A Spectacular Discovery

Burials Simple and Splendid

By: William B. Hafford

Originally Published in 2018

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One of Queen Puabi’s gold wreaths photoshopped onto a photo of its discovery site.
A modern photograph of one of Queen Puabi’s gold wreaths, superimposed over an archival photograph of the discovery of Puabi’s headdress, ca. 1928. PM image 191051.
Museum Object Number(s): B17710

Of more than 2,000 total graves, only 16 had the structure, wealth, and evidence of human sacrifice that convinced the director of the excavations, C. Leonard Woolley, that they were royal.

A gold bowl.
Gold bowl from Puabi’s tomb in the Royal Cemetery at Ur, Iraq.
Museum Object Number(s): B17693

These 16 overshadowed all the others, however, solidifying the name “Royal Cemetery” in the minds of scholars and the general public. Newspaper articles hailed many of the Mesopotamian tombs as rivaling the splendor of Tutankhamun’s tomb, found by Howard Carter in Egypt only a few years earlier.

Simple and Royal Graves at Ur

The vast majority of the graves were simple rectangular pits with few offerings. Some of them infringed upon or cut into the elaborate royal graves. Woolley proposed that the grandiose tombs had formed the core of the cemetery and that the common graves interfered with them because the people desperately wished to be buried near their kings and queens. Yet, the overall area of the cemetery was in use for around 1,000 years and many of the graves predate the royal tombs themselves. So the name Royal Cemetery does not precisely apply, since far more than royalty were buried here and the people in the royal graves come from no historically identifiable dynasty. But a few royal personages were apparently entombed here, in one period around 2450 BCE at least, as indicated by the titles lugal (king) and eresh (queen) found on some objects.

The only clearly identified royal body was found in a largely intact grave, numbered PG 800B. The vaulted roof of the mud brick chamber had partly collapsed, filling the interior with soil and brick. But when the dirt was finally cleared, the finds astonished the excavators.

Queen Puabi and the Death Pits

The skeleton of a woman lay outstretched at one end of the chamber, raised off the floor on what possibly had been a wooden bier. Surrounding her were offerings of gold, silver, shell, stone, and clay. These included a silver bull’s head and shell inlay (probably part of a decayed wooden lyre), decorated ostrich egg shell cups, alabaster jars, fluted silver tumblers, gold and silver bowls, and even gold and silver drinking tubes. But more impressive still were the objects that decorated her body. Thousands of beads covered her torso, forming lines above and below her body as if worn as a cape or sewn onto a cloak. As Woolley described it in his 1934 publication: “The whole of the upper part of the queen’s body was covered with beads of gold, silver, lapis-lazuli, carnelian, and agate; they were astonishingly numerous and of exceptionally fine quality.”

A gold fluted tumbler.
Gold fluted tumbler from Puabi’s tomb in the Royal Cemetery at Ur, Iraq.
Museum Object Number(s): B17691

She wore gold rings on each of her fingers and at her waist was a belt (possibly two) made of beads and golden rings. At her right shoulder were three gold pins that once fastened her garment. From each of these pins hung a lapis cylinder seal. One of them bore her name and title, translated as: Puabi, Queen. The name Puabi is not attested in any historical lists but the fact that she held the title eresh and that her seal does not mention a king as her husband suggests that she may have ruled in her own right. Woolley originally read her name in Sumerian as Shub-ad and the world was fascinated by her discovery.

The remains of three other people were also found in the chamber, presumably Puabi’s personal servants who were buried with her to continue serving in the afterlife. They had minor personal adornments: a few beads and, in one case, a whetstone and two daggers. Such evidence of human sacrifice was fundamental to Woolley’s interpretation of a royal funerary ceremony. Who but kings and queens could rally so much support that servants would be willing to die alongside them? Of course, whether they died willingly is not truly known.

Outside a few of the elaborate chambers were large spaces with numerous additional skeletons, presumably also servants of the royal court. These “death-pits,” as described by Woolley, contained many spectacular finds. The bodies were typically dressed in finery and some were found with musical instruments and other indications of a funerary ceremony or feast. Apparently this was an eternal celebration of the deceased king or queen, played out by the living and continued by the dead.

A death-pit above the roof of Puabi’s chamber was interpreted as belonging to her grave. Its position calls the attribution into doubt, but its finds are nonetheless fascinating. Along with the bodies of 21 attendants found here, excavators discovered an elaborate harp or lyre, a chariot or cart drawn by oxen, and the remains of a large wooden chest containing personal items, including elaborate tools for personal grooming. The chest was, thus, interpreted as holding the private items of the queen placed in the grave to go with her into the afterlife.

Whether or not the death-pit belonged with her chamber, Queen Puabi was certainly an important and powerful figure in the Early Dynastic IIIa world around 2450 BCE. Her extravagant body adornment and personal items, as well as the title inscribed on her cylinder seal, shed intriguing light on the Mesopotamian world of 4,500 years ago. Nevertheless, she and the larger cemetery in which she was buried still possess many mysteries that are not yet fully understood.

Artifacts from Ur.
Artifacts from Ur include a lapis whetstone, a gold dagger, an alabaster jar, a comestic box depicting a lion devouring a ram, and a silver bowl. below: Detail of gold leaves and lapis and carnelian beaded string, from one of Queen Puabi’s headdress wreaths.
Museum Object Number(s): B16695 / 30-12-550 / 30-12-698 / B16744B / B17298 / B17710
A lyre with a bearded bull's head and shell plaque.
This bearded bull’s head and shell plaque adorned the front of a lyre found in PG 789, a royal grave adjacent to Puabi’s. The bull is thought to represent the god Shamash and the might of the king. Large lyres were said to have a tone that was like the baying of a bull. circle inset: Detail of the carved lapis lazuli in the bull’s beard. Detail view of the shell inlay plaques found on the front of the lyre, depicting animals and humans in narrative scenes. Note the animal playing a bull-headed lyre in the second-to-bottom tier, on the left.
Museum Object Number(s): B17694A / B17694B

A Queen’s Beauty Revealed

A scan of a page from The Illustrated London News, featuring Queen Puabi's headdress.
A reconstruction of Queen Puabi’s headdress, from The Illustrated London News, August 11, 1928.

Puabi’s wealthy array was truly astonishing. She wore a belt of heavy gold rings as well as carnelian and lapis beads. More impressive were the thousands of beads on her body. There were so many that they are now strung on more than 80 individual strands. The beads and gold on her upper body weighed nearly 3.5 kilograms (7.5 pounds).

Perhaps the most impressive of Puabi’s accoutrements was her headdress. Consisting of wreaths of gold, beads of lapis and carnelian, a gold support comb, and more than 12 meters (30 feet) of gold ribbon wrapped in tiers around what must have been a large hairdo or wig, it weighed around 2.5 kilograms (five pounds). The imagery of the headdress derived from the natural world: the four wreaths held willow and poplar leaves made of sheets of gold, and the support comb was topped with seven gold flowers with lapis centers. Beads or amulets of calves, bulls, and even fish were also found on and near her body. The imagery may suggest an ancient myth of Inana and Dumuzi, a divine couple who in some stories represented the cycle of life and death, the growing and fallow seasons.

Artifacts from the Royal Cemetary.
A sampling of the numerous artifacts found in the Royal Cemetery include Puabi’s earrings (left), hair comb (below left), garment pin (below left), a cosmetic container in the shape of a cockle shell with green pigment, probably used as makeup (right), and a nail care kit (below right). The second garment pin (gold and lapis lazuli, below right) is from Grave PG 1068. The finger ring (below right) is from Grave PG 1237. Objects not to scale.
Museum Object Number(s): B17712A / B17712B / B16693 / B17019 / B16710 / B16714 / 30-12-552 / 30-12-555A
Photo of newsprint
Newspapers around the world wrote about Leonard Woolley’s great discoveries at Ur. PM images 151271, 151275, and 151273.

A Closer Look: Puabi’s Burial Adornment

Queen Puabi, recovered in situ, was adorned with ornaments made from gold, silver, and semi-precious stones. The raw materials used to make this jewelry came from a great distance, and represented Ur’s far-reaching trade connections. From skeletal remains, the excavators determined that Puabi was about five feet tall and 40 years old. They described her as “stout.”

1. Haircomb

A large gold comb, similar to a Spanish comb, rose up behind her head and curved forward. Star-like flowers were cut out of sheet gold. PM object B16693.

2. Wreaths

Puabi wore several wreaths around her head that included golden willow and popular leaves as well as flowers and beads made from lapis lazuli, carnelian, and agate. PM objects B17709, B17710-11.

3. Hair Ribbons

Gold hair ribbons were worn in her hair or on what may have been a wig. Puabi’s attendants also wore gold and silver ribbons. One ribbon was 12 meters, or about 36 feet long. PM object B17711A.

Photo of Puabi
Queen Puabi

4. Earrings

Puabi’s earrings were quite large and lunateshaped. They were made of very thin gold and were probably stuck through her ears. PM object B17712AB.

5. Rosette Necklace

At Puabi’s throat was a necklace made with an open-wire flower set into a gold ring, and three strands of gold and lapis beads. PM object 16694.

6. Necklace and Cloak

The necklace at the top of the cloak was made of large triangular beads. The cloak contained over 50 strands of beads made from carnelian, agate, lapis, gold, and silver. Multiple PM object numbers, including 83-7-1.9.

7. Belt

The last piece shown here is Puabi’s belt. It was made from ten strands of alternating lapis, carnelian, and gold beads. The perfectly formed gold wire rings on the bottom may have been worn lower on her hips. PM object B17063.


William B. Hafford, PH.D. conducts research in the Penn Museum as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Near East Section.

Cite This Article

Hafford, William B.. "A Spectacular Discovery." Expedition Magazine 60, no. 1 (May, 2018): -. Accessed May 29, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/a-spectacular-discovery/


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