By March 16, 2016 Read More →

Abraham’s Ur: Did Woolley Excavate the Wrong Place?

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The ancient woodwork has perished, the metal has been stripped from the walls,” Sir Leonard Woolley wrote in 1936. “The ruins which excavation lays bare are but skeletons from which the skin and flesh have gone, and to re-create them in imagination we must use such evidence as the ruins may afford, eked out by descriptions in the cuneiform texts. A king will boast how he overlaid the doors of a sanctuary with gold, and amongst the ashes on the threshold of a temple gateway there may be found shreds of gold leaf overlooked by plunderers who sacked and burned the building; a fallen scrap of painted plaster can give a hint as to the adornment of a ceiling.”

The ruins of Ur are as lifeless today as Sir Leonard Woolley described them two years after his excavation of the site ended. But thanks to Woolley’s discoveries, we may conjure up a vivid picture of life at Ur. The British explorer uncovered not just scraps of plaster and shreds of gold, but entire vessels, headdresses and bull figurines made of the precious metal, ancient lyres, copper weapons and tools, silver bowls, a stunning assortment of jewelry made of imported lapis lazuli and carnelian, and more than 400 cylinder seals. He also unearthed a temple and ziggurat dedicated to the local moon god Nanna; homes of the rich and the not so rich; nearly 2,000 burials, most of them simple, but 16 of them so elaborate that he identified them as the royal tombs of Ur; and, most famous of all, a 12-foot-thick flood layer that he identified with Noah’s Flood.

Eighty years have passed since Woolley began excavating, on behalf of the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania, at Ur, in Iraq, just southwest of the Euphrates and about 150 miles north of the Persian Gulf. But it is 150 years since the British Museum first showed interest in the site. At that time, in the 1850s, it was known simply as Tell el-Muqayyar, “The Mound of the Pitch.” The tell was named for a ziggurat, an imposing temple platform made of mudbricks, held together with bitumen, or pitch, and approached by stairs on three sides. The ziggurat at Ur—the best-preserved example from ancient Mesopotamia (see photo)—had remained at least partially exposed ever since it was built during Ur’s floruit around 2100 B.C.E.

In the mid-1850s, the British Assyriologist Henry Rawlinson, newly famous for having deciphered cuneiform, encouraged J.E. Taylor, the British consul in Iraq and an occasional archaeologist for the British Museum, to explore the impressive remains of Tell el-Muqayyar. Digging along the base of the second tier of the ziggurat, Taylor found cuneiform inscriptions (on what are called foundation cylinders) that recorded a sixth-century B.C.E. restoration of the ancient ziggurat by the Babylonian emperor Nabonidus (556–539 B.C.E.). The inscriptions identified the site as Ur. Popular imagination linked it with Biblical Ur, the home of Abraham (Genesis 11:31).

Despite Taylor’s find, interest in excavating the site was slow to develop. A few minor digs were undertaken, but for the most part, Ur lay fallow while the British Museum directed its funds to excavations of the Assyrian palaces in northern Iraq. It was not until World War I, when British troops arrived in Mesopotamia, that serious thought was given to returning to Ur. In 1922 the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the British Museum agreed to co-sponsor an excavation. Any finds, they determined, would “be divided between the two Institutions by mutual agreement.” Leonard Woolley, who had excavated Carchemish (in northern Syria) for the British Museum and had dug in Italy and Nubia for the university, was named director. On September 26, 1922, Woolley set sail for Basra, the southern Iraqi port.

Woolley would spend 12 consecutive winters digging at Ur, from 1922 to 1934. His work resulted in a knighthood, a radio show on the BBC, a handful of popular books, a 19-volume technical report and, of course, the finds. The discoveries, he later wrote, “far surpass[ed] anything we had dared to expect.” The artifacts were divided among the museums of London, Pennsylvania and Iraq. Today, the famous Standard of Ur—four mosaic panels depicting a military victory and celebration—resides in the British Museum, along with statuettes, precious jewels, instruments, seals, gold vessels and game pieces. The artifacts sent to Baghdad have been in storage since the Gulf War, when the Iraq Museum’s collection was put in hiding. Two hundred artifacts from the University of Pennsylvania Museum are touring the United States through May 2001 (the exhibition schedule appears in the box on p. 25).

Rising 60 feet above the surrounding plain, the elongated Tell el-Muqayyar measures about 4,000 feet from north to south and 2,600 feet across. Occupied for almost 4,000 years, from the fifth to the mid-first millennium B.C.E., the city reached its zenith in the third millennium B.C.E.—the period of the so-called royal tombs, the ziggurat and other major buildings.

“The first thing I did,” Woolley wrote about his initial forays at Ur, “was to dig trial trenches which might give us some idea of the lay-out of the old city.”  One long trench ran east of the ziggurat; the second cut across what would later be identified as the cemetery.

Working with a team of 400, Woolley excavated extremely carefully for his day. When his trench struck gold beads from rich graves during his first season, Woolley stopped work in that area—for four years. “Our object was to get history, not to fill museum cases with miscellaneous curios,” Woolley wrote, “and history could not be got unless both we and our men were duly trained.” Only after years of labor (and learning) at Ur did Woolley resume his excavation of the cemetery.

In the meantime, Woolley concentrated on the ziggurat and the surrounding buildings, which he determined were part of a walled sacred precinct that filled much of the northern half of the mound. The surrounding wall had last been restored by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (605–562 B.C.E.).

Woolley dated the ziggurat and other major construction in the sacred precinct to the city’s heyday, around 2100–2000 B.C.E., when Ur was the capital of an empire, now called by scholars Ur III. King Ur-Nammu, the founder of the dynasty, initiated an ambitious building project to be completed by his son Shulgi. They dedicated the sacred precinct on the top of the mound (on the site of an earlier temple) to the Sumerian moon god Nanna and his wife Ningal, who were thought to reside in Ur. In return for the gods’ protection, the kings of Ur built the ziggurat, which probably supported a temple to Nanna, dwellings for temple priestesses and what may have been a palace. An inscription from Ur records that the city walls built by Ur-Nammu were “like a yellow mountain”—presumably referring to the ziggurat, which loomed above the surrounding plain. Ur-Nammu also refurbished the city’s harbors and dug canals on three sides.

It is this city of about 2000 B.C.E. that Woolley identified as Abraham’s home.

When the British mystery writer Agatha Christie visited the excavations at Ur in 1928, Woolley himself took her on a grand tour of the site. (Apparently Woolley’s temperamental wife, Katharine, had just read—and enjoyed—The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, one of Christie’s Poirot mysteries.) Christie, who would later marry Woolley’s then-assistant Max Mallowan, admired Woolley’s ability to conjure up life among the dusty ruins: “Leonard Woolley saw with the eye of imagination: the place was as real to him as if it had been 1500 B.C., or a few thousand years earlier. Wherever we happened to be, he could make it come alive. While he was speaking I felt in my mind no doubt whatever that that house on the corner had been Abraham’s. It was his reconstruction of the past and he believed in it, and anyone who listened to him believed in it also.”

Eric Burrows, a priest and epigraphist working at Ur, offered Christie a more sober, and perhaps more balanced, understanding of the site. Burrows’s method as he guided the mystery writer around the site was “entirely different” from Woolley’s. “With an apologetic air, he [Burrows] described the big courtyard, a temenos [sacred precinct], or a street of shops, and just as you became interested would always say: ‘Of course we don’t know if it is that really. Nobody can be sure. No, I think probably it was not.”

In a popular book, Woolley attempted to correlate the archaeological and historical evidence from Ur with the scanty description of the patriarch’s life in the Bible: “Abraham,” he wrote, “did not come away from Ur empty handed. He brought with him a pride in his upbringing, in the greatness of his city … He brought with him those stories of the world’s creation and of the Flood which, moralised by his descendants, have been as history or as parable treasured by half the world for four thousand years. He brought with him the laws of Ur and, handing them down through the generations of his house, laid the foundations of that Mosaic code which is still the Law of the Jews and has been professedly adopted by most Christian nations as the basis of their own systems.”

Woolley tried to quell any doubts about his identification of Ur as home to Abraham. When his opponents claimed that Abraham would never have traveled so far and that the Biblical Ur should be identified with Urfa, in southern Turkey, Woolley took the opposite tack: “The proximity of Urfa and Haran was a strong argument against the former’s being Ur. The migration of Terah’s house becomes rather ridiculous if the move were but for a dozen miles or so and the new home was actually in sight of the old.”

But Woolley was not interested solely in Ur in the time of Abraham; he also wanted to find the city of Abraham’s ancestors.

In 1927, having become more confident in his team and in his own understanding of the site’s stratigraphy, Woolley returned to the cemetery he had struck in his first season. In all, Woolley discovered 1,850 graves: 660 from about 2600–2500 B.C.E. and the rest from about 2300 B.C.E. Most of the earlier graves were simple: a 5- by 6-foot pit containing a single body, wrapped in reed mats or placed in a simple wooden coffin. Clothing, a few personal accessories and simple vessels made of clay or stone were among the only grave goods.

Sixteen of these early graves, however, were spectacular. These Woolley identified as the royal tombs of Ur. Although the royal tombs differed in design, in most the body was placed in a vaulted or domed chamber at the bottom of a deep shaft. Surrounding the body (either in the chamber or in a pit outside) were the corpses of attendants (more than 70 in one case), the skeletons of oxen beside the chariots that they once pulled, and abundant grave goods. The wealth of imported goods attests to Ur’s primacy in trade. The most abundant metal in the tombs was copper, believed to originate in the Oman peninsula, at the southern end of the Persian Gulf. There were vessels of chlorite and calcite, which probably came from Iran; beads carved from carnelian, known from western India; and seals, beads and other ornaments made of brilliant blue lapis lazuli, which came from southern Afghanistan.

One of the richest tombs belonged to a woman named Puabi (or Shubad, as Woolley read her name). On January 4, 1928, Woolley secretly notified his sponsors of his discovery by wiring them a telegram in Latin: “TUMULUM SAXIS EXSTRUCTUM LATERICIA ARCATUM INTEGRUM INVENI REGINAE SHUBAD … ” (“I found the intact tomb, stone built and vaulted over with bricks, of Queen Shubad adorned with a dress in which gems, flower crowns and animal figures are woven. Tomb magnificent, with jewels and golden cups—Woolley.”)

Later, Woolley tried to envision the ceremony that would have accompanied such a mass burial:“Down into the pit, with its mat-covered floor and mat-lined walls, empty and unfurnished, there comes a procession of people, the members of the dead ruler’s court, soldiers, men-servants and women, the latter in all their finery of brightly-colored garments and head-dresses of carnelian and lapis lazuli, silver and gold, officers with the insignia of their rank, musicians bearing harps or lyres, and then, driven or backed down the slope, the chariots drawn by oxen or by asses, the drivers in the cars, the grooms holding the heads of the draught animals, and all take up their allotted places at the bottom of the shaft and finally a guard of soldiers forms up at the entrance … The musicians played up to the last; then each of them drank from their cups a potion which they had brought with them or found prepared for them on the spot—in one case we found in the middle of the pit a great copper pot into which they could have dipped—and they lay down and composed themselves for death. Somebody came down and killed the animals … and when that was done earth was flung in from above, over the unconscious victims, and the filling-in of the grave-shaft was begun.”

Royalty, mass suicide and gold—only Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tut’s tomb could rival the sensation caused by Woolley’s find.

But Woolley was not content with having found what he identified as the city of Abraham and his ancestors. He also wanted to uncover evidence of Noah’s Flood. Having dug down 30 feet in places to clear the cemetery, Woolley decided to continue digging in this area, hoping to find the earliest civilization at Ur. He cut a pit, 75 by 60 feet in area, which eventually extended 64 feet deep. The first 41 feet down contained the remains of cities—mudbrick walls, pottery, graves. Directly beneath these occupation layers, however, Woolley detected a 12-foot layer of silt that had been deposited all at once, sometime in the mid-fourth millennium B.C.E. Woolley identified it as the Biblical Flood. During the Deluge, he speculated, the overflowing Euphrates had deposited the soil here. Scholars today suggest that the deposit may well have been wind-swept sand or the silt from any one of the numerous floods of the Euphrates, which may or may not have inspired the Biblical and Sumerian Flood stories.

Beneath the thick silt appeared a layer of mudbricks, ashes and potsherds, which Woolley identified as a prehistoric, pre-Flood community. Beneath this, about 3 feet below sea level, all traces of human occupation ended.

The year that Woolley dug his Flood pit was also the year the stock market crashed—1929. By the early 1930s, funds for Woolley’s dig were drying up. The “possibilities of the site were nearing exhaustion, at least for our generation,” the director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum diplomatically informed Woolley in 1933. On February 25, 1934, the dig ended.

One year later, Woolley was knighted by King George V. In 1936 Woolley published a popular account of his findings at Ur, named not for the site, but for the man he considered its most famous resident: Abraham: Recent Discoveries and Hebrew Origins.

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