University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Ur Digitization Project: January 2013

January 24, 2013

Archival document of the month
Spotlight on A.S. Whitburn reconstruction drawing of No. 3 Gay Street

Early archaeologists often concentrated on temples, palaces and cemeteries, since these were most likely to contain impressive artifacts for museums. Woolley dug his fair share of these areas, but to his great credit, he did not overlook the more mundane housing situation. In his excavations at Ur, Sir Leonard Woolley uncovered one of the largest horizontal exposures of domestic space of any site in the ancient Near East. Indeed, he excavated several areas of domestic architecture dedicated to the more common people, particularly areas EM and AH, both primarily Isin/Larsa – Old Babylonian in date (~2000-1700BCE).

There are problems, however. As almost always with remains of ancient buildings, understanding the complete construction and alterations through time in that construction is difficult. Just what did the houses look like when whole? All that is left now are typically foundations and stubs of walls, though in some cases, walls might remain to a meter or more in height. Nonetheless, it is difficult to surmise just how tall the buildings were or what their roofs looked like.

Most archaeologists posit possibilities, and Woolley was particularly good at painting a picture of the domestic quarter as an active living space. As Max Mallowan said in his 1960 ‘Memories of Ur’, a tribute he wrote on Woolley’s death that year:

He [Woolley] saw in his mind’s eye every building, not as a derelict stump, but complete to the roof up, and in his imagination it was once again refurnished… ‘Now take a look at the roof’, he would say, as we stared up at the empty sky. ‘I know you can’t see it, but we know everything about it that matters; the evidence is mostly on the floor in front of you’, and he would point to the brick base of a wooden column, one of four that could only have been used to support a balcony three feet wide which allowed the rain to drip into an impluvium in the middle of the court; he would then point to the only possible place for the gutters and explain how a raised coping must have run along the gentle slope between them.

Woolley believed that many of these houses had two floors (sometimes three). He based this idea on a few minor clues. First, he noted that there were stairs in many of them, usually just inside the front door. Typically only a few steps were left, but they must have led somewhere. Second, he noted in one case (No. 3 Gay Street as he numbered it), a brick in the courtyard that he hypothesized was the base for a wooden column/support for a balcony or raised walkway. He felt that the second floor rooms would need this balcony, built of wood above the courtyard, to provide the access. He even had the architect at the site, A.S. Whitburn, draw up a concept of the typical Old Babylonian house at Ur, based on the remains of No. 3 Gay Street.

Watercolor reconstruction of 'typical' house at Ur, No. 3 Gay Street, by A.S. Whitburn, ca. 1930.
Watercolor reconstruction of ‘typical’ house at Ur, No. 3 Gay Street, by A.S. Whitburn, ca. 1930.

Woolley noted that this reconstruction was much like houses in Baghdad of the time of excavation (1920s-30s), and used this as further evidence of the probability of it being correct. But even those modern example houses were not really of the common people, but ‘townhouses’ (and apparently much like an Inn he stayed in many times within Baghdad), and his ancient reconstruction is actually based on little physical evidence. Modern archaeologists typically use the thickness of lower walls to deduce whether the building could have supported an upper floor, and those at Ur often are not thick enough. Furthermore, the reconstruction Woolley shows relies heavily on wood, a rather scarce resource at Ur. Indeed, in southern Mesopotamia as a whole, wood, particularly large beams, had to be brought in from long distances. Economic texts referring to the sale of houses often mention whether or not there is a door on the house, because owners often took it with them since wood was so scarce. In this case, it seems relatively unlikely that most people would be able to use substantial wooden columns or wooden walkways around their courtyards.

Finally, the typical Middle Eastern village, even today, has one-story buildings with stairs that go up to the roof. It is very common in these cultures to use the roof either as a sleeping area, since nights are often cool in the desert, but stuffy indoors, and/or as a working space–drying laundry, winnowing grain, or performing other duties. Thus, stairs to the roof would seem to be the most likely reconstruction in most of the buildings Woolley uncovered. As for the lone brick in the courtyard that seemed to be a base for a support, perhaps that is what it was, but this one case does not prove the whole. Furthermore, it might have well supported something much smaller. The drainage system Woolley posited might be real, but if the angled roof system he places on the upper floor were really on the top of the single floor, it might be made of light materials — small branches and plaster — and be supported by a much smaller beam propped up on the brick.

Thus, Woolley’s confidence in his minor evidence may have betrayed his analysis. Nonetheless, the information he gathered is vital in reconstructing the city and we must continue to analyze his evidence as well as his analysis of that evidence — something the Ur Project is supporting by making all this data available.

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