Combining Maps and More at Ur
Spotlight on Domestic Burials in Area AH
Observing patterns in spatial data at Ur with Geographic Information Systems
I’m always happy when I can demonstrate the value of our project. We’re working with old data on even older objects, spending a lot of time and money organizing and reconnecting them; why do we do it? Countless books, dissertations, reports, and articles have already been published about Ur. Isn’t it all done?
If you’ve followed these blog posts, you already know the answer is no, it hasn’t been all done—research is investigation and re-investigation, and access to both new and old data is essential if we are to look again into what we think we know. All of the current reports about Ur still do not come close to covering everything there is to cover about the ancient city. Furthermore, there is no complete bibliography of Ur. That alone is a worthwhile task, counting the countless to arrive at a list of books, reports and other writings about this most important site.
We are working on creating that list, but even when it is complete and even if we could put a digital copy of every article online (which we may not be able to do in many cases), people would still only have access to what we knew, or thought we knew. There is still much to learn by reading these reports, testing them against the data, or coming up with new theories based on the data themselves. But even the primary reports of the site do not list all the data. Many of the less-spectacular artifacts, the partial buildings, the damaged graves, and other information of the sort, was deemed less important than the more complete, and thus was never published, or only cursorily mentioned. This is why the field notes and field catalogues are so important.
As a demonstration of just how much was not covered in the reports, let’s look briefly at graves in area AH. Edward Luby at SUNY Stonybrook wrote a most interesting dissertation in 1990 showing that Woolley only published 94 of at least 173 graves he found in this area of about 7,000 square meters–this means that only around half the discovered burials were ever published. If you read Woolley’s final reports and don’t have access to Luby’s dissertation, you might well think that 94 was the total number of burials in AH. And if Dr. Luby had not gotten access to the field notes through the British Museum, he might have thought that as well. Even though his research and analysis was very good, we can now represent it in an even more dynamic fashion with Geographic Information Systems, and we can check the data, re-plot it, and reunite it with artifacts from the field catalogues.
Here is a rough display of the overall distribution of graves from the area. In this case, each dot represents a grave of some type. These are not the royal tombs that Woolley wrote so much about, but burials beneath the floors of houses, primarily of the Old Babylonian period (roughly 1700BCE). Sometimes they were vaulted chambers wherein many family members were buried, other times they were simple pit inhumations, pot burials, or larnax burials (a larnax is a clay coffin of sorts, much in the shape of a bathtub, often turned upside down over the body).
When the burials are coded into a Geographic Information System, their locations are connected to a database of other kinds of information, so we can select and display specific groups: type of burial, burials containing particular artifacts, ones that have been looted, ones that are facing a particular direction, or any other coded condition from the notes. In the above example, the yellow dots represent graves that were not published in Woolley’s final Ur Excavations volumes, or that were so vaguely mentioned as to be unidentifiable without the field notes (these are graves that did not receive an LG number in the list of graves at the back of UE 7). Among these are some where even the exact location is in question—but the database also records how confidently we can assign location and on what information that location is based. Eventually we will move from dots to outlines of known graves where they are confidently placed and will add maps of the bones and artifacts
As an example of distribution analysis (plotting items of particular types and looking for patterns) I show another image at right. In this case, the yellow dots represent infant burials. Woolley did not always record age or gender of the skeleton (he did not have a physical anthropologist with him and he did not save many of the bones) but he did record infant and child graves separately. Almost all of them are pot burials, i.e. the body was placed inside a pot and buried beneath the floor. And with these burials, we see a definite spatial pattern. Some houses have a large number of them, typically appearing in a small room behind the domestic chapel (there is a thin blue circle around groupings in the image at left). Not all houses had their own chapel, but many did, and this was the place to bury those who died at such an early age. In Area EM there is one house with more than 30 infant burials.
Infant mortality was likely quite high at Ur, but whether there is sufficient data to analyze the proportion remains to be seen. Indeed, there is a great deal we can learn from this and other data, so long as access is provided. Our project holds the express aim of providing that access.