Mapping the Early Trial Trenches at Ur
Reconstructing the sequence of excavation
A look at TTA-TTG as archaeological contexts
Locating Woolley’s trenches on a map is a trying exercise. In most cases he did not record the locations of exploratory excavation trenches specifically, as he was less concerned with them than with the location of buildings they might reveal. So, we must piece together evidence (sometimes contradictory evidence) in an attempt to reconstruct a complete excavation map. It is an important endeavor, however, because, although Woolley gave precedence to building locations, he often recorded finds from trial trenches with no other information. In order for us to get a good idea of the general find spot for these objects, we must know where the trenches were.
When Woolley began excavating at Ur in 1922, he set out two Trial Trenches, Trial Trench A (TTA) and Trial Trench B (TTB). These are easy to locate since the Royal Air Force (RAF) kindly photographed the site from the air on 22 November 1922. For the next few years, Woolley concentrated on expanding TTB to uncover the building it struck—known as the e-nun-mah (Sumerian, roughly translated = Lofty Storehouse)—and uncovering the ziggurat and other buildings near it. But in the 1925-26 season he opened a new Trial Trench C (TTC). Like those before, he did not make a map to show where the trench was located, but the RAF again photographed the site on 21 May 1926. By this point, a good deal of excavation had occurred and the exact location of the trench is hard to discern, especially because there is so little other evidence of where it was located. In all likelihood, it is near the building known as the e-hur-sag (Sumerian, roughly translated = Mountain House) in the southeast of the sacred area and there is a trench on the photo here that could be TTC.
Most artifacts recorded from the trench have only the note ‘from TTC’ written on their cards. In two cases, however, we have other information. One says “alongside mud brick wall running NE by SW, S of Egigpar and parallel with the Temenos wall.” E-gig-par (Sumerian, roughly translated = Cloistered House) is what we now call the Giparu (Akkadian, roughly translated = Priestly Residence) and is the major building south of the ziggurat, but there is no clear wall south of it that could meet this description. The note probably meant to write “Ehursag” or “E-hur-sag,” which is the large building just southeast of the Giparu and one that H.R. Hall excavated in 1918. The other object card related to TTC includes the note “back of Hall’s Excavation,” which would seem to confirm the location near this building. And, in fact, there is a large mud brick wall to the south (part of the earlier Temenos Wall). When we look at the 1926 aerial photo, we see that the length of this wall had been excavated and there is also what appears to be a trench cutting at a diagonal from the wall to the northeast. This is probably TTC.
The original TTA had revealed no architecture but had produced small pieces of jewelry. Woolley felt that this might indicate a graveyard and that his team was not yet experienced enough to dig what could be an important cemetery. In the 1926-27 season, he finally returned to TTA and opened more trial trenches near it. Indeed, this area would begin to produce many spectacular objects, revealing the royal graves in this season and the next.
Once again, Woolley did not draw a map of the trial trench locations or even give their measurements. Unfortunately, the next aerial photo was not taken until 1930. Gathering as much evidence as I can, I’ve been attempting to place the trenches on a map as accurately as possible. It’s been an interesting puzzle, at times frustrating, but I think I have a working hypothesis of the locations now.
Object cards, field notes, and field reports have been the most helpful since they record Woolley’s process as he was going through it. Still, they rarely give complete details. For example, in a report dated 28 November 1926, Woolley states: “…most of the men were again moved, this time to cut a long and deep trial trench across the unexplored part of the site lying between the Nebuchadnezzar Temenos and the heavy buttressed wall running south-east of the ‘Palace’.” The palace is the e-hur-sag; other field information shows that Trial Trench D ran from TTA at the mud brick wall to the east corner of the Neo-Babylonian Temenos wall. This means that it can be located pretty securely, though whether it literally ran from the head of TTA or only near it is in question as is its exact width.
Trial Trenches E through G (TTE, TTF, TTG) are all located in the Royal Cemetery area. This we know from the notes that show the various graves found within the trenches. Of course, Woolley didn’t map the trenches, nor did he map the earliest graves found. He began mapping graves only after the trenches were expanded to cover the entire area of the royal cemetery. In 1966, Hans Nissen published new interpretations for the dating of the graves and briefly tackled the problem of the trial trenches. In 1982, Wolfgang Gockel spent more time with the problem. Citing Nissen who cited object cards in the British Museum, Gockel placed PG337 in TTE and PG580 in TTG. The cards do show that PG337 was in TTE, but so was PG580. Even though PG579 and PG581 were in TTG, the numbering of graves often jumped between trenches that were being dug concurrently. TTE also revealed the stone work of PG777. All of this information should help to locate the trench very solidly and a trench connecting the points is possible, though other information makes it harder to fit in.
The field report dated 31 December 1926 says: “Further to test the ground, I started a second trench roughly at right angles to the first and extending to the corner of the south-east gate of the late Temenos.” This is TTE. The south-east gate is rather confusingly in the south, not southeast, and on most maps is labeled only as the south gate. So, TTE should run at approximate right angles to TTD and include at least part of PG777, PG580, and PG337 (notably dug before mapping of graves was conducted and so Woolley’s placement of it on the overall map may not be completely correct). Both it and TTD are also said to run from the head of TTA.
TTF contains PG513, one of the only private graves numbered before 580 on which we have any locational data. This grave was cut down into the northwest wall of PG777 and thus gives us a boundary between TTE (PG777) and TTF (PG513). Putting all we know from these statements together, however, gives no completely satisfactory orientation. The most archaeologically sound procedure would be to dig parallel to a trench already existing (TTA) but this would cover the northwest wall of PG777 and would not lead to the southeast gate. Any other orientation would leave out the trench beginning from the head of TTA. Tentatively we can suggest the layout in the map above, but the exact location of these trial trenches may never be known. At least we have narrowed it down and can have some idea of where the unmapped graves were found in the overall cemetery area.