Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Ur of the Chaldees Part V: the Preservation of the Standard of Ur and the Preservation of Leonard Woolley

Having spent the last three weeks immersed in the Ice Age, I decided it was time to return to sunny Mesopotamia. But before I get back to Room 56 and the famed Standard of Ur, let me tell you a little about my latest Ur Nerd adventure . . .

Room 56, our home away from home . . .

Recently my constant Googling of All Things Ur turned up a great project called UrCrowdsource, and it has become my latest obsession. UrCrowdsource is part of the Ur Digitization Project, which is being headed by Dr. William B. Whafford at the Univeristy of Pennsylvania--the institution that, along with the British Museum, sponsored the Ur excavation in the 1920s and 30s. The project’s goal is to create “an open-source, public, and free website with all known data from the ancient site of Ur [where] anyone will be able to search the data, enjoy, and learn from it. ” To that end, they’ve posted more than 1,000 documents from the excavation online -- ranging from correspondence to budgets to field notes -- and have invited the public to help transcribe them for the database.

A letter I transcribed over the weekend. The typewritten documents are easy. 
 The handwritten ones? Not so much . . .

Well, that sounds awesome.

I contacted Dr. Whafford about volunteering, and he set me up with the required login information the same day. This weekend, I got to work and was treated to an historical voyeur's delight! OK, so most of the items are pretty much what you’d expect with a good deal of the correspondence dedicated to people complaining about and/or apologizing for things running behind schedule and/or certain stakeholders not being kept sufficiently in the loop. But every now and then, you unearth a gem: One of Woolley’s signature breathless descriptions of a particularly exciting find; a handwritten note from the British Museum that I’m pretty sure was cheekily signed “BelieveUr”; a little classic British passive aggression that still reads loud & clear after all these years. I was positively entranced and basically spent my whole weekend on the project. (Before you’re too impressed -- or DEpressed -- by this, please note that I also made time for a midnight screening of Airplane!  I'd never seen it before and thought it was lots of fun, though I usually like movies about gladiators.)

And so this got me thinking about how after enough time passes, even the story of how someone went about uncovering history becomes history worth preserving in it’s own right.

“Indiana, we are simply passing through history. This? This IS history.” 
You so sure about that, RenĂ©?  Maybe you're history, too. 
Anyway, you will be in a few minutes.  Flymuncher.

And so as I work on this project, I feel a lot of responsibility to preserve the contents of these documents as accurately as possible, not only because we owe it to future researchers, but because accurate preservation was so important to Woolley himself. And I can’t imagine a better example of Woolley’s passion for meaningful preservation than the story of his recovery of the Standard of Ur, one of the most famous artifacts of the Royal Cemetery.

The Standard of Ur and the Ram in the Thicket, 
prominently displayed in Room 56 of the British Museum

It might not be immediately apparent why the Standard of Ur is so special—at least it wasn't to me.  I mean, it’s a big piece and largely complete, so that’s pretty great.   And it’s also quite lovely, though it lacks the obvious drool factor of the jewelry and isn’t quite as fun as the curious little Ram that lives next to it. But when I took the time to learn a little about the Standard, I quickly came to understand its importance.

Different artifacts have different stories to tell. Some tell stories about technology or craftsmanship, others about politics or economics. Some tell us about kings and queens while others give us insight into the lives of average people. The Standard of Ur tells us stories about all of these things, but my favorite of its stories is that of how it and other beautiful ancient objects came to be in our museums. And that is the focus of this post.

As noted, the Standard of Ur has many more stories to tell.  
We'll look at others in my next post.  

The Standard of Ur got its name from yet another of Woolley’s misinterpretations of his finds. When he found this object, it was positioned over a man’s shoulder, leading Woolley to conclude that it might originally have been mounted on a pole and carried as a battle standard. Subsequent research does not bear this out, but the name stuck. The Standard is now understood to be simply a decorative box; what ceremonial or other purpose it may have served remains unknown.

In Ur of the Chaldees, Woolly explains the exciting circumstances of the Standard’s discovery.

"In the largest of all the stone-built royal tombs, which had been entered by robbers and most thoroughly plundered, there remained only one corner of the last chamber to be cleared, and we had given up expectation of any ‘finds’ when suddenly a loose bit of shell inlay turned up, and the next minute the foreman’s hand, carefully brushing away the earth, laid bare the corner of a mosaic in lapis lazuli and shell. This was the famous ‘Standard’ of Ur . . ."[1]

Pretty dramatic stuff, right? Unfortunately, like many of Woolley’s finds the Standard had been crushed by the weight of the earth, and the wooden box that served as the base of the mosaic had decayed, leaving just a spread of tiles and the bitumen that had held them together. But Woolley was determined to preserve the mosaic in a very real sense—to do more than simply take it out of the ground so that it could be reconstructed in his lab like an ancient jigsaw puzzle. Woolley explains:

“Now, it would have been perfectly feasible to take the mosaic to pieces, bit by bit, and re-make it on a new background, and the task might have been done as well by the modern craftsman as by the old, but the panels would have been the work of a modern craftsman.”[2]

With the aim of preserving not just the piece but the actual work of the original artist, Woolley uncovered the tiles very carefully, such that “only about a square inch could be dealt with at a time.”[3] Once cleared, wax was poured over the mosaic so that the tiles could be lifted out of the ground just as they lay. Back in the lab, the front and back panels were carefully separated, placed on cloth backings, and cleaned. The panels were then

“. . . laid face downwards on glass and warmed until the wax was soft, and it was pressed with fingers from behind until by looking underneath one could be sure that each fragment of the inlay was in direct contact with the glass. The panel was now flat, but the pattern was much distorted; the edges of the mosaic fragments had lost contact in the ground and earth and powdered bitumen had filtered between them, and now wax as well, so that while some overlapped, others were widely apart. The next stage was to remove the cloth from the back, leaving the mosaic virtually loose on the glass, and to pick out all the foreign matter, and then by sideways pressure with the fingers coax the pieces together. When this was done, fresh wax and cloth were applied behind and a proper backing fixed on.

“The result of this is that the mosaic is not nearly so regular or smooth as the Sumerian artist made it, but what we possess is the work of that artist uninterfered with except by accidents of time; the pieces of shell and lapis which he put together no one else has taken apart and re-set.”[4]

The descriptions of the preservation of the Standard of Ur and of the Ram in the Thicket (which I’ll get to soon enough) might just be my favorite passages in Ur of the Chaldees. When I look at delicate objects in museums, I often wonder how they came to be there: how did they survive? How much restoration was involved? How much of the object is original and which parts are modern repairs? How sure were the artist who performed the restoration? How much was lost in the process? So, I love having the answers for this piece. I love reading about the cleverness of Woolley’s technique, and I love the respect this careful treatment shows for the people whose world he’s unearthing.

When the Standard of Ur was properly restored, it provided an amazing glimpse into life at Ur during peacetime and during war. And that will be the subject of my next post.

[1] Woolley, Charles Leonard (London, 1929) 6th printing, 1930, pp. 81-82.
[2] Id. at 82.
[3] Id.
[4] Id. at 83.


Ann Hall said...

Can't wait for the next post
I feel like I'm on an archaeological dig!

B.J. Richards said...

Yay! Thanks, Ann!