Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Ur of the Chaldees Part I: Adventures with History's Best-Dressed Archaeologists!

The exhibit of artifacts from the Royal Graves of the Sumerian city of Ur, part of the Mesopotamia Gallery in Room 56, is among my favorite collections in the British Museum. 

First off, the objects are mind-bogglingly old, dating back to about 2,500 BC.  To put that in perspective, these objects are more distant from the time of Christ than we are (!), and yet they are beautiful, sophisticated, artisanal . . . Given that the word “Sumerian” had previously brought to mind primitive people intent on bringing about the end of the world by means of an enormous Stay-Puft marshmallow man, these refined artifacts certainly had me rethinking my image of ancient people and the cities they built. 

Furthermore, many of the artifacts are simply gorgeous and fun to look at.  Just check out this headdress—the stuff of my haute couture dreams!   

But I must admit much of my interest in the exhibit doesn’t have anything to do with Sumer or its artifacts.  Instead, it is the result of this photo of the Ur excavation:

My photo of a photo in the British Museum’s Royal Graves of Ur exhibit, Gallery 56. 
Copyright status unknown.

The well-dressed couple are Leonard and Katharine Woolley, the leader of expedition and his wife.  I can’t tell you how much I adore this photo.  Let’s admire the elegant way the Woolleys have dressed for a day of digging (click image to view larger).  Contrast this fashionable British couple with the more practically attired local Bedouin excavators—who look a bit like Sallah’s men in Raiders of the Lost Ark—and it makes for an amazing photo with a real sense of time and place.  It’s like a little postcard from the golden age of archaeology.

But even more than that, there’s Katharine Woolley, and her presence here completely captured my imagination.

Who was she?  I had not expected to see a woman on an excavation from this time, and I suspect she must have been a very exciting, independent lady to find herself in such a place.  How did she end up excavating Ur?  Was she an archaeologist?  Or just along for the ride as her husband’s assistant?  These are things I was dying to know from the first moment I laid eyes on this photo and developed a serious girl crush on Katharine.  [Update:  The British Museum was kind enough to host a lecture on Katharine's extraordinary life, and I have posted review of it here. The real story is wilder than I ever could have imagined . . . ]

When I decided to dig a little deeper into Ur [pun totally intended], I went straight to the source:  Woolley’s own Ur of the Chaldees: A Record of Seven Years of Excavation.[i]  You can get a shiny new copy from Amazon if you’d like, but I was lucky to find this fabulously decrepit old copy deep in the recesses of the King’s College library.

Written by the man himself in 1929, Woolley calls the book an “attempt[] to describe in popular form the work which during the last seven years has been done at Ur . . .”[ii]  Perfect!  The printing I have dates to 1930 and, remarkably enough, still has all its original plates.

It must have been a big success, too.  This edition is from the book's 6th printing--just one year after it was originally published!  

Starting with Woolley’s book is not without its drawbacks.  The Museum’s exhibits and pretty much any and all additional reading make clear that many of Woolley’s hypotheses concerning his finds did not stand the test of time.  Woolley was prone to fabricating elaborate, somewhat fanciful stories to explain his more puzzling finds, and he shared his generation’s obsession with trying too hard to tie his discoveries to Biblical events.  When reading Woolley, one risks learning lots of “wrong” things that have to be untangled through further research.  Still, I’m glad I started with his book.  Despite its flaws, Woolley’s narrative is exciting and informative, and it’s fun to read his first-hand account of his finds as they were uncovered.

Woolley’s expedition took place at a time when public interest in archaeology was the highest it has ever been, and Woolley did an excellent job of exploiting this interest to raise publicity, and therefore funds, for this work.  As alluded to earlier, the Victorian obsession with archaeology as a means of proving the truth of the Bible was still very much alive, and so Woolley's excavation of a site believed to have Biblical ties (more on that below) drew enormous attention.  Furthermore, Woolley was uncovering Ur just as the excavation of Tutankhamen’s tomb was making the news, and Woolley was keen to draw comparisons between the two expeditions.  Woolley’s work at Ur was regularly featured in The Illustrated London News, and royals and celebrities calmored to visit the site.  It was in this environment that Ur of the Chaldees was written.

Woolley began his story with the events that brought him to Ur, which he describes as lying “about half-way between Baghdad and the head of the Persian Gulf, some ten miles west of the present course of the Euphrates.”[iii] 

Map showing the location of Ur from the Frank H. McClung Museum at UT Knoxville
In 1854, British Counsul to Basra J.E. Taylor was exploring the area and found the first inscriptions that revealed the name of the site to be “Ur.”  This was understood to be confirmation that this was “none other than Ur, so-called ‘of the Chaldees,’” which is identified in the Bible as “the home of Abraham.”[iv] 

Subsequent excavation attempts uncovered promising finds but were abandoned either for lack of funds or because of regional security issues.  In 1922, with the First World War finally in the history books, the British Museum and the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania decided to jointly sponsor this expedition with Woolley as director.  [Note that the Penn Museum has its own set of magnificent artifacts from Ur, many of which can be seen on its website.  The Iraq Museum in Baghdad also has artifacts from Ur, though its collection is still recovering from the catastrophic looting suffered during the most recent Iraq war.]

Woolley’s team took on the excavation of an enormous cemetery outside the walls of Ur, and for three seasons they excavated the private graves of commoners.  The wealth of pottery, simple jewelry, tools, and weapons that were found may not have been terribly glamorous, but they yielded a great deal of information about life in early Mesopotamia and provided useful clues for dating the site.

“As we are dealing here with a period
of which previously nothing was known,
every object is in the nature of an historic monument . . .”[v]

But the final days of the 1926-27 season brought hints that something even more exciting was right around the corner:

“At the bottom of an earth shaft, amongst masses of copper weapons, there was found the famous gold dagger of Ur, a wonderful weapon whose blade was of gold, its hilt of lapis lazuli decorated with gold studs, and its sheath of gold beautifully worked with an openwork pattern derived from plaited grass.”[vi]

An electrotype copy of the dagger in Gallery 56.

Near the dagger, he found a small but elaborate gold case containing a gold toilet set (tweezers, lancet, etc.).

An electrotype copy of the gold toilet set described by Woolley.
“Nothing like these things had ever before come from the soil of Mesopotamia; they revealed an art hitherto unsuspected and they gave promise of future discoveries outstripping all our hopes.”[vii]

Then, just before the expedition closed for the season, Woolley’s team located what seemed to be a limestone paving under the earth.  The find was considered highly curious as limestone would have been imported from a significant distance and was therefore very expensive; using it as a paving would have been “an unheard of extravagance.”[viii]  With the season at its end, the team covered the limestone and left it to be further explored the next winter.  At home over the summer, Woolley and his colleagues began to speculate that perhaps they’d not found a floor but the roof of a grand tomb.  One can only imagine what a long, anxious summer they must have endured in 1927 as they waited to see if they were right.

I guess I’m not exactly spoiling anything to tell you that they had indeed found a tomb unlike anything they’d seen before.  In my next post, I'll look at some of the extraordinary finds from the Royal Graves of Ur. 

[i] Woolley, Charles Leonard (London, 1929) 6th printing, 1930, p. 33. 
[ii] Id. at 11.
[iii] Id. at 13.
[iv] Id. at 14.
[v] Id. at 38.
[vi] Id. at 42.
[vii] Id. at 42.
[viii] Id. at 43.

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