Ur, Then and Now
Comparing photos from the field and from a recent visit
Field photos no. 454 and 1884 with equivalents taken in 2015
I’ve been studying the ancient city of Ur for more than a decade, but due to the struggles the nation of Iraq has endured I’d never been able to visit in person. Until now. I’ve just returned from the site, having spent October-December working there with a project team headed by Elizabeth Stone and Paul Zimansky of SUNY Stony Brook. They will release the official results of excavation as time permits, but I thought I’d blog some of what I learned about Sir Leonard Woolley’s work from walking the site itself and coming to understand his notes and field photos in a new light.
With the exception of the ziggurat (which was largely reconstructed in the 1960s), the long-abandoned ruins of Ur are visually rather plain since the ancient walls of the once massive city are hardly visible today. The soil covering everything is fine, gray, and with a slight encrustation at the top if left undisturbed. It’s what I imagine the lunar surface to be like, if the moon had our gravity and was also strewn with potsherds and bullet casings.
The extent of Woolley’s excavation has always been mind-numbing to me. He cleared at least 6,000 cubic meters of dirt from one pit in one season alone (Pit F, in season 8 = 1929-1930). Yet much of that impact can’t be seen on the surface today except in the massive piles of backdirt (dirt moved from the excavation areas and piled in long heaps). Standing dwarfed beneath these piles brought their enormous size home to me in a new way. Here were ramparts of earth and potsherds built up by hundreds of workers over the excavation years, each rivaling the ziggurat itself in length and often four or five meters in height.
The sheer number of potsherds within these piles is astounding. Broken pottery is the most abundant of all finds at most archaeological sites, but Woolley threw them out with the backdirt. Still, I couldn’t imagine just how prodigious the sherds would be, and their appearance was amplified by erosion of dirt from between them to the extent that walking the tops of the dirt piles often felt like treading on a rocky surface. But true rocks were very rare in the mix. I knew that stones had to be imported to southern Mesopotamia, but here was observable proof of that fact (small stones are very common in the sites I’ve worked in northern Mesopotamia).
There was something else that should have been obvious but that I hadn’t considered enough–erosion of the backdirt had to take soil somewhere, and that would be to the low-lying areas. The low-lying areas would be those which Woolley had cleared in his excavations. In fact, eighty years of backdirt melt combined with windblown dust had filled in much of what Woolley had done. This led to the site being rather plain, largely devoid of the walls that show in the field photos and plans. Compare, for example, the photos at the top of this post. They both show the ziggurat from the southeast. In the foreground of the field photo (taken in 1925) we see the excavated remains of buildings called the Giparu and the Dublalmah. A large floor paved with baked brick dominates the scene and the ziggurat terrace wall is clear in the center of the picture. A workman stands on steps to the ziggurat terrace and another stands next to the wall showing that it is at least a meter and a half in height. Looking at the modern photo, however, we cannot see the terrace wall at all and only a small portion of the Dublalmah still rises above the soil at the right-hand side of the photo. The ziggurat’s reconstructed walls are cleaner but everywhere else is gray dirt and potsherds.
Before I went to Ur, I’d thought that most of the loss of walls was due to collapse. Visible walls are certainly crumbling and the unbaked mud brick portions have mostly worn away, but baked brick is very common at Ur and a lot of their original height has simply been covered over. In fact 1-2 meters of fill has entered most of the old excavation areas, and the deep pits Woolley dug some 18 meters down are now at best 6 meters deep. No evidence of deep excavation units other than Pit F and Pit X (the two deepest of them all) are visible today and the royal cemetery itself, though still visible as a deep area adjacent to pit X, is heavily filled in.
Even the domestic area labeled AH, where Woolley recorded walls up to 3 meters in height, shows mostly stubs of beige rising from gray. As was already clear from satellite images, tracing outlines of complete buildings here is difficult despite the fact that Woolley excavated and mapped the walls of 50 houses. Even finding the streets Woolley named is challenging, though the modern reconstruction of buildings along Paternoster Row makes that street stand out. These modern walls were built up in 1999/2000 in anticipation of a papal visit. The Pope didn’t end up making that trip and the overall building itself doesn’t give a good idea of the housing here or even follow the ancient plan all that well. Nevertheless, it stands out and emphasizes one of the main streets. Other portions of area AH are largely jumbles of brick and soil.
Compare the photos above. They’re both pictures of Straight Street in area AH, looking northwest. They were taken 85 years apart (1930 and 2015). Today’s photo shows more disarray and seemingly much shorter walls. Most of what remains is baked brick, used at the base of walls to make sure the foundation was strong. Baked brick was used extensively at Ur, creating solid wall bases up to two meters in height. Above the baked brick, unbaked brick was used to extend even higher. The modern photo still shows some eroding mud brick atop the baked brick, which means the original top of the baked brick still exists.
In the old photograph at least 18 courses of baked brick can be seen, and sometimes up to 23. But at best 10 courses are seen today rising from the topsoil. It turns out that the upper portions have not completely collapsed but instead the lower courses have been covered by dirt wash and fallen brick so that the street itself is no longer visible. In many ways this is a good thing, as it helps to protect the lower portions, but if the site is ever to be a tourist attraction it might be best to clear the overburden and protect the walls in some other way so that visitors can once again walk the streets of 4,000 years ago.