Ur Digitization Project: August 2013

Reconstructing Excavation Processes

Spotlight on Division of Finds: Penn’s acquisition of its Ur material

Tens of thousands of artifacts were uncovered in the twelve years of excavation at the ancient city of Ur, from 1922-1934. The Ur of the Chaldees project, with lead funding from the Leon Levy Foundation, is still uncovering exactly where each of them went, piece by piece. It is a difficult but fascinating process, one in which we must reconstruct not just the procedures governing the recording and distribution of objects, but also recreate conditions and mindsets of the day from letters, photos, diaries, and any other information we can acquire. Understanding how and why Woolley assigned numbers to objects is vital since he did not consistently record every piece. Therefore, objects without a direct paper trail exist in all of the primary museums involved in the excavation.

Packing pottery for shipment

Fig. 1: Packing pottery for shipment

Sir Leonard Woolley recorded roughly 22,000 artifacts on around 15,000 index cards over 12 seasons of excavation. These artifacts were divided between three museums in accordance with the laws of the time. The Antiquities Law of 1924 specifically states:

We, King of ‘Iraq,

Pursuant to the proposal of the Minister of Communications and Works and with the concurrence of the  council of Ministries, do hereby order as follows:

Article 22

At the close of excavations, the Director shall choose such objects from among those found as are in his opinion needed for the scientific completeness of the ‘Iraq Museum. After separating these objects, the Director will assign to the person who has been given the permit for excavation such objects as will reward him adequately, aiming as far as possible at giving such person a representative share of the whole result of excavations made by him.

Article 23

Any antiquities received by a person as his share of the proceeds of excavation under the preceding article may be exported by him and he shall be given an export permit free of charge in respect thereof.


So, the process was relatively straightforward. The dig director, Woolley, would collect, examine, record and store objects through the season, then at the end of the season, the Director of Antiquities in Baghdad would come to the site and go through the finds. If there were particularly important objects that were not represented in the Iraq National Museum, those would be set aside. The rest would be divided roughly equally, with half going to the Expedition and half to Iraq.

There is evidence that Woolley would set up tables and divide the important finds the way he felt was equitable in a 50/50 split, then the Director of Antiquities would arrive and rearrange them as needed. Negotiation and debate would ensue. Sometimes an assistant from the Antiquities Department would arrive early to help with the sorting process.

The Director of Antiquities for the first years of the dig was none other than Gertrude Bell. She established the Iraq National Museum and she wrote the Antiquities Law for the new nation of Iraq, which was signed into official law in 1924. There are varying opinions on whether she weighted execution of the law toward the excavators out of loyalty to Britain and the West, or toward the new country of Iraq out of devotion to it and to the Arab people. She had certainly traveled a great deal in the Near and Middle East and there is no question that she loved being there. On many occasions she championed national issues and her work on the museum confirmed her dedication to a national identity for the Iraqis. But she also had good relations with most of the excavators.

In fact, the law itself was not biased toward one group or the other. Of course, the Director of Antiquities had the ultimate control and could, for example, suggest that everything was needed in the Iraq Museum. This was unlikely to occur, since at the time excavators wanted objects for their museums and if they did not get them they would not return with funding that helped local economies, hiring hundreds of workers. There is a story, however, of Miss Bell storming from the site on one occasion with a statue in her purse that she was determined belonged in the Iraq Museum (she apparently let other objects go to the Expedition in return; for Bell’s version of the story, see this link). Several letters from Woolley indicate that he fought hard battles with her to get a good sample of objects, and his assistant Mallowan once stated: “No tigress could have safeguarded Iraq’s rights better.”

Gertrude Bell at the Ur dighouse

Fig. 2: Gertrude Bell at the Ur dighouse

In a letter dated 4 March 1925, Bell had this to say:

The excavations this year, without being quite so sensationally exciting as they were last year, have been extremely good and there were some wonderful objects to divide. The division was rather difficult but I think J.M. and I were very fair and reasonable — I hope Mr Woolley thinks the same in his heart, though he fussed a little, or rather declared himself to be very sad afterwards. I had one night at Ur between two bad nights in the train, but it was a very good night — it was so peaceful and restful out there in the desert.

The artifacts that Woolley received for the Expedition were then boxed up in wooden crates (see figure 1 above) and sent to Basra where they were to be loaded on the next freighter bound for London. Eventually arriving in the UK, they were unloaded, and typically a representative from Philadelphia would attend a second division, that between the British Museum and the Penn Museum. Since the two institutions jointly sponsored the excavations, they were each to receive half of the excavation share of finds. In the early years, the representative was often Father Léon Legrain, Curator of the Penn Museum Babylonian Section, who was also the epigrapher at the site on several seasons.

Many of the objects were restored and displayed briefly in London before they were shipped on to the States. Copies were also made of some artifacts so that all three museums would have an example to display. This was particularly true of the most famous gold artifacts, such as the helmet of Meskalamdug, which were electrotyped and then the originals sent back to Baghdad.

But many more than the recorded 22,000 artifacts were initially uncovered at Ur. Some were not collected, left at the site and reburied. This might happen because there were simply too many to collect (such as the case with potsherds), they were too deteriorated (see fig. 3), or they were deemed not to reveal further information (some large stone tools like grinding querns might fall into this category, though many querns were collected).

PG543, showing silver diadem ‘not kept’: “Round the forehead a broad diadem of silver, width 0035, much decayed, thin plain plate”

Fig. 3: PG543, showing silver diadem ‘not kept’: “Round the forehead a broad diadem of silver, width 0035, much decayed, thin plain plate”

Others were collected but not numbered. These were the objects that Woolley felt were duplicates, items that were already well represented by collected and numbered artifacts that season. These artifacts are particularly difficult to track. It appears that they were divided by the same rules as the numbered objects, and Woolley wrote at one point to Bell asking her to come to pick her share of pottery that cluttered the excavation house courtyard. Much of the pottery never received field numbers. It is the most common artifact on any excavation in the Near East and there is no telling how many hundreds of thousands of sherds Woolley left behind. The pots he mentioned as cluttering the courtyard are whole pieces, relative rarities among ancient pottery (see fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Pots in dighouse courtyard

Fig. 4: Pots in dighouse courtyard

Many figurines also never received numbers, as we are finding in our current individual examinations of them (see my April blog post). Instead, it seems Woolley recorded a good example of a type and then went back and added others under that type piece with letters appended to the field number (such as U.17156A, B…). Such a process shows the emphasis on artifacts and types of artifacts rather than on specific finds and their findspots. That contextual information is what is sadly missing in so many cases. Even if we can find that Woolley meant a particular figurine to be classed with the U.17156 type, we don’t know where specifically in the site each additional piece was found. In some cases when he does list many lettered sub-examples, he also mentions where each was found, but this is unfortunately rare.

Thus, despite Woolley’s excellence in archaeology, he was at times object-oriented, or his recording of artifacts could fall to the minimum of that outlook. Others of his letters show that he was buying artifacts on the (then legal) market at the express request of various museums, something that was commonplace in his day.

Objects that were declared ‘duplicates’ were at times sent on to other museums, from both sides of the Atlantic. Thus, artifacts from Ur can be found in more than 30 additional institutions around the world. The Ur Project has a long way to go before it can confidently locate all of them, but it is one of its eventual goals. It is mostly concentrated for now, however, on assessing the collections in Philadelphia and London, reconnecting each object as much as possible to its original circumstances, its history of excavation, and on putting its information into the hands of researchers who will learn still more about it and about the ancients who made it.


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