Ur Digitization Project: August 2014

August 28, 2014

Deep Pits and Early Burials
Spotlight on 31-17-404: Ubaid Period Skeleton from Ur
More about the rediscovered skeleton from grave PFG/Z

On August 5, 2014, the Penn Museum released a press announcement about a 6,500-year-old skeleton in its collection that had been reconnected to a key piece of its history by the Ur Digitization Project. The announcement captured imaginations worldwide and we have been inundated with questions about it. So, what better topic for this month’s Ur blog than this, the earliest skeleton preserved from the site of Ur?

31-17-404 in its original crate. Composite photo by Kyle Cassidy.
31-17-404 in its original shipping crate. Composite photo by Kyle Cassidy.

Even though Woolley uncovered thousands of bodies, he only saved about 30 skeletons or parts of skeletons from the Royal Cemetery, ones that were in good enough condition for analysis of the day. Most of these went to Sir Arthur Keith at the Royal College of Surgeons and are now in the Natural History Museum in London.

The majority of bodies at Ur were not in good condition. Woolley preserved a few of these by pouring wax over the fragile bones and the dirt surrounding them. He did this for several skulls from the Royal Cemetery, dating approximately 2500BCE. Penn received two of these skulls, both currently on display. One is the skull of a soldier or guard, complete with helmet. The other is the skull of a female attendant, complete with golden headdress. Woolley meant these for display rather than for analysis, as techniques of his day couldn’t work well with largely flattened ancient bone.

After completing excavations in the Royal Cemetery, Woolley became interested in the earliest periods of the site. Thus, he dug a very deep trench (designated Pit F) in an already low spot inside the Temenos wall (the area surrounding the sacred space). This was a relatively central point and one where he would not be burdened by huge amounts of later remains since it was already worn down. He reported the level of the top of the pit “not more than 18 meters above sea level,” though his section drawing shows it at 17 meters above.

He dug through eight occupation levels at the top of Pit F and then through a large-scale pottery-making area and finally through deposits that were cut through with burials. One of the lowest of these deposits was the ‘flood layer,’ about three meters of water-lain silt. In Ur Excavations volume 4 Woolley reports: “we found some 49 graves dug down to and into the Flood deposit,” though the appendix to the volume only describes 48 (the 49th is almost certainly one mentioned as a possible second burial immediately beneath Grave U). He labeled each with PFG (Pit F Grave) followed by a letter from A to VV, skipping H, I, and II (skipping H was probably a simple error, as he did not skip HH, but it was Woolley’s general practice to leave out the letter I in designators as it would too often be mistaken for the numeral 1).

The burials were not in one mass, but spread across the lower portion of Pit F, the result of an ancient cemetery. Furthermore, they divided into two major groups. In the uppermost group, bodies were ‘flexed,’ that is, they lay on their sides with their knees drawn up. In the lower group, the bodies lay on their backs, stretched out to their full length. Woolley believed that both groups were Ubaid period, but later analysis indicates that the upper group is probably early Uruk period.

Woolley found Ubaid house remains beneath the flood layer and he assigned this period Ubaid 1. The burials in the flood layer he assigned Ubaid 2, but he mentioned the similarity in pottery of both groups. The pottery found with the graves is the chief way we date the skeletons and the particular skeleton 31-17-404, from PFG/Z, had 10 clay vessels buried at its feet. These are of distinctive Ubaid types, but types we now know to be late Ubaid, somewhere around the division between Ubaid 3 and 4, approximately 4500BCE.

Woolley didn’t map the location of his deep pits terribly well, but he did divide Pit F into 5×5 meter grid squares. He didn’t show the exact location of every burial, but he did report them to their five meter squares and to their elevations above sea level. With the help of aerial photos, we can place Pit F in its correct location on the site and show just where each the grave was placed in all three dimensions with relatively good accuracy.

Location of Pit F. At left is an aerial photo from 1930, at right the location of the pit has been inserted into Woolley's map of Ur in the UrIII period (later than the Ubaid burial).
Location of Pit F. At left is an aerial photo from 1930, at right the location of the pit has been inserted into Woolley’s map of Ur in the UrIII period (later than the Ubaid burial).

Pit F Grave Z was found in square D5 at 3.15 meters above sea level (~14 meters below the surface of the mound). It was in the lower of the two groups, but like all of the burials, it was dug down from above the flood layer and into it. This shows that the man in the grave lived after the flood, though we don’t know exactly how long after. He was not covered over by the flood as some might think when looking at the drawing of the location of his body inside the silt.

The bones of the Ubaid burials were in particularly bad condition and the one in PFG/Z (later designated 31-17-404) was the only one that Woolley spoke of as in any shape to be preserved. He covered the bones in wax, just as he had done with the later skulls in the Royal Cemetery, and almost certainly thought of this as a display item rather than a study item. That is probably why he sent it to Philadelphia. We didn’t have a Physical Anthropology Section at the time, but a representative sample of all Ur material was to be sent to each museum, and the human remains had mostly gone to London. The body had been excavated either in December of 1929 or January of 1930 and had spent a long time thereafter getting to London. It then became part of the division that was conducted in March of 1931.

Nearly 85 years later, not only does Penn have an excellent Physical Anthropology Section, we also have new techniques for analyzing the fragile and wax-coated skeleton, such as CT scans, DNA testing, and isotope testing. By reconnecting a skeleton to its records, we have reestablished a key portion of the history of this person and he can now help us to learn about his culture in ways that his excavators never predicted. It’s a great example of why the Ur Digitization Project is doing what it’s doing: reexamining all the records from Ur.

Note: The Ubaid skeleton will be on display in the Penn Museum Artifact Lab in September and October where conservators can be observed working on it. Come see this amazing discovery!