Ur Digitization Project: May 2013

May 30, 2013

Artifact of the month
Spotlight on field number U.8847 (museum number B17313)
Bitumen Model Boat

Conservation photo of bitumen model boat U.8847 (B17313)
Conservation photo of bitumen model boat U.8847 (B17313)

This is a model of a marsh or river boat that was found in Trial Trench G in the Royal Cemetery area of Ur. Woolley in his field card does not record the exact tomb of this example, though U.8846, also a bitumen model boat, is recorded as coming from TTG Private Grave 587. The next field card for a tomb is PG592, so it is likely that the graves between (PG588-591) were in the same vicinity as PG587 and rather poorly preserved. Our boat (and a few others recorded up to U.8849) probably comes from that range of burials in the upper stratum of the Royal Cemetery.

I’ve been researching the main cemetery area of Ur for the past few weeks and became quite interested in the presence of model boats within some of the graves. Of course, I’d seen and pondered them before — I even wrote catalogue entries for three boat models (made of clay) we recently sent for exhibits in Spain and Taiwan — but a comment Woolley made in his publication of the Royal Cemetery piqued my curiosity on the particular versions made of bitumen.

Bitumen is a naturally-occurring form of petroleum. Viscous or semi-solid, it is also known as tar, asphalt, or pitch. Often mixed with other materials, it was used in the ancient world — and even today — as a sealant, mortar, glue or as we see here, a modeling material.

The bitumen model boats at Ur typically had one or more jars, either of clay or copper, carried within them. The bottoms of these jars almost always left an imprint as if the bitumen were still somewhat wet when they were placed inside. Therefore, the boats were probably made on the spot in the graves by mixing wet bitumen and earth, then placing the jars soon after.

Part of the original field card and field photo of PG 627, which had a well-preserved bitumen boat.
Part of the original field card and field photo of PG 627, which had a well-preserved bitumen boat.

Full-sized ancient boats built of reeds would have been sealed with bitumen so that they would float more effectively and support their cargo on the river, canals and marshes that made up Mesopotamia’s most effective trade network. But why put models of these low-draft river boats in graves?

We don’t have a satisfactory answer, which is perhaps what makes the question so interesting. Woolley suggested a potential parallel in the Egyptian funerary boat that was meant to ferry the deceased to the afterlife, but Sidney Smith, who had been Woolley’s epigrapher in the first season and went on to become Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities at the British Museum, disagreed. In the 1928 Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society he stated that “the Babylonians were in the habit of placing pots with food in as a lure for the demon Lamashtu, that she might enter the boat and be carried down the river.” Although this was a practice that was much later than the main graves at Ur, it is an interesting possibility. Perhaps the boats were meant to distract evil spirits, keep them away from the deceased as they made their way to the afterlife. Indeed, Woolley notes that the Ur bitumen boats are typically situated away from other offerings in the graves. Sometimes they are found at the far side of the burial pit, other times they are high up in the shaft that led to it. Nonetheless they are not common finds overall, and if it were a common belief that demons might chase the spirit, would not ever person buried have needed a decoy boat? Furthermore, Woolley shows that no clear representation of deities, apart from a few scenes on cylinder seals, exists in the graves, so why would there be this one reference to demons?

Ultimately, it seems Woolley felt the boats were meant to supply the dead in the afterlife, allowing continued offerings to be ferried to them. Other indications that provisioning the dead was necessary in the Sumerian belief system are found in the graves. For example, almost every corpse in the royal cemetery area (some 2,000 graves) was buried holding a cup or other drinking vessel up to his or her mouth. It was also very common to have a bowl and jar nearby as well, even if no other offerings were present. Woolley took these objects to indicate the need for the dead to eat and drink in the Sumerian vision of the afterlife.