Ur Project: March 2015

April 7, 2015

Toward a Digital Research Tool
Spotlight on EHG46: Larsa/Old Babylonian grave assemblage
Example usage of the Ur-Online test site

We have opened our digital research tool — www.ur-online.org — in a test version to researchers around the world. This month I want to show one way it helps to speed up research by organizing contextual information.

Please bear in mind that the site is nowhere near complete in the data we eventually want to make available, so all of the information you might want to glean from the records is not yet accessible. There is a good deal here, however, and we are continually adding more. We’re also looking for input on how to make the data more useful to a research community (we will add functionality for a more general public audience after the core research functions are established). Among the ideas we’d like to hear about are helpful organizational schemes and interconnections that might make the data more comprehensive and comprehensible.

In this blog post I’m going to use a particular category of objects that I’ve studied in the past to show how the site aids research by offering up the data in ways that make their associations clear wherever possible. The category in question is that of balance pan weights, measuring tools for the evaluation of mass. In the ancient world these typically took the form of polished stones that had been ground down to a specific sequence of units. The most common form in the ancient Near East is ovoid, resembling an olive or a date, and the most recognizable form is that of a sleeping or trussed duck.

Example sphendonoid (ovoid) weight from Ur, U.6257, B16365, marked as weighing 1 shekel
Example sphendonoid (ovoid) weight from Ur, U.15041, 30-12-523, marked as weighing 1 shekel

Weights were used in trade and manufacture to assess value, determine payment, and to measure ratios of materials such as metals for smelting. They can therefore tell us a great deal about the processes behind the ancient economy. I have long been intrigued by these elements of ancient business and have found it particularly important to assess them in context, as is true of all archaeological materials. In other words, a weight by itself with no information on its find spot can’t tell us much, whereas a weight known to be found on the floor of a building with several other objects that may have been used alongside it starts to paint a more understandable picture.

Example duck weight, U.6257A, B16365, shown from the side. The duck's head is only somewhat indicated and rests on its back.
Example duck weight, U.6257A, B16365, shown from the side. The duck’s head is only somewhat indicated and rests on its back.

Let’s take a look at the above weight, U.6257A, as an example. We can find it on the Ur-Online site in many ways—by its field number (6257), its museum number (B16365), or by searching under the controlled category of balance pan weights. Of course, the more specific we can be, the more quickly the particular weight can be found.

We could type ‘weight’ into the main search box, but that would return all occurrences of the word in the database and may overwhelm us with results. So, we go to the ‘advanced search’ option where we can use the pull-down menu for object type categories if we wish (under economic/administrative, weighing, balance pan weights, duck) and search through to find it (note that as yet we do not have all that many modern images of artifacts, so this makes a visual search difficult at the moment). Since we know the field number, however, our best bet is to type 6257 into the U number box.

Doing this returns three entries. This is because Woolley’s catalogue card for this number listed three weights. Our goal has been to create one entry for each identifiable object using subletters where appropriate to identify them as part of a particular field number grouping. This particular weight was listed first on the card and is thus U.6257A. The image for the weight appears in thumbnail next to its entry since it has been investigated in the Penn museum and a modern photo is available. Despite being found together, the other weights were sent to the other principal museums (one to London, and one to Baghdad) and photos are not yet available of them.

The database that underlies the Ur-Online site contains searchable transcriptions of all of Woolley’s field cards. The information on them has then been normalized into categories that seem to make sense in modern research terms. Archaeologists do not agree on categories of objects and therefore there is a certain amount of interpretation here but we have made every effort to connect with schemas that are generally in use for digital archaeological data, such as the CIDOC-CRM.

After entering the card data we began examining each object from Ur in Philadelphia and in London (a process we are still conducting). In this process we record modern data such as measurements and descriptions, assess the piece for conservation needs, and take modern photographs. We also attempt to connect the object back to its field number, though we have found that many objects were never assigned a number in the field. When we encounter such an object, we record it without field number in the database, thus always increasing the total finds from Ur on record.

If we click on the ‘view details’ button for our current weight, U.6257A, we see additional information. Woolley’s records appear under the ‘archival’ tab, while modern data is under the ‘general’ tab. If scientific analysis, such as x-ray florescence, had been conducted on the piece, we would record that information under the ‘conservation/analysis’ tab.

We are in the process of connecting further archival information to the entries, including scans of catalogue cards, field photographs, field reports, and field notes. These digitized records are currently being tagged to ensure connection to the proper artifact records. We are also listing published references of the artifact in question at the right of the screen.

For the analytical point I am making in this blog entry, the most important information is that of context found at the upper right. In this case, it shows Ur>>EH>>LG153 (EHG46). This tells us the hierarchical location for the object. The weight was therefore found within the site of Ur, area EH, Larsa Grave number 153 (the published reference number, which in the field was designated EH Grave number 46). By clicking on the last portion of this chain, we are shown all the objects that were found in that same location. This is the assemblage of materials in the grave–those objects that were found with and possibly used alongside the weight.

We also see a general description of the grave, which tells us that it was a communal (familial?), brick-built tomb that contained three skulls ‘in confusion.’ This means that we can’t know which of the objects belonged to or were buried with each individual, but they were almost certainly associated with one or more of them.

Screen shot from Ur-Online showing the assemblage from EHG46. This view was obtained by searching G46 in the main search box.
Screen shot from Ur-Online showing the assemblage from EHG46. This view was obtained by searching G46 in the main search box and expanding each entry at left.

The assemblage contains a cylinder seal, 11 balance pan weights (one fragmentary and not coming up in the expanded types), a stone loom weight, 2 beads, 3 pieces of copper, and a clay vase. It closely follows other observed assemblages that may be associated with ancient merchants, as I defined in my dissertation long ago. I had not seen this complete assemblage before, but it is interesting to note how it follows a general pattern I had already encountered. Amassing data on such assemblages is time-consuming when poring through old reports and field notes, but at least for Ur it is now getting much easier.

Now that I can call up such associations quickly, I can move directly to the more important work of analyzing and understanding them. Already I see that the ‘loom weight’ is probably not a loom weight at all. Although these are sometimes made of stone, they are most often made of clay, and are generally large and crudely made (exact mass doesn’t matter as much as it would for a balance weight). I have not been able to see this object but I suspect it is a small suspension weight. Next, we see the inclusion of two beads and small fragments of copper. The copper pieces could potentially have been parts of a deteriorated scale, or perhaps pieces of raw material to be weighed out. Beads are often found with weights and may have been used for accounting purposes, calculations on an early form of abacus. Two beads are not really sufficient for this, but weights are often found with groups of beads.

Whether this is a merchant assemblage can be questioned, but it would appear that one or more of the people interred in this grave had been involved in the trade and evaluation of goods. Such understanding of people is the ultimate goal of archaeology and I believe we are making the data from Ur more useful in this effort.

Please let us know if the site helps in your research too.