University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Ur Digitization Project: July 2013

July 31, 2013

Documents of the month
Spotlight on archival records of the Ur excavations
With special thanks to all the volunteers transcribing them
Cablegrams announcing finds (PA1-11-7-1927 and PA1-12-14a-1927)

Cable sent from Iraq announcing initial work on Royal Cemetery
Fig. 1 Cable sent from Iraq, Jan 13, 1927, announcing initial work on a cemetery rich in gold

Not only were thousands of ancient tablets excavated at the ancient site of Ur, but thousands of modern documents were created in the process of excavating them and the many other artifacts from the site. Woolley and his team had to keep track of the dig as well as keep accounts, register the division of finds, document the plans for future excavation, and discuss the funding for it. The documents were stored in archives of the three primary museums involved (British Museum, Penn Museum, Iraq National Museum) and we at the Ur of the Chaldees project are gathering digital copies of all of them wherever possible.

We have had a successful volunteer effort to transcribe documents in the Penn archives running for almost a year now. The purpose behind transcribing is to make the documents digitally searchable, rather than simply images of the text. It is a time-consuming task, but there are fascinating details in many of the records and there are many people willing to type them in for the experience of touching the past in this way. We thank all of those who have helped us so far, and encourage more to join at

Computers can recognize typed text, but they are rarely 100% accurate, especially when working with old documents with wrinkles, tears, unclear typeface, or other problems with paper or type. Plus, we have many letters that were written out by hand, as well as nearly 5,000 handwritten field notes. It takes a detail-oriented person with a keen eye to type these into searchable text, but once entered, research into these documents — bearing as they do information on the process of excavation in the 1920s and 30s and being windows into the time period itself — will be much faster and easier.

The most measurable success is seen in the progress through the letters, reports and accounts from the field, since those are all clearly dated. From the beginning letters of 1919 discussing a potential joint excavation with Penn and the British Museum, we have transcribed the documents in the Penn Museum archives up to 1927. This was the year Woolley discovered the famous Royal Cemetery, and the letters began flying fast and furious at that point. Well, they usually didn’t move very quickly, since the mail took some two weeks from Iraq to reach Philadelphia. But the most important news was cabled, since that could reach a cable office anywhere in the world almost instantly. They were somewhat expensive to send, though, so they were kept short — the ‘tweets’ of their day. And though they didn’t go out to large audiences as tweets do today, there were cable operators who would see the information as it was sent and received, and they might pass on the information casually or intentionally. Thus, word of important finds might get out. The last thing Woolley wanted was for many people to know he was finding a great deal of gold.

Electrotype copy of the helmet of Meskalamdug. The gold original is in the Iraq National Museum
Fig. 2 Electrotype copy of the helmet of Meskalamdug, 29-22-2. The gold original was discovered in the Royal Cemetery and resides in the Iraq National Museum

People often think that archaeologists are thrilled to find gold. Although it can be an important material and is certainly impressive and worthy of study, it brings with it a number of problems. First, if people know you are finding gold, particularly in a remote area, they might try to steal it. Next, there may be internal temptation to pocket a few pieces by any of the people working on the dig. Finally, the local government will become very interested in the disposition of any such valuable objects.

Thus, as he began to find more and more gold artifacts, Woolley began to send his cables in Latin. Most cable operators would not understand this ancient language, but the people at the museum to whom the cable was to be delivered would. Additionally, it is a relatively concise language. According to the Economist (July 27-August 2 issue, p. 52), “Twitter’s 140-character aphorisms are ideal for Latin: five words can often say more than ten English ones…”. The twelve Latin words Woolley sent on Nov 16 1927 (see Fig. 2 below) translated into nearly twenty in English:

Cable in Latin, Nov 1927, announcing the find of the tomb of Meskalamdug
Fig. 3 Cable sent Nov 16, 1927, announcing in Latin the find of the tomb of Meskalamdug

Discovered the grave of Meskalamdug, prince of the ancient city, decorated with his ring, helmet, cups, and gold ornaments.

(For an exact copy of the helmet from this tomb, stored in the Penn Museum, see Fig. 2 above)

Eventually, Woolley wrote in his notes that he was sick of finding gold headdresses. There were so many and they were so difficult to remove from the ground that he had grown weary.

This is only some of the fascinating information that is to be discovered in the many thousands of documents still to be transcribed.

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