The royal tombs of Ur revealed Mesopotamia's golden splendor

Leonard Woolley’s excavation of Ur yielded an archaeologist’s dream: a series of intact burials from one of the world's most important ancient cities.

Dating from 2600-2300 B.C., a decorative bull's head of gold and lapis lazuli adorns a lyre discovered in the tomb of Queen Puabi in Ur.
Photograph courtesy of Penn Museum

The 1920s marked a golden age in high-profile archaeological discoveries. Beginning with Howard Carter’s landmark 1922 discovery of the tomb of the Egyptian king Tutankhamun, the decade would end with another stunning find: Leonard Woolley’s discovery of intact Mesopotamian royal tombs dating back more than 4,000 years in the ancient city of Ur, located 140 miles southeast of Babylon in modern-day Iraq. The tombs were the work of the ancient culture of Sumer that had flourished at the dawn of civilization.

The discovery of the tombs dominated headlines on both sides of the Atlantic, not only for the quantity and craftsmanship of the objects found but also for the light they shed on the grisly nature of Sumerian burial practices. The finds included exquisitely crafted jewelry and musical instruments, as well as large numbers of bodies: servants and soldiers entombed alongside their dead sovereigns.

Epic exploration

Scholarly and public fascination with the ancient culture of Mesopotamia had been steadily growing since the latter part of the 19th century. It was in December 1872 that an Assyriologist, George Smith, presented a paper to a packed session of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, attended by the British prime minister, William Gladstone. What he unveiled in his lecture caused an international sensation.

Smith had been deciphering a series of clay tablets from the Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh, a text today known as the Epic of Gilgamesh, regarded as the world’s oldest known literary work. In this saga, he came upon an account of a flood that was strikingly similar to that of the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is thought to have been written around 2100 B.C., predating the Hebrew Scriptures. Newspapers were quick to take up the story of Smith’s work, fueling public interest in the Mesopotamian era. Museums and universities in France, Great Britain, Germany, and the United States launched archaeological expeditions to seek the vestiges of the civilizations of Sumer, Assyria, and Babylonia, the regions where the first cities in history developed. Among the sites picked for detailed exploration was Tell al Muqayyar—better known today as Ur.

Ur had already been identified some years earlier, thanks to basic excavations carried out in 1853 by the British diplomat J. E. Taylor. Nearly another 70 years passed before a major project was launched to more fully excavate the ancient city. The Penn Museum and the British Museum jointly organized an expedition and chose veteran Leonard Woolley to supervise the dig.

Having trained at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford as assistant to Arthur Evans—who had made his name excavating the Cretan city of Knossos—one of Woolley’s first major digs was in 1912 at the ancient Hittite site of Carchemish, located in Turkey along the Syrian border. There, he was assisted by Thomas Edward Lawrence— later known as Lawrence of Arabia—until the outbreak of World War I stalled their work.

During hostilities, Woolley was employed by British intelligence in the Middle East when Turkish forces captured and held him prisoner for two years. After the war, he directed a dig in Egypt at Tell el Armana, site of the pharaoh Akhenaten’s capital city. It was there, in 1922, that he received the commission to direct the excavation at Ur.

Clues and mysteries

For the first four seasons at Ur, Woolley concentrated on the area around the ziggurat, or temple tower. This structure was a stepped pyramid, erected during the third dynasty of Ur, around 2000 B.C. Archaeologists have linked this ziggurat to the ruler Ur-Nammu, who built many ziggurats at other Mesopotamian sites.

As the team excavated around the temple, small pieces of gold were surfacing. Even though Woolley realized that tombs full of more riches must be located nearby, he refused to let the expedition descend into a mere treasure hunt. In line with good archaeological practice, he continued systematically studying the different strata at the site in order to establish a definitive time line.

Woolley had another reason to be circumspect: Since the dig had started, artifacts, especially golden ones, were going missing, presumably stolen by members of the team. Before any attempt to unearth the tombs could be made, Woolley needed to be sure their contents would be safe, both from theft and inexperience. Woolley knew his team was still too green to be trusted with the delicate artifacts they might find in these undisturbed sites. Finally, in 1926, Woolley believed he and his staff were ready. The excavation could begin.

Stranger than fiction

By the time the hunt for the tombs began, Woolley had been joined by the young archaeologist Max Mallowan, whose future wife—the bestselling author Agatha Christie—met him on the dig in Ur. Christie often traveled to the Middle East to visit Mallowan, whom she would marry in 1930. In the course of these visits, she got to know Woolley. Her exposure to archaeology influenced her; several of her whodunits take place on and around archaeology sites—most notably her 1936 thriller, Murder in Mesopotamia.

During the digging season of 1926–27, Woolley and Mallowan had uncovered hundreds of tombs from the city’s necropolis. At first only human remains and a few grave goods were unearthed, certainly not the riches they had been anticipating. But then, toward the end of the season, they made a spectacular find. Hidden among some bronze weapons was a magnificent gold dagger with a lapis lazuli handle. Next to it, a gold sack contained a set of musical instruments also made of gold. Never before had objects of such value and artistic quality been found at a Sumerian site.

Cuneiform inscriptions found on some artifacts established that they had unearthed the tomb of one Meskalamdug, who was certainly a rich noble, some believe even a king. The discovery caused a frenzy among the workers, who seemed to dig up valuable new artifacts everywhere they excavated. To Woolley’s alarm, rumors started to circulate of fabulous hidden riches.

In his reports, Woolley recounts how he went immediately to see the region’s tribal chief, Munshid ibn Hubaiyib, to ask for his word that none of the workers would touch the site in Woolley’s absence. The pact seems to have held fast during that dig. In the three seasons that followed, not one of the sites was entered without authorization from Woolley, and none of the magnificent finds were taken.

On finding an underground chamber made of stone, expectations ran high. Woolley suspected it could be the tomb of a royal figure. As they continued to excavate, the team uncovered a tunnel dating to a later time. The tunnel ran almost from surface level down to the ceiling. It was a sign that someone, perhaps thieves, had entered the tomb centuries before. It was a major disappointment to the team, which had hoped to find the grave unmolested.

The queen’s grave

Work continued, and Woolley’s efforts would be rewarded with the discovery of PG800, a pristine burial. The discoveries came fast and furious. Digging in the so-called Death Pit area of the tomb, the archaeologists discovered five bodies, adorned with grave goods, lying together on rush matting. A few yards away, they found ten more bodies. These were women wearing ornaments of gold and precious stones.

These carefully arranged cadavers also held musical instruments. Beside them were the remains of a musician who held a stunning lyre. The sound box of the instrument was incrusted with carnelian, lapis lazuli, and mother-of-pearl. On its wooden frontpiece was mounted the stunning golden head of a bull with eyes and beard of lapis lazuli.

<p>This gold goblets was found in Puabi's tomb's antechamber near a wooden chest that may have contained the queen’s garments. Many other precious objects were discovered here too: amulets shaped like lions’ heads, and goblets made of silver, soapstone, and electrum.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p>

This gold goblets was found in Puabi's tomb's antechamber near a wooden chest that may have contained the queen’s garments. Many other precious objects were discovered here too: amulets shaped like lions’ heads, and goblets made of silver, soapstone, and electrum.


Photograph by British Museum/SCALA, Florence

Also in the tomb were the remains of a wooden carriage decorated with gold, precious stones, and mother-of-pearl, and sculpted heads of lions and bulls. Beside it were the skeletons of two men who had presumably accompanied the vehicle and the two oxen, whose remains lay on the floor nearby.

As the dig progressed, Woolley came upon yet more treasures in the tomb: weapons, tools, numerous vessels of bronze, silver, gold, lapis lazuli, and alabaster—even a gaming table. In the center of the space lay an enormous wooden chest, several yards long, which had probably been used to store garments and other offerings that had long since rotted away.

Inside the burial chamber itself lay the body of a woman on top of a funeral bier. She was covered with amulets and jewelry made of gold and precious stones. Her elaborate headdress was made of 20 gold leaves, lapis lazuli and carnelian beads, as well as a large golden comb. Near the body lay a cylinder seal that bore an inscription from which the archaeologists were able to identify the woman: Queen Puabi (in his notes, Woolley referred to her as Shubad because of a mistranslation). The seal made no mention of her husband, which led some to believe she could have been a queen in her own right. Alongside Puabi lay the bodies of two of her servants. In addition to her treasures and servants, Puabi was interred with her makeup, including a silver box that contained kohl, a black pigment used as eyeliner.

When the archaeologists pulled back the heavy wooden chest inside the tomb, they found a large hole. Amid huge anticipation they climbed through and dropped down into a large chamber below. On excavation, the patterns of burial and ritual in this tomb appeared to be similar to that of the queen’s above.

On the ramp leading into the chamber, they passed the bodies of six soldiers, laid out in two rows. Inside the chamber itself were two carriages, each pulled by three oxen, and beside them the bodies of the carriage drivers. At the back of the chamber the bodies of nine women lay, all richly ornamented, with their heads resting against the wall. In a gallery running parallel to the burial chamber were more women, along with numerous armed soldiers arranged in rows.

Woolley deduced that PG800 and the tomb below it, which he called PG789, housed the bodies of Queen Puabi and her husband, respectively. The man must have died first and been buried in the lower chamber. Then, when his consort Puabi died, it seems that the workers who constructed her tomb robbed the one below, concealing the hole they had made with the heavy chest. The quantity of treasure uncovered in these tombs was so great that when Woolley informed his colleagues of the finds by telegram, he did so in Latin, hoping that his erudite encryption would keep the secret safe.

Gruesome rituals

The archaeologists’ discoveries revealed much about royal Sumerian burial rituals. There could be no doubt that the Sumerians practiced human sacrifice: Twenty-five sacrificed bodies were found in the tomb of Queen Puabi and 75 in the tomb of her husband. Another chamber dubbed the Great Death Pit, tomb PG1237, contained 74 bodies . Many theorize that these people poisoned themselves before burial, but some bodies bear evidence of trauma. By the end of the dig Woolley had enough evidence to describe in some detail the macabre funeral rites of the kings and queens of ancient Ur.

In addition to the 16 royal tombs, Woolley excavated about 600 minor graves, which enabled scholars to date the tombs to as early as 2600– 2300 B.C. In contrast with earlier digs in which irreversible damage was often done to sites on the whim of the director, Woolley’s excavations were meticulous. His discoveries had profound repercussions for the way that ancient Mesopotamia was, and is, regarded. The complexity of the site, presence of royal figures, and evidence of human sacrifice pointed to a complex political and religious culture, giving rise to a passionate debate about life in that remote era.

Manuel Molina Martos an experienced Assyriologist, Molina is a research professor at the Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), Madrid, Spain.

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