Ur Digitization Project: Item of the Month

May 7, 2012

Excavations at Ur, the ancient city said to be the birthplace of Abraham, were conducted jointly by the Penn Museum and the British Museum from 1922-1934. The artifacts were divided under laws of the time, with half remaining in the new country of Iraq and the other half split between the excavating institutions. Sir Leonard Woolley excavated on behalf of the two museums and his notes, photos and reports from the field were also divided. Furthermore, many other documents and photos are scattered across the globe in private archives, public newspapers, journals and monographs. Many fascinating people visited and/or worked at Ur, including the famous mystery writer Agatha Christie, whose time at the site served as background material for her book Murder in Mesopotamia. The Ur Digitization Project is reuniting Ur in a virtual space.

In my capacity as manager for the project, I come across a plethora of interesting things. It’s hard to decide on a few favorites to highlight, but I’ll be doing just that over the next few months. I’ll also be highlighting the issues such items bring up for research and for digitization. Let’s start off with an artifact from the very first season of digging. You’ll notice that the ‘U-number’ (assigned in the field by Woolley) is very low at U.72. To put it in perspective, the last number Woolley assigned was U.20094.

Artifact of the month

Spotlight on Field Number U.72 (Museum Number B15192)

Miniature clay mask

Portion of field photo no. 38 showing object no. U.72. Click on link below to go to current Penn Museum record for this object.

This object, only 6.5 cm (2.6 inches) long, is an expressive, grimacing face molded from clay. Woolley often described such masks as ‘grotesque,’ though he used the term in an art historical sense as descriptive rather than judgmental. Indeed, these small masks were almost certainly apotropaic–representative of rather horrifying beings used as amulets to ward off evil. Such objects are common throughout the ancient world, including representations of the medusa in Classical Greece. Athena’s shield is often displayed as bearing an image of this menacing creature whose gaze was said to turn onlookers to stone.

In the ancient Near East there was no legend of Medusa, but there were plenty of demonic figures; and who better to scare away evil? One of the scariest was Puzuzu, an Assyrian demon who is often represented at gateways to keep bad things out of a building. Woolley had an even more specific explanation, one he wrote up in the London Times in July 1925 when reporting on an early exhibit of Ur artifacts in  the British Museum:
“One quaint little mask is described as the head of the god Pazuzu, and is also a charm to be suspended in the window to keep away the sickness brought by the south-east wind.”

But Puzuzu appears rather late in time as far as Ur is concerned, with most confirmed representations being Iron Age. A good deal of the Ur material is Bronze Age, so who is the demon represented here? Most scholars believe it is Humbaba, the giant whom Gilgamesh in legend defeated at the Cedar Forest. Humbaba was certainly a formidable foe, said to be “a terror to humans” and to have the “visage of death.” Some suggest that the representation of his facial features was inspired by human intestines, and perhaps that is shown in the cheeks and chin of our mask, though it may equally be an attempt at facial hair.

When the mask was found, it was recorded in field records. Those records are currently unpublished, but are particularly important to our project. Here is the entry for U.72:

U.72 catalogue card
Field catalogue entry for U.72. The notes are in Woolley’s hand and the drawing is probably his as well.

Note that the entry includes the find spot, though not in great detail. It mentions the “other side of the railway line about ¾ miles N. of Ur Junction.” This was an area later called ‘the railway site’ and is the edge of the suburb of Ur called Diqdiqqeh. Over the years, this area produced many clay figurines, plaques and amulets and was almost certainly a manufacturing area as well as a trading center.

By combining all the information available on any object, the picture becomes much clearer; not just the picture of that artifact, but of its usage and of life at the city in general. Even more important will be the further combining and comparison of data from this site with other sites across the Near East for a more complete understanding of history itself.