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Woolley’s Ur Revisited, Richard L. Zettler, BAR 10-05, Sep-Oct 1984.

Woolley’s Ur RevisitedSir Leonard Woolley was, perhaps, the most famous archaeologist of his day. He was a man of enormous energy and a prodigious worker. Between 1907 and 1949 Woolley not only directed five major excavations in Egypt and Nubia, Syria and Iraq, but published the results quickly and in a highly professional manner.

Between 1922 and 1934, Woolley directed 12 seasons of excavations at the site of ancient Ur (Tell el-Mukayyar) in southern Iraq on behalf of the loins Expedition of the British Museum and The University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. Even after 12 years, he had uncovered only a small part of the site. By comparison with current excavations, however, his excavations were very large-scale. The scale of operations paid off; the excavations produced an enormous amount of information on the history and topography of the ancient city and on the material culture of ancient Mesopotamia.

Of the areas that Woolley uncovered at ancient Ur, two were of particular importance. The first was the Royal Cemetery of the Late Early Dynastic period (c. 2600–2500 B.C.). These tombs contained outstanding examples of Sumerian artistic achievement and craftsmanship: the bull-headed lyres, the “standard of Ur,” the “ram caught in a thicket,” gold, silver, copper, bronze and stone vessels, headdresses and exquisite jewelry. Many of these treasures from the Royal Cemetery have been recently exhibited at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. The second important area at Ur was the so-called AH site, a residential quarter measuring roughly 10,000 square yards in area and dating to the Isin-Larsa and Old Babylonian periods (c. 2000–1700 B.C.). Although the finds from the AH site were not as spectacular as those from the Royal Cemetery, discoveries such as neighborhood shrines provided an all too rare glimpse of day-to-day life in an ancient Mesopotamian city.

The results of the excavations have been published in a series of ten volumes. In addition, a good percentage of the Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform texts have been published in nine volumes.

Woolley also wrote a number of popular and summary accounts of the excavations and his finds. Ur of the Chaldees was first published in 1929. A revised edition entitled Excavations at Ur appeared in 1954. Woolley wrote these accounts in a dramatic style and on occasion stretched the limits of archaeological and textual evidence. He also drew a number of Biblical connections which, as is now evident, had no basis in observable fact. For example, in a sounding in the area of the Royal Cemetery, just below strata dating to the late Ubaid period (c. 4000–3500 B.C.), Woolley cut through 11 feet of clean, water-laid silt. He readily proclaimed this stratum to be evidence of the flood mentioned in the Sumerian King List and of the flood described in Genesis 6–8. Flooding was (and still is) a persistent and serious threat in southern Mesopotamia, and flood deposits of various dates have been found at a number of sites in addition to that of ancient Ur, including Tell Ingharra (ancient Kish) and Fara (ancient Shuruppak). There is no basis whatever for connecting any of these deposits with the flood of the Sumerian King List, let alone with that of the Old Testament. Whatever the flaws of his popular accounts, however, Woolley had an unusual gift for communicating the results of his excavations and the excitement of discovery. That comes through clearly in rereading his works even now.

Ur ‘of the Chaldees’, published in 1982,a is a revised and updated edition of Woolley’sExcavations at Ur. It has many more illustrations and photographs than the original, including 16 superb color photographs, mostly of objects from the graves of the Royal Cemetery. The revision was undertaken by the highly respected scholar, P. R. S. Moorey, Assistant Keeper in the Department of Antiquities, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

In his preface to Ur ‘of the Chaldees’, Moorey has written, “In accepting the publishers’ invitation to produce a revised edition of this book … I have followed the lines indicated by Woolley for his own account in 1954. I have striven to retain the immediacy and vivid quality of his original text … whilst presenting the record of a 50-year-old excavation in the context of modern study.” Moorey has done exactly what he set out to do and with such success that Woolley’s work can once again be recommended to general readers interested in ancient Mesopotamian civilization, along with such distinguished works as Samuel Noah Kramer’s The Sumerian, David and Joan Oates’s The Rise of Civilization and Joan Oates’s Babylon.

Moorey has succeeded in once again making Woolley’s Excavations at Ur an important general work. To do this, he made a number of modifications. First, Moorey quite correctly deleted most of the Biblical allusions that Woolley so liberally inserted into the text ofExcavations at Ur, but that detracted so much from that work. Even the characterization of the patriarch Abraham as originally coming from Ur of the Chaldaeans in Genesis 11:29–32, as Moorey has pointed out, is not directly relevant to the excavations at Tell el-Mukayyar and to the description of the finds from that site (see Ur ‘of the Chaldees’, pp. 8–9).

Second, Moorey has modified or edited out Woolley’s less informed or more imaginative remarks. For example, Woolley characterized the structure called No. 11 Paternoster Row in the residential quarter (AH site) as a khan or inn (Excavations at Ur, p. 186). As Moorey suggests, this characterization may have been somewhat fanciful; it is just as likely that this structure was, in Moorey’s words, “the home of a citizen wealthier than others living in the quarter” (Ur ‘of the Chaldees’, p. 204). A second example: Moorey deleted Woolley’s remarks on aspects of Sumero-Akkadian religion made in the context of his description of the private chapels found in many of the houses in the AH site (Excavations at Ur, pp. 189–190). He has added in their place a paragraph specifically intended to counter Woolley’s earlier remarks by pointing out the uncertainties in our understanding of Sumero-Akkadian religion (Ur ‘of the Chaldees’, p. 208).

Where Woolley’s remarks in Excavations at Ur have been challenged but not convincingly disproven, Moorey has maintained Woolley’s words but has discreetly pointed out that his remarks are subject to scholarly controversy. For example, many scholars have challenged Woolley’s reconstruction of houses of the Isin-Larsa and Old Babylonian periods from the AH site as having had two stories (Excavations at Ur, pp. 181–184). These scholars have not, however, disproven Woolley’s reconstruction. Moorey has noted that fact (Ur ‘of the Chaldees’, p. 264, n. 6); to de-emphasize Woolley’s reconstruction, Moorey has not included Woolley’s drawing showing No. 3 Gay Street with two stories (Excavations at Ur, p. 183, fig. 14).

Third, Moorey has attempted to incorporate into Woolley’s text the results of work carried out or published since Woolley’s Excavations at Ur. For example, in the first chapter, Moorey has added a discussion of recent theories on the formation of the Mesopotamian delta and a consideration of the Ubaid period remains from the site in light of what we currently know of the Ubaid period (c. 5300–3500 B.C.).

Ur ‘of the Chaldees’ is a fitting tribute to the 50th anniversary of the close of excavations at Tell el-Mukayyar and to the memory of Sir Leonand Woolley.

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