Ur Digitization Project: February 2013

Archival documents of the month
Spotlight on Maps of Excavated Domestic Areas EM and AH
Published in Antiquaries Journal 1927, 1931, and in Ur Excavations volume 7

My last blog post concerned the questions of the standard house in the period most revealed in Woolley’s excavations. Now I want to cover the larger concept of town planning in that period, known as the Isin/Larsa – Old Babylonian, very roughly dated 2000-1700BCE. To do that, we have to look at the entire area and so I concentrate on two maps, one drawn up in the 1926-27 season of area EM, and the other in the 1930-31 season of area AH.

Ur excavation area EM, domestic architecture: published in UE7 1976, plate 122

Ur excavation area EM, domestic architecture: published in UE7 1976, plate 122

Area EM probably housed temple workers, as evidenced by texts found in the buildings. Area AH, however, may have been a kind of financial district. It was by far the largest exposure of houses at the site, revealing more than 50 structures over an area in the range of 8,000 square meters. Exact numbers are hard to determine since there are partial houses on the edges of excavation and the maps are at a scale that make it difficult to measure precisely. Nonetheless, the area is large enough to address questions of access, drainage, traffic flow and the like.

Ur excavation area AH, domestic architecture: published in UE7 1976, plate 124

Ur excavation area AH, domestic architecture: published in UE7 1976, plate 124

Woolley felt that the wandering streets with frequent blind alleys meant there was no municipal planning. This is almost certainly true. Buildings appear to have been constructed in an agglomerative fashion, being created to the space they could manage, leaving streets to wander as they might. Still, there was some concern for overall access and Woolley noted that when streets met, the buildings at the corner tended to have rounded edges. He believed this was in concern for pack animals that might be going through the streets – if a loaded donkey caught its wares on a sharp corner of a building, it could be disastrous.

Street levels were often much higher than floor levels inside houses. This was probably due to people sweeping their floors out onto the street, dumping dirt and refuse that then packed down into the street surface, raising it up over time. Eventually, house floors would also be raised and eventually, roofs as well. This is the general process that creates an ancient tell, a mound that builds up particularly as mud brick architecture is built and rebuilt through time.

During excavation, Woolley numbered buildings as they appeared. The notes show 18 original numbers in area AH (there may be others though at the moment I have not found one above 18), but in later analysis many of these were found to contain several individual houses (connecting rooms with an opening to the street, but not to rooms of a separate house). The final map of AH shows the houses as Woolley analyzed them. He numbered each house in this final analysis by doors onto the streets, with odd numbered houses on one side and even numbered on the other. This was the method found in a normal English village, and Woolley even named the streets of Ur mostly after streets in English towns.

Most analysts (for example Van De Mieroop in Society and Enterprise in Old Babylonian Ur 1992, p. 122) suggest that Woolley used street names from Oxford, where he attended university. But most of the names do not occur in that city. Many more do occur in the city of Bath, where Woolley bought a house in 1920. His father was from the West Country and wanted to move back there, so Leonard and his brother, Cathcart, purchased the house for him on Bathwick Hill. It became the family home for many years to come. Furthermore, Woolley’s sister Edith lived nearby in Midsomer Norton and Leonard was the godfather of her daughter, Margaret. He spent much time in Bath and surrounds, particularly between field seasons in 1926, because a general strike in that year made it difficult to travel between Bath and London. When he returned to excavations in the 1926-27 season, the year he uncovered area EM, he had the streets of Bath fresh on his mind.

Street names assigned by Woolley in area EM:
Oxford   Bath
Quiet St                   N             Y
New St                     N             Y
Gay St                      N             Y
Quality Ln              N             N
Closed Ln               N             N

Street names assigned by Woolley in area AH:
Straight St              N            N
Church Ln              Y             Y
Paternoster Row   N            N
Broad St                  Y             Y
Bazaar Alley           N            N
Boundary St           N            N
Store St                   N            N
Old St                      N            N
Niche Ln                 N            N
(letters Y or N indicate whether the street name appears in Oxford or Bath respectively)

Of course, not all street names at Ur came from Bath. Some were clearly designated for features found in or around the street itself, in particular Niche Lane where Woolley says “… there has been cut into the thickness of the wall of the Boundary Street house a semicircular recess which gives its name to the lane…” (Ur Excavations 7, p.17). Others, such as Store Street and Bazaar Alley were almost certainly so named because Woolley believed he had found commercial installations along those roads. These are in area AH. Most of the EM streets, however, match with the streets in the centre of Bath. Many in AH are common names, particularly Broad Street. There is a Broad Street that runs through Oxford University, so it is possible Woolley derived it from that city, and others he may have derived from London (Hackney and Bethnal Green) where he was born and raised.

Turning Ur into something of an English town may seem a little counter to the spirit of the ancient place, but it assisted in analysis, making it easier to locate a building as an analytical unit rather than using haphazard numbers scattered across the vast excavation space. The main problem now is that the old house numbers of the field notes are not always correlated to the newer analytical sequence. Woolley must have had correlations somewhere, but any such he wrote down are no longer in our archives. This is one of the challenges of the Ur project – placing the field notes into context with publications and with every object associated with that context.

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