University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Ancient Ur and Historic Iraq: Woolley’s 11th Season


April 5, 2016

Ur Digitization Project Blog, March 2016

Spotlight on Archival Documents
Field Report dated December 31, 1932

Over the past few months I’ve been going over the reports that Leonard Woolley sent from the field 80-90 years ago. This analysis is helping to create pages at Ur-Online that track the yearly progress of excavation. We have collected the field reports into PDF documents that are easily accessible–and they make fascinating reading. They contain far more than just the progress of excavations across the site, but also include information about the world of the developing modern Middle Eastern country of Iraq under the British Mandate.

Woolley was very professional in his reports and so they don’t include much of a personal nature, but they do mention some happenings of local and historical interest. Season 11 was particularly important in this regard since both local and regional changes affected Woolley and his crew. The first occurrence was the tragic death of Hamoudi’s middle son, Ibrahim. Hamoudi was the Arab foreman who had first worked with Woolley in Syria before World War I. Subsequently, he spent every season at Ur personally managing the massive Iraqi workforce (as many as 300 individuals) at Ur. In most of the seasons, he enlisted the aid of his sons (Yahia from seasons 2-12, Ibrahim from seasons 5-10, and Alawi from seasons 8-12).

Ibrahim was a junior foreman for at least six years, assisting his father and his older brother, Yahia, in supervising the workers. In the opening report for season 11, late in 1932, Woolley mentions that he met Hamoudi in Baghdad, surprised that he was not yet at the site preparing for the season. He had come late from Syria due to his son’s sudden death. There is no report on how Ibrahim died, but it may have been from a disease. There had been a cholera outbreak the previous season and Woolley had overhauled his water supply and had all of his workers inoculated. No workers died that season and there is no indication that cholera killed Ibrahim, but disease and the relative difficulty of receiving complete medical care was always a concern.From an economic perspective there was a different issue, one that created a change in accounting for the excavation. It resulted from the shift in Iraqi currency. In the earliest history of the country, Iraqis were paid in Indian rupees. For the first ten years of the country’s existence, the accepted national currency came from India, a country also under British administration at the time. In fact, the administration of Iraq initially fell under the jurisdiction of the Colonial Office in India.

Rupee and half rupee coins were made of silver. Silver as bullion fluctuated a great deal on the market at the time and using Indian currency often meant overall losses for Iraq, or at least the inability to reap profits. There had been several attempts through the 1920s to establish an Iraqi currency, but these attempts failed for various logistical reasons. One of the main problems was that there was not yet an established Iraq national bank to issue the currency.

Photo taken by Father Leon Legrain in Ur season 4 (1925-1926. At center is Hamoudi's son Yahia who was in charge of photography and here he carries the photo tripod. At left may be his brother Ibrahim, though evidence tends to indicate he bean work only in the following season 5.
Photo taken by Father Leon Legrain in Ur season 4 (1925-1926). At center is Hamoudi’s oldest son, Yahia, who was in charge of photography (here he carries the photo tripod). At left may be his brother Ibrahim, though evidence suggests he began work only in the following season 5.
Photo: Penn Museum Archives
Indian half rupee coin issued in 1917, five years before Ur excavations began. Nevertheless, this is the type of coin that was in circulation in Iraq for the first 10 years of the British Mandate.
Indian half rupee coin issued in 1917, five years before Ur excavations began. Nevertheless, this is the type of coin that was in circulation in Iraq for the first 10 years of the British Mandate. The half rupee coin weighs 5.8 grams and contains 91.7% silver.
Photo: Brad Hafford

As Symes, Hanewich, and Al-Muderis note in their 2001 article:

In 1926, following a mission by Sir E. Hilton Young to Iraq in 1925, the British finally proposed a Currency Board based in London as an authority that could issue a distinctly Iraqi currency. However, this proposal was roundly rejected by the Iraqi authorities because it would not be based in Iraq. In the following year, 1927, Iraq resolved to establish a National Bank, but debate over the basis on which the currency would be issued caused the idea to founder.

Finally, in April of 1931, the Iraqi government passed Law #44 to establish a national currency. It would be the dinar, divided into 1000 fils (200 fils came to be known as a rial, 100 fils, a dirham), and it would be pegged to a gold standard. In September of 1931, Great Britain dropped the gold standard and recommended Iraq do the same. Thus, when the currency finally began circulating in April of 1932, it was pegged to the British Pound Sterling.

By this point, Woolley’s 10th season had ended, but when he returned to start season 11, the dinar was the currency in circulation among his workers. His accounts would no longer be kept in rupees. Surprisingly, this allowed him to lower wages. As he states in the season 11 report:

The change in the currency of the country made more easy a reduction in pay of 20% which was fully justified by the general fall in the rate of wages; in spite of this welcome economy, our men are still better paid than any other local employment and neither their spirit nor their working value will suffer by it.

Iraqi first issue 50 fils coin showing King Faisal on obverse and bearing the date 1931/1349 on reverse. It weighs 9 grams and is made of 50% silver.
Iraqi first issue 50 fils coin showing King Faisal on obverse and bearing the date 1931/1349 on reverse. It weighs 9 grams and contains 50% silver.
Photo: Brad Hafford

Faisal I had been established as king of Iraq years earlier, but this is his first representation on a coin. Note that the date is struck as 1931 (1349 Islamic year) but it did not go into actual circulation until 1932. More than eight million of these particular 50 fils coins were struck, but in London under the auspices of the Iraq Currency Board before a national bank was established in Iraq. Only one other issue of King Faisal was struck, in 1933, and then King Ghazi issued a new sequence in 1938. Meanwhile, paper currency was also being issued by the Iraq Currency Board in the values of 1/4, 1/2, 1, 5, 10, and 100 dinars.

Such interesting modern historical reflections in an archaeological investigation continue to show the importance of archival documents not only for archaeologists but also modern historians. The few references in this season report have revealed a fascinating underlying development that affected the dig and our understanding of the process itself. We hope that historians of the modern Middle East will find more such references of assistance in their investigations.


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