The Expedition

I have found the greatest death-pit of all yet discovered... Inform Philadelphia.
– C. Leonard Woolley, Telegram to British Museum, December 22, 1928

Good timing, available funding, and the willingness of people, institutions, and nations to work together are key for a successful excavation. Just after World War I, the circumstances were right for a joint venture between the British Museum, led by Sir Frederic Kenyon, and the Penn Museum, led by George Byron Gordon. With access to Iraq ensured by Britain’s mandate and the funds available from the Penn Museum, the key issue was to select an appropriate site. Originally, Gordon proposed Nippur, near modern Diwaniyah, where the Penn Museum had previously worked in the late 19th century. But in the end, the Museum Directors agreed upon Ur because it was located in a more secure area where British archaeologists had previously dug in 1918–19.

Approval for the excavations had to come from Britain’s Colonial Office, which was headed by Winston Churchill. His Assistant Secretary and Advisor on Arab Affairs was T.E. Lawrence, already immortalized as “Lawrence of Arabia.” Lawrence, an archaeologist who had worked at Carchemish in 1912–14, acted as an advocate for the venture, sending advice and insights to Gordon. In all their letters, Lawrence, Gordon, and Kenyon cite Charles Leonard Woolley as a suitable excavation director. In August 1922, Gordon traveled to London to work out the details, and on September 26, 1922, Woolley set sail from London bound for Basra. He was accompanied by F. G. Newton, an architect, and Sydney Smith, an epigrapher.

Woolley hired as many as 300 hundred local workmen in some seasons. Work crews consisted of a pickman, a shovelman, and several basketmen to haul soil away from the trench. The local workers were directly overseen by Hamoudi, who had worked with Woolley at Carchemish before World War I.

Woolley began excavations with two long, narrow trenches designed to explore an extensive area with minimum effort. Trial Trench A (TTA) cut across the Royal Cemetery. Woolley made his most remarkable discovery in his first days of digging, but he did not follow up excavations there for several seasons. Trial Trench B (TTB), located east of the ziggurat, revealed a substantial building made of baked bricks, easy to trace even with inexperienced workmen. Woolley opted to expand TTB, uncovering a large storehouse in successive phases of ocupation, and he focused his attention in his initial seasons on Ur’s monumental public buildings. Woolley later justified his decision not to follow up TTA in 1922 by noting that the work of digging burials “could not be done satisfactorily with the absolutely untrained gang which we had just enrolled.”

Woolley was a superb excavator. Typically, organic materials, especially wood, completely disintegrate after thousands of years in the ground, leaving only an impression. But using a technique pioneered at Pompeii, Woolley poured plaster of Paris into voids in the soil left behind by the disintegration of organic materials and thus made casts of decomposed objects, such as the lyre he holds in this photo.
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Woolley was a superb excavator. Typically, organic materials, especially wood, completely disintegrate after thousands of years in the ground, leaving only an impression. But using a technique pioneered at Pompeii, Woolley poured plaster of Paris into voids in the soil left behind by the disintegration of organic materials and thus made casts of decomposed objects, such as the lyre he holds in this photo.
Woolley was a superb excavator.

Excavating an archaeological site is a calculated act of destruction. By removing layers of soil and artifacts from their original context, archaeologists hope to understand the materials preserved in the archaeological record and what they can tell us about the past. The process of excavating these materials, however, can only be done once. Therefore, it is essential for archaeologists to record and preserve as much information as possible about the archaeological record so that others can understand the original context.

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