The Golden Leaves of Ur

Article excerpt


Ever since Sir Leonard Woolley and his team discovered and excavated the exceptionally rich third-millennium BC Royal Cemetery at Ur in the 1920s, speculation as to the status and origin of the people buried in the so-called 'royal tombs' has been rife (Reade 2001; Marchesi 2004). As is well known, the burials that had not been plundered in antiquity contained many extraordinary artefacts made of precious raw materials (gold, silver, lapis lazuli, carnelian, agate, etc), most of which had been imported into Mesopotamia (Woolley 1934; Zettler & Horne 1998).

Elaborate jewellery made of gold and semi-precious stones was particularly abundant in the burials of the 'King' (PG 789), Queen Pu-abum (PG 800) and their attendants (PG 1237). Headdresses and diadems were in part composed of botanical motifs--leaves, fruits and flowers--sometimes rendered with astonishing naturalism. The plant forms have been discussed and tentatively identified by several authors (Woolley 1934; Pittman 1998; Miller 2000; Reade 2003: 124). Two pendants adhering to a diadem found alongside the body of Pu-abum have been convincingly identified as the male inflorescence of a date palm (Phoenix dactylifera L.) and a fruit-bearing branch of the same species, respectively (Miller 2000). A third botanical motif is more difficult to define. It consists of three sub-globular, fruit-like elements associated with three leaves in a pendant. The golden pomes (a round apple-like fruit) terminate in a small carnelian bead which, if it actually represents a morphological feature, corresponds to the calyx of an epigynous flower. This detail led Woolley to identify these as pomegranates (Punica granatum L.) (Woolley 1934: 89). Miller, however, has identified them as apples (Pyrus malus L.) (Miller 2000:154), a fruit that was indeed present in a charred state, together with dates, in the Ur burials (Ellison et al. 1978; Postgate 1987). Both suggestions are possible. However, several other sub-globular fruits with adhering floral pieces exist in the Middle East and it is difficult, given the rather general morphology of these elements, to attribute them unequivocally to a particular species.

The same is true of the representations of what seem to be flowers. A regular flower head with eight petals--a 'rosette', made either entirely of gold or of gold with various inlays, such as shell, lapis lazuli or limestone--is a recurrent component of the elaborate headdresses found in the royal burials. The flowers are highly stylised and seem intended to fulfill a decorative purpose rather than representing an actual botanical species. Indeed, flowers with eight petals are rare in the plant kingdom and plant species with showy, octopetalous flowers of the Ur type are unknown in Middle Eastern flora.

The present paper focuses on another of the plant forms--the golden leaves that feature in elaborate, wreath-like headdresses, and occasionally as individual pendants, worn by women and discovered in 12 different tombs in the Royal Cemetery (Woolley 1934). In most cases, they are part of wreaths that made up complex headdresses but a few leaf pendants were also found as isolated items. Besides the leaves from Ur, a treasure excavated in the Lions' Temple at the Syrian site of Mari contained a golden leaf of the same type as well as other precious objects, all thought to have originated in southern Mesopotamia (Margueron 2004: Plate 95).

Identification of the gold leaves

Two different leaf shapes can be clearly distinguished in the Ur material. The first, present in certain of the headdresses including Pu-abum's (Figure 1), consists of simple, oblong and narrow leaves with an acute leaf tip or apex, arranged in groups of three. These display netted venation, i.e. a main, central vein from which smaller, secondary veins branch towards the leaf's edge. This leaf type has been convincingly identified as willow (Salix sp. …