A Sumerian king and an official

Where Sumerian Rulers Lie: The Royal Tombs of Ur

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The Royal Tombs of Ur is a 4,800-year-old Sumerian burial site of around 2,000 graves located in the ancient city of Ur in southern Mesopotamia (in the south of modern day Iraq). Sixteen of the graves were designated as ‘royal’ due to the spectacular treasures inside, including gold beads, bronze relics, cylinder seals, musical instruments and ceramics, as well as artifacts associated with mass ritual.

The cemetery was excavated by the British archaeologist Leonard Woolley in the 1920s and 30s, which sadly resulted in many of the precious relics ending up in the British Museum in London, instead of remaining in their homeland. Only a small number of artifacts from the cemetery can be found in the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, while the rest are in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia.

Leonard Woolley holding the noted excavated Sumerian Queen's Lyre, 1922

Leonard Woolley holding the noted excavated Sumerian Queen's Lyre, 1922 ( Public Domain )

The Discovery of the Tombs of Ur

Leonard Woolley began his excavations of the Royal Cemetery of Ur in 1922. In the following year, Woolley concluded his initial survey of the site, and began to dig a trench near the ruins of the ziggurat. It was here that Woolley’s workmen discovered evidence of burials and jewelry of gold and precious stones, leading to it being called the ‘gold trench’. Woolley, however, decided to halt the excavation in this trench, as he was aware that neither he nor his men were experienced enough to excavate burials. Hence, Woolley concentrated on excavating buildings, before returning to the ‘gold trench’ in 1926.

Ruins in the Town of Ur, Southern Iraq, with the ziggurat in the background

Ruins in the Town of Ur, Southern Iraq, with the ziggurat in the background ( CC by SA 2.0 )

As a result of Woolley’s excavation, a cemetery of nearly 2,000 graves was gradually unearthed. Most of these graves were simple pits, in which a body in a clay coffin or wrapped in reed matting was laid. These burials also had a few grave goods in them – some ceramic vessels, a few pieces of personal items, and a small amount of jewelry.

Royal Tombs

However, Woolley also discovered 16 graves that stood out from the rest. In these graves, the dead were not buried in pits, but in stone tombs, and accompanied by a large amount of luxurious grave goods. Furthermore, there is evidence that certain rituals were carried out for the dead. These rich tombs are believed to have being the resting place of powerful rulers in Mesopotamia.   

One of the best known ‘royal’ tombs, for example, is that of a queen by the name of Puabi, which has been designated as PG 800. The name of the tomb owner is known due to the cylinder seal bearing her name (in Sumerian, and carved in the cuneiform script) that was buried with her. Apart from having the name of the tomb’s owner preserved, this burial is also extraordinary for the fact that it was intact, and had escaped being looted.

Reconstructed Sumerian headgear necklaces found in the tomb of Puabi, housed at the British Museum

Reconstructed Sumerian headgear necklaces found in the tomb of Puabi, housed at the British Museum ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Lyre of a Bull's Head from Queen Puabi's tomb. (British Museum)

Lyre of a Bull's Head from Queen Puabi's tomb. (British Museum) ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Queen Puabi's Cylinder Seal

Queen Puabi's Cylinder Seal ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Puabi was found to have been lain on a wooden bier in a vaulted chamber. Amongst the grave goods found on her were an elaborate headdress of gold leaves, gold ribbons, strands of lapis lazuli and carnelian beads, a pair of large, crescent-shaped earrings, and rings on her fingers. There was also a pit associated with the queen, in which the remains of five armed men, four grooms for a pair of oxen, another three attendants, and twelve female attendants were found. It has been suggested that these people were part of a ritual human sacrifice conducted for the dead queen.

The Standard of Ur

In one of the tombs, a significant though still unidentified object was found. It has come to be known as the Standard of Ur. The artifact is a wooden box that is believed to be a military standard showing a narrative sequence. As well as being highly decorated with precious lapis lazuli, shell, and red limestone, the box depicts men carrying goods or leading animals towards clearly important seated figures, who are taking part in a feast accompanied by servants and musicians.  The other side of the standard depicts men in chariots trampling over prostrate bodies and soldiers leading prisoners towards another important figure. It is not known how the box was used or what it may have contained.

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