The Joint Expedition to Ur

Originally Published in 1934

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THE twelfth and final season of excavations at Ur has come to a successful conclusion, and the last field reports from Mr. C. Leonard Woolley are at hand. As was announced in the March Bulletin, the principal work of the season was the digging of a great pit to a depth of nearly sixty feet, in order to uncover the cemetery of the Jemdet Nasr period, dating from the beginning of the fourth millennium B. C. Quite early in the season, when the pit had reached only the level corresponding to that of the Royal Tombs, the very interesting statuette shown in Plate VII was discovered in the grave of a soldier-one of a group of graves which, from the number of battle-axes, adze-shaped axes, and daggers found with them, apparently comprised a military cemetery of Ur in pre-dynastic days. The figure, made in two pieces, but found nearly intact-even to the lapis lazuli inlay of the fillet- is ten inches high and is carved in alabaster. Far from beautiful, it illustrates to what extent the stone sculpture of the period lagged behind the masterpieces of the goldsmith and the workers in inlay with which we are familiar from the examples found in the Royal Tombs; its importance lies rather in the fact that it can be dated and will serve as a basis for the dating of similar pieces, and in the fact that it is the earliest piece of stone sculpture in the round that has been found at Ur.

Statuette of a human with hands clasped, wearing a layered gown
Plate VII — Alabaster Statuette from Ur-About 3000 B.C.

Of the later work, Mr. Woolley writes: ‘Within a few inches of the level which we had marked in anticipation as that of the Jemdet Nasr period, there came to light the big clay bowls inverted in the soil which witnessed to the graves below. Soon the pit’s bottom was thick with vessels of alabaster and gypsum, limestone and diorite, grouped around the crumbling remains of skeletons whose attitude, with the thigh-bones brought up at right angles to the spine and the knees tightly bent, is peculiar to the Jemdet Nasr period [Plate VIII].

‘It was extraordinary, in this stoneless river valley, digging down through earth in which not so much as a pebble could be found, to come suddenly on such a wealth of stone. In the latter part of the period stone practically supplanted the native clay material from which vessels were made. In one day we noted and collected a hundred stone vases, any one of which would have seemed a rarity but a short time ago. All this stone was imported, some from northern Mesopotamia, some from the Persian Gulf far to the south, but the vases are of local manufacture and so tend to conform to a limited range of types dictated by fashion or utility. Certain types are appropriated to certain kinds of stone and are quite definitely intended to bring out the quality of the material, as in some gypsum or alabaster vessels where the flat rim is trimmed to an almost paper-like thinness, or, where working in hard diorite, the craftsman has produced a vessel whose clean, strong outline reminds one of classical Greece. Sometimes he is fanciful, as when to a five-wicked lamp whose form is that of a tridachnus shell (the real shell was so used) he adds a bat’s head so that, seen from below, the shell becomes a realistic bat in flight; the more conventional ornament comes in with a limestone cup decorated with figures of oxen and ears of barley carved in relief, the direct precursor of some of the finest examples of Sumerian sculpture. Altogether, from two hundred graves recorded in the shaft, we recovered seven hundred and seventy stone vessels; with them were a certain number of copper vessels and bowls, and innumerable beads of lapis lazuli and carnelian, crystal, shell, marble, chalcedony, and one of gold: a wonderful collection of objects fine in themselves and most precious for the reconstruction of a little-known period.’

Excavated graves filled with pottery
Plate VIII — Jemdet Nasr Graves in the Deep Pit at Ur

The second objective for the season was the tracing of the limits of the Sacred Area as it existed in the time of the Third Dynasty of Ur and down to the twentieth century B. C. The wall of King Ur-Engur was found and followed up; it gave an entirely unexpected line, reducing the extent of the Temenos to one much smaller than it possessed during the time of Nebuchadnezzar, the only period about which the limits of the Area were certain hitherto.

Meanwhile other workmen engaged in clearing the interior of some of the Persian and Neo-Babylonian houses of which the outlines had been traced in a former season; thus has been worked out in detail quite a large section of the residential quarter of Ur as it was in this late period.
The season’s work, therefore, touched on every period from the Persian of the fifth century B. C. back to the Jemdet Nasr and the beginning of the fourth millennium. It was a not unfitting conclusion to twelve years of research. The possibilities of Ur as an archaeological site have by no means been exhausted, but the Joint Expedition has now accomplished the last of the important projects outlined for it, and thus has arrived at a logical point for the cessation of excavations. Few expeditions have continued during so many seasons, and few can claim so many accomplishments of great moment to scientist and layman alike.

Cite This Article

"The Joint Expedition to Ur." Museum Bulletin V, no. 3 (May, 1934): 79-86. Accessed July 15, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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