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Backward Glance: The Ur-Archaeologist, Edward M. Luby, BAR 23:02, Mar-Apr 1997.

Royal Tombs of UrSir Leonard Woolley, renowned as the excavator of “Ur of the Chaldees,” was no stranger to publicity. Through best-selling books, popular magazine articles and extensive newspaper interviews, Woolley painstakingly translated the results of his Near Eastern archaeological investigations into a language accessible to the public, winning himself legions of friends and followers—among them, Agatha Christie, T.E. Lawrence, Freya Stark, Gertrude Bell, Winston Churchill and even England’s Queen Mary.

Born in London in 1880 to a strict clerical family fallen on hard times, Woolley spent much of his youth focused on school. He won a scholarship to Oxford in 1899, where he studied theology with the clergyman William Archibald Spooner—whose nervous manner of speech gave rise to the term “spoonerism,” a tendency to transpose the initial consonants of words. It was Spooner who advised Woolley to give up the notion of becoming a schoolteacher and to pursue a career in archaeology. From 1905 to 1908, Woolley worked for Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, where he came to value artifacts for bringing what he called the “dead-and-gone” back to life. Thereafter, he worked almost exclusively for museums.

Drawn further and further into the world of antiquity, Woolley finally took to the field. He first earned his stripes participating in field projects in England, Nubia and Italy. In 1912–1913, Woolley led well-publicized archaeological investigations at the Hittite site of Carchemish in Syria, where he worked closely with another young excavator from Oxford, T.E. Lawrence, soon to be famous for his exploits in assisting Arab resistance against the Turkish empire. During World War I, both Woolley and Lawrence were called upon to serve in British intelligence. In 1916, Woolley’s ship, apparently on an intelligence mission, was hit and sunk by a mine. He and several others were captured and spent the next two years in Turkey as POWs.

Soon after his release near the end of the war, Woolley used his war-time contacts to begin excavating again, first in Syria and later in Egypt. But it was in southern Iraq at ancient Ur—home of the patriarch Abraham, according to Genesis 11-27–29—that Woolley first made his mark on the scientific community, sparking the world’s imagination.

Woolley excavated the site of Tell-el-Mukayyar, ancient Ur, from 1922 to 1934 under the sponsorship of the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum. With a superbly organized crew of hundreds of local workers, headed by the formidable foreman Hammoudi, Woolley uncovered the imposing Ziggurat of Ur, as well as several impressive temples, thousands of graves, an extensive residential area and many public buildings. These 12 seasons of excavations at Ur revolutionized contemporary understanding of ancient Mesopotamia.

Woolley’s most spectacular finds were 16 “Royal Tombs,” dated to around 2600 B.C. (Early Dynastic IIIa). These tombs contained an astonishing group of finely crafted items made of precious stones, metals or wood- earrings, daggers, ribbons, vessels, harps, beads and bracelets. The tombs yielded evidence of mass burials, and Woolley quickly linked this practice to human sacrifice, suggesting that the scores of attendants found in some of the tombs were killed or drugged before these “death pits” were sealed.

In perhaps the most famous “Royal Tomb,” now thought to be associated with Lady Pu-abi, a stunning gold headdress was carefully uncovered, along with chariots and oxen. The public was entranced. Nothing like this assemblage had ever been seen before in Mesopotamia. Ur’s treasures now competed for public attention with the spectacular finds from the tomb of Tutankhamen, discovered by Howard Carter in 1922.

Woolley’s staff at Ur varied from year to year, with cuneiform experts, architects and other specialists coming and going. Many members of the public also visited, attracted by Woolley’s publicity skills, including Edward M. Luby Agatha Christie, who arrived via the Orient Express in 1928. Two of the more enduring expedition members were Woolley’s general assistant, Max Mallowan, soon to be the husband of Agatha Christie, and the volunteer artist Katherine Keeling, who became Woolley’s wife and assisted her husband throughout their years at Ur.

Katherine Keeling apparently provoked strong reactions from all who came in contact with her. H.V.F. Winstone, Woolley’s biographer, characterized Katherine as “demanding,” “ruthless” and “calculating.” Max Mallowan called her “poisonous,” and Gertrude Bell, a travel-writer and the first Director of Antiquities in Iraq, wrote that Katherine was “dangerous.” Agatha Christie met Katherine at Ur and later called her “extraordinary” and a “great friend.” Indeed, a character based on Katherine appeared in Christie’s famous Poirot mystery Murder in Mesopotamia; in the book, however, unlike in life, the archaeologist’s rather unpleasant wife meets an untimely end.

The romance of the Ur excavations was also heightened by their connection to the Hebrew Bible.a Woolley explicitly linked a large area of densely packed housing occupied during the Old Babylonian period (c. 2000–1739 B.C.) to the Biblical Abraham. Still, even though “Ur of the Chaldees” is mentioned as the home of Abraham in Genesis, the excavations revealed no direct evidence linking Abraham to Woolley’s Ur.b Indeed, the association between the Biblical Ur of the Chaldees and Tell-el-Mukayyar, ancient Ur, has not been clearly established by scholars. Furthermore, the historical existence of the patriarchs has long been a subject of heated debate.c

This did not prevent Woolley from describing Ur of about 2000 B.C. as the city of Abraham. Woolley knew there was no direct evidence, yet he believed without question that Abraham had walked along the site’s “unpaved streets, many of them blind alleys … dirty in the summer, and muddy in the winter.” He particularly emphasized the connection between Ur and Abraham in works aimed at the public; in his scholarly contributions, he was much more circumspect, focusing instead on Ur’s cultural history, social structure, architecture, art and technology. Unlike some of his counterparts working in the Near East, Woolley did not set out to prove the historicity of the Old Testament, but he fully exploited any possible links between the Bible and archaeology. This is not surprising given his flair for publicity and perpetual need to raise funds to continue excavations at the site—funds far more readily available for projects with Biblical connections.

In the 1930s, Woolley was at the peak of his fame. Knighted in 1935, he escorted Queen Mary on tours of the artifacts from Ur at the British Museum. He published popular books, as well as scholarly tomes, and frequently appeared on radio programs and in lecture halls. In the late 1930s, he began excavating at the Syrian sites of Atchana and al-Mina, and he made a high-profile trip to India to evaluate its state-run archaeological program. During World War II, he advised Winston Churchill on how the British might protect Europe’s cultural treasures from harm. After the war, Woolley excavated again in Syria, to some acclaim, and in 1949 he returned to England where he was content to write books and excavation reports until his death in 1960.

Sir Leonard Woolley fully published the results of his archaeological investigations, a noteworthy accomplishment given the poor publication record of so many of his contemporaries. In the case of the Ur excavations, he left behind a finely detailed set of volumes which scholars continue to use today. But Woolley was much more than a skilled excavator- He was also a great popularizer of archaeology who strongly believed that the past is relevant to modern life. As Max Mallowan wrote in his memoirs, Woolley’s work should serve as a “model to all archaeologists, an immortal reminder that good writing, which can only be achieved through good reading and clear thinking, should be the aim of our endeavors.”

a. See James A. Sauer, “The River Runs Dry—Biblical Story Preserves Historical Memory,” BAR 22-04.

b. See Cyrus H. Gordon, “Where Is Abraham’s Ur?” BAR 03-02.

c. See Kenneth A. Kitchen, “The Patriarchal Age- Myth or History?” BAR 21-02; and Ronald S. Hendel, “Finding Historical Memories in the Patriarchal Narratives,” BAR 21-04.

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