Penn Museum’s World-renowned Mesopotamian Collection from Ur is the Centerpiece Of a New Exhibition Exploring Iraq’s Ancient Cultural Heritage
PHILADELPHIA, PA—In 1922—the same year that Howard Carter made headlines with the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb in Egypt—the Penn Museum and the British Museum embarked upon a joint expedition to the ancient site of Ur in southern Iraq. Led by British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley, this expedition astonished the world by uncovering an extraordinary 4,500-year-old royal cemetery with more than 2,000 burials that detailed a remarkable ancient Mesopotamian civilization at the height of its glory.
Sunday 25 October 2009, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology opens a new long-term exhibition, Iraq's Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur's Royal Cemetery, bringing many of the details of that famous expedition vividly to life through field notes, photographs and archival documents—and more than 220 extraordinary ancient artifacts unearthed at the excavation. Iraq's Ancient Past looks to the present and future as well, exploring the ongoing story of scientific inquiry and discovery made possible by those excavations, and the pressing issues around the preservation of Iraq's cultural heritage today.
Centerpiece of the exhibition is the collection of famous ancient artifacts uncovered and, in some cases, painstakingly conserved, including five objects that art critic and former Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Thomas Hoving has called "the finest, most resplendent and magical works of art in all of America" (artnet.com): the Ram-Caught-in-the-Thicket, the Great Lyre with a gold and lapis lazuli bull's head, Queen Puabi's jewelry, an electrum drinking tumbler, and a gold ostrich egg—as well as the Queen's headdress and other treasures, large and small.
Excavations at Ur
Iraq's Ancient Past recounts the formation of the joint Penn Museum/British Museum expedition to Ur, setting up the "expedition house" for the excavation team, and the many excavation challenges that Woolley's team faced.
Known today as "Tell al Muquayyar," or "mound of pitch (tar)," the site of Ur, near present-day Nasiriyah, was thought to be "Ur of the Chaldees"—the birthplace of the biblical patriarch Abraham. During his excavations, Woolley hoped to uncover Abraham's home and other biblical evidence. In 1929, he interpreted a deep layer of river clay he uncovered to be the remains of a "great flood" from the biblical story of Noah. Like so much discovered at Ur, his sensational story made international headlines.
His major discovery, however, was the site of Ur's royal cemetery. With a crew of hundreds, he began this massive excavation in 1926, eventually uncovering nearly 2,000 burials. Sixteen of these he named "royal tombs" based on their style of construction, evidence of royal attendants who were interred at the same time, and the sheer wealth of the graves' contents. The three most celebrated tombs were PG789, the looted tomb of a king, PG800, the remarkably preserved tomb of Queen Puabi, and PG1237, which he dubbed "the Great Death Pit" since it contained 74 carefully laid out and richly adorned bodies (all but six female).
The famous excavations attracted the attention and involvement of a number of interesting personalities whom the exhibition also highlights. For example, T.E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") was instrumental in securing the excavation and Woolley's participation, while Agatha Christie, who eventually married Woolley's assistant Max Mallowan, wrote Murder in Mesopotamia to mark her experience on site.
Since the excavations came to a close in 1934, scholars have continued to study the Penn Museum's Ur collection, incorporating new evidence from other ancient sites and using improved conservation practices and new scientific techniques to further investigate the material. For example, because almost nothing excavated from the royal tombs could have been created from locally available materials, the exhibition details how scholars are rebuilding the story of 4,500-year-old trade networks across the Near and Middle East. Similarly, conservation and research on individual artifacts has yielded new information about life at Ur-sometimes directly contradicting Woolley. When he found the bodies of dozens of funeral attendants in the Great Death Pit, each with a cup nearby, he proclaimed they had willingly imbibed poison to join their Queen in the afterlife. New evidence from CT scans performed at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania reveal another story.
Iraq's Ancient Cultural Heritage at Risk
The exhibition concludes with a look at the situation in Iraq today, where looting in the Iraq National Museum (opened in 1924 with objects from the Ur excavations) and at archaeological sites throughout the country has destroyed much evidence about the past. To date, the Ur excavation site has been largely preserved, having been contained within the boundaries of Tallil Air Base and under the control of allied forces until May 2009 when the site was officially returned to Iraq's State Board of Antiquities.
Iraq's Ancient Past is co-curated by the Penn Museum's Richard L. Zettler, Associate Curator-in-Charge of the Near East Section, and Holly Pittman, Curator in the Near East Section. They are contributors to Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur (Penn Museum, 1998), a catalogue from an earlier exhibition that featured material from this site.
The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is dedicated to the study and understanding of human history and diversity. Founded in 1887, the Museum has sent more than 400 archaeological and anthropological expeditions to all the inhabited continents of the world. With an active exhibition schedule and educational programming for children and adults, the Museum offers the public an opportunity to share in the ongoing discovery of humankind's collective heritage.
Penn Museum is located at 3260 South Street (on Penn's campus, across from Franklin Field), Philadelphia, PA 19104. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 4:30pm, Sunday 1pm to 5pm. Closed Mondays and holidays. Admission donation is $10 for adults; $7 for senior citizens (65 and above); $6 children (6 to 17) and full-time students with ID; free to Members, Penncard holders, and children five and younger; "pay-what-you-want" after 3:30pm daily. Penn Museum can be found on the web at www.penn.museum. For general information call (215) 898-4000.
Captions, top to bottom: Ram-Caught-in-a-Thicket, ca. 2550 BCE, statuette found in the "Great Death Pit"; Excavation photograph from Ur, 1933-34; Grand ceremony staged at the footstep of Ur's partially restored 4,100 year old Ziggurat, May 13, 2009, when coalition forces returned control of the ancient archaeological site of Ur to Iraqi authorities. Photograph by Diane Siebrandt.