Ur Digitization Project: Item of the Month, July 2012

July 26, 2012

Ur Digitization Project
Artifact of the month
Spotlight on Field Number U.12380 (Museum Number 30-12-553)
Gold Ring from the ‘Great Death Pit’

Photo of the ring showing the spiral braids.

This ring is made of a spiral coil of gold wire, twisted in places to make a cable or rope pattern. The ancient jeweler more than 4,000 years ago soldered the coil together at the back to make it stable as a single object. The result is a stunningly delicate ring whose appeal is palpable today.

Although we stand in wonder at the artistic and technical skill of the ancient artisan, the beauty and delicacy of the object is not the whole story. There are much bigger issues–connections to people who made the ring and who wore it, to the place where it was eventually deposited, and to other objects used or found in conjunction with it. This is what archaeologists call context, and no object can truly be understood without reference to that  concept.

This particular ring was found on the body of a woman in PG (Private Grave) 1237 at the site of Ur in modern Iraq. As would be expected of a ring of this size, it was worn on the finger. We can’t know if the ring symbolized some concept–such as unity or timelessness–to the woman who wore it, but we can see that she wore a great deal of jewelry. She wore not just this gold ring on her hand, but five others as well.

Ring 30-12-553 with some of the other jewelry found on Body 61

Along with the six rings she also wore necklaces, bracelets, and a headdress–all of gold, silver and semi-precious stones. Such elaborate adornment leads to the conclusion that this woman was important in her society and that the display of wealth was central to her position or identity.

But the image is still more complex as we reach out to the greater context. Not only are there other objects of jewelry on this body to consider, but there are many other bodies in the grave as well. Indeed, there were a total of 73 bodies here, causing the excavator, Leonard Woolley, to dub PG 1237 the ‘Great Death Pit’.

Since no other identity could be established, the woman who wore this ring was labeled body 61 in publication. Original excavation notes used a different numbering sequence and thus, as excavated, the body was number 22. Woolley believed that the women in this grave were attendants of a great royal person and that they went willingly to their deaths on their sovereign’s passing. A clear ruler’s tomb was not found in association with this death pit, however, and thus the context may not completely support the idea.

A portion of the published drawing of bodies in PG1237. Body 61 is in the upper right. (Ur Excavations Vol. 2, Plate 71)

A great ritual of some sort surely occurred here, with highly adorned women, impressive statuettes, finely crafted musical instruments and a few soldiers all together in a closed context. Even though most of the bodies in the pit wore jewelry, none were quite so resplendent as Body 61. For example, finger rings were not common among most of the women, yet Body 61 had six, which might mean that this woman was particularly important. Furthermore, two of the most spectacular finds in the pit, ram sculptures in gold, shell and lapis (U.12357), were found near her head (one now in the British Museum).

Much thought has been put into what this grave and its rows of bodies might mean, but by starting here with an impressive small object and zooming out to the bigger picture it becomes strikingly obvious how complex any excavation sequence is and how involved the process of interpretation. Moreover, we see that context is particularly difficult to reconstruct long after excavation. Following original notes, annotations, publication and reinterpretations through the years is vital, but complicated by preservation and access. Even during excavation context is not 100%–some kinds of objects simply don’t survive being buried for thousands of years–but recording of that context is often less than 100% and those recordings also begin to disappear over time.

Part of original excavation notes showing numbering and renumbering of bodies in PG1237.

To address these problems, the Ur Digitization Project is gathering all related data on the site–field notes, photographs, measurements, reports–into a single resource. Excavation occurred in the 1920s and 30s, and under laws of the time artifacts were divided between the excavating museums. That means that Baghdad, London and Philadelphia all have substantial collections from the site. In fact, even though they come from the same context, the six rings that were found on body 61 are now divided. The archival records of the excavation, such as Woolley’s letters from the field, are also extensive, divided, and unavailable to most. With united effort among the museums, all of this detail will be united in a virtual space so that researchers and the public alike can quickly access all the peripheral material that relates to the artifacts, to reevaluate contexts and gain a better understanding of the site, its artifacts and its people.

It is wonderful to appreciate ancient artistry but even more amazing to ponder the life, death and accomplishments of the ancient people themselves.

The ring discussed here will soon be on tour, along with many other objects from Ur, shown at the La Caixa Museum in Barcelona and Madrid starting this fall.

For new theories on PG1237, see:

Baadsgaard, et al. “Human sacrifice and intentional corpse preservation in the Royal Cemetery of Ur” Antiquity, Volume: 85  Number: 327  Page: 27–42