Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Ur of the Chaldees VII: The Ram in a Thicket

A Tale of Romantic Birthdays, Peckish Goats, and Biblical Literalism

It’s been a wonderfully exciting week at the Museum with the major exhibition of 2013, Life & Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, opening to 5-star reviews and huge crowds. While I haven’t spent a lot of time there yet, I did have a quick look at the exhibit on opening day, and I have to say it appears to be everything it’s cracked up to be -- full of extraordinary pieces and an almost uncomfortably intimate look at life in the Bay of Naples in 79 AD. I’ll be visiting again in the next few days and should have some initial thoughts up on the blog next week.

Huge crowd at the Museum on the opening day of Pompeii and Herculaneum

But today I’m going to take a look at the last item I’ll examine from Sir Leonard Woolley’s excavation of the royal graves in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur. Granted there are still some non-cemetery items I’m excited to check out, and I’ll probably briefly touch on a few royal grave artifacts when I get to Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia in a few weeks, but this will be the last royal grave object to get its own post.

It’s a little bittersweet to be moving on from the cemetery, though I’m happy to say that I saved a really great piece for last. Behold, my friends: The Ram in a Thicket!

The first thing you should know about the Ram in a Thicket, circa 2,500 B.C.,  is that he’s not a ram at all but a markhor goat [1]

 Markhor goat at the Los Angeles Zoo, photo credit: Geographer at en.wikipedia

Furthermore, you should know he’s not one of those rude modern goats who goes around yelling like a human.

Nor is he one of those erotic goats you’ve been hearing so much about lately.  

But he is a very special goat in his own right. In addition to being a significant archaeological find, this little guy has a special place in my heart. I mean, we go waaay back; here we are in 2006 during my very first trip to London, which just so happened to be my very first trip outside the U.S.  

If you look through the case to the opposite wall, you’ll see the grave attendant headdress is not on display.  I wonder where it was . . .  

The occasion was my 30th birthday. A couple months before, I was having brunch with my boyfriend at Zoe’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts, talking about the impending Big 3-Oh.  I mentioned being disappointed and more than a little embarrassed that I was going to turn 30 without ever having been outside the States. My boyfriend -- a well-traveled fellow with a knack for making things happen -- immediately declared that this should be my birthday present, and a few weeks later we were in London!

Like so many tourists each year, the British Museum was at the top of our agenda. We spent an entire day there, and it’s where we took the above photo of the Ram in a Thicket, which was my boyfriend's favorite photo of the trip. He was particularly proud of capturing that supernatural glare.

Another photo from my first trip to the British Museum.  
Apparently I didn't show my teeth back then. How very Posh Spice of me.

It was a wonderful holiday, and on our last night in town -- the night of my 30th birthday -- we went for a stroll on the Millennium Bridge where my boyfriend asked me to marry him.


Seven years later, we’re oh-so-happily married, we’ve traveled together to many exciting places, and I like to think that I, too, have developed a knack for making things happen. And last year we came back to London to stay. How crazy is that?  

Two weeks ago Jason and I celebrated the one-year anniversary of our move to London.  And what did he choose to give me as a Happy Anniversary card? A postcard of the Ram in a Thicket from the British Museum. How perfect.  

But I digress . . . we’re playing This is Your Goat, not This is Your Life.  

So, this fabulous little guy from around 2,500 B.C., so near and dear to my heart, is one of a pair that Woolley found in the great death-pit.  He lives in Room 56 and his brother resides in the Penn Museum.  They both have poles sticking out of their backs, suggesting they supported a table or something similar.  

That pole in his back looks a bit uncomfortable.

In Ur of the Chaldees, Woolley describes the process of preserving and restoring these statues in great detail.[2] The technique is similar to that he used in rescuing the Standard of Ur, not merely reconstructing the object but preserving the actual work of the original artist.  Like the Standard, the Rams were carefully covered in wax so they could be lifted from the ground just as they lay, and then they were gradually reshaped in the lab without ever being disassembled.  

The Ram in a Thicket underwent a restoration process similar to that used on its roommate, 
the Standard of Ur.

Woolley talks about one of the statues having been flattened by the earth; in his lab, it was returned to form as the wax encasing it was softened and all its pieces were gently pushed back into place from the inside; I imagine the squished Ram in a Thicket being blown up like a fragile wax balloon.  

Can you still see some of Woolley's wax in the Ram's "fleece"?  No?  Well, let's pretend we can.

The Penn Museum website notes that Woolley didn’t do such a great job restoring its Ram, making the tree too short so that the goat’s feet did not rest on the bush. They have done some additional conservation work on their Ram to restore his original proportions. 
The British Museum's Ram has his feet firmly planted in the thicket as seen above; 
no word on whether this is Woolley's doing or the result of further restoration.

The Ram is approximately a foot and a half tall and is made of lapis lazuli, shell, and gold sheeting originally mounted on a wood and plaster form. His silver belly is long lost to the earth, and he was held together with bitumen and copper rivets.  

The statue’s original meaning has been lost to time, though the British Museum’s exhibit says such depictions of nature were likely related to fertility.  In Ur of the Chaldees Woolley was, as ever, happy to share his own speculation, and it is from there that we derive the object’s name:

“Irresistibly we are reminded of the biblical story of the ‘ram caught in the thicket,’ but the statues were made fifteen hundred years before Abraham was born and the parallel is therefore difficult to explain.”[3]

What an interesting quote. It all starts off innocently enough -- the statue reminds Woolley of a Bible story, just as it now reminds me of getting engaged.  Fair enough.  But when he says the parallel is “difficult to explain,” he goes much further, suggesting the statue doesn’t just evoke the Bible story but may depict it. By claiming the the inconsistency between the date of the statue and the time of Abraham confuses matters, Woolley seems to allude to an expectation that the Bible story is literally true. Fascinating!

Who can say why anything reminds us of anything else? Though, honestly, if “murder” makes you think “employment,” it might be time to take a good, hard look at your life choices.  

A Not-So-Irresistible Reminder

So, let’s take a look at the Bible’s story of the ram caught in a thicket.  In the story, God has ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son.  But then:

". . . Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son."
Genesis 22:13

Dramatic stuff to be sure!  It’s a very famous story, and it’s easy enough to understand why Woolley was reminded of it when viewing this artifact. But is the association really so “irresistible” as he claims?  First off, as previously noted, the statue doesn’t even depict a ram but rather a goat.  Second, our little goat shows no sign of being “caught in a thicket” like Abraham’s ram; instead he peers freely through the branches.  The text accompanying the object in the British Museum notes that goats often stand in bushes this way while foraging for food, so it seems what we really have is a depiction of a happy little goat looking for a snack.  

I think he looks pretty pleased.

Woolley’s being reminded of the Biblical account is actually nothing more than a charming personal observation.  

Seeing the Bible Everywhere

When considering the context of Woolley’s declaration, it’s good to keep in mind that biblical history and archaeology are deeply intertwined. As I have noted before, a desire to prove the literal truth of the Bible was a major driver of the first archaeologists, and interest in using archaeology in this way persisted well into Woolley’s time. Furthermore, Woolley believed he was, as his book title clearly states, excavating “Ur of the Chaldees,” the home of Abraham. Woolley did not think this without good reason, and many scholars still believe this city to have been home to the historic Abraham. Under these circumstances, the temptation to interpret Ur finds as being related to biblical events would certainly be very strong and not necessarily unfounded in all cases.

“Difficult to Explain”

So, Woolley has the Bible on the brain and this little statue reminds him of a famous biblical tale. So far, so good. But Woolley doesn’t find that the alleged similarity between the image and the Bible story are a coincidence; he claims the similarities combined with the discrepancy between the date of the statues and the time of Abraham presents a parallel that is “difficult to explain.” Well, that hardly seems fair.

Detail on the "thicket"

Even if we were to concede that seeing Abraham’s ram in our little goat is truly “irresistible,” and even if we refuse to write that off as coincidence, might there not be another explanation? Perhaps in that event we would hypothesize that the statue depicts a Sumerian legend that forms the basis for the tale of Abraham’s ram encounter. Woolley doesn’t seem to leave room for this possibility, and given an account he offers earlier in Ur of the Chaldees, that seems rather unWoolley-like of him.

The Noah Flood

Interestingly, Woolley begins Ur of the Chaldees with the dramatic claim that he has discovered at Ur evidence of the Noah Flood. Woolley’s excavation found an 8ft-thick layer of water-laid clay beneath the Ur site with artifacts both above and beneath it -- evidence of a devastating flood that ravaged the region, wiping out settlements for hundreds of miles. “There could be no doubt,” Woolley asserted, that this was “the Flood on which is based the story of Noah.” [4]  A bold claim to be sure, but Woolley was careful to caution against interpreting this find as proof that the Noah story is literally true. He flatly states that the Noah story “is based on” a well-documented Sumerian legend pre-dating the biblical account and telling of a flood that destroyed the world. He is just as clear in explaining that this does not mean that either story is literally true:

"The discovery that there was a real deluge . . . does not of course prove any single detail in . . . these stories.  This deluge was not universal, but a local disaster confined to the lower valley of the Tigris and Euphrates, affecting an area perhaps 400 miles long and 100 miles across; but for the occupants of the valley that was the whole world!"  [5]

Though the idea that Ur was the site of the flood that inspired the Noah story has fallen out of favor, many scholars still believe that story, the Sumerian legend, and other similar flood myths likely have roots in one or more real historic catastrophes. So, while Woolley’s claim may betray an over-eagerness to tie his finds to biblical events, it’s hardly outrageous. And by dismissing any claim that his discovery proves the fantastical story of Noah to be true, Woolley demonstrates that he will view evidence relating to biblical events with an appropriately skeptical scientist’s eye.

Yet Wooley’s mention of the Ram in a Thicket has an entirely different tone. If the statue pre-dating Abraham really creates a problem for Woolley -- if it is indeed “difficult to explain” -- then Woolley rejects the possibility that the ram story might be, like the Noah Flood, “based on” an earlier Sumerian myth; instead, he is claiming the story necessarily originated during the life of the historic Abraham. And if the story had to originate with Abraham, can we understand Woolley to be saying he believes the story of the ram caught in a thicket, unlike the story of the flood, is literal truth?

Money, Publicity, and a Cheeky Sense of Humor 

Having been so careful to avoid claiming the literal truth of the Noah story, I think we can rule out the possibility that Woolley was himself a biblical literalist. But there are other reasons why Woolley might have wanted to paint his goat in a bush as the Ram in a Thicket.

One possibility is the desire for publicity and the funding it brings. Leonard Woolley and his wife Katharine were PR masters, skillfully invoking their site’s biblical heritage to draw attention to the work at Ur. And the public loved it; the excavation became a popular topic in the Illustrated London News and celebrities, royals, and wealthy tourists all vied for the opportunity to visit the site. With this attention came funding, and with that funding Woolley was able to excavate Ur for 12 seasons from 1922 to 1934 when the site finally closed during the Great Depression. Woolley clearly saw no harm in engaging in a little showmanship in the name of science, so perhaps his statement on the Ram in a Thicket is an example of that.  

Woolley might just as well have made this statement for fun. As my regular readers know, I have been volunteering with a project to transcribe the thousands of letters, field notes, and other documents left from the Ur excavation. Several weeks ago, I found a true gem of a letter in which Woolley describes one of his finds.

The object in question is an alabaster plaque featuring a carving of a boat, which Woolley readily identifies as depicting local marsh dwellers. The boat has a small “deck-cabin with an arched roof”, and a man is shown on board with a pig, a goose, and some fish.  Despite being very clear about what the artifact represents, Woolley notes that “the temptation to see more in it than this was too strong: we called it Noah's Ark as soon as it was found, and as the earliest representation of Noah's Ark, the boat . . . will take its place amongst the treasures of Ur.” [6]

Unless we think Woolley is stating his intent to mislead the public about the find -- and I certainly do not believe that is the case -- then this passage is pretty funny, right?  Woolley is winkingly confessing to seeing something that’s not really there, taking pleasure in the false association, and acknowledging that others will experience the artifact the same way.  I think he’s being rather cheeky!  Was he making a similar joke in talking about the Ram in a Thicket?  Gosh, it really looks like it’s from that Abraham story, so good luck explaining the time discrepancy!

What was Woolley thinking when he said our little goat set up a parallel that is “difficult to explain”?  I’m no Woolley expert (even though I like to play one on this blog), and I certainly don’t know the answer.  

When Woolley looked at our goat, he thought of a Bible story; for me, it will always bring to mind a romantic holiday, and who can say what you might see? It could be anything, really. And while I hope goats don’t make you think of sexytime, if they do, you can certainly blame the Pompeii exhibition for that.

Next time:  Pompeii and my first-ever blog giveaway!

[1] The Penn Museum, Ram Caught in a Thicket at, accessed April 2, 2013.
[2] Woolley, Charles Leonard (London, 1929) 6th printing, 1930, pp. 78-81
[3] Id. at 67-8.
[4] Id. at 29.
[5] Id. at 31.
[6] UrCrowdsource, 1925-8-28c.jpg at April 2, 2013.

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