Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Ur of the Chaldees Part II: Going Glam for the Great Beyond

As I mentioned previously, one of my favorite things in one of my favorite exhibits in all of the British Museum is this:

. . . a spectacular headdress recovered from one of Ur’s royal graves and currently living in Gallery 56.   I mean, what girl wouldn’t love to wear that for an evening? I’m imagining a night at Studio 54, dancing on a table with Diane von Furstenberg . . . The first time I saw it, I immediately started working out how I could re-create it as a Halloween costume.  Some blue beads, a few red beads, a lot of gold foil . . . it couldn’t be that hard.  I haven’t done it yet, but there’s always next year.

Anyway, this gorgeous piece of Sumerian jewellery, made of gold, lapis lazuli, and carnelian, dates to about 2,500 BC, and it’s one of dozens discovered by Sir Charles Leonard Woolley during the joint expedition of the British Museum and the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania to Mesopotamia in the 1920s.  Woolley describes the women who wore these fabulous pieces as being dressed in bright red woollen robes, their jewels glittering brilliantly in the hot Mesopotamian sun.  Yet the gal who wore this fabulous adornment might not have been the lucky lady we would imagine.  Instead, she was most likely a victim of human sacrifice, a member of the royal court sent to the next life so that she might continue in the service of a VIP recently departed from this mortal coil.  And her headdress not only tells us about life and art in ancient Ur, but Woolley believed it also held the answer to how she died.

 "Spanish comb" portion of a silver version of the headdress,
left unrestored just as it was taken from the ground.

Woolley had already spent three seasons excavating a huge cemetery at Ur when in 1927 he found the first of the famous royal graves  As discussed in the last post, he and his team uncovered what first appeared to be a limestone pavement but later proved to be the roof of a grand tomb.  Woolley designated this and subsequent lavish graves as “royal” because their grandeur suggested the occupants were kings and queens.  (There is no clear evidence of the occupants being royalty, though, and some scholars now speculate that the graves instead held religious figures. (But might there not be significant overlap?  A question for another day . . .).) 

Unfortunately, that first royal grave was a bit of a disappointment, as it had been looted in antiquity and so didn’t offer much in the way of exciting artifacts.  It wasn’t a total loss, however, because the stone tomb with its domed roof was unlike anything previously found and “the light thrown on the architectural knowledge of this remote period might well atone for the loss of the tomb’s contents.”[i]  Besides, it would not be long before Woolley’s team would unearth more of these royal graves, and they would prove well worth the wait. 

The royal graves contained previously unimagined riches that proved Ur to be both a fabulously wealthy city and far more technologically sophisticated than previously believed.  Furthermore, the fact that many of the objects were made of non-native materials imported from as far away as India proved that Ur’s economy and governing structure were sufficiently advanced to allow for complex trade over very long distances.

“[T]reasures which have been unearthed from the graves . . . have revolutionized our ideas of the early civilisation of the world.”[ii]

Our headdress—and the dozens similar that Woolley found—is only the tip of the grave goods iceberg.  Other finds include the Standard of Ur, the Ram in the Thicket, and hundreds of other treasures both large and small.

Friends to be visited in future posts.

Woolley excavated a total of 16 royal graves.  In Ur of the Chaldees, he says there were never more than two alike, though he did single out a couple of the graves as prototypical.  These tombs consisted of a large pit that one could enter by a dirt ramp leading down from the surface.  In the pit, a stone tomb with a domed roof was constructed.  The stone tomb held the body of the royal, a couple key attendants, and many of the best treasures. Outside in the open pit were our lavishly headdressed female attendants, male soldiers, animals and their handlers, weapons, tools, and additional works of art.  In one such pit, which Woolley referred to as “The Great Death-Pit,” there were six men and 68 women presumably attending a single dead royal!  (I say “presumably” because the principal tomb associated with this death-pit was not found.)

Before burial, the royal’s domed tomb was sealed and then the entire pit was filled with dirt, burying everyone together.  The Museums’ display includes this artist’s interpretation of what the pit may have looked like before it was filled:

Amédée Forestier's 1928 interpretation of a royal grave.  Photo of an image in Room 56, originally published in the Illustrated London News and discussed briefly here.

Of course, in this rendering, the attendants are still alive.  So, what happened to them?  That remains a bit controversial.  Woolley turned to the headdresses for clues.

Very many of these women wear headdresses which are delicate in themselves and would easily be disarranged, yet such are always found in good order, undisturbed except by the pressure of the earth; this would be impossible if the wearers had been knocked on the head, improbable if they had fallen to the ground after being stabbed, and it is equally unlikely that they could have been killed outside the grave and carried down the ramp and laid in their places with all their ornaments intact; certainly the animals must have been alive when they dragged the chariots down the ramps, and if so, the grooms who led them and the drivers in the cars must have been alive also . . . [iii]

I’m not sure why Woolley was so convinced the attendants could not have died outside the pit and then been fitted with their headdresses after their bodies were moved into position, but he maintained they must have entered the pit alive, lay down in place, and then willingly imbibed a poison that killed them. 

Modern science, however, seems to have proven Woolley wrong.  In 2009, archaeologists at the University of Pennsylvania used a CT scan to examine the crushed skull of one of our bejeweled ladies and discovered she had been killed rather brutally with a spike though her head. Furthermore, an examination of one of the pit’s soldiers found it took TWO spikings to do him in.  Yikes!   

So, did our headdress ladies and their companions meet their fate willingly?  The answer may be a qualified yes.  The University of Pennsylvania’s lead researcher on the project, Dr. Janet Monge, had this to say to The New York Times: 

". . . [I]n the culture these [positions on the royal court] were positions of great honor, and you lived well in the court, so it was a trade-off. Besides, the movement into the next world was not for them necessarily something to fear."

And yet taking a spike to the head does indeed sound like a reason to be wary.  But who am I to judge?  After all, even today we will go through a lot for a prestigious job, and surely I know a few people who might risk the possibility of ritual sacrifice for a chance to get cozy with Wills & Kate. 

Also, that crushed head Dr. Monge & Co. examined?  Holy crap!  They actually have one on display at the British Museum!  Right there in the case with the headdress!  Arrggghhh!!

“ [T]he sight of the remains of the victims is gruesome enough
with the gold leaves and the coloured beads
lying thick on the crushed and broken skulls . . .”[iv]

I had admired the headdress perhaps half a dozen times before finally noticing the crushed head lying right below it.  I can assure you I did not need my afternoon coffee break after making that little discovery.  Now there’s some proper Halloween inspiration for you . . .

As spectacular as this headdress is, isn’t not even the most ostentatious that Woolley found, as these attendants’ headdresses were only more modest versions (!) of the one that royal grave principal occupant Queen Puabi wore for her trip to The Hereafter.  We’ll talk about Puabi and her remarkable grave goods in my next post. 

[i] Woolley, Charles Leonard, Ur of the Chaldees (London, 1929) at 44. 
[ii] Id. at 33.
[iii] Id. at 59.
[iv] Id. at 60.

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