Fabled Royal Graves of Ur Exhibit Opens Nationwide Three-Year Tour in Southern California

By McDonnell, Pat | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Fabled Royal Graves of Ur Exhibit Opens Nationwide Three-Year Tour in Southern California


McDonnell, Pat, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Fabled Royal Graves of Ur Exhibit Opens Nationwide Three-Year Tour in Southern California

In 1922 the discovery of Tutankhamen's treasure-filled tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings captured headlines the world over. Five years later, when news broke of Leonard Woolley's entry into the royal graves of Ur in Mesopotamia, interest in the ancient world reached manic proportions.

Gold and exotic artifacts are one thing, but what Woolley's discoveries established was insight into a highly sophisticated people -- the Sumerians -- who are credited with originating the world's earliest form of writing in the southern part of the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers known today as Iraq.

Woolley's excavations were jointly financed by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania. At the time, British author and explorer Gertrude Bell, who was assisting in the establishment of the Iraqi Department of Antiquities, also authored Iraq's law of excavation. It was this law which stipulated one-half of all objects recovered at Ur would remain in Iraq, while the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania each would be allowed one-quarter of the artifacts. (Since 1967, no items over 100 years old have been legally permitted to leave Iraq.)

The priceless Ur artifacts which arrived in Philadelphia in 1928 have never since been seen outside their display cases. However, when the University of Pennsylvania announced plans to refurbish its 110-year-old museum and add another wing it decided to put its Ur collection on the road with stops in eight museums throughout the U.S. until May 2001.

The traveling exhibition opened Oct. 9 at Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, CA, where art enthusiasts thrilled to observe up close the objects most have only seen in art history books. Dr. Richard Zettler, who curated the traveling exhibition, was on hand from the University of Pennsylvania.

Insight into the discovery of the royal tombs and the flamboyant Woolley were offered by Dr. Zettler. The enormous mound at Tell al-Muqayyar, south of Baghdad, had drawn the attention of archaeologists from the mid-19th century, but it remained relatively undisturbed until after World War I.

In 1922, the British Museum and University of Pennsylvania embarked on a joint expedition in Iraq and selected Woolley as the director. The Muqayyar tell -- near the present-day Iraqi city of Nassariyah -- which H.C. Rawlinson had identified as Ur of the Chaldees, was chosen over Nippur in the fall of 1922.

With the help of his faithful Arab assistant, Hamoudi, Woolley opened two trenches at Ur on Nov. 2, 1922. Ironically, his workmen intruded into the royal cemetery in the early days of that initial season, but Zettler noted that Woolley was more interested in studying the architecture of the site. Five years later, after clearing the architectural remains from later periods, including a wall built by Nebuchadnezzar, two ditches were cut from Trench A. Woolley realized he was in a cemetery more than 4,500 years old and that some of the chamber tombs contained remarkably lavish funereal gifts along with mass burials.

Aware of the sensation his discovery would create after the hysteria of King Tutankhamen's rich burial, Woolley wired his news in Latin to the University of Pennsylvania. Remarkably, reporters weren't alerted by Western Union of the exotic use of Latin and they remained oblivious to the mind-boggling contents of the message dated 6:43 a.m. Jan. 4, 1928. Translated, his message read:

"I found the intact tombstone built and vaulted over with bricks of Queen Shubad adorned with a dress in which gems, flower crowns and animal figures are woven. Tomb magnificent with jewels and golden cups."

Woolley estimated that originally there were two to three times the 1,850 intact burials he uncovered in the ancient cemetery, which was slightly smaller than a football field.

Most of these were individuals who had been wrapped in reed matting and simply placed on their sides with legs slightly bent. …

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