University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The Workers of Ur – Ur Project May 2016


May 11, 2016

Charles Leonard Woolley’s excavations at Ur (1922-1934) occurred during a time of change in Iraq. After WWI, Iraq became part of a British Mandate, with Faisal I as King. Iraq was an area filled with both sedentary and traveling tribes led by Sheikhs. In the new nation of Iraq, archaeological sites, and their remains, belonged to the government. However, local tradition placed sites firmly under the control of the tribes. At Ur, this fell to Sheikh Munshid who lived outside of Ur Junction. After the discoveries of the royal tombs, Woolley said:

“I should like to emphasize here the fact that throughout the summer the site has been preserved absolutely untouched in spite of the temptation to loot caused by the discoveries of last season and the certain proximity of gold objects to the face of our cuttings. For this great credit is due to Sheikh Munshid, who is responsible for the site in our absence and has loyally fulfilled his obligations; I venture to think that the heavy outlay on guards, which is indeed unavoidable, has been justified by the immunity from plunder which it has never failed to secure and has signally secured this summer”

(Woolley Field Report, October 31, 1927).
Local Sheikhs at Ur, taken during the first season (1922) when Woolley was establishing himself with the locals. UPM Field Photo 190027.
Local Sheikhs at Ur, taken during the first season (1922) when Woolley was establishing himself with the locals. UPM Field Photo 190027.

Woolley hired an average of 200 workers per season to help him excavate at Ur, all of which came from local tribes. At the very beginning, relations with the local Iraqis were tenuous. In a season one field report dated Nov. 16, 1922, Woolley writes, “In the small hours of the night of Nov. 7-8 our camp was attacked by six men armed with rifles; one of our guards was killed and a great deal of our belongings, mostly personal effects, stolen. The robbers have since been arrested and much of the stolen stuff recovered.” Woolley came to hire some of the men who attacked them, which was a good tactic to create better relations with the local tribes. Woolley and the crew often had to intercede in local affairs since the excavation brought together many different people. Mallowan states, “I remember one occasion when a tribal quarrel broke out, and nothing we could do availed to separate the combatants who were cracking each other’s heads with their maces. It seemed that some serious damage would be done, when suddenly, Katharine Woolley appeared on the dig, and such was their awe of the Lady, ‘the Khatun’ that the fight ceased instantly and ten repentant heads came to be bound up in our home-made surgery” (Mallowan, Memories of Ur 1960:3).

Photo taken by Father Leon Legrain in 1926 showing workers celebrating at the end of the day.
Photo taken by Father Leon Legrain in 1926 showing workers celebrating at the end of the day.

Most of the archival records concerning the local workers are about wages and labor conflict, as they are included in Woolley’s field reports to the Museum. “A more substantial saving has been effected by the cutting down of wages: labor conditions have enabled me to reduce the men’s wages from six to five rupees a week; the reduction has been accepted cheerfully and has not in any way impaired the efficiency or good will of the men, whereas it represents an economy of about 125 pounds in the course of the season” (Woolley Field Report, Nov. 19, 1925). The workers were paid a daily rate, once a week for their work that was then supplemented by baksheesh, an Arabic term for a tip. Woolley gave baksheesh for special finds, including unique objects or objects made from precious materials. This was to stop the workers from trying to take the objects and sell them on their own. On Dec. 6, 1927, Woolley states that excavation in the Royal Cemetery has led to higher amounts of baksheesh being paid, and as such workers wages are higher than previous seasons. Father Leon Legrain also mentioned the practice of paying baksheesh. He states in a letter to Penn Museum Director George Gordon in 1925, “And all the Arab diggers shout with joy at the venerable names of Ur-Engur and Ishme-Dagan. They are full of contempt for such a recent fellow as Nabonidus, too well known and who moreover brings them no backshish [sic].”

Woolley inspecting artifacts to assign baksheesh in 1930. UPM Field Photo 191588.
Woolley inspecting artifacts to assign baksheesh in 1930. UPM Field Photo 191588.

Though baksheesh was mentioned often, the daily life of the workers was not often discussed. The few references we do get are fascinating, including visits to King Faisal, who “shewed his usual keen interest in the progress of the work” (Woolley Field Report, Nov 1923). Woolley also records times of tragedy in his field reports, including when a baulk collapsed and buried two workers, one of whom survived, and one of his workers lost a foot after a railroad cart, used for removing dirt, ran over his foot. Cholera outbreaks were common, particularly noted in seasons 6 and 10, and Woolley had his workers inoculated against the disease. In a season 11 report dated Dec. 6, 1931, he states:

“…in Baghdad I was surprised to learn that fresh cases were still occurring in the Ur neighbourhood and that the authorities would not allow the Expedition to take the field except after the double inoculation with the attendant delay of ten days. … The workmen were enrolled and inoculated together with their families, so far as that was possible, the house disinfected and the water-supply overhauled, the first steps in this direction having already been taken by the foremen, who had come to Ur in advance before I knew about the cholera.”

Inoculating workers against Cholera in 1932. UPM Field Photo 191951.
Inoculating workers against Cholera in 1932. UPM Field Photo 191951.

In his Memories at Ur, Mallowan recounts, “Woolley had a natural understanding of them [the workers]: they respected his knowledge, loved his sense of humor, and feared his anger” (1960:3). Woolley was supported in his work by his foreman Sheikh Hamoudi ibn Ibrahim, whom he had trained at Carchemish in Syria. Since Hamoudi is such an important figure at Ur, an upcoming blog will be devoted just to him. Without the help of the local Iraqis, or the Iraqi officials, Woolley’s 12 seasons at Ur would not have progressed. We may never know the names of all of Woolley’s workers, but needless to say they were indispensable to the excavation. Ur-online seeks to bring photos and documentation of these workers to light.


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