Leonard Woolley at the Royal Cemetery of Ur

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Excavating Tell al-Muqayyar

Leonard and Katherine Woolley at Ur
Leonard and Katherine Woolley at Ur. Iraq's Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur's Royal Cemetery, Penn Museum

The ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur was excavated by C. Leonard Woolley between 1922 and 1934. Much of his focus was on the Royal Cemetery, particularly those excavations in the early Dynastic period between ca. 2600 and 2450 BC. Among these interments were 16 'royal tombs' that included evidence of the deaths of retainers—multiple simultaneous burials of people thought to have been sacrificed at the time of the ruler's death. One tomb, called the "Tomb of Death" or "Great Death Pit", held over seventy of these retainers.

This photo essay is on Woolley's excavations, with images provided by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, in celebration of their 2009-2010 exhibition, Iraq's Ancient Past.

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Excavating Tell al-Muqayyar

Excavating Ur
This photograph and the next shows the progress of the excavations in the deep hole, Pit X at Tell al-Muqayyar, excavated between 1933-1934. The large-scale excavation removed 13,000 cubic meters of soil and involved over 150 workers. C. Leonard Woolley, 1934, and the Iraq's Ancient Past, Penn Museum

The remains of Ur are buried within a tell called Tell al-Muqayyar. Tells (also spelled tel or til or tal) are enormous artificial hills created when people lived in the same place for thousands of years, building homes and palaces and temples, and over the period remodeling and rebuilding on top of the earlier structures. There were, of course, no bulldozers at the time. Tell al-Muqayyar, located in far southern Iraq, covers over 50 acres and is something on the order of 25 feet tall, a structure built over the course of some 2500 years.

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Excavating the Royal Cemetery at Ur

Excavating Ur
This photograph and the previous one show the progress of the excavations in the deep hole, Pit X, undertaken from 1933-1934. The large-scale excavation removed 13,000 cubic meters of soil and involved over 150 workers. C. Leonard Woolley, 1934, and Iraq's Ancient Past, Penn Museum

Woolley conducted excavations at Ur for 12 seasons, excavations paid for by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania; five of those seasons (1926-1932) were concentrated on the Royal Cemetery. Woolley excavated some 1850 burials, including 16 royal graves in the earliest part of the cemetery. Fourteen of them had been plundered in antiquity; one of those was Queen Puabi's tomb, which was largely intact. Ten of the sixteen royal tombs had large substantially-built stone and/or mud brick tombs with one or more chambers. The other six are royal Death Pits, which had no structures but lots of bodies.

Queen Puabi's tomb, recorded as RT/800, was discovered some 7 meters below the top of the tell.

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Plan of the Tomb of Queen Puabi

Plan of Queen Puabi's Tomb at Ur
Plan of Queen Puabi's tomb. The tomb chamber containing Puabi's bier, body and three attendants is at the top of the plan; the death pit with wooden chest, chariot, oxen and more attendants is at the bottom. Iraq's Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur's Royal Cemetery, Penn Museum

Queen Puabi's Tomb, PG/800, measured 4.35 x 2.8 meters and was built of limestone slabs and mud brick. On a raised platform in the tomb, a skeleton of a middle-aged woman lay wearing an elaborate gold, lapis lazuli, and carnelian headdress. She wore a huge pair of crescent-shaped golden earrings, and her torso was covered with gold and semi-precious beads.

Near the skeleton's right shoulder were found three lapis lazuli cylinder seals. Inscribed on one of the seals was the name Pu-abi, with the title "nin", translated as queen. A second seal is labeled "A-bara-gi", thought to be the name of Puabi's husband. Three additional complete skeletons and the skull fragment of a fourth were found in the tomb and are considered retainers, part of Puabi's royal court and/or servants who were sacrificed at her funeral. More retainers were discovered in the adjacent pit and ramps alongside Pu-abi's tomb: recent examination of the bones suggest that at least some of these had been menial laborers for most of their lives.

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Great Pit of Death at Ur

Great Death Pit at Ur
Plan of the "Great Death Pit," so called because it held the bodies of seventy-three retainers. Reprinted from Woolley's The Royal Cemetery, Ur Excavations, Vol. 2, published in 1934. C. Leonard Woolley, 1934, and the Iraq's Ancient Past, Penn Museum

Although ten of the Royal Tombs at Ur contained the remains of a central or primary individual, six of them were what Woolley called "grave pits" or "death pits" like this one. Woolley's "Grave Pits" were shafts leading down to the tombs and sunken courtyards built around the tomb or adjacent to it. The adjacent shafts and courtyards were filled with skeletons of retainers, most of them also dressed in jewels and carrying bowls.

The largest of these pits was called the Great Pit of Death, located adjacent to Queen Puabi's tomb and measuring 4 x 11.75 meters. Over seventy individuals were buried here, neatly laid out, wearing jewels and carrying bowls or cups. Bioarchaeological studies of these skeletons show that many of these people had labored hard during their lives, supporting Woolley's notion that some of these were servants, even if dressed in finery and perhaps attending a banquet on the last day of their lives.

Recent CT scans and associated studies of some of the servants' bodies have revealed that they were killed by blunt force trauma, then preserved with heat and mercury, then dressed in their finery and laid out in rows for the trip to the afterlife.

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The King's Grave at Ur

Plan of the King's Grave at Ur
Plan of the "King's Grave" where the hatched rectangle at the top shows the location of Queen Puabi's tomb. Reprinted from Woolley's The Royal Cemetery, Ur Excavations, Vol. 2, published in 1934. C. Leonard Woolley, 1934, and the Iraq's Ancient Past, Penn Museum

RT/789, the so-called King's Grave, was located in the Royal Cemetery of Ur next to Queen Puabi's but underneath the Great Death Pit. PG 789 was robbed in antiquity but among the artifacts recovered from it including a silver model of a watercraft, and the Ram in the Thicket statue of gold leaf, shell and lapis lazuli. The King's Grave also had a death pit next to it, with 63 adults, and two wheeled vehicles with the draft animals that had drawn them. Scholars believe the last banquet for the king probably took place in the tomb.

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