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Home > Museum > Special Exhibits > Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur

Treasures From The Royal Tombs Of Ur

The Royal Cemetery of Ur

Richard L. Zettler

The cemetery Woolley uncovered in the late 1920s included some 1,850 intact burials spread over an area approximately 70 by 55 meters underneath the southeast corner of Nebuchadnezzar's temenos and partly beneath and outside its enclosure wall... Woolley estimated that perhaps two or three times that number of burials originally existed in the area.

As Woolley reconstructed it, the burials had been cut into irregular and sloping ground; heaps of rubbish spread out from the prehistoric town, whose center lay to the southwest, sloping down to the northeast and southeast. An earlier group of burials was separated from a later group by additional debris layers that varied in thickness, from 1 to 3 meters, as well as in composition. In most places, the debris was gray in color and made up of decomposed mud bricks, but in some places it contained pottery or a combination of pottery, brick rubble, and lime.

Woolley dubbed the debris layers in the cemetery "Seal Impression Strata" (SIS) because of the large number of clay sealings recovered from them. Archaic tablets and seal impres- sions from the earlier SIS 8-5, dated to the earlier part of the Early Dynastic period (Early Dynastic I), provided a terminus post quem for the earlier group of burials. A lapis lazuli cylinder seal belonging to Ninbanda, the queen and wife of Mesannepada (see cat. no. 25), and impressions of seals naming Mesannepada king of Kish and Ninbanda the queen (see fig. 44) were found in strata that sealed the earlier burials and provided a terminus ante quem for them. The Sumerian King List names Mesannepada as first king of the First Dynasty of Ur; he is commonly thought to be a contemporary of Eannatum, third king of the better attested Lagash dynasty. The earlier graves, then, can be dated to the period conventionally known as Early Dynastic IIIA.

According to Woolley, the cemetery's later burials could be securely attributed to the Sargonic period by inscribed cylinder seals found in two of the graves. These seals refer to officials of Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon, founder of the Dynasty of Akkad.

Woolley assigned fifteen graves on the northeast edge of the cemetery to a time period intermediate between the earlier and Sargonic graves, the Second Dynasty of Ur. He did so because their artifacts seemingly shared characteristics of both groups of burials. Reexamination of the diagnostic pottery and cylinder seals, however, indicates that the "Second Dynasty" burials are Akkadian in date or later.

As for the relative chronology of the burials, Woolley realized that absolute elevations provided little help because graves had been cut into uneven ground. In the cemetery's crowded conditions, later burials commonly overlaid, and not uncommonly cut and disturbed, earlier ones, and Woolley recognized groupings of as many as five, ten, and even twenty superimposed burials. Using only those groups with more than five burials, he devised a developmental sequence of artifacts such as pottery, stone and metal vessels, and metal tools and weapons. Using this developmental sequence, he could look at artifact inventories in other tombs and place those tombs too in a relative sequence. Woolley's methodology was seemingly solid, but questions remain. Beginning with Hans Nissen's Zur Datierung des Konigsfriedhofes von Ur, which appeared in 1966, more than thirty years after Woolley's final report, various studies continue to examine the stratigraphy and relative dating of the cemetery's thousands of burials.


Woolley assigned 660 burials to the Early Dynastic Royal Cemetery. The overwhelming majority were simple inhumations..., in which the body, wrapped in reed matting or placed in a coffin, was set at the bottom of a rectangular pit that varied in size but averaged l.50 by 0.70 meters. The body was invariably placed on its side, with the legs slightly flexed and the arms and hands in front of the breast at about the level of the mouth. Clothed and accompanied by his/her personal belongings--for example, jewelry, cylinder seal, and dagger--the deceased generally held a cup, and a jar and bowl were placed nearby. Other utilitarian goods such as bowls and jars containing foodstuffs, weapons and tools, and so on might be distributed around the pit, the quantity probably reflectillg wealth and social status. Of the 660 burials, 16 stood apart from the simple inhumations in terms of their wealth, peculiarities of structure, and evidence of ritual. Woolley termed these "royal tombs," assuming that they contained Ur's deceased kings and queens. A cylinder seal inscribed "Meskalamdug, the king," along with a second seal inscribed "Akalamdug, king of Ur, Ashusikildingir (is) his wife," seemingly confirmed Woolley's assumption.

Royal tombs consisted of a vaulted or domed stone tomb chamber set at the bottom of a dcep pit, to which a ramp provided access. The principal body lay in the chamber, buried with substantial quantities of goods, sometimes including a sled or wheeled vehicles pulled by oxen or equids. Personal and household attendants lay in the tomb chamber with the deceased king. or queen and in the pit outside, which Woolley Consequently termed the "death pit." Although no trace remained, Woolley felt certain that the tombs would have been marked on the surface with some sort of chapel.

Text continues in the show's catalogue: Treasures from the ROYAL TOMBS of UR

The Burials of a King and Queen

Richard L. Zettler

Many of the most important artifacts described in this catalogue come from just two of the royal burials, PG 789 and PG 800. Relatively well preserved and with rich material inventories, they typified for Woolley the Early Dynastic royal tombs. We now know that the relationship between these tombs and their death pits is questionable, but we still recognize the tombs as the final resting places of royalty. PG 789 may indeed have held a king, whose name we will never be certain of; PG 800 held a queen named Puabi.

The burials, with their adjacent tomb chambers and overlapping death pits, come from the northeast end of the cemetery. PG 789's pit, oriented northeast by southwest, was a rectangle measuring 10 by 5 meters. It was entered via a ramp on the northwest side at the west corner; Woolley's plan...indicates that the ramp was preserved and traced for a length ofapproximately 3.60 meters. The floor of the pit lay 8.30 meters below the surface. The earthen sides of the open pit were hidden by a dado of reed matting, which also covered the floor. (Although reed matting is seldom preserved, it is sometimes recognizable in digging as a fine white powder that preserves impressions of the reeds.) Woolley does not say to what height the sides of the pit were preserved. The tomb chamber proper stood in the north corner; against the northwest side of the pit. It consisted of a single room measuring 4.00 by 1.80 meters, with a door in the southeast wall. Its walls were made of limestone rubble, plastered both inside and out with mud. The chamber's roof, made of baked bricks, consisted for the most part of a barrel vault formed by contiguous ring arches, but the ends were apsidal half-domes supported on pendentives... The doorway was arched with baked brick.

PG 789's tomb chamber had been robbed in antiquity and was thoroughly looted, probably, as Woolley postulated, at the time of the construction of PG 800. Among the artifacts left by the robbers were a silver model boat (U.10566) and a gaming board (U.10557) , both now in the Iraq Museum.

PG 789's death pit was undisturbed. At the foot of the access ramp were the bodies of six soldiers, wearing copper helmets and carrying spears. In the pit just in front of the entrance were two wagons, each drawn by three oxen. The wagons had apparently been backed down the ramp, as the oxen faced the entry to the pit. By the animals' heads was a body, identified by Woolley as a groom. To the side of one wagon and behind the other were two additional bodies, presumably the drivers. To the northeast of the wagons, the floor of the pit was covered with bodies, fifty-four in all. Half-leaning against the southwest wall of the pit was a row of women, described by Woolley as the "most richly adorned of all in the pit." Of the rest, many were women, but others, especially those who lined the narrow passage to the door of the tomb chamber, were men. Few of the bodies were well preserved, and Woolley based his identification of gender largely on accoutrements found with the bodies Animal bones found in the center of the passage to the tomb chamber door presumably represented the remains of food offerings. Finds of particular importance in the tomb pit included what Woolley identified as a copper shield, found with two sets of spears; its repoussé relief shows lions trampling fallen enemies (cat. no. 13). A wooden Iyre rested on the head of one of the women found against the southwest wall of the tomb chamber. A second stood over the tops of the bodies at the northwest side of the pit. The sounding box of the second Iyre was decorated with the head of a bearded bull in gold and lapis lazuli, below which were shell plaques (cat. no. 3). Large lumps of unworked lapis lazuli lay in the south corner of the pit.

Text continues in the show's catalogue: Treasures from the ROYAL TOMBS of UR

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