Much of what we know of the people and cultures of early Mesopotamia comes from the material uncovered in the Royal Cemetery at Ur. Sir Leonard Woolley laid the groundwork with his twelve seasons of excavation and his initial findings and reports. Although, scholars today still study these, questions remain about the Royal Cemetery and its inhabitants. What other insights are still buried at Ur? What information has been lost from the many tomb inhabitants whose bodies were not carefully excavated and preserved? How will our understanding of the tombs, their inhabitants, and their structures change and develop with new research and archaeological investigation? One thing is certain, the development of new theories and findings can only continue as long as the material and original findings are preserved for future study.
In all probability, Ur is the “Ur of the Chaldees” mentioned in the Bible as the birthplace of the patriarch Abraham (Gen. 12: 4-5). Woolley routinely referenced this to attract public attention. The site’s Arabic name, Tell al-Muqayyar, means “mound of pitch” and derives from the baked bricks originally set in bitumen mortar that litter the site.
Inhabited from about 5500 BCE, Ur was finally abandoned around 400 BCE because of difficulties with its water supply. In between, Ur was a politically and economically powerful center on the Euphrates, particularly during the 3rd millennium BCE, with easy access to the Persian Gulf and long-distance sea trade.
Woolley dug on a scale unimaginable today, initially focusing on Ur’s public buildings, such as the iconic stepped temple tower, or ziggurat. In the late 1920s, he turned his attention to the Royal Cemetery, which contained 2,000 simple burials dating from 2600 to 2100 BCE and 16 royal tombs more closely dated to about 2500 BCE. The latter yielded the most spectacular finds of gold, silver, and semi-precious stones, as well as the remains of court attendants who were interred at the same time as the kings and queens. This “human sacrifice” shocked audiences worldwide.
In later years, Woolley focused on Ur’s prehistory. Digging deep below the Royal Cemetery, he discovered a thick layer of silt above Ur’s earliest occupation layers. Citing Gilgamish and the Bible (Gen. 6-9), Woolley claimed to have found the great “world-wide” flood.