Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Ur of the Chaldees IV: Queen Puabi and the Goblet of Fire (or something like that . . .)

So, yes, this is my fourth Ur post in a row, and I know that’s a lot of Ur.  You see, the British Museum has been a little quiet for the past few weeks—its staff undoubtedly recovering from the jam-packed Christmastime schedule while simultaneously ramping up for The Ice Age—so there just hasn’t been much going on for me to write about.  I’m really looking forward to diversifying the blog with lots of talks, events, and temporary exhibits when the Museum’s calendar picks up again over the next few weeks, but for now I’m just grateful that the permanent collection is filled with such an embarrassment of riches that plumbing these alone might keep us in a perpetual state of bliss even if the Museum were to never host another event again!  So, let us return to our story . . .  

Gallery 56.  Of course, I'm going to miss getting these great empty-gallery shots
once Museum traffic returns to normal . . .

In the last post, we learned a little about Queen Puabi, who ruled (or priestess-ed or perhaps even goddess-ed) in the ancient Sumerian city of Ur around 2,600 BC.  Today, we’ll take a quick look at some of the treasures that were buried with her along with a little play-by-play from Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, the pioneering archaeologist who pulled these fabulous objects out of the Mesopotamian soil back in the 1920s.

A wide shot of the display in Gallery 56 holding many of Puabi's personal items.  
Look closely at the board on the right and you'll get an idea 
of the scale of some of the items highlighted below. 

The discovery of Puabi’s tomb was an enormously significant event in the excavation of Ur.  As mentioned previously, it was the most complete grave Woolley found and so gives us the best look at the advanced state of the arts in ancient Sumer.  While Puabi’s grave was mercifully untouched by looters, it was not undamaged; at some point during the ensuing millennia, the dome of her tomb collapsed and she and her grave goods were crushed by the weight of the earth.  Otherwise intact, however, fully appreciating the splendor of her treasures was only a matter of patient restoration.  Luckily, Woolley was on the case, and we’ll talk about his unique restoration philosophy and techniques in a future post.

So what did Woolley find?  For starters, we note that Puabi shared her fellow royals’ distain for traveling alone, and she took an impressive twenty-five attendants with her to the afterlife.[i]  (This is a mere modest little clique, however, when compared to the entourage of her grave companion A-bar-gi who rolled sixty-two deep[ii]). 

And you remember that spectacular court headdress I gushed about a couple posts ago?  Well, that was nothing in comparison to the one Queen Puabi wore.  Woolley describes it as being “a more elaborate edition of that worn by the court ladies,” so large that it had to be worn with “a wig padded out to an almost grotesque size” to give it adequate support.[iii] 

Unfortunately for us Londoners, Puabi’s headdress is not at The British Museum, though it is in excellent hands at the Penn Museum, and they’ve posted some great photos of their staff preparing it for exhibition.  The photos give a very good sense of the headdress’s construction and fine details, and it’s just fun to see people working with the artifacts and obviously enjoying them.

The British Museum didn’t lose out on Puabi’s grave goods entirely, though, and has some truly lovely baubles to admire.  In addition to the exquisite lapis name cylinder I discussed last time, the Museum has numerous ornaments from Puabi’s body, which we’ll view along with a little narration as given by Woolley in Ur of the Chaldees:

“Heavy spiral rings of gold wire were 
twisted into the side curls of [her] wig . . .”

“. . . and apparently from the hair also hung on each side 
a string of large square stone beads with, at the end of each, a lapis amulet, one shaped as a seated bull 
and the other as a calf.”[iv]

 “[A]gainst [her] right arm were 
three long gold pins with lapis heads . . . “

Two of the pins are on display at the Museum.  They probably pinned her garments closed.

“ . . . and three amulets in the form of fish, 
two of gold and one of lapis . . .”

“. . . and a fourth in the form of two seated gazelles, 
also of gold.”[v]

Of course, if a girl is going to put on her jewels, she’s also going to want to put on her  makeup.  And Puabi came prepared . . .

“A number of large cockle-shells 
containing green paint . . . 
presumably used as a cosmetic . . . “

 “. . . [Puabi’s] shells were abnormally big, 
and with them were found two parts of imitation shells, one in silver and one in gold . . .”[vi]

 I should mention that with all that green paint, Puabi is totally on trend for s/s 2013.

But the best of the British Museum’s holdings from Puabi’s grave is not found among her personal adornments.  Instead, it must be this magnificent bull-head lyre:

“[In Puabi’s death pit] lay the remains of a wonderful harp, the wood of it decayed but its decoration intact, making its reconstruction only a matter of care . . . the sounding-box was edged with a mosaic in red stone, lapis lazuli, and white shell, and from the front of it projected a splendid head of a bull wrought in gold with eyes and beard of lapis lazuli . . .”[vii]

In Ur of the Chaldees, Woolley notes that lyres are “one constant feature” of the royal graves, and Puabi’s is lovely.  As displayed in the Museum, the head and mosaics are original and the wooden parts, strings, and bull’s horns are reconstructions. 

 I seriously love his little lapis hair tuft and beard with their carved curls.

My photo of the lyre’s front panel, as taken through the display glass, isn’t so great, but the exhibit describes its mosaic thusly:

“. . . a lion-headed eagle between gazelles, bulls with plants on hills, a bull-man between leopards and a lion attacking a bull.”[viii]  So, I guess you could say there’s a fairly consistent bull theme happening here. 

This lyre (and another similar lyre in the same case) is very much like the one depicted on the famous Standard of Ur.  In fact, the Standard of Ur contains depictions of a number of items strikingly similar to those found among Puabi’s grave goods.  And that’s what we’re going to talk about in my next Ur post!  But don’t be surprised if we have a brief non-Ur interlude before that happens . . .

[i] Woolley, Charles Leonard, Ur of the Chaldees, (London 1929) at 57.
[ii] The British Museum display accompanying The King’s Tomb, Gallery 56.
[iii] Supra note 1 at 53.
[iv] Id. at 54-55.
[v] Id. at 53.
[vi] Id. at 56.
[vii] Id. at 46-47.
[viii] British Museum display accompanying The Queen’s Lyre, Gallery 56.


Brad said...

Keep up the Ur-riffic posts! They are very interesting.

B.J. Richards said...

Yay! My first comment -- and it's not even mean! Thanks, Brad, and don't worry -- the Ur will keep coming :)

Cindy Stollings said...

This is very interesting! Keep up the good work!