The idea of the Ur digitization project began in response to the looting of the Iraq Museum in 2003. Museum personnel in London and Philadelphia realized that it would be difficult to recover all of the objects taken from Baghdad and that it might even be difficult to know exactly what was missing if records were incomplete or destroyed.
Ur was the first archaeological site to be excavated under a permit from the Department of Antiquities of the new nation of Iraq. As such, its artifacts became the first major group to be accessioned when the Iraq National Museum was created. Since the artifacts from the excavation of Ur were divided under laws of the day, with 50% in Baghdad and the other 50% split between London and Philadelphia, if the two western museums could get together and demonstrate what they had from the site, the remaining items from the field catalogues should be the ones to check for in the beleaguered Iraq Museum. Examinations in the British Museum and the Penn Museum, however, showed that their own records were not as complete as they should have been, and it pointed out the fact that the field notes were only extant in paper copies in London. This prompted a more intense push for the project: The museums should have up-to-date records. Moreover, preservation and dissemination of the field notes and catalogues was vital; particularly important was to share the data with Iraq.
The museums sought grant money to tackle the problems of the data–to create a concordance of all material from the excavations as well as correlate all information about objects in the two excavating museums to the original field records. But funding was short and initial grants did not come through. Thus, the museums began a much slower movement toward their joint goal than they had hoped. From late 2003, some small funds were gleaned from already limited research budgets to begin piecemeal scanning of the 20,000 pages of field notes and catalogues in London. These were completed in 2007; nonetheless, short money and time meant that scans had been done at lower than ideal resolution to speed up the process. At least there were now digital copies that researchers could use. The field photographs were scanned in a similar manner.
In 2011, renewed interest and the continued expansion of digital scholarship brought a potential donor. Meetings were held in Philadelphia in an attempt to secure funds. The Leon Levy Foundation granted a one-year exploration phase, a test of the feasibility of the project and the expanded vision of a united, public online research tool concerning the site. Funded attempts began in 2012, and successfully demonstrated the potential. Thus, in July of 2013 the second phase of the project began, with lead funding from the Leon Levy Foundation. In this phase, the main work of examining and recording every object from Ur in Philadelphia and London is proceeding, and the archives in both institutions are being scanned completely. These data will form the core of the material in the online research tool which is also being designed and tested in this phase.
Funding for the second phase continues for two years and by the end of that period (mid-2015) a working research site, essentially a modern, evolving publication, will be online. Though it will take much longer to digitize all of the data on the ancient city of Ur, the website will begin with what we gather over the first two years in Philadelphia and London and will continue to grow.