Excavation of the ancient city, 1930-31 Season
Spotlight on Domestic Area AH
Reconstructing original house numbers and the process of their excavation
One of the great accomplishments of the Ur excavation was the large extent of domestic architecture it revealed. Many early archaeological efforts focused almost exclusively on monumental structures and grandiose tombs. Woolley certainly uncovered his fair share of these, but he also looked into the mass of the city itself, the more common abodes and day to day activities.
A view down Straight Street (Division Street) in the 1930-31 season. UPM Archive photo 191883
In the 1930-31 season, Woolley uncovered nearly 8,000 square meters of domestic space in an area he dubbed AH, which stood for Abraham’s Housing. This was a reference to the biblical connection of Ur of the Chaldees with the patriarch Abraham, though no real evidence of anyone of that name or similar was found. If Abraham had lived here, though, it would likely have been in the early second millennium, the approximate period of the best preserved houses in AH.
When Woolley published the houses, he numbered them by their doors onto streets, which he named after contemporary English streets for the most part (see my blog post on street naming and domestic areas at Ur). Yet, the field notes show the excavation designators Woolley assigned as he went. Such house numbers are not always recorded, however, and many different pieces of evidence have to be used in the attempt to overlay them on the published map.
The best anchor point is AH House 3, which was later designated No. 1 Church Lane and No. 1 Straight Street (it has two entrances, one on each street). House 2 is nearby, at No. 3 Straight Street as indicated by field notes, but House 1 is not directly correlated in the notes. Instead, there is a mention of a clay tablet, U.16087, found on the street between House 2 and House 1, which locates House 1 pretty well. In fact, in the original excavation area of those three houses, the street was called Division Street. It is yet another point of confusion when reconstructing the original work that not only houses, but also streets were often renamed. It makes sense, however, that the only street they’d found at that point early in the AH dig, one which split their houses neatly, would be called Division. The realization that Division Street is Straight Street helped to place other numbers back in their correct positions and to show that the original Shop Street is not the same as the published Store Street. It is Niche Lane, as shown by its relation to Division Street.
Much of the renumbering is due to further analysis and understanding of the architecture prior to publication, which is clearly an important step. The original numbers were meant to be temporary, not necessarily cognitive units. When we have a correlation, such as House 27 = No. 1 Broad Street, we can’t be sure that the original designator covered exactly the extents of the walls of the published house. The location of doors and true extent of walls of the OB period were often not discovered until trenches were dug more completely, and what we end up with is 27 original house numbers covering 53 final publication houses, or on average 2 published houses to each original number.
In another case, two original numbers fell into one final published house number. The evidence shows that both House 8 and House 13 refer to No. 15 Church Lane, in the far north of the excavation area. It seems unlikely that two early house designators would cover one later one, but the reason becomes clear if we follow the numbers. Woolley and his excavators initially proceeded in two parallel swaths, one west of the other, both heading north, and the ends of these swaths converged on the same building.
The following animated gif files show the progress of excavation. Numbers in red are securely located (within the general region) by evidence in the notes or catalogue cards. Those in blue are less secure due to lack of evidence, but the red anchor points tend to show that the blue points do belong where they are placed (Note: you will need to click on the image to see the animation).
Area AH published map with animated progress of house numbers 9-13
Area AH published map with animated progress of house numbers 1-8
House 8 field notes indicate some excavation farther north of the north wall, probably in another house that Woolley did not completely excavate and did not report in the final publication. There are, however, a few graves from that area that are on maps. In fact, it appears that House 8 was known as Dead House due to the number of graves there.
Indeed, Woolley and crew often used other designators, like Rail House, Doll’s House, and Dead House, to designate certain areas of the excavation. It is not often clear which particular houses these refer to except in the case of the so-called School House, which is House 27, No. 1 Broad Street. The Khan (No. 11 Paternoster Row) may be House 22, but that is unconfirmed. In fact, most of the numbers 20 and higher are almost never documented so as to be at the moment impossible to locate accurately. We can only say with certainty that they are in the south of area AH. They appear on the last image below in an order that may be close, moving from anchor points like House 18 and 19 over to another anchor point at House 27, but cannot be taken as accurate. They are shown in light blue because there is so little evidence for them.
Area AH published map with all house numbers; those in light blue are particularly uncertain.
So why is any of this important?
The Ur project is reconstructing Woolley’s excavation process in order to understand his work more completely and in order to visualize the uncovered objects in their original locations wherever possible. We can’t reassess Woolley’s work or Ur itself without evidence of his thought process and work progress, and that evidence is to be found in his field notes and early reports. This material is vital for researchers who wish to delve more deeply into the site and come to a better understanding of it through its excavation. And without a correlation of original House numbers to published numbers, artifacts and other evidence from the original notes cannot be placed back into their mapped contexts.