Challenging Theories

Recent excavations in Syria shed new light on the subterranean multi-room structures found in some of the tombs at Ur. In the 1990s, German archaeologists at Tell Bi’a (Tuttul), near Raqqa, uncovered mudbrick tombs associated with the mid-3rd millennium BCE royal palace. These tombs, which had been looted in antiquity, stood above ground and had plans that resembled the layout of tombs PG777, PG779, and PG1236 at Ur. Although Woolley interpreted these three tombs as single royal burials, the Syro-Mesopotamian mortuary tradition during the 3rd millennium BCE generally emphasized the communal burial of kin-groups in tombs that were opened and re-opened over time for new burials. Is it possible that these three tombs at Ur were family or tribal tombs?

The remains of tombs from Tell Bi’a in Syria. The structure of the tombs is quite similar to some of the tombs in the Royal Cemetery.
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The remains of tombs from Tell Bi’a in Syria. The structure of the tombs is quite similar to some of the tombs in the Royal Cemetery.
The remains of tombs from Tell Bi’a in Syria. The structure of the tombs is quite similar to some of the tombs in the Royal Cemetery.

Similarly, Woolley believed PG1050 and PG1054, with their lower royal burials and upper constructions represented single royal burials. He argued that they “illustrate more fully than any other the ritual of a royal burial.” But Woolley’s cross-sections through these two tombs suggest that the lower and upper constructions were separate events. For example, in PG1054, the lower portion was separated from the upper portion by 30 cm of hard clay and bricks. Recent advances in ceramic chronology demonstrate that the pottery Woolley recorded from the upper construction of these two tombs is actually hundreds of years later than the pottery associated with the lower portions. The lower structures were royal burials from the Early Dynastic period (about 2500 BCE), while the upper constructions were tombs dating to the Dynasty of Agade (2334–2154 BCE).


This 3-D rendering of PG789 and PG800 shows the floor of Puabi’s tomb chamber sitting well below the level of the tomb beside it.
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This 3-D rendering of PG789 and PG800 shows the floor of Puabi’s tomb chamber sitting well below the level of the tomb beside it.
This 3-D rendering of PG789 and PG800 shows the floor of Puabi’s tomb chamber sitting well below the level of the tomb beside it.

In a 1998 Penn master’s thesis, Paul C. Zimmerman challenged Woolley’s reconstruction of the relationship between the king and queen’s graves, PG789 and PG800, respectively. Woolley believed each grave represented a complete royal burial; with each having a death pit for attendants and possessions, and a chamber for the royal burial.

After reviewing the layout, Zimmerman believed they might represent three different tombs. Zimmerman agreed that the chamber and pit Woolley assigned to PG789 were most likely from one complete burial because both rooms of PG789 were connected on the same level. However, he disagreed with Woolley’s interpretation of the pit and chamber assigned to Puabi, PG800, because the two rooms he assigned to PG800 were on two different levels with no apparent connection. Woolley believed that Puabi died and was buried after her unnamed husband. Wanting to be close to him in death, he argued that her tomb was constructed around his. But the floor of Puabi’s tomb chamber is 40 cm lower than the floor of PG789. This suggests that Puabi’s tomb was actually built before PG789.

Other support for Zimmerman’s new interpretation comes from the evidence of a door in Puabi’s chamber that would have provided access through the death pit of PG789. But the pit of PG789 was found undisturbed. This also suggests that Puabi’s was the earlier burial, with PG789 built after Puabi had been sealed in her tomb. Interestingly, Woolley mentions the evidence of a door in her chamber, but did not pursue its implications because it did not fit with the “story” he had created.

Finally, Zimmerman argued that the death pit Woolley assigned to PG800 was from a third, unknown tomb, meaning Puabi’s real death pit is as yet unexcavated.


Woolley interpreted PG1237, “The Great Death Pit,” as a death pit whose tomb chamber had been destroyed. In her 2008 Penn doctoral dissertation on fashion in Early Dynastic Mesopotamia, Aubrey Baadsgaard instead suggests that Woolley may have missed the royal personage buried in “The Great Death Pit” amongst the dozens of court attendants.

Of the 68 females buried in PG1237, Body 61 in the western corner of the pit had the most-elaborately adorned headdress—a layered construction that included a wreath with tripled willow leaves. Only Queen Puabi in PG789 wore a similar one. In general, Body 61’s ensemble of jewelry, its components and constituent elements, more closely resembled those of the two known royal women from Ur than any other. She wore several strands of beads horizontally on her body; perhaps a cape like the one worn by Puabi. A high proportion of the more than 500 beads were carnelian, a ratio typical for both Puabi and the royal woman in PG1054. Body 61, found with a silver cup to her mouth, resembles the seated female depicted on the upper register of PG1237’s cylinder seal.

In all, therefore, it seems likely that Body 61 was not a court attendant, but rather a queen, and PG1237 was her intact royal tomb. This would be a new variation among Ur’s royal tombs—a primary royal figure buried together with his/her attendants in an open pit. The poorly preserved PG580, excavated in 1926–27, might also represent a similar tomb.

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