A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The Royal Tombs of Ur, an exhibition now traveling throughout the United States, is a trip back in time to the exuberant days of the early twentieth century when scientific archaeology was beginning to capture widespread popular interest. Following closely on the sensational opening of King Tut's tomb were C. Leonard Woolley's discoveries at Ur from 1922 to 1934. This fabled Mesopotamian city, too, proved to be rich in gold and other luxurious artifacts, and further captured the public imagination with its biblical allusions as the traditional home of the patriarch Abraham and its vivid evidence for mass "human sacrifice."
The 150 objects in the show (until April 23 at the Cleveland Museum of Art, then on to the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York) are all from the permanent collection of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, which, with the British Museum, sponsored Woolley's excavations. The finds were divided among the two museums and the infant country of Iraq; the latter was able to retain a portion of its cultural heritage thanks to an antiquities law that had just been written by Gertrude Bell, a noted British traveler, archaeologist, and advisor to King Faisal.
Woolley opened more than 2,000 tombs at Ur, as well as conducted extensive excavations of a ziggurat and other large-scale buildings. Systematic exploration of the so-called Royal Cemetery, dating mainly to the Early Dynastic IIIA period (ca. 2600-2500 B.C.), began during the 1926-1927 season. Of the 660 tombs dug here by Woolley, 16 were of such wealth and complexity that he considered them to be the final resting places of the city's royalty. Renowned for his technical skill in excavation as well as his stamina, Woolley carried out all the painstaking digging of the tombs with only the help of his wife Katherine and one other assistant.
Many objects in the exhibition come from the tomb of Queen Pu-abi, one of the richest burials. Jewelry predominates; a vast quantity of beads and ornaments made of gold, silver, carnelian, lapis lazuli, and shell were found. Included in the show are Pu-abi's famous headdress fashioned out of gold ribbons, fillets of beads and inlay, and bands of gold leaves, all surmounted by a high comb topped by seven gold flowers. Pu-abi also wore a beaded cape and other ornate accessories on her arms and waist. Other funerary offerings included: remains of inlaid wooden furniture; large quantities of drinking and pouring vessels of gold, silver, and rare imported stones; personal items, often made of gold or shell; and tools and weapons of copper, gold, and silver. Also on display are the famous Great Lyre from the so-called King's Grave, its gold-and-lapis bull's head and inlaid shell plaque attached to a re-created wooden frame, and the famous Ram-in-the-Thicket, a statuette of a goat standing and nibbling leaves of a tree or bush.
Ellen Herscher is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.