University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Ur Project: October 2014


October 31, 2014

Tomb Fit for a Queen (and King?)
Spotlight on PG789 & PG800
Royal graves that might or might not be linked

In December of 1927, Leonard Woolley uncovered a pair of tombs that would become two of the best known from the Royal Cemetery at Ur, inspiring many newspaper and magazine articles and sparking the public’s imagination. One of them held a body that wearing an inscribed cylinder seal, a name tag of sorts. The cuneiform signs gave her name and title–Queen Puabi–and she in particular has been the focus of much speculation.

I reported last month on Puabi’s golden headdress and I am continuing research into the circumstances of her find. (NB: in my last report I made an error–I said Puabi’s headgear weighed around 3kg, but the total weight of the gold and beads on her head, as reported by Baadsgaard 2008, is 2.215 kg. not including the amulets found near her head that may have been worn in the hair. You’ll hear anything from 5 to 10 pounds as the total weight of her jewelry, which depends on which objects you include in the overall analysis. If we include all the beads found on her body total weight is around 5kg–her beaded cloak alone weighs 2.2kg–and this is probably where people get the 10 lb. figure, not as the headdress, but the entire ensemble.)

One of the things I’m now investigating, or re-investigating really, is the interrelationship of Puabi’s tomb (PG800) with the closely related tomb (PG789) that Woolley claimed held her husband, the King. Paul Zimmerman (1998 Master’s paper and in publication in the Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur, Zettler et al. 1998) had already noted the discrepancies in measurements and did an excellent job of reconstructing the potential layout of the graves, but naturally we go back through these things as we digitize and try to understand the site.

PG789 formed the basis for royal tombs in Woolley’s typology, a stone built chamber containing the principle burial (the ‘king’ in this case, though the tomb had been looted and no king’s body was found here) surrounded by a death pit wherein were arranged sacrificial victims who went to their deaths to serve the royal personage in the afterlife. In PG789, the floors of these elements are at the same elevation, but in the neighboring PG800 (Puabi), the elevations differ by at least 1.7 meters.

Plan drawing of PG800 death pit and chamber PG800B (Woolley 1934, Ur Excavations vol. 2)
Plan drawing of PG800 death pit and chamber PG800B (Woolley 1934, Ur Excavations vol. 2)

That pesky third dimension ruins everything. In the top-down drawing of PG800, it all looks so clear. But in 3D, it is far from it.

When excavating, Woolley first came down on a death pit reportedly at 7 meters below the surface (A in the 3D model below). Beneath it, he found a stone chamber (B in the model). Then he dug away the upper pit and discovered a lower (C in the model). The depth here was reportedly 8.3 meters below surface. Finally, he ran into the wall of another chamber in the north (D in the model). The floor of this chamber was 40 centimeters lower than the first chamber. In the orthographic illustration shown below, the letters A-D show the order of discovery (E is a hypothetical death pit never discovered but which might exist). Woolley then put parts B and C together (as PG789) and parts A and D together (as PG800).

3D reconstruction of PG789 and PG800. Letters represent order of excavation, with E? hypothetical only.
3D reconstruction of PG789 and PG800. Letters represent order of excavation, with E? hypothetical only.

Woolley says the roof of the PG800 chamber was flush with the upper death pit, making its height 1.7 meters, its floor 8.7 meters below the surface of the mound. But his measures are inconsistent.

Reported measures:

PG800 death pit = 7.0 meters below surface
PG789 death pit and chamber floor = 8.3 meters below surface
PG800 chamber floor = 8.7 meters below surface

PG789 chamber walls = 1.5 meters in height before vault begins
PG800 chamber walls = 1.4 meters in height before vault begins

The numbers can’t be correct since a 1.5 meter height of 789 walls from an 8.3 meter depth would make them rise to at least 6.8 meters below surface, meaning they would intrude on the upper death pit at 7 meters below surface. And then the vault would take up even more space. Since we know Woolley found the 789 chamber under the upper death pit 800, something has to be wrong.

So we look for more evidence. Woolley states that the upper death pit sloped as much as 50 centimeters but he doesn’t say where he took his 7 meter depth measure, so there could be as much as 1.8 meters between the two pits in some places. That still doesn’t seem to be enough to include the entire chamber, but at least it shows that there was more space even in Woolley’s reckoning. Furthermore, the Forestier reconstruction that Woolley included in publication shows people standing next to the PG789 chamber with its vault rising well above them. In this reconstruction, the total height would be around 2.2 meters.

Artist's reconstruction of PG789 death pit before the courtiers died. The chamber is seen in the background, taller than the people.
Artist’s reconstruction of PG789 death pit before the courtiers died. The chamber is seen in the background, taller than the people. (Artwork done in 1928 by Amedee Forestier)

Then we look at Woolley’s section drawing, a cross-section through the tombs, and see that he shows a distance between the two death pits, calculated from the scale he placed on the map, at approximately 2.2 meters. He also shows the vault of PG800 rising above the upper death pit line with its total height around 2.6 meters. This is substantially different from the reported height of 1.7 meters.

Finally, Zimmerman (1998) interprets a survey document found by Nissen (1966) in Woolley’s notes to indicate the height above sea level of PG789 at 7.65 meters. This would make it, in Zimmerman’s analysis, 8.95 meters below the surface, not 8.3 as reported by Woolley. Of course, the modern ground surface is not constant and we don’t know exactly where Woolley took his measures.

Zimmerman’s calculations seem much more plausible than Woolley’s direct reports. Woolley probably calculated from a base measure after areas had been excavated away, unable to re-measure, and the survey numbers are likely more accurate. The only problem with the recalculations is that it makes the PG800 chamber as much as 2.7 meters in height rather than the 1.7 that Woolley reported. This difference is quite noticeable in excavation since it is over the typical height of a person and climbing down into a pit 2.7 meters deep is much different than one only 1.7 meters. Nonetheless, Woolley’s own section drawing shows PG800 to be at least 2.5 meters tall, a good indication that it really was larger than he reported. Plus, the vaults of both tombs had largely collapsed, so the total height is an estimate at any rate.

Computer model of PG789 and PG800 with Woolley's section map to scale. Letters again designate sequence of excavation with E? never excavated.
Computer model of PG789 and PG800 with Woolley’s section map to scale. Letters again designate sequence of excavation with E? never excavated.

The conclusion we have to come to is that there was more vertical space between the death pits than reported in the publication of Ur Excavations volume 2. Furthermore, the chamber of PG800 (D in the model) probably doesn’t belong with the high death pit labeled PG800 (A in the model). In fact, there may well be another death pit below PG789 (E? in the model) that is at the level of PG800’s chamber floor and associated with that tomb. Woolley didn’t dig deeper here. He was convinced that Puabi outlived her husband and wanted to be buried next to him but with her servants placed above his grave. That seems a more complex reconstruction than the idea that Puabi had died before whoever was in PG789 and the death pit above 789 is a still later grave.


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