Ur Digitization Project: April 2014

Artifact of the month
Spotlight on Field Number U.10183 (Museum Number B17249)
‘goddess-handled’ jar

U.10183 (B17249), upright-handled jar found in PG778 at Ur

U.10183 (B17249), upright-handled jar found in PG778 at Ur

Photo of reconstructed U.10183 published in Ur Excavations 2: 1934 plate 187

Photo of reconstructed U.10183 published in Ur Excavations 2: 1934 plate 187

In our recent investigations of pottery from Ur housed at the Penn Museum we have seen more than 1300 pieces, measuring, describing, photographing, recording condition, and making repairs or other treatments for those in need. In some cases we are removing early restoration since it no longer appears to be accurate in light of more recent research (image below with reconstructed rim, at left same jar without reconstructed rim). All of this stems from our efforts to make artifacts from Ur digitally accessible and researchable.

Pottery is particularly important for archaeological investigations as it often forms the basis of relative chronologies; that is, styles change in ways that can give us an understanding of progression in time at a particular site and sometimes across sites. They can also indicate influence from other areas — indicating trade routes, or areas of control. Naturally we must be careful when inferring socio-political phenomena from the presence of pottery types and must bring more evidence to bear wherever we can.

At most ancient Near Eastern sites, pottery fragments (sherds in archaeology-speak) are particularly prevalent. So common are they that full collection and storage is almost always impossible. Therefore, archaeologists today record information in the field, such as count and weight of all sherds from each unit at each level, and they seek out ‘diagnostic’ sherds — those that are most identifiable as particular types of pottery — for closer recording. These include decorated pieces, rims, bases, and handles; plain body sherds are often unhelpful in typologies.

In Sir Leonard Woolley’s day (he was the excavator of Ur in the era of ‘big digs’) archaeologists uncovered so large an area that they rarely collected or measured the thousands upon thousands of sherds they encountered. This means that the majority of pottery we have from Ur today is made up of whole or nearly whole pots. Admittedly these are the best for typological considerations, but we have lost a good deal of information as to the larger distribution of pottery across the site. In fact, most of the whole pots come from graves since they are less likely to have been broken in daily activities or later processes.

One of the most interesting pots we uncovered in storage was museum number B17249 (original field number U.10183). This is an example of a type variously known as ‘upright-handled,’ ‘anthropomorphic-handled,’ or ‘goddess-handled.’ The distribution of the type has been analyzed by Jane Moon (Iraq 44, no. 1, Spring 1982, pp.39-70). [NB: Dr. Moon is currently co-directing an excavation in Iraq only some 20km away from Ur at Tell Khaiber]. She noted that this jar, U.10183, is the only example of the type at Ur (along with another possible handle fragment). Typically such pieces are found farther north in Mesopotamia, and in funerary contexts.

U.10183 is definitely from a funerary context, coming from PG778. Woolley noted the unique nature of the object and drew it on his notecard from the tomb. He drew it, however, in full profile despite noting that the rim was entirely missing. He also reconstructed the jar based on the model he drew. Whether the rim was as plain as he thought is a big question. Many of the upright-handled jars have much more flaring rims, and there seems to be no additional evidence for rim type on this example; therefore, we have now removed the reconstructed rim.

Bottom of Field card concerning PG778, containing drawing of U.10183

Bottom of Field card concerning PG778, containing drawing of U.10183

Example of upright-handled jar from Kish (after Moon 1982: 43 #9=IM2358 and #11=1925.168)

Example of upright-handled jar from Kish (after Moon 1982: 43 #9=IM2358 and #11=1925.168)

The handle on this type of jar was never attached to the rim as would be expected of a full handle. In fact, many (including Woolley) have likened it to a spout. But though it may be hollow inside, it is does not have a hole at the top and was not used as a spout. In many examples, the decoration on the handle clearly indicates a human figure, (when recognizable, it is always female, hence the term ‘goddess’ used in some descriptions). Our example does not have so clearly human characteristics but the comparative example from Kish at right should make the connection clear.

This has been a quick look at a particularly interesting jar from Ur. Much more research can and should be done on all of the pottery examples. Those in our storerooms have rarely been seen over the past 90 years and making them available to researchers will allow reinvestigations that will help us more clearly understand the city of Ur and its position in the ancient Near East.

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  • Jane Moon

    Nice to see these extraordinary vessels back in the spotlight! They must have been for something special, but we still don’t know what. Now that fieldwork is starting up in the Ur region again, perhaps we will know more soon.