Ur Project: August 2015

September 2, 2015

Researcher Notes and Intern Work
Spotlight on Legrain note cards (and the interns who helped with them)
Including a special look at model brick(?) U.7587 (Museum Object Number: B17216)

Near the end of the old Ur excavations, Father León Legrain (Penn Museum Babylonian Section Curator at the time) began writing two volumes for the Ur Excavation series. One would cover the seals and their impressions, and the other would cover the figurines and other small objects made of clay. The seals volume was eventually published (in 1951) as Ur Excavations volume 10. The figurine volume never appeared, though some of its information was used in other volumes. One of the reasons for not publishing the full complement of figurines as a separate book was lack of funding caused by the Great Depression and then the Second World War.

Though the figurine book did not appear, the Penn Museum Archives has more than 1,700 note cards that Father Legrain created covering these artifacts as well as a largely complete mock-up of the catalogue for the volume. These have rarely been seen and it is part of the Ur Digitization Project’s goal to make such information available to everyone. For this reason we have scanned the cards and the mock-up. The catalogue with its brief analysis is available on Ur-Online as a pdf and we are in the process of attaching individual note cards to their respective artifacts in the database.

Connections between images and artifacts must be made through tags (like the field number and Museum number) and keywords or transcriptions (so that they are digitally searchable). Once the original note cards are connected with their artifacts, researchers will be able to refine older work and go beyond it rather than begin from scratch and potentially recreate what has already been done. Thus, we began an experiment in tagging and transcribing the cards. In this experiment we were assisted by two excellent interns, Mali Fenning (Science Leadership Academy) and Julian Hirsch (Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy). They came to us through the Penn Museum Learning Program’s new Teen Summer Internship program and we couldn’t have been happier with their involvement. Their weeks with us went very well indeed, achieving more than double the progress we had anticipated.

Sample note card from Legrain's research. The category for the figurine is in blue pencil at bottom.
Sample note card from Legrain’s research. The category for the figurine is in blue pencil at bottom.

Julian and Mali digitized hundreds of cards and thought a good deal about Legrain’s work and why some figurines are more common than others. Sometimes the cards had drawings of the object, other times they had photographs, and still other times they had no image at all. We found that the descriptions were often taken directly from Woolley’s field card, in which case they aren’t overly helpful, but in other cases they have additional information that we hope will aid researchers. In particular the categorization that Legrain followed is of interest. He grouped figurines, models, and miscellaneous clay objects by subject or artistic content. In other words, there were many figurines that he labeled ‘seated female goddess,’ ‘standing bearded god,’ ‘standing quadruped’ (sometimes more specific such as pig or ram), or any of many other examples. We might not always agree with his categorization, but we can at least examine those objects as a group to see what kind of criteria he was using and whether we would use a similar categorization today.

Legrain note card with photo attached. This object is particularly perplexing.
Legrain note card with photo attached. This object is particularly perplexing.

Our sharp-eyed interns also uncovered some rather unusual objects in Legrain’s research. The above card shows a particularly bizarre piece of unbaked, roughly square clay with dents pushed into it at different depths. The two dents at the side have small shells in them. Woolley referred to this artifact as possibly being an owl figurine because the two shells at the side resemble eyes and he thought the area between them had been pinched into a small beak. But the area between seems only to be a natural result of the close proximity of the two depressions and the overall resemblance to an owl is slight. What it is actually meant to represent is not certain. Legrain called it a “votive mud brick w. thumb-mark… head of an owl?”

Modern photo of the artifact in the Legrain card. Penn Museum No. B17216
Modern photo of the artifact in the Legrain card. Museum Object Number: B17216

Perhaps it is a model brick or even a model door socket with the depression in the top representing the place where a door post would have pivoted. But why would shells be pushed into one side of it? The shells do look a bit like eyes and must surely be symbolic. Perhaps the object represents an offering table or altar? The depression in the top could be a place for offerings and the eyes might represent the watchful eyes of departed ancestors? It’s impossible to know exactly what the people who made the artifact were thinking, but it is interesting to ponder the possibilities and the ways we might attempt to learn more about them. Accepting that this artifact is meant to represent an owl is not really an option. Looking for more such objects and analyzing their contexts and potential uses is the best approach. It would make an interesting research project and many such potential projects exist within the data we are presenting.

The potential contained in the figurines and small clay artifacts as well as in Legrain’s analysis of them is pretty clear, but let’s hear it from one of his contemporaries. Here’s an excerpt of a 1933 letter from Elizabeth Douglas Van Buren (author of the 1930 book, Clay Figurines of Babylonia and Assyria) to Father Leon Legrain:

During the short time that I worked in that Museum [Iraq National Museum in Baghdad] it seemed to me absolutely essential that they should have works like your catalogues of seals and of clay figurines, because when new material is pouring in all the time such books are invaluable for comparison, for showing a range of types, and for aids in dating the material. It is really most generous of the Museum Authorities to promise such a fine gift, and of you to have laid the case before them in such a persuasive manner.

Even in 1933 Legrain was cataloging all of the seals and figurines. The works promised to the Iraq Museum were versions of his preliminary catalogues while he was preparing a more official publication. Today we can disseminate information much more quickly and yet we often still await publications that are made on earlier models taking years to produce. We hope that the data currently contained in and still being added at www.Ur-Online.org will help researchers to accomplish their work much more quickly from anywhere in the world.