Ancient City of Ur

The Mesopotamian Capital City

The Ziggurat wall of Ur, Iraq.

Heritage Images / Getty Images

The Mesopotamian city of Ur, known as Tell al-Muqayyar and the biblical Ur of the Chaldees), was an important Sumerian city-state between about 2025-1738 BC. Located near the modern town of Nasiriyah in far southern Iraq, on a now-abandoned channel of the Euphrates river, Ur covered about 25 hectares (60 acres), surrounded by a city wall. When British archaeologist Charles Leonard Woolley excavated in the 1920s and 1930s, the city was a tell—a great artificial hill over seven meters (23 feet) high composed of centuries of building and rebuilding mud-brick structures, one stacked on top of another.

Chronology of Southern Mesopotamia

The following chronology of Southern Mesopotamia is simplified somewhat from that suggested by the School of American Research Advanced Seminar in 2001, based primarily on pottery and other artifact styles and reported in Ur 2010.

  • Old Babylonian (Late Bronze Age, 1800-1600 BC)
  • Isin-Larsa Dynasties (Middle Bronze Age, 2000-1800 BC)
  • Ur III (2100-2000 BC)
  • Akkadian (Early Bronze Age, 2300-2100 BC)
  • Early Dynastic I-III (Sumerian, 3000-2300 BC)
  • Late Uruk (Late Chalcolithic, 3300-3000 BC)
  • Middle Uruk (3800-3300 BC)
  • Early Uruk (4100-3800 BC)
  • Late Ubaid (4400-4100 BC)
  • Ubaid Period (5900-4400 BC)

The earliest known occupations at Ur city date to the Ubaid period of the late 6th millennium BC. By about 3000 BC, Ur covered a total area of 15 ha (37 ac) including early temple sites. Ur reached its maximum size of 22 ha (54 ac) during the Early Dynastic Period of the early 3rd millennium BC when Ur was one of the most important capitals of the Sumerian civilization. Ur continued as a minor capital for Sumer and succeeding civilizations, but during the 4th century BC, the Euphrates changed course, and the city was abandoned.

Living in Sumerian Ur

During Ur's heyday in the Early Dynastic period, four main residential areas of the city included homes made of baked mud brick foundations arranged along long, narrow, winding streets and alleyways. Typical houses included an open central courtyard with two or more main living rooms in which the families resided. Each house had a domestic chapel where cult structures and the family burial vault was kept. Kitchens, stairways, workrooms, lavatories were all part of the household structures.

The houses were packed in very tightly together, with exterior walls of one household immediately abutting the next one. Although the cities appear very closed off, the interior courtyards and wide streets provided light, and the close-set houses protected the exposure of the exterior walls to heating especially during the hot summers.

Royal Cemetery

Between 1926 and 1931, Woolley's investigations at Ur focused on the Royal Cemetery, where he eventually excavated approximately 2,100 graves, within an area of 70x55 m (230x180 ft): Woolley estimated there were up to three times as many burials originally. Of those, 660 were determined to be dated to the Early Dynastic IIIA (2600-2450 BC)period, and Woolley designated 16 of those as "royal tombs". These tombs had a stone-built chamber with multiple rooms, where the principal royal burial was placed. Retainers--people who presumably served the royal personage and were buried with him or her--were found in a pit outside of the chamber or adjacent to it. The largest of these pits, called "death pits" by Woolley, held the remains of 74 people. Woolley came to the conclusion that the attendants had willingly drunk some drug and then lay down in rows to go with their master or mistress.

The most spectacular royal graves in Ur's Royal Cemetery were those of Private Grave 800, belonging to a richly adorned queen identified as Puabi or Pu-abum, approximately 40 years old; and PG 1054 with an unidentified female. The largest death pits were PG 789, called the King's Grave, and PG 1237, the Great Death Pit. the tomb chamber of 789 had been robbed in antiquity, but its death pit contained the bodies of 63 retainers. PG 1237 held 74 retainers, most of which were four rows of elaborately dressed women arranged around a set of musical instruments.

Recent analysis (Baadsgaard and colleagues) of a sample of skulls from several pits at Ur suggests that, rather than being poisoned, the retainers were killed by blunt force trauma, as ritual sacrifices. After they were killed, an attempt was made to preserve the bodies, using a combination of heat treatment and the application of mercury; and then the bodies were dressed in their finery and laid in rows in the pits.

Archaeology at the City of Ur

Archaeologists associated with Ur included J.E. Taylor, H.C. Rawlinson, Reginald Campbell Thompson, and, most importantly, C. Leonard Woolley. Woolley's investigations of Ur lasted 12 years from 1922 and 1934, including five years focusing on the Royal Cemetery of Ur, including the graves of Queen Puabi and King Meskalamdug. One of his primary assistants was Max Mallowan, then married to mystery writer Agatha Christie, who visited Ur and based her Hercule Poirot novel  Murder in Mesopotamia on the excavations there.

Important discoveries at Ur included the Royal Cemetery, where rich Early Dynastic burials were found by Woolley in the 1920s; and thousands of clay tablets impressed with cuneiform writing which describe in detail the lives and thoughts of Ur's inhabitants.


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Hirst, K. Kris. "Ancient City of Ur." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 27). Ancient City of Ur. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Ancient City of Ur." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).