Ur Digitization Project: September 2012

September 29, 2012

This month at the Ur Project has been very busy. We have two major arms of activity ongoing, archival and artifactual (if that’s a word). This blog entry will try to display both through a point of convergence: PG 143.

PG stands for Private Grave, a designation Woolley gave to graves in a particular area, an area that later became known as the Royal Cemetery since it also held large graves with many luxury items, presumably those of royalty. PG 143 is not classified as a royal grave, but it does have some interesting objects within it. We don’t know much about the person buried there, however. Both in notes and in publication, Woolley only says that it is a simple trench burial. It was about 3 meters down from modern surface and he says it is from the early graves of the pre-dynastic cemetery (probably dating around 2600-2500BCE).

In the archival push, we are asking volunteers to transcribe scans of Woolley’s notes and letters, one of which now up at UrCrowdsource.org covers PG 143. In the artifactual push, we are examining stone vessels from Ur. PG 143 had two stone vessels that were both allotted to Penn, so we have the notes (archival) and the objects (artifactual). There’s our point of convergence.

Let’s look at the field note card first:

Archival document of the month
Spotlight on RC1-169_p178
PG 143 field notes

Woolley’s field note card for PG 143 showing objects found. The two objects sketched were both allocated to Penn.

The bodies in these burials were often wrapped in reed matting before interment, but Woolley notes that there is no indication of such matting with this burial. He also mentions there is ash and burnt wood at the side of the body but does not say what that might mean. It seems likely that it indicates some form of burnt offering at the time of burial. Though Woolley sometimes drew the position of the body in the form of a stick figure in his notes, he does not do so here. A common position for many burials was a contracted one with knees bent, heels at the pelvis.

Unfortunately, very few of the bones from any of these graves were saved or analyzed in a forensic manner. Woolley dug more than 2000 tombs in his 12 years at Ur, but only around 30 individuals’ remains are still extant, most of those in the Natural History Museum in London. One reason that bones were not kept was that forensic science was not as advanced as today; another was that there was no bones expert on site or nearby, but perhaps the main reason was that most of the bodies were in poor shape, the conditions and depth of soil typically weakening and crushing the bones into small fragments.

We do have a good deal of information on the objects buried with the individuals, however, and the Ur Project aims to make all the old data available as well as examine the objects anew wherever possible. Much of the note card in this case has to do with the finds, and naturally so do the catalogue cards already entered into our database.

In the case of PG 143, there was a decayed cylinder seal, a silver wire coil, many beads (shell, lapis, carnelian, and silver), three large shell rings, a cockle shell with green pigment (a cosmetic container), a conch shell cut into an oil lamp, and two stone vessels. The contents might indicate that the person buried here was female, but we can’t be certain since analysis of the bones was not conducted or perhaps even possible.

Many of the artifacts in the tomb were allotted to Penn, however, and we can focus on one or two. In particular, we should look at the stone vessels since our current examination of artifacts in the Penn Museum storage concentrates on these objects.

Artifact of the month
Spotlight on Field Number U.8190 (Museum Number B17036)
Incised Stone Bowl

Field Photograph of U.8190, stone bowl with incised geometric designs.

This bowl, found near the head of the body in PG 143, is an unusual one for Ur. About 12 cm in diameter, Woolley says it is made of limestone but it seems more crystalline than that, probably calcite. The decoration is the unusual part, heavy geometric designs across the entire bowl. The deep, wide incisions have caused the material to look more opaque than it might otherwise, but in section the crystalline structure is apparent. The interior of the bowl is blackened somewhat, perhaps showing that something was burned inside it. It is now broken into many pieces, but no incident report is on file in the museum. Incident reports began around 1990; the breakage occurred before that, perhaps even being cracked and destabilized by burning in ancient times. The edges of some pieces display old caustic material showing that the bowl had been repaired at some time over the last 80 years. This is yet another reason we need to go back over all of our objects – to assess them for conservation needs and document their condition. Most of the objects we’ve looked at are in as good or better condition than when found, but breakage and deterioration can occur even in protected environments. We are continually working to minimize risk to artifacts.

Naturally, our conservation department will see to artifacts in need of care, but if you would like to help us in our goal of connecting objects back to their field data, sign up at UrCrowdsource.org to transcribe field notes like those on PG 143. The scans are not perfect and Woolley’s handwriting is relatively difficult to decipher – all the more reason we need help. Guidelines for transcription format are on the site.

Current object, U.8190, obviously broken at some time in the past 80 years. Scheduling necessary conservation is an aim of the Ur Project.

Eventually, all the data gathered from the notes and all that gathered on artifacts will be connected through the database we are constructing. We also hope to include maps of the site that will show distribution of artifacts in places where they were found. It is our intention to make it all available online to everyone for research, education, and general interest.

To close, I’ll feature one more artifact from PG 143, the other one sketched on the card – a beautiful conch shell oil lamp with bird decoration. The ancient Mesopotamians cut these large shells so that one end could hold a wick dangling from the spout end while the other part of the wick sat in oil held in the main body of the shell. Then, let there be light. Burning is not apparent on the spout, so either this one was never used, or it was only used as a pouring vessel of some sort.

Field image no. 831 showing U.8191. The incised decoration in the form of a bird’s head is clearly seen at the top.
U.8191, conch shell oil lamp or scoop/pouring vessel in Penn Museum B17194.