The Story of the Tombs

Plan of PG800, Puabi’s tomb. The tomb chamber, containing Puabi’s bier, body, and three attendants, is at the top of the plan; the death pit, with wooden chest or wardrobe, chariot, oxen, and more attendants, is at the bottom.
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Plan of PG800, Puabi’s tomb. The tomb chamber, containing Puabi’s bier, body, and three attendants, is at the top of the plan; the death pit, with wooden chest or wardrobe, chariot, oxen, and more attendants, is at the bottom.
Plan of PG800, Puabi’s tomb. The tomb chamber, containing Puabi’s bier, body, and three attendants, is at the top of the plan; the death pit, with wooden chest or wardrobe, chariot, oxen, and more attendants, is at the bottom.

Despite the differences among the tombs, Woolley considered PG789 and PG800 to be the prototypical royal tombs. Digging in 1927–28, he first uncovered PG800’s “death pit,” which led to the ironic discovery of PG789. Underneath a wooden chest in the “death pit” of PG800, Woolley found an ancient looter’s tunnel that led into the looted PG789’s tomb chamber. While excavating PG789’s tomb chamber (and its own death pit), he then found the tomb chamber associated with the PG800 death pit. The two chambers had been built side-by-side on roughly the same level, but in contrast to the looted PG789, the tomb chamber of PG800 was intact—Queen Puabi lay there on her bier amongst a wealth of artifacts. Interestingly, the chamber lacked a doorway, implying that she had been entombed through the roof of her chamber before it was enclosed.

Woolley concocted an endearing story to explain the facts as he saw them and the relationship of PG789 and PG800. According to him, PG789 was the grave of an unknown king, who left behind a loving wife and queen so devoted that she wished to lay near him in death. She, therefore, had her own tomb chamber placed alongside her husband’s, but being a queen, she needed her own “death pit” for her court attendants. With no other space presumably available, her death pit was laid over the top of her husband’s tomb chamber, PG789. The obvious irony did not escape Woolley’s attention: the builders of Puabi’s tomb were the looters who had robbed her husband’s chamber!

PG1237, with its 74 attendants, was the most spectacular of Ur’s royal tombs. Woolley dubbed it “The Great Death Pit” since it seems to have lacked a tomb chamber. While digging it, Woolley noted, “We are doing marvelously well: I’m sick to death of getting out gold headdresses, but the other things are wonderful: if only we find the tomb to which all that we are finding now belongs we ought to beat last year hallow: as it is we are creeping up to its level….” In his final report, however, he could only suggest that limestone rubble above the floor of the death pit to the southeast might have been the remains of the chamber.

Woolley’s telegram sent after finding Queen Puabi’s tomb. Written in Latin, the text reads: I found the intact tomb, stone built and vaulted over with bricks of Queen Shubad (Puabi) adorned with a dress in which gems, flower crowns and animal figures are woven. Tomb magnificent with jewels and golden cups.  Penn Museum negative S4-142731
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Woolley’s telegram sent after finding Queen Puabi’s tomb. Written in Latin, the text reads: I found the intact tomb, stone built and vaulted over with bricks of Queen Shubad (Puabi) adorned with a dress in which gems, flower crowns and animal figures are woven. Tomb magnificent with jewels and golden cups. Penn Museum negative S4-142731.
Woolley’s telegram sent after finding Queen Puabi’s tomb.

The 74 bodies in PG1237 included 6 men and 68 women. The men had weapons and were located near the tomb’s entrance. Most of the women were found in four rows across the northwest corner of the death pit, but six were under the remains of a canopy in its south corner and six were near three lyres lining the southeast wall. Almost all wore headdresses of gold, silver, and lapis—simplified versions of Puabi’s headdress. The neat arrangement of bodies and their undisturbed delicate headdresses convinced Woolley that the attendants in the tombs had not been killed, but had gone willingly to their deaths, drinking some deadly or soporific drug and composing themselves for death. He further suggested that in so doing they were assured a “less nebulous and miserable existence” than ordinary men and women.

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