked to the great flood known from The Epic of Gilgamish and Genesis.

But Woolley’s most spectacular and important find was Ur’s Royal Cemetery, an extensive and long-lived burial ground that included among its 2,000 burials, the tombs of kings and queens who ruled the city-state ca. 2500 BCE. These tombs, with their stone built chambers set at the bottom of deep pits, were notable for their wealth, but the tombs were unique in the evidence they provided for the internment of court attendants with Ur’s early kings and queens. Woolley suggested that these royal retainers had gone willingly to their deaths, drinking some soporific drug or poison and composing themselves for service in the Netherworld.

The finds from the Ur excavations, including iconic artifacts from the Royal Cemetery that are standards even in grade-school and high school history texts, were divided between Iraq and the excavators, so today half of the 20,000 registered finds are in the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, a quarter in the British Museum and a quarter here in Penn Museum.

Penn Museum’s collections were initially put on exhibit in the late 1920s, when they arrived in Philadelphia and re-displayed on several occasions, most recently in the early 1980s. They were taken off display in the late 1990s and packaged as a traveling exhibit, Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur. The exhibit was planned for just five venues to raise funds to refurbish the galleries, but when the Museum began major construction projects, necessitating the re-allocation of existing space, Penn Museum decided to extend its run. Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur ended its whirlwind tour at Middlebury College’s Art Museum in 2006. We are pleased to re-open our collections from the Royal Cemetery to the general public starting Ocotober 25. But, Iraq’s Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur’s Royal Cemetery is the first phase of a more extensive and comprehensive exhibit focusing on early Mesopotamia.

The exhibit is something of a change from what Penn Museum had on display in the 1980s and 90s and from our traveling exhibit, which, as the name suggested, was aimed largely at art museums, where objects speak for themselves. Iraq’s Ancient Past attempts to contextualize Ur’s Royal Cemetery in several different ways.

The exhibit initially situates Woolley’s discovery of Ur’s Royal Cemetery in the context of the larger archaeological project of which it was merely one part, if an admittedly important and spectacular part. It looks at how the project got started in the aftermath of World War I as the nation-state of Iraq was being born; life at the site, the people involved and the process of digging Ur; and, Woolley’s interpretation of his discoveries, as well as the publicity surrounding what he uncovered.

The exhibit then puts Ur’s Royal Cemetery in the context of southern Mesopotamia in the mid-3rd millennium BCE, and in this core part of the exhibit visitors encounter the astonishing artifacts from the royal tombs, at the heart of which is jewelry worn by a royal woman, about 40 years of age at the time of her death. One of three cylinder seals suspended from a garment pin identified her as Puabi (a name previously read in Sumerian as Shubad), the queen.

Puabi’s headdress, with its 13 meter of ribbon, frontlet with gold rings and wreaths with poplar and willow leaves and flowered comb, included 2 kg (70.5 oz) of gold; her beaded cloak included 86 strands of beads (3569 mostly carnelian and lapis lazuli), and together with her beaded belt with gold rings, weighed in excess of 3 kg (6 lb 10 oz).

In addition to Puabi’s personal ornaments, visitors will see unique musical instruments, gold vessels, including one in the shape of an ostrich egg, unique musical instruments: a lyre with gold bull’s head and inlay panels decorating the sound box and a silver-covered boat-shaped lyre with a rampant stag on the front of the soundbox.

Visitors will be able to see the iconic statuette that Woolley dubbed ram caught in a thicket, caught in an allusion to the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. The statuette is really a goat standing on its hind legs nibbling the leaves of a tree, the support for a small table. The ram’s rich mix of materials and colors is typical of early Mesopotamian art.

The exhibit’s third section makes Ur’s Royal Cemetery the focus of recent archaeological research and demonstrates that the notes Woolley kept in the field and the objects from Ur’s Royal Tombs are not just dusty artifacts in some curio cabinet museum, but living and breathing materials. They still have lots to tell us about the Royal Cemetery and ancient Mesopotamia, and they will speak if researchers ask the right questions and have appropriate methodologies and technologies at our fingertips.

This is no where more evident than in the case of the heads of two royal attendants, a young woman from PG 1237, a tomb Woolley dubbed the “Great Death Pit” because it contained 74 retainers, but no tomb chamber, and a bodyguard or soldier from PG 789. Woolly consolidated these relatively well-preserved heads in the ground and lifted them with the soil around them, intending them to be museum exhibits. He lifted ten or so such heads; most are in the British Museum, but the Iraq Museum has two, and Penn Museum has two.

The human skeletal remains from Royal Cemetery were poorly preserved and Woolley regrettably didn’t make much of an effort to save the bones; so, these waxed heads are a potentially important source of information on the identities of Ur’s royal attendants and how they died. Woolley, as noted, argued they had drunk poison, but CT-scans of Penn Museum’s two heads, carried out at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, revealed that the probable cause of death was blunt force trauma. Re-examination of the heads also revealed that the bodies were heated and treated with mercury sulfide (cinnebar), presumably to retard putrefication during lengthy funerary ceremonies.

If archaeological artifacts are not just objects, but antiquities capable of speaking, then what has happened to Iraq’s archaeological sites over the last 20 years and the looting of the Iraq Museum in 2003 become all the more tragic. We didn’t lose objects, but potential sources of new information on Iraq’s and humanity’s ancient past. The exhibit briefly explores the wholesale destruction of archaeological sites, why context and association are critical to interpretation of artifacts, and the looting of the Iraq Museum in 2003.

But the exhibit ends on an upbeat with a look at Ur today and the happy return of the ancient site, which had been within the perimeter of a US airbase, to Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage and the Iraqi people in a ceremony this past May.

Related: Iraq’s Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur’s Royal Cemetery

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