University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Ur Digitization Project: November 2012

November 30, 2012

Archival documents of the month
Spotlight on Field Photo Numbers 912, 1616, 1617, and 2350)
The Enormity of the Task

I’ve been on the road most of this month in meetings and conferences in both London and Chicago. At these meetings I and many others involved have been promoting the Ur project and reporting on our progress in this past, provisional/exploratory year. Thus, this month’s blog entry (admittedly a little late for November as a whole) is not focused on one object, but rather on the entire excavation of Ur and the sheer enormity of that project. Best illustrating this topic are photos of the site as seen from the air and of the large excavation teams utilized.

Field photo number 1616: RAF aerial photo of Ur in 1930
Field photo number 1617: RAF photo of the Ur ziggurat in 1930

The above photos, taken by the Royal Air Force in Iraq at the behest of Leonard Woolley show the site in 1930. It’s a little difficult to understand the full scale of the excavation even from the first photo, but to orient yourself, recognize the ziggurat in bottom right of photo 1616 (first above) and compare to the closer in (but still aerial) photo of the ziggurat below it. Then think about the long triangular strips fanning out from the various excavation units in photo 1616. Each of these is a backdirt pile–the dirt that Woolley and his crew removed from trenches, some of them tens of meters deep, and dumped in long lines using carts on light rail track.

Even factoring in all the years of excavation, the amount of dirt removed is incredible. In order to accomplish such massive work, each year Woolley used several hundred local workers. In the final year report, he comments, almost apologetically: “…the average number on the season’s pay-roll was 170, as large a number as could be properly supervised with our very small staff, or employed on the relatively small area excavated.” (Antiquaries Journal vol 14 no. 4, October 1934 p.356). In that year, Woolley had only his wife and an architect/assistant, A.F.E. Gott as staff.

Though one wonders if ‘proper supervision’ of 170 workers could really be accomplished with only three supervisors, Woolley’s team accomplished tremendous things. That final season, however, is noticeably weaker in recording as far as the field catalogues go. Woolley knew it was the final season and was trying to accomplish as much as possible before funds and time ran out.

Field Photo 912: End of season photo 1926/27 showing workers and M. Mallowan, K. Woolley, and L. Woolley
Field Photo 2350: Final season deep trench with workmen excavating

I’ll close out this entry with a few images of Woolley and crew; end of season 1926/27 (field photo 912) showing some of the local crew as well as (from left to right at bottom left of the first photo) Max Mallowan (who later married famed mystery writer Agatha Christie), Katharine Woolley (Leonard Woolley’s wife and the excavation artist and assistant), and Leonard Woolley himself. The second photo is the deep trench dug in the final season 1934 with some of the working crew.

All of these photos as well as field notes and reports, letters, etc. from the field are being scanned, tagged, and made searchable by the Ur Digitization Project. If you would like to help in transcribing letters and notes, please go to

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