Sir Leonard Woolley and Ur of the Chaldees

The most prominent feature of the site of Ur in 1922 was the high mound which covered the remains of the great ziggurat or staged tower dedicated to the Moon God Sin. It was here that much of Woolley’s work was to be focussed. He was able to trace the history of the ziggurat over more than five thousand years and to uncover evidence for the temples, defensive walls and other buildings which surrounded it.

See Also: Ur: The City of the Moon God (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).

By Harriet Crawford
McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research
University of Cambridge
July 2015

The gold jewellery of Troy is always linked to the name of Heinrich Schliemann and the treasures of the Royal cemetery of Ur are always linked to the name of Leonard Woolley ( Winstone 1990). So who was he and how did this come about?

Woolley’s journey to Ur began with a series of happy accidents. He was born in 1880 and came from a large and impoverished family which lived in north-east London where his father, a vicar, had a parish. This background and his own faith were to play a crucial role in his future career. Leonard won a series of scholarships first to school and then to Oxford. He spent five years at Oxford first taking a degree in Classics, or Greats as it was called, before moving on to study Theology with the intention of becoming a priest. Sadly for him, he did not do well enough in his exams to be accepted for the priesthood and was left with no clear idea of what he would do instead. The Warden, or head of his College, knowing his situation, and having been asked to find an assistant Keeper for the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, called Woolley in and told him that he was to become an archaeologist. After his initial surprise, Woolley did as he was told, but after a short spell at the Museum decided that he much preferred the outdoor life to working in a museum.

His first excavation was at the Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall at Corbridge, Northumberland in the UK. This experience taught him two things, firstly that he loved digging and secondly, that he was a lucky excavator, finding a remarkable statue which became known as the Lion of Corbridge. His archaeological apprenticeship really began after he left Oxford in 1907 and joined an expedition to Nubia run by the University of Pennsylvania. Here he learnt the tools of his trade working under Randolf MacIver, a pupil of the great Egyptologist Flinders Petrie. He quickly realised the importance of meticulous recording and of publishing his results, both lessons he would find invaluable in his work at Ur. He also began to learn Arabic.

In 1912 he was to get his first taste of leading a dig at the important Syrian site of Carchemish with a young man called T.E.Lawrence, later better known as Lawrence of Arabia, as his assistant. The two young men combined a successful digging season with a little light spying on the progress of the building of the German Berlin to Baghdad railway which ran very close to the site. They had a series of adventures which sound more like Raiders of the Lost Ark than scholarly research! Woolley also made the acquaintance of another pivotal figure for his work at Ur, a local sheikh called Hamoudi who was in charge of the workmen. Hamoudi became a trusted friend and he, and later his three sons, were vital to the success of the Ur excavations.

When the First World War broke out in 1914 Woolley enlisted and was immediately commissioned and sent to Cairo where he found himself working with Lawrence again, and with the formidable Gertrude Bell who was also to figure largely in his work at Ur. She was to set up the first Antiquities service in Iraq and the first national museum of which she became director. In this capacity she was to preside over the mandatory division of finds between Iraq and the sponsors of the dig at the end of each season at Ur, a tense and difficult job. Woolley was captured in the Mediterranean when the boat he was travelling on was blown up and spent the last two years of the war in a Turkish prisoner of war camp.

After the war he again worked for the University Museum in Philadelphia not knowing that negotiations between this museum and the British Museum in London were eventually to produce permission from Iraq for a joint expedition, funded by the two museums, to work at the ancient site of Ur in south-western Iraq. In 1922 the permit was granted and he was invited to head the joint project. He accepted and was to work at Ur for the next twelve years. His excavations were phenomenally successful even if, by modern standards, his team was tiny and some of his techniques antique. The team usually consisted of Woolley himself, an Assistant, an architect and sometimes an epigrapher to deal with the clay tablets. Later, his future wife Katharine was to join them, initially to run the domestic side of the expedition, but later as an able draughtsman who also helped Woolley to uncover some of the most delicate finds. Every member of the team was expected to work as hard as Woolley did himself. Hamoudi, the foreman from Carchemish, was in charge of the 250 or so local workmen who initially had no training at all, though some were to develop considerable expertise.

The most prominent feature of the site of Ur in 1922 was the high mound which covered the remains of the great ziggurat or staged tower dedicated to the Moon God Sin. It was here that much of Woolley’s work was to be focussed. He was able to trace the history of the ziggurat over more than five thousand years and to uncover evidence for the temples, defensive walls and other buildings which surrounded it. The remains of the third millennium BC were to prove the most exciting, while a deep pit which went down 18 metres was to take the earliest settlement of the site back at least another two thousand years. Most of the deposits in this huge pit were made up of rubbish levels from an industrial area where pottery had been fired in simple kilns. Into this great industrial tip were dug simple graves mostly dating from the mid fourth and early third millennia. Below these levels were deposits containing so-called Ubaid pottery, the earliest known from southern Iraq. Below this a thick deposit of silt was found. This silt was up to 3.7metres deep in places and appeared to have been laid down by standing water. The remains of simple houses of reeds and mud were found below it. There was no doubt in Woolley’s mind that he had found concrete evidence for Noah’s flood and Katharine, his wife, agreed with him. As we suggested above Woolley’s faith was to colour many of his interpretations.

Sadly for him, it became clear over time that this was not Noah’s flood. Other ancient cities on the Sumerian plain also had water laid flood levels but they occurred at different periods to the one at Ur while the site of Eridu, which was visible from Ur itself, produced no evidence at all for flooding. The interpretation which best fits the evidence is that there was a series of local floods, each devastating over the local area, rather than one gigantic flood which wiped out mankind.

From an area south-east of the religious centre of the city, apparently dug into an earlier rubbish dump, Woolley made some of his most spectacular finds. Sixteen graves arranged roughly in two parallel lines, stood out from others in the huge cemetery which surrounded them for several reasons. The tomb chambers were built of stone using sophisticated techniques such as the true dome and were approached by a long sloping ramp which led to an open space in front of the entrance to the burial chamber. Piled in front of the entrance and in the burial chamber were amazingly rich objects, which included everything the deceased would need in the afterlife: boats, chariots, musical instruments, weapons, containers for lavish quantities of food and drink and personal jewellery in gold and silver. Even more surprisingly, most of the graves contained the remains of numerous attendants who had been buried, probably while still alive, to accompany the main burial.

A few inscriptions were found on cylinder seals and other objects referring to the owners of these treasures as kings and queens. Although the earliest ‘king lists’ found on clay tablets from the region do not contain these names, Woolley decided that the tombs were probably those of the rulers of the city state of Ur about the middle of the third millennium ( For details about the graves and the other finds from Ur see Woolley ed. Moorey 1982 and Crawford 2015). Various other possible explanations have been discussed, but the majority view today supports Woolley’s proposal. There have also been some new thoughts on the attendants found in the ‘Royal’ graves. Woolley, with his fertile and romantic imagination, drew a picture of devoted retainers processing into the tomb after the body of their master or mistress, drinking a fateful draught of some sort of poison, and laying themselves down to die. Recent re-examination of a few of the skulls which have survived in museums around the world, paints a rather less awe-inspiring picture. Two at least of the skulls show evidence of blunt trauma, a heavy blow to the skull, while one of the guards has his helmet crammed on back to front, suggesting he was dressed after death. Were the attendants perhaps captives, or even criminals, rather than loyal followers?

The high point in Ur’s prosperity came a little later in the last century of the third millennium. The so-called Third Dynasty of Ur unified the Sumerian plain and its influence was felt across Mesopotamia and as far as the Iranian plateau. A sophisticated bureaucracy was developed to administer the area under its control and literature and the sciences flourished. At Ur itself the great mudbrick ziggurat was rebuilt and had at least three stages, probably with a shrine on top, although erosion and later rebuilding means that no trace of it survives. It was surrounded by a sacred precinct with shrines, a storehouse for offerings to the god, and a palace for the high priestess. All of these buildings were protected by a great wall giving access to the lower court yard by an imposing gateway. The lower court, in turn, was surrounded by storage rooms and through another gateway gave access to the town below.

It was to this period that Woolley and other biblical scholars attributed the wanderings of the patriarch Abraham whose name is associated with Ur in the Bible. Woolley would point out to visitors a house such as Abraham would have lived in. Unfortunately, Abraham is associated with various other sites like Urfa in Turkey, where one legend says he was born, and Harran, also a city sacred to the Moon god. Reassessments of the date of these houses at Ur also now dates many of them to around 1800BC. All in all, it seems increasingly unlikely that these houses had any links with the proposed time of Abraham.

This seems to be another example of Woolley’s background colouring his interpretation of his finds and of his presenting them in a way most likely to appeal to his listeners (and to his financial sponsors). Whatever the truth of the matter, the area of houses south of the ziggurat gives us a unique insight into what a four thousand year old town must have been like with its narrow winding streets with the blank, mudbrick walls of the houses hemming them in on both sides. The houses were of various sizes suggesting that rich and poor lived side by side, and most were built around a courtyard onto which the rooms opened, and which gave them light and air. Some of the richer houses had a chapel in which lay a family tomb and an altar for offerings. There were also neighbourhood chapels, a school and a baker. Sometimes clay tablets allow us to identify the owner of a particular house and to follow some of his professional dealings. Ea-Nasir, for example, was a merchant who travelled backwards and forwards to the Persian Gulf in search of copper and whose merchandise was not always of the highest quality!

The fortunes of the city rose and fell over the following centuries, but it enjoyed one final period of glory in the seventh century BC when the great Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar began a refurbishment of the religious centre of the city. Nabonidus, his successor, and a devotee of the Moon god, rebuilt the ziggurat which Woolley suggested may have had as many as seven stages at this period. The shrine and perhaps the top stage of the construction was faced with blue glazed brick, possibly to represent the sky, while lower stages were painted red, white and black to represent other parts of the cosmos. The shrine may have been crowned with a golden dome representing the heavens. Nabonidus also rebuilt many of the other buildings within the sacred heart of the city and followed a very ancient tradition by appointing one of his daughters as high priestess. A magnificent palace was built for her down by one of the city’s harbours.

The Persians who ended the Babylonian rule, occupied the city about 539 and it became prosperous once more. Its final ruin was brought about by the gradual shift of the course of the Euphrates eastwards and the movement of the head of the Gulf southwards to approximately its modern position, stranding the city in a sandy waste.

If the city of Ur made Sir Leonard Woolley, it is also true to say that through his work, he gave Ur new life. Today, the site lies adjacent to an important Iraqi airbase, formerly used by the Americans and before that by Saddam Hussein. This has protected it from the worst of the looting which many archaeological sites suffered between the two Gulf wars. However, damage has been done by the building of various auxiliary buildings associated with the base and by inappropriate restoration. The façade of the ziggurat has traces of shell damage. But the site survives more or less intact and Iraqis still go there on special occasions to visit the great ziggurat which has become a potent symbol for all Iraqis whatever religion they profess. Woolley would surely have been proud of this new life.

Further reading

Crawford, Harriet. 2015. Ur the city of the Moon God. Bloomsbury. London

Winstone, B.V.F. 1990. Woolley of Ur. Secker and Warburg. London.

Woolley, Sir Leonard, edited by P.R.S.Moorey. 1982. Ur of the Chaldees. Herbert Press. Oxford

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