Human Sacrifice and Intentional Corpse Preservation in the Royal Cemetery of Ur

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Sir Leonard Woolley's excavation of the Royal Cemetery of Ur in the 1920s and 1930s yielded thousands of human skeletons, few of which were documented in the field or preserved for later study or exhibition. The few Woolley retained, including 21 relatively well-preserved skeletons in the Natural History Museum, London, and 10 skulls, which he consolidated and lifted en bloc, have recently been re-examined for the insight they provide into skeletal populations, mortuary practices and the treatment of the dead in late third-millennium BC Mesopotamia (Molleson & Hodgson 2003). Two skulls flora the collection of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (hereafter Penn Museum) are examined using current analytical protocols and new technologies. They provide physical evidence for the sacrifice and intentional preservation of attendants buried with Ur's elites in the Royal Cemetery's late Early Dynastic phase (c. 2500 BC) and substantially revise Woolley's long-accepted reconstruction of royal funerary proceedings.

The Royal Cemetery of Ur

The excavations at Tell al-Muqayyar, ancient Ur (the biblical Ur of the Chaldees), sponsored by the British Museum and Penn Museum and directed by Charles Leonard Woolley, attracted enormous public attention. Due in large part to the excavator's flare for publicity, newspapers around the world printed countless articles and The Illustrated London News, England's window on the world, reported the results of Woolley's work in 30 features. The Royal Cemetery, an extensive burial ground that included elite tombs dating to the mid third millennium BC, received particularly intense coverage. Woolley's discovery competed for public attention with Howard Carter's 1922 discovery of the intact tomb of Tutankhamun, and today ranks as one of the most important archaeological finds of all time.

Woolley (1923) discovered disturbed burials that were apparently part of the Royal Cemetery in his first days of digging, bur was more interested in the well-preserved architecture he uncovered elsewhere on site. He consequently focused his early efforts on the ziggurat and major public buildings in close proximity to it, before returning to the cemetery in 1926-27 (Woolley 1928a). He concentrated his excavations there for five of the next seven field seasons. Woolley initially reported 1850 graves in the Royal Cemetery (1934: 33), but unearthed an additional 260 burials in 1933-34 (1955: 27-45), after publishing his monumental two-volume report. He estimated that the Royal Cemetery originally held twice the number of burials he documented, many destroyed by later interments, looting or construction. He recognised that the burials had occurred over a long period of time and divided them into distinct periods (Woolley 1934: 20-32). Most of the burials were simple inhumations consisting of a body wrapped in matting or placed in a coffin, accompanied by a few grave goods: jewellery, cosmetic shells, cylinder seals, bowls, jars, comestibles, tools and weapons. Woolley designated 16 as royal tombs, based on the wealth of their grave goods and certain 'peculiarities of structure and ritual' evident in the tomb contents and construction (Woolley 1934: 33). He assumed that they contained the burials of Ur's kings and queens, and cylinder seals inscribed with personal names and royal titles found in a few burials seemingly confirmed his assertions (1934: 38). Although Moorey (1977) and others have challenged Woolley's assumption that the graves belonged to royalty, Marchesi's (2004) re-examination of the inscribed evidence supports their identification as royal monuments.

The 16 royal tombs date to the Early Dynastic IIIA period, 2600-2450 BC, covering a span of about a century, their occupants possibly related by blood or marriage (Nissen 1966: 143; Reade 2001: 15-26). Some had evidence of a stone-built chamber, with one or more rooms, set at the bottom of a deep pit. …