Ur Project: November 2014

December 1, 2014

Tool Complete with Handle
Spotlight on U.8783 (Penn Museum No. B17463)
Awl, Chisel, or Punch from grave PG 422

The Ur Project database is shaping up well and as we add information to it, we have moved on to the examination of metal tools and weapons from the site in the Penn Museum. Recently we came across an object of particular interest, a tool from a relatively simple grave known as PG 422. Apart from telling us something about the potential activities of the person buried here, it also tells us about the specific use of this kind of tool, as it preserves information that is normally missing—the handle.

Tool U.8783, copper end embedded in wooden block covered with bitumen.
Tool U.8783, copper end embedded in wooden block covered with bitumen.

Most of the graves in the ‘Royal Cemetery’ at Ur were far from grandiose. Woolley only assigned the designator ‘royal’ to sixteen of the more than 1,800 graves he uncovered here. It could easily be said that these sixteen get an inordinate amount of attention due to the gold jewelry and other fabulously attractive objects within them. So, this month I want to show that less elaborate graves are of great interest as well.

Indeed, the vast majority of graves at Ur are basic inhumations, a long pit dug into the ground with a body placed in along with a few grave goods. Some were wrapped in matting, others had coffins of sorts. What were these more common people like? Surely we should pay attention to them, since they were the majority, making up the society itself.

Woolley didn’t report the common graves as thoroughly as we might wish—he didn’t save bones from them nor did he draw or photograph most of them. He did, however, catalogue artifacts from most of them and from these we might understand something of the activities that involved average Mesopotamians.

Part of the original field card for PG 422, showing the tool as drawn and described by Woolley.
Part of the original field card for PG 422, showing the tool as drawn and described by Woolley.

This assumes that the goods left with the dead reflect their activities in life, and such does seem to be the case in Mesopotamia. Ritual goods, such as representations of gods and goddesses, are not regularly found in the graves of Ur, but occupational tools often are. Pottery is the most common artifact to be found in graves and this is almost surely related to the belief in a need for sustenance in the afterlife rather than showing that everyone was a potter. But more specific objects, the tools of a trade, seem to show that the person was believed to continue their profession after death, and thus they might tell us about their activities in life.

In this case we have a rod of copper or copper alloy that is imbedded in a rather substantial mass of material. The handle is much larger than the ‘business end’ of the tool, which might not be expected were we only to have the copper piece. More interesting still is the way the handle is made. It is a block of wood that has been covered in bitumen (tar) and rounded to fit the palm more securely. The size and shape of the handle implies a good deal of pressure applied at the back and a desire to protect the hand that delivered the pressure from the blocky wood as well as the more pointed copper.

The bitumen is thus a padding layer to make the use of the tool more comfortable, allowing a good deal of work to be done without tiring or blistering. The wood itself is just visible through a small area where the coating is missing and we see that it is blackened. How burning could have occurred through the bitumen is unclear, but the good preservation of the wood (rarely preserved at Ur) is due both to the burning and to the outer coating of bitumen.

Publication of the tool, in Ur Excavations volume 2, plate 229.
Publication of the tool, in Ur Excavations volume 2, plate 229.

Woolley identified this tool as a bradawl, and the picture on the Wikipedia page for this kind of tool is surprisingly similar in appearance to our ancient example. A bradawl is used to create a dimple in a piece of wood to ease the insertion of a nail or screw, and the end of the bradawl tends to look like a flat-head screwdriver. When Woolley published the piece, he suggested it once had a flattened end, comparing it to another piece he found with such an end, U.8307.

The tool, however, could have been pointed and may have been a leather punch or other form of awl. These, too, tend to have large handles to allow for the pressure applied from the hand. So, it was either for wood or leather working, which tells us that the person buried in PG 422 was likely a skilled carpenter or leather worker. The only other objects in the grave were two pieces of pottery whose form tell us that the period in which the person lived was likely to have been Akkadian or Ur III (somewhere in the general range 2300-2000 BCE).

We can’t say much more, but there is a great importance in looking to such people if we are truly to understand the workings of a culture. Who made the great objects of the royal tombs and the household items of the people? Who supplied the muscle and brains to feed and run a city? The common people did. More power to them. And more study of them. Without Woolley’s notes, we would know even less of this case, since he says almost nothing about the grave in the final publication. This continues to show the importance of preserving the original records and tying them back to the artifacts—the primary goal of the Ur Project.