Ur Project: May 2015

June 2, 2015

Metal Tools and Weapons from Ur
With yet another look at U.8783 (Penn Museum Number: B17463)
Awl, Chisel, or Punch from grave PG 422

More than 40 years after he excavated at the ancient city of Ur, Sir Max Mallowan had this to say:

“There is still much to be gained through the analysis of Woolley’s discoveries, notably the metal. Indeed it is astonishing to see recent illustrations of the implements discovered in the Royal Cemetery of Ur and still bearing the caption ‘Copper or Bronze.’ Analysis of the metallurgy should be a requirement demanding the highest priority”

(from the article “Reflections of C. Leonard Woolley” in Expedition magazine, Vol. 20:1, 1977 p.4).

Max Mallowan (far left) at Ur in 1929. Then from left to right are: Hamoudi, Leonard Woolley, Katharine Woolley, Father Eric Burrows.
Max Mallowan (far left) at Ur in 1929. Then from left to right are: Hamoudi, Leonard Woolley, Katharine Woolley, and Eric Burrows. Image Credit: Penn Museum Archives

We’re now wrapping up the recording of the metal tools and weapons from Ur at the Penn Museum and, nearly 40 years after Mallowan’s comment, most are still listed as ‘copper or bronze’ or as ‘copper alloy’ since we still don’t know the exact make-up of the metal. There are many reasons for this. To determine the exact composition you really need a sample of the metal, but in most cases we don’t want to drill into an ancient artifact. Plus, some are so corroded that there is little actual metal left. Recently developed tests by X-Ray Florescence are non-invasive but they only examine the surface, where the corrosion is highest. And even when you get results of various elements in the composition, there can be problems in interpreting the true percentages of those elements.

Still, Mallowan’s comment is well taken. We can learn a great deal from the metals and we should continue to work with them. In fact, we are now in a cooperative partnership with the Deutches Bergbau Museum to do just that. They have taken tiny samples of more than 60 of our metal artifacts and recently tested a few at the British Museum as well. They are analyzing gold, silver, copper, lead, and even cosmetic pigments that contain mineral elements. We hope to be able to see more than chemical composition, but also trace the original source of the metals; however, our discussions have shown that it may be quite difficult to do this, or to say more than ‘copper-based’ for some of the artifacts even after analysis. Scientific testing is an excellent tool, but it can’t give us all the answers.

There are many other avenues of exploration on these and other objects from Ur, though. Chemical analysis continues and we will continue to learn from it, but other colleagues are looking at microscopic analysis of wear patterns and manufacturing marks, comparing techniques to traditional methods still in use in some societies today, and even trying to reproduce some of the objects by ancient methods. Others are looking at distribution patterns in graves and at potential belief structures of the ancient people concerning certain types of metal objects such as amulets or votive figurines.

I continue to be interested in tools of the often overlooked mundane types. We see many objects that are listed as chisels, awls, borers, bodkins, or piercers, and perhaps that’s all we can say, but closer analysis might be able to give a few clues as to how they were used and help to better classify them. When we x-rayed the awl (U.8783) that still had its handle, for example, we found the form of the copper rod imbedded in the handle to be different from what we expected. There was no solid wooden block inside and the back of the copper tool had a pierced widened area and a kind of nail head. In fact, this form is very similar to a cloak pin, specifically Type 2 in Woolley’s Ur Excavations volume 2 publication. The hole near the top was often used to attach a cylinder seal, as seen in the example on the left, and the ‘nail head’ was often used to secure a decorative bead of some sort to the top of the pin.

x-ray of U.8783 (B17463) with comparison to published pin types from Ur
X-ray of handled tool U.8783 (Museum Object Number: B17463) with comparison to published pin types 1 and 2 from Ur.

So it seems that this chisel or awl was originally something else–a pin used to secure a cloak or some other garment around the shoulders. Perhaps the pin broke and an enterprising craftsperson then filed down the small end, embedded the thicker end in bitumen, and utilized the resulting piece as a wood- or leather-working tool.

We continue to learn about these objects and the people who made and used them, and with more and more information available through ur-online.org, who knows what we’ll discover?