Artifacts of the Royal Cemetery of Ur

Headdress of Queen Puabi at Ur
Headdress of Queen Puabi at Ur. Iraq's Ancient Past, Penn Museum
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Artifacts of the Royal Cemetery of Ur

Head of a Lion from the Royal Cemetery of Ur
Head of a Lion from the Royal Cemetery of Ur. Iraq's Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur's Royal Cemetery, Penn Museum

The Royal Cemetery at the ancient city of Ur in Mesopotamia was excavated by Charles Leonard Woolley between 1926-1932. The Royal Cemetery excavations were part of a 12-year expedition at Tell el Muqayyar, located on an abandoned channel of the Euphrates River in far southern Iraq. Tell el Muqayyar is the name given to the +7 meter tall, +50 acre archaeological site made up of the ruins of centuries of mud brick buildings left by the residents of Ur between the late 6th millennium BC and the 4th century BC. The excavations were jointly funded by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and so many of the artifacts that Woolley recovered ended up in the Penn Museum.

This photo-essay features images of some of the artifacts which are currently on exhibit at the museum, in an exhibition entitled "Iraq's Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur's Royal Cemetery" which opened October 25, 2009.

Figure Caption: Head of lion (Height: 11 cm; Width: 12 cm) made of silver, lapis lazuli and shell; one of a pair of protomes (animal-like adornments) found in the "death pit" which Woolley associated with Puabi's tomb chamber. These heads were 45 cm apart and had originally been attached to a wooden object. Woolley suggested they might have been the finials for the arms of a chair. The head is one of many masterpieces of art from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, ca 2550 BCE

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Headdress of Queen Puabi

Headdress of Queen Puabi at Ur
Headdress of Queen Puabi at Ur. Iraq's Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur's Royal Cemetery, Penn Museum

Queen Puabi was the name of a woman buried in one of the richest of the tombs excavated by Woolley at the Royal Cemetery. Puabi (her name, found on a cylinder seal within the tomb, was probably closer to Pu-abum) was approximately 40 years old at the time of her death.

Puabi's tomb (RT/800) was a stone and mud brick structure measuring 4.35 x 2.8 meters. She was placed on a raised platform, wearing this elaborate gold, lapis lazuli and carnelian headdress and the beaded jewelry seen on additional pages below. A large pit, probably representing a sunken courtyard or entry shafts into Puabi's burial chamber, held over seventy skeletons. Woolley called this area the Great Death Pit. the individuals buried here are thought to have been sacrificial victims who had attended a banquet in this spot before their deaths. Although they are believed to have been servants and laborers, most of the skeletons wore elaborate pieces of jewelry and held precious stone and metal vessels.

Figure Caption: 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.

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Bull-Headed Lyre from the Royal Cemetery at Ur

Bull-Headed Lyre from Ur
Bull-Headed Lyre from Ur. Iraq's Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur's Royal Cemetery, Penn Museum

The excavations at the Royal Cemetery at Ur were concentrated on the most elite burials. During his five years at the Royal Cemetery, Woolley excavated some 2,000 burials, including 16 royal tombs and 137 "private tombs" of the wealthier residents of the Sumerian city. The people buried at the Royal Cemetery were members of the elite classes, who held ritual or managerial roles in the temples or palaces at Ur.

Early Dynastic funerals depicted in drawings and sculpture often include musicians playing lyres or harps, instruments that were found in several of the royal tombs. Some of these lyres held inlays of feasting scenes. One of the bodies buried in the Great Death Pit near Queen Puabi was draped over a lyre like this one, the bones of her hands placed where what would have been the strings. Music seems to have been extremely important to Early Dynastic Mesopotamia: many of the graves in the Royal Cemetery contained musical instruments, and quite possibly the musicians that played them.

Scholars believe the panels on the bull-headed lyre represent an underworld banquet. The panels on the front of the lyre represent a scorpion man and a gazelle serving drinks; an ass playing a bull lyre; a bear possibly dancing; a fox or jackal carrying a sistrum and drum; a dog carrying a table of butchered meat; a lion with a vase and pouring vessel; and a man wearing a belt handling a pair of human-headed bulls.

Figure Caption: “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.

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Beaded Cape and Jewelry of Puabi

Beaded Cape and Jewelry of Queen Puabi at Ur
Queen Puabi's beaded cape and jewelry includes pins of gold and lapis lazuli (Length: 16 cm), a. Iraq's Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur's Royal Cemetery, Penn Museum

Queen Puabi herself was discovered in the burial called RT/800, a stone chamber with a principal burial and four attendants. The principal, a middle-aged woman, had a lapis lazuli cylinder seal carved with the name Pu-Abi or "Commander of the Father" in Akkadian. Adjacent to the main chamber was a pit with over 70 attendants and many luxury objects, which may or may not be associated with Queen Puabi. Puabi wore a beaded cape and jewelry, illustrated here.

Figure Caption: Queen Puabi's beaded cape and jewelry includes pins of gold and lapis lazuli (Length: 16 cm), a gold, lapis lazuli and carnelian garter (Length: 38 cm), lapis lazuli and carnelian cuff (Length: 14.5 cm), gold finger rings (Diameter: 2 - 2.2 cm), and more, from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, ca 2550 BCE.

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Feasting and Death at Ur

Ostrich Egg Shaped Vessel from Ur
Ostrich Egg Shaped Vessel from Ur. Iraq's Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur's Royal Cemetery, Penn Museum

The people buried at the Royal Cemetery were members of the elite classes, who held ritual or managerial roles in the temples or palaces at Ur. Evidence suggests that feasts were associated with royal tomb burials, with guests who included the family of the high-status person who had died, plus the persons who would be sacrificed to lie with the royal head of household. Many of the banquet attendees still hold a cup or bowl in their hands.

Figure Caption: 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.

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Retainers and Courtiers of the Royal Cemetery

Wreath of Poplar Leaves
Wreath of Poplar Leaves. Iraq's Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur's Royal Cemetery, Penn Museum

The exact role of the retainers buried with the elites in the Royal Cemetery at Ur has been long debated. Woolley was of the opinion that they were willing sacrifices but later scholars disagree. Recent CT scans and forensic analysis of the skulls of six attendants from different royal tombs show they all died of blunt force trauma (Baadsgard and colleagues, 2011). The weapon appears in some cases to have been a bronze battle ax. Further evidence indicates that the bodies were treated, by heating and/or adding mercury to the corpse.

Whoever it was that ended up buried in Ur's Royal Cemetery alongside clearly royal individuals, and whether they went willingly or not, the last stage of the burial was to adorn the bodies with rich grave goods. This wreath of poplar leaves was worn by an attendant buried in the stone tomb with Queen Puabi; the attendant's skull was one of those examined by Baadsgaard and colleagues.

By the way, Tengberg and associates (listed below) believe that the leaves on this wreath are not poplar but rather those of the sissoo tree (Dalbergia sissoo, also known as Pakistani rosewood, native to the Indo-Iranian borderlands. Although the sissoo is not a native of Iraq, it is grown there today for ornamental purposes. Tengberg and colleagues suggest this supports evidence of contact between early dynastic Mesopotamia and the Indus civilization.

Figure Caption: Wreath of poplar leaves (Length: 40 cm) made of gold, lapis lazuli, and carnelian, found with the body of a female attendant crouched at the foot of Queen Puabi's ​bier, Royal Cemetery of Ur, ca 2550 BCE.

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Ram Caught in a Thicket

Ram Caught in a Thicket from Ur
Ram Caught in a Thicket from Ur. Iraq's Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur's Royal Cemetery, Penn Museum

Woolley, like many of his generation of archaeologists (and of course, many modern archaeologists), was well-versed in the literature of ancient religions. The name he gave to this object and its twin discovered in the Great Death Pit near Queen Puabi's tomb is taken from the Old Testament of the Bible (and of course the Torah). In one story in the book of Genesis the patriarch Abraham finds a ram stuck in a thicket and sacrifices it rather than his own son. Whether the legend told in the Old Testament is related somehow to that of the Mesopotamian symbol is anybody's guess.

Each of the statues recovered from Ur's Great Death Pit is a goat standing on its hind legs, framed by gold branches with rosettes. Bodies of the goats are made from a wooden core applied with gold and silver; the goat's fleece were constructed from shell in the lower half and lapis lazuli in the upper. The goats' horns are made of lapis.

Figure Caption: “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 seventy-three retainers lay. Ur, ca. 2550 BCE.

 

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Recent Bibliography of the Royal Cemetery at Ur

Inlaid Silver Cosmetics Box Lid
Inlaid Silver Cosmetics Box Lid. Iraq's Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur's Royal Cemetery, Penn Museum

Figure Caption: Inlaid silver cosmetic box lid (Height: 3.5 cm; Diameter: 6.4 cm) of silver, lapis lazuli and shell, carved from a single piece of shell. The lid depicts a lion attacking a sheep or goat. Found in Queen Puabi's tomb, in the Royal Cemetery of Ur, ca 2550 BCE.

More Information about Ur and Mesopotamia

Bibliography of the Royal Cemetery

This brief bibliography is a few of the most recent publications on Leonard C. Woolley's excavations at the Royal Cemetery at Ur.