Ur Digitization Project: Item of the Month, August 2012

August 22, 2012

Our current Ur digitization database contains all of the known links between museum artifacts and the information gathered in the field, but around 40% of the objects that were excavated at Ur are missing that connection. Time and storage, and even human error both in the field and in later inventories, have stripped away some data that needs to be restored. Furthermore, many of the artifacts have not been examined in almost a century. They must be checked for conservation needs, detailed information must be gathered and record images made, since most still have not been photographed after all these years.

It will take a very long time to look at every object, but it is necessary. We have chosen two categories of artifacts for initial examination to test how many connections can be restored and how much time it takes to do it. The first set is cylinder seals, small (usually pierced) cylindrical objects that have carved images in reverse on their surfaces. These objects were used as identifiers, like signatures, in Mesopotamia. Writing at the time was in the form of wedges (cuneiform) on wet clay. The cylinder would then be rolled onto the clay to leave its correctly oriented image. The picture alone may have been enough to identify the person  who wrote the document or witnessed it, but at times there was also an actual cuneiform name written alongside the imagery.

There are many standard scenes used on cylinder seals in different periods, so they often look somewhat alike. This is the first of our challenges when matching a seal we have in the museum back to its description in the Woolley field catalogue. About two-thirds of the total number of seals from Ur were rolled into plaster and photographed when found. This helps us tremendously, but we still have the problem of similarity of imagery in some cases. Plus, many of the scenes have been so eroded as to be virtually unidentifiable. Measurements help, as does material type, but these can be problematic as well.

Let’s look at an example:

Artifact of the month
Spotlight on Field Number U.???? (Museum Number B15273)
Steatite Cylinder Seal

Roll-out in plaster of B15723 (from UE X:199). The publication of the seal in 1951 shows no field number.

This small stone cylinder is only 2 cm long and 1.1 cm wide. It is drilled through its length and has rather poor quality figures carved into its surface. Although they are stick-like in style, it is clear that these are two ‘heroes’ (often assumed to be Gilgamesh and Enkidu of legend in scenes of this sort) fighting a lion between them. The lion rears up on two legs, facing right, and the hero on the left has its tail in one hand, its mane in the other, and his leg on the lion’s hindquarters as if pulling the lion back. Meanwhile, the hero on the right has the front paws in his hands. The scene is a relatively common one, with minor differences in stance, facing, and placement of hands. For a much more elaborately carved seal, here’s an image of U.8416 (B16870):

Roll-out in plaster of B16870 from field photograph. This is a much more highly detailed combat scene.

An inscription appears on this pretty green seal and on our mystery black/gray cylinder as well. B15273 is said in Ur Excavations volume 10 to read:
son of Hu-bu-na (?)
arad Innina.

Thus, despite the relatively low quality of the engraving, we have a good deal of information available to us. Since we have a reasonably well identified museum number that is not linked to a field number, we would hope that a quick scan through our field catalogue database would result in a small steatite cylinder seal with a combat scene and inscription that has not been attached to a museum. Simple, right?

In fact, one seal looks very much like it. U.11604 was photographed in the field and its roll-out appears below:

Cylinder seal U.11604 roll-out in plaster from the field. Similar combat scene to B15273.

But notice that here, the lion faces left, and the inscription is not the same. Close, but no cylinder seal. Since no other unattached seal of the sort comes up, the one we are looking for is either mis-assigned to a museum somewhere, or it is one of the seals that got only a cursory description in Woolley’s catalogue. This happened often enough to cause many problems. He didn’t, for example, always measure the seals, nor was he consistent in identifying the material type. Sometimes he only gives the briefest description of the scene, such as ‘figures’.

But all hope is not lost. There are other ways to narrow down the possible hits even among the poorly described. The best way is by finding out when the object came into the museum. Of course, there are problems there as well. Penn Museum did not start using date numbers for registration purposes until 1930, more than half way through the Ur excavations. Since this is a ‘B’ number, it definitely came in before 1930. But looking at the old register of objects, we find that B15723 came in with many other seals. In fact, B15722-15726 are all cylinder seals, and three of those have U numbers that all come from the first Ur season. Indeed, this is an early registration number as far as Ur is concerned, and it is almost certainly from that 1922-1923 year. This narrows the total possible objects down considerably, to just 39 seals. Of those, many are already assigned, and many others are not the appropriate scene. In fact, the described combat scenes available that year can all be ruled out because of color or size or museum attribution. That leaves only three possibilities, all poorly described with no measurements; all stating ‘steatite, figures and inscription’; and all coming from the suburb of Ur known as Diqdiqqeh.

Since we would get no further information from the field number, it may not matter if it was originally assigned U.1046, U.1047, or U.1049, but we can be reasonably certain that it is one of those three.

That’s all for Adventures in Classification for this time. See you next time.