Ur Digitization Project: Item of the Month, October 2012

October 23, 2012

Artifact of the month
Spotlight on Field Number U.8226 (Museum Number B16730)
Silver Garment Pin

This beautiful pin was found in PG165, a ‘non-royal’ grave in the Royal Cemetery area of Ur. More than 1800 graves were found in this area but only 16 were designated royal; these graves had particular characteristics, most notably a tomb chamber built in stone or brick with broad entryway that had multiple burials or signs of ritual with many offerings outside. Not all of the royal tombs fit exactly in the mold, and many of the private graves were quite richly endowed. The area was used as a cemetery for a long period of time and many of the people buried here were quite wealthy, whether royal or not. We simply don’t know the connection of the people to political status, but their ability to take to the grave many objects of clear value and craftsmanship says something about their economic status.

The pin was used to fasten a garment. Pins like it are particularly common in graves of the Royal Cemetery area, though the material they are made of and the design might differ somewhat. Some have fluted heads, while others, like this one, have plain heads. But the head of this pin is made of lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone imported to Mesopotamia from a great distance, coming all the way from Afghanistan. Furthermore, the pin is made of silver and adorned with gold.

Pins like this are typically found at the shoulder of bodies in graves. This one was found a bit lower, just above the waist. In direct association with it were found seven beads, four of carnelian and three of lapis, as well as a lapis cylinder seal. These items were almost certainly fastened to the pin originally, on a string threaded through the hole in the upper portion about 2 cm below the lapis head. Thus, the artifact not only functioned as a fastener, it also held the identification of the person, the seal that was used to ‘sign’ clay documents and sealed commodities. Some seals carried cuneiform writing so that we know the actual name of the person carrying it. In this case, however, as is quite common, the seal bore only imagery—a scene of heroes and heraldically crossed animals.

Roll-out in plaster of cylinder seal U.8228, which likely hung from the silver pin B16730.

Button-like toggles were known in antiquity, but buttons in general are a relatively late development; thus, garment pins were common throughout the ancient world. Even the Romans had what is known as a fibula, which looks much like a large safety pin. Many fibulae were designed to clasp together, probably because straight pins were wont to loosen and fall out. Perhaps the beads and seal in the ancient Mesopotamian straight pin shown here could be wrapped around the pointed end after it had pierced the material, holding it fast.

As you can see, reconstructing the find in its original context is very important for interpretation. The Ur Digitization Project, in its efforts to reunite items like this with their field data, is establishing important connections. The seven beads mentioned in the notes with the pin are not stored with the object in the museum and we aren’t even sure which museum they are in. We hope eventually to find out and connect the beads back to the pin itself in virtual context. The cylinder seal is in the Iraq Museum but we hope to eventually include more information on it as well. The field photo of the roll-out is shown above, but modern photos of the seal and its roll-out would be helpful. Once all the objects are securely located and have been carefully examined, they can be digitally reunited so that anyone can see them together for a better understanding of their usage in the ancient context.