Archival Glimpses of the Ur Expedition in the Years 1920 to 1926

By: Robert H. Dyson, Jr.

Originally Published in 1977

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All expeditions are a complex network of interlocking political and social events involving people, institutions and govern­ments. Among the common frustrations experi­enced by those working abroad are the delays and difficulties of obtaining permits and of adjusting to foreign field conditions. Beyond these elementary necessities lies the further anxiety of the “division” of objects in which “equal” shares of the finds must be distributed, first between the expedition and its host government, and later between the participating institutions. The experiences of the “Joint Expedition” of the British Museum and the University Museum to Ur form a classic illustration of such events.

In the following pages selected passages from the correspondence of George Byron Gordon (Director of the University Museum), Sir Frederic G. Kenyan (Director of the British Museum), Mr. Leonard Woolley (Field Director of the Ur Expedition), Col. T. E. Lawrence (Colonial Office), and Dr. Leon Legrain (Curator of the Babylonian Section of the University Museum) in the archives of the University Museum are combined with published references in the letters of Miss Gertrude Bell (Honorary Director of Archaeology in Iraq) and reminiscences of Sir M, E. L. Mallowan to give some impression of these events and life at Ur during the first half of the expedition between 1920 and 1926.


25 February 1920. Gordon to Kenyon

“Since my return to Philadelphia in November last I have had in mind a subject which I broached to you during my visits to London in June and October on my way to and from Egypt and Palestine, namely the formulation of plans for excavations in Mesopotamia, I have talked the matter over with my associates and I find that there is a concensus of opinion in favour of the resumption of work by this museum in Mesopotamia at such time as permission may be granted.

.. Having in mind the idea of cooperation I inquired of you during our conversations whether some plan for a joint expedition of the British Museum and the University Museum for excavation at Ur of the Chaldees would be likely to meet with the approval of yourself and the Trustees of the British Museum.

“… My object in writing to you now is to inquire whether progress has been made towards a settlement of political questions in Mesopotamia that would permit the granting of permission to outside institutions to begin excavations, whether conditions are likely to be favourable to a plan of cooperation, and in particular whether there is a reasonable prospect that the action of the Trustees of the British Museum would be favourable to such a joint understanding as I have indicated.”

21 April 1920. Kenyon to Gordon

“The Secretary of State for India, in whose Department the civil administration of Mesopotamia is at present placed, has taken up the position that no excavation can be allowed until an efficient administration of antiquities is set up, and that no such administration can be set up until (1) the treaty of peace with Turkey has been signed, and the mandate given for Mesopotamia, and (2) the Mesopotamian government can afford the expense.

“We have represented strongly (1) that prohibition of excavation invariably means illicit digging and smuggling, (2) that the credit of the country requires proper provision for a department of antiquities at the earliest date, (3) that excavations under scientific control should be encouraged, not prohibited, (4) that ample provision can be made for the future needs of a Museum in Baghdad or elsewhere. We have suggested as a working arrangement that qualified explor­ers should be allowed to bring all their discoveries home, and give them scientific treatment and publication, under covenant to return (say) one half to Mesopotamia if and when required to do so.

“That is how matters stand now, and until the mandate is given I do not think one can expect any further movement. But it is desirable to impress on the India Office the fact that the civilized world expects facilities for archaeological exploration, and that such facilities should be provided without delay.

“I think therefore that it would be helpful if you would make a formal application to the India Office for permission to send an expedition to Mesopotamia, setting out your work already done at Nippur and your desire to resume it, and also, if you will, your wish to cooperate with the British Museum in the excavation of Ur. Some pressure may be necessary to secure what we want; the pressure from America will show that the British Museum does not stand alone in its desire to carry on the work of archaeology.”

25 April 1920. London

The mandate for Iraq was assigned to Great Britain which accepted on May 5th.

July-August 1920. Iraq

Iraq gripped by an Arab insurrection against the British.

1 October 1920. London

Sir Percy Cox named High Commis­sioner of Iraq by the British Government.

14 October 1920. Gordon to Kenyon

“On June 16th I wrote you enclosing a copy of my communication to the India Office on the subject of excavations in Mesopotamia. The reply of the India Office reached me a little while ago and herewith I hand you a copy of that letter.

“It would appear from this that we cannot undertake work in Mesopotamia just now.

“Could you have a copy sent me of the clause in the Treaty with Turkey which is referred to in the letter from the India Office?”

3 November 1920. Kenyon to Gordon

“It is, of course, the fact that at present excavation is impossible, owing to the disturbed state of the country. It is also the case that the Treaty of Peace with Turkey imposes on that country the obligation to prepare a new Law of Antiquities in accord­ance with certain principles, and that a similar duty will be incumbent on the Administration of Mesopotamia. Our Joint Archaeological Committee (which inspired the clause in the Turkish Treaty) has been invited to give its views as to the provisions of the law, and also to make suggestions with regard to a draft law of Antiquities for Palestine.”

15 January 1921. Beirut

Woolley wrote to Gordon that he was unable to go to Carchemish (on the Turkish-Syrian border) to resume digging for the British Museum as the area was unsettled due to the Turkish occupation. 4 March 1921. Kenyon to Gordon

“The administration of Mesopotamia is in a state of transition. Its control has lately been removed from the India Office to the Colonial Office. This in itself is a gain; for the India Office was disposed to be dilatory and obscurantist while at the Colonial Office the men who will have to deal with Mesopotamia are sympathetic towards archaeology. The person principally concerned is Col. Lawrence, who was digging for us at Carchemish before the war. He has only just been appointed to his present post, and I wrote at once to ask what answer I could give to your inquiry. Unfortunately he has had to go out with Mr. Winston Churchill to Egypt for a conference on the affairs of the East, and until he comes back no decision can be taken. Indeed the answer largely depends on the results of the conference; for the possibilities of excavation will vary according to the policy that may be adapted in Mesopotamia.”

18 March 1921. Kenyon to Gordon

“I have now received an answer from the Colonial Office with regard to the possibility of an application from you to excavate in Mesopotamia being granted. It is as follows: ‘I should be grateful if you would inform the University of Pennsylvania through Dr. Gordon that American archaeolo­gists may confidently assume that as soon as the permanent form of Government for Mesopotamia has been determined the ques­tion of archaeology in the country will be considered as a whole, and that it would be preferable for that body to defer a second application for a few more months.’

“So far as the Museum is concerned, I think we shall probably put in an applica­tion about July next, with a view to sending out Mr. Hall in the autumn.”

23 August 1921. Iraq

Sir Percy Cox proclaimed Feisal King of Iraq after a plebiscite in which 96% had turned out in favor.

September 1921. London

Dr. Gordon visited London and while there called on Col. Lawrence to discuss conditions in Iraq.

18 November 1921. Kenyon to Gordon

“In Irak everything is held up until a Director of Antiquities has been found and appointed. The Colonial Office have been making efforts to find a suitable man, but the last I heard they had not succeeded. ”

. . . If it is impossible to resume work at Carchemish, Woolley would be available for Mesopotamia after Christmas.”

5 January 1922. Gordon to Kenyon

“. . . I have laid a plan before the President and Board of Managers and we propose to raise in America a sum of money between now and the beginning of the next season which will be adequate for the pur­poses that the two institutions propose to undertake in common . . .

“The scope of the expedition might be defined by agreement whenever you may find it convenient to consult your own plans and purposes in connection with this pro­posed joint undertaking. The thought that has been in my mind and which I have put for­ward with considerable argument in my conferences with my associates here, includes an archaeological survey of Irak’; my thought being that such a survey, even though not carried out with extreme minute­ness, would be a very useful guide for detailed archaeological excavation and for general information.”

25 January 1922. Lawrence to Gordon

“I think we said we would keep you in touch with any changes made in the Mesopotamian Archaeological Department­to-be.

“Well, we have now appointed a pro­visional Director, (the Education chief, who has worked at our School in Athens, and will look after Archaeology till the work gets too heavy). Consequently the Mesopotamian Government is in a position to consider applications for permits to excavate.

“We are going to be a little particular about the quality of these excavations, because Mesopotamia has suffered so much in the past from unscientific work (carried out under the auspices of the most distinguished bodies!). So in future permits will only be given when the name of the field excavator (not a cuneiform expert: at least not neces­sarily, but the man who will record the finds and do the practical work: the Reisner or Petrie—or Woolley—of the business) is given, and when he commends himself by his past record to a committee in London. This is not as bad as it sounds, because the committee is a quite practical and quite representative body, with Sir Frederic Kenyon as its chairman, and one object is to encourage digging in Mesopotamia: the right sort of digging.

“In your case I know there will be no difficulty. If you have plenty of time, you can apply to Director of Archaeology, Dept. of Education, Baghdad and say where and when you want to dig, and who is your superintend­ing expert. He will send your application in here and the Colonial Office will call the Joint Committee and advise the Mesopotamian Government to grant it.

“If you want to avoid unnecessary delay then write to Under Secretary of State, Middle East Department Colonial Office Downing St. London, and ask him to forward your application to Mesopotamian Govern­ment. Then we will call in Committee and send out the application and the advice together.

“This may sound cumbrous: but it’s safe: and better the things remain buried than be dug up badly. If only Koyunjik and Nimrud were still virgin sites!

“This letter wouldn’t look good in public: so please don’t consider it official. Weld Blundell has gone out to look for a site for himself and Langdon: he hasn’t yet told us who his excavator would be.”

4 March 1922. Kenyon to Gordon

“Your suggestion of an archaeological survey is interesting, but I am afraid it would be difficult for us to join it. Our funds avail­able for an expedition are funds for the acquisition of objects for the Museum; and though we could embark on a speculation, such as the excavation of a site, without a certainty of adequate return, we could not use our money simply for a survey.”

6 March 1922. Gordon to Kenyon

“I now write to say that we have already set aside the sum of $25,000 (£6,000) towards the expenses of a season’s work in Mesopotamia. It would be our purpose to obtain further funds for any work that may be agreed upon and for the excavation of any site that may be assigned by the Government. I have recently had a letter from Col. Lawrence stating that a provisional Director of Antiquities had been appointed. We have not made any application for permission to excavate. If we are to undertake this work in association with the British Museum, which is the way I prefer, I presume that the application should be made in common.

“It is my thought that arrangements might be made to begin work in the field as soon as the climate permits which I suppose will be in the early autumn of this year.

Concerning the Director of Excavations, Mr. C. Leonard Woolley is one who would be satisfactory to the University Museum and in case he should be your choice we would be glad if he were available to take charge of a joint expedition.”

6 March 1922. Gordon to Lawrence

“I have received your letter of the 26th of January and I have delayed answering long enough to have had a consultation with the President of the Board of Managers of the Museum. I am now in a position to say that we will make a formal application for permis­sion to excavate in Mesopotamia. We will make the application in the way indicated by you, directly to the Under Secretary of State, Middle East Department, Colonial Office. In our formal application we will name the sites desired and give the name of the pro­posed Director of Excavations. At the present writing I am hardly in a position to mention either because we are in correspondence with the British Museum with regard to a proposed joint expedition and if this joint undertaking should be authorized by both institutions I suppose that we will make a joint application for whatever site may be agreed upon for excavation. I may add that we have in mind for the Director of Excavations Mr. Woolley, in case he should be available, as one who I think would be acceptable to both Institutions.

“For your own personal information I can say that we have already set aside a sum of $25,000 (£6,000) towards the expenses of the first year’s work.”

7 March 1922. Kenyon to Gordon

“The Colonial Office says the Mesopo­tamian Administration has drafted a provi­sional scheme for control of antiquities and now is prepared to give permits to applicants employing competent excavators. They especially mentioned the University Museum application as naturally to be approved (in view of work at Nippur),”

23 March 1922. Gordon to Kenyon

“I have your letter of March 7 for which I thank you. The only statement that I need make at this time is one that I perhaps ought to make with reference to my suggestion of an archaeological survey of Irak. Upon further thought I came to the conclusion that a better plan for us would be the excavation of some site and you have put it right when you say that a survey is a proper task for the Govern­ment of Irak to undertake if and when they can find funds for the purpose.”

5 May 1922. Gordon to Kenyon

“Following your suggestion that I give you any particulars that I can as to the nature of proposed cooperation in Mesopotamia, I will give you my thoughts which are briefly as follows.

“We are disposed to make further excavations on some site or sites in Mesopotamia in order to carry forward investigations begun at Nippur and at other sites in former years.

“To accomplish this, two things are necessary from the start; namely, funds and a competent man to take charge of the work. With regard to the latter we have no one to whom we could entrust the work. He would have to be a trained and experienced excavator and to meet with success he ought to be acquainted with the particular field in which he would have to work and with the people among whom he would have to live and whom he would have to employ. I do not know any one in this country at the present time avail­able who could fill these conditions. I have it also in mind that if we were to send an independent expedition it would be working a great distance from home and while we feel that we could depend upon the protection of the British authorities wherever that authority is exercised, we are aware that in a possible disturbed condition of the country protection might become difficult.

“The British Museum on the other hand would have the name and the prestige of the British Government as special guarantees of security. I understand that owing to the large expense of government and heavy taxes the Government might be unwilling at present to allow much expenditure for archaeological work by the British Museum.

“These thoughts have led me to the conclusion that by means of a joint expedi­tion, each institution might supply the thing most needed by the other. Working with the British Museum would be to us equivalent to a measure of insurance. On our part we might furnish most of the funds.

“It seems to me that a reasonable basis for cooperation would be that this Museum should provide most of the funds and that the British Museum should contribute its prestige, the interest of the authorities, the protection of the local and central government and the facilities and good will of the country gen­erally with regard to transportation, labour, supplies. With regard to the Field Director, my thought is that his choice would be subject to approval by both Institutions and that each Institution should pay one half of his salary, the amount to be fixed by mutual agreement.

“At the end of each season’s work the finds might be divided as equally as possible between the two Institutions. Perhaps this division could be made most conveniently in London between a representative of the British Museum and a representative of this Museum.”

12 June 1922. Kenyon to Gordon

“I am much obliged by your letter of 5th May. I have laid it before my Trustees, and am authorized by them to arrange with you for a joint expedition to Mesopotamia on the lines indicated therein.”

17 July 1922. From Gertrude Bell

Miss Bell wrote that she had obtained King Feisal’s “assistance for my law of excavations which I’ve compiled with the utmost care in consultation with the legal authorities. He has undertaken to push it through council—he’s perfectly sound about archaeology, having been trained by T. E. Lawrence—and has agreed to my suggestion that he should appoint me, if Sir Percy consents, provisional Director of Archaeology to his government.”

22 July 1922. Gordon to Kenyon

“I am very sorry that there has been any delay in replying to your letter of June 12. It arrived after the exodus when in this part of the world everybody has gone either to 26 July 1922. Gordon to Kenyon

First about a man from here to join the expedition. We have certainly no one with a knowledge of Mesopotamian Arabic. It is much more likely that you could find someone in England with that qualification. Dr. Leon Legrain, Curator of the Babylonian Section, is a good cuneiform scholar but my thought would be that a cuneiform scholar might be less important at the beginning of the work than some other assistants. A man that we might be able to send would be either a young man without any of these qualifications who wished to get archaeological training or else a photographer who is also a practical museum man and who has handled, cleaned and mended all of the Babylonian tablets now in this Museum. I believe that we could send either one of these with a good deal of confi­dence that he would be found helpful to the expedition.

“With regard to your other questions, I have been hoping that some one might by this time be in London who could discuss all the details of the expedition with you. That however is not the case at the present moment. Nevertheless I think that early in August some such person from here may be in London. Such details of the expedition as remain to be settled can then be gone over and adjusted.”

27 July 1922. Gordon to Kenyon

“Since I despatched a letter to you yesterday I have today received your wire anc have answered as follows: ‘Will arrive London August thirteenth for conference Mesopotamia.’ ”

22 August 1922. Kenyon to Gordon

… We cannot control the share of the discoveries that may be claimed by the Iraq government. Practically they are not likely under present conditions to claim much but legally they are entitled to claim a good representative selection. Even so, there would almost certainly be equally good and complete representative selections for you and us.”

26 September 1922. Kenyon to Gordon

“The High Commissioner has written that no Law of Antiquity has yet been passed but that probably the matter would be arranged this autumn. He made it clear that it was highly desirable that the expedition go out.”

10 October 1922. London

Great Britain signed an agreement with Iraq which transformed the mandate into an alliance relationship.

24 October 1922. From Gertrude Bell

“The Cabinet, at the request of the king, has appointed me honorary Director of Archaeology—there didn’t seem to be any other way of keeping the place warm till we could afford a project Director.”

26 October 1922. Cable from Basra: Woolley to Gordon

“Expedition starting out.”

1 November 1922. From Gertrude Bell

“I’ve been figuring in my capacity as Director of Archaeology. Mr. Woolley arrived on Sunday. I knew him just when he was digging at Carchemish. He’s a tiresome little man but a first class digger and an archaeolo­gist after my own heart—i.e. he entirely backs me up in the way I’m conducting the Department.”

2 November 1922. Woolley to Gordon

Woolley arrived in Basra on Oct. 23 and left for Ur on Oct. 26 where he left the party departing for Baghdad where he arrived on Sunday Oct. 29. On Nov, 2, he wrote to Dr. Gordon: “I saw Miss Bell, the Honorary Director of Archaeology who informed me that the Antiquity Law was coming before the Cabinet on the morrow and would probably be passed…. As the law failed to be passed that afternoon the Minister (of Public Works—H. E. Sabih hey) gave me a provisional permit to dig (to be replaced by a regular one when the law is passed. Everyone was interested from H.M. King FeisaI on down) .. in Miss Bell we shall of course have a most sympathetic director.” Quarters

 At Ur

16 November 1922. Woolley to Gordon

“In the small hours of the night of Nov. 7-8 our camp was attacked by six men armed with rifles; one of our guards was killed and a great deal of our belongings, mostly personal effects, stolen. The robbers have since been arrested and much of the stolen stuff recovered; but about fifty pounds worth, including the sum of £30 in Turkish gold, has either disappeared or been damaged beyond repair. I trust that you will agree that this loss should be borne by the Expedition and not laid to the charge of the members of the staff concerned. Since that night the camp has been guarded by an increased number of men; but as this meant a serious outlay in wages and as the arrest of the robbers has certainly minimised the likelihood of a second attack, I have now reduced the guard to five again. I hope that in a week the Expedition will be installed in a solidly built house where the risk will be practically nil, though a guard will still be required.

“On my way out here I had drawn up, with Mr. Newton, plans for an Expedition house which I hoped that I might be able to build for about £150. On my arrival here I found that certain necessary items were more expensive locally than I had been led to believe, and in Baghdad the P.W.D. officials assured me that the cost would be more like £750, a sum which appeared to me quite unjustifiable on my budget. I started work in the hopes that £200 would see the work finished; but I soon found that owing to the difficult local conditions, of giving proper supervision to the building without wholly neglecting the archaeological work, it would be better to let the work out on contract even at a slightly enhanced price. I accordingly made a contract with a native whereby the house is to be built and finished by Nov. 22 For the sum of £200, but as I supply the bricks (taken from the ruins) the actual price will be something above this. Good progress is being made, and I hope that we shall move in to date without having to put in force the forfeit incurred by the contractor in case of delay. The house will comprise 14 rooms and a separate guard-house, and should afford all the accommodation likely to be required by the Expedition for some time to come,”

18 November 1922. Woolley to Gordon

“It is not an ideal country to dig in: hopelessly ignorant workmen, lots of trouble with kcal sheikhs, etc., the discomfort of tent Iife, and general insecurity; but the site is a fine one and should yield very good stuff.” 15 January 1923. Woolley Report to Gordon:

“On the 12th a visit from Miss Bell, Director of the Department of Antiquities. She was greatly pleased with the progress and results of the work. The Iraq Government has not yet passed an Antiquity law, the debate on which has been indeed rather acrimonious. As regards the division of objects, your Expedition is in a favourable position, but I anticipate some worry over the details. Under the terms of the provisional permit (valid for three years) granted to this excavation, the excavators are entitled to one half of the finds.” 16 February 1923. Woolley to Kenyon:

“An inventory of these (antiquities) has been supplied to the ‘Iraq government and I hope to receive on the 19th instant a visit from the Director of Archaeology and the Minister to settle the division.”

26 February 1923. Woolley to Gordon

“The Iraq Government has in its share of the objects taken the diorite statue of Enannatum. Apart from this serious loss the Expedition comes out well on the division . . . all inscribed objects are being brought home for study including the share of the Iraq government.”

1 March 1923. From Gertrude Bell

“I went to Ur with Major Wilson. They are closing down for the season and we had to go in person and divide the finds between the diggers and the Iraq . . .

“It took us a whole day to do the division but it was extremely interesting and Mr. Woolley was an angel. We had to claim the best things for ourselves but we did our best to make it up to him and I don’t think he was very much displeased, The best object is a hideous Sumerian statue of a king of Lagash, about three feet high but headless.

“It has a long inscription across the shoulder in which they have read the King’s name, but it will go back to London to be completely deciphered and then return to us.. ..”

24 July 1923. Lausanne

Treaty of Peace signed with Turkey.


8 March 1924. Woolley to Gordon

“The division of objects, however painful in process, was not I think so unfavourable to ourselves as I had feared…. Certainly we retain a very fine collection of objects.”

24 May 1924. Woolley to Gordon

“The effect of the exhibition and lecture in Baghdad was distinctly good. In the latter I thought it politic to make as much as possible of the advantage gained by the Iraq Gov’t in the partition of the spoil, so as to make the ministers and others understand the wisdom of letting the excavators have a share—and therefore excavate—so that the country gets a great deal for nothing. Actually, in the division we did very well and have no cause for complaint—though I would not say that to Miss Bell.”

10 July 1924. Baghdad

The Constituent Assembly adopted a constitution for Iraq.

24 July 1924. Gordon to Kenyon

“Worst of all in its effects was the fact that immediately after the new demand for funds [to meet unexpected expenses at Ur) had been met and after my assurance had been repeatedly given that very important discoveries were being made and that we could depend on a fair share of the finds, there came long despatches from London, printed in all the papers here, stating with apparent authority and much emphasis that the Government at Baghdad had retained all of the important objects found by the Joint Expedition. These despatches, whatever their source or authority may have been, were commented upon at length editorially in the leading papers and in very unfavourable and discouraging terms. You will observe that the effect was precisely the same whether the despatches were true or false. Once a state­ment has been given currency in the news­papers, it is quite impossible to overtake it or to counteract it, either in the minds of those with whom I am directly in touch or with the public in general. The result has been that the supporters of the joint Expedition to Mesopotamia have been discouraged.”

12 August 1924. Kenyon to Gordon

“As to the bad effect of the announce­ment that the Iraq Gov’t had retained all the most important objects found, you understand of course that we had no part or responsibility in it. It emanated from irresponsible press correspondents in Baghdad. No doubt the third party in our excavations, the administra­tion in Baghdad, had its difficulties also, and is anxious to assure the Gov’t and people of Iraq that they have got their full share of the proceeds. In point of fact I think Miss Bell treated us quite fairly. She was bound to claim the most striking object (the milking frieze) for Baghdad, but she compensated us by leaving to us considerably more than our half share of the other friezes and the copper bulls. That is quite in accordance with the original understanding, and it is only on those terms that we can expect to be allowed to work.”

10 September 1924. Gordon to Legrain

“It has been decided and agreed upon between this Museum and the British Museum that you shall this year join the Joint Expedi­tion of the two Museums to Ur, of which Mr. C. Leonard Woolley wil be in charge. The duties to which you will be assigned on this Expedition will be indicated by Mr. Woolley.”

10 September 1924. Legrain to Gordon

“… I called on the 1st of July on Mr. Woolley and was introduced by him to Mr. H. Hall, head of the department, and to Mr. Sidney Smith, his assistant. Mr. Gadd, the second assistant, the cuneiform expert of the knew the material. Mr. Gadd being on his vacation, I was advised to come back the following week when he would return. This is what I did, visiting in the meantime friends in Belgium.

“The following week I met Messrs. S. Smith and C add. Mr. Smith who had talked it over with Mr. Hall. suggested that certain important pieces like the reconstructed full relief copper bull, the flat embossed relief copper bull, should be left out of the actual division as some correspondence was going on the subject between the two Museums.

“Besides Mr. Woolley’s opinion was that so far as the British Museum has spent time and money on the reconstruction of the bronze bull, this sample ought to remain in the British Museum. while a second copy just as good of the same hull, but not unpacked, cleaned or restored, should be sent to the U of P Museum, that would provide for the restoration.

“The rest of the collection has been divided in three days work by Mr. Gadd and myself—as best as possible.

“Two objects of the same type and value being paired, we agreed to choose according to the different needs of our respective Museums—Or each would choose in turn—Or in case of an unusually desirable or unique piece, we did toss a coin (In the lot of the University Museum are the best frieze of limestone bulls, the panel of the eagle on a bull’s back, the fragment of a diorite head).

“This is the best that I was able to do under the rather difficult circumstances. I must add that every official of the British Museum was as obliging as possible and Sir Fr. Kenyon particularly gracious.”

3 January 1925. Legrain to Gordon

“I beg you would believe we drank your health in good style on Xmas and New Year’s eve. Despite the distance the desert and the strenuous work we omitted none of the rites: turkey, plum pudding and real Scotch Whiskey. That is some help to archaeology. I am up every day at half past six and go to bed at half past ten, which is rather a change. I begin to like the eternal dust and mud and emptiness of this strange country.

“The country around is safe and peaceful in the surrounding of Ur with some trouble not very far from it. We had a cold spell, and ice one inch thick in the tub left in the court­yard—not being too rich in wood and coal we use the bitumen recovered in the excava­tion. We have to thank Nabonidus King of Ur 555-539 B.C.] for the invaluable and unex­pensive way of warming up at Ur of the Chaldees. An extra blanket at night is wel­come for our windows have only shutters. Rain is not yet over, and we wade up to the last Ur campaign was on his vacation.

“The collections were scattered in five or six different locales of the British Museum, partly unpacked, partly under repair, partly in the showcases of a temporary exhibition that was to open the following week in the lower room (Balawat Bronze Gates) of the Assyrian section.

“Division of the material—I mentioned your intentions (to divide the 1923-24 collec­tion) to Mr. Woolley, but as head of the Joint Expedition, Mr. Woolley thought that the division was not incumbent to him—Mr. Hall listened to the request, but leaving for his vacation the next few days, he referred me to Mr. S. Smith. Mr. S. Smith thought the proper man to do the division would be Mr. Gadd, who had been in the field and dig in greasy gum boots. At last mosquitos and sand flies are dead and we are safe from that pest.”

3 March 1925. Woolley to Gordon

“But our main discovery was made in the courtyard of E-dublal-mah and in the gate-chamber leading to it, Here there were scattered over the pavement quantities of limestone fragments, large and small, which proved to be parts of one, or possibly two, huge stelae measuring five feet across and perhaps fifteen feet high, covered on both sides with finely executed reliefs. On some pieces the stone is astonishingly well pre­served, on others its surface has suffered greatly by flaking and the action of salts; the reliefs had been intentionally smashed, and the fragments scattered all over the site (two were found on the other side of the Ziggurat) and those found in the courtyard had been broken up a second time: what we have recovered is only a fraction of the whole, but we have one scene almost complete, important parts of four other scenes, and can reconstruct others from small fragments so as to obtain a very fair idea of the original scheme of the whole relief, Though in the main inscription the name of the king is missing, yet fortunately on one of the minor fragments sheaving the drapery of a standing figure there is inscribed the name of Ur-Engur [now read Ur-Nammu, 2113-2096 B.C.I, which dates the monument; the stela commemo­rates the good works of the founder of the Third Dynasty of Ur, his activities in digging canals for the benefit of his subjects and his piety in building the Ziggurat.

“This great historical stela is far the most important object yet found at Ur—indeed the Stela of the Vultures in the Louvre is the only monument of Sumerian art which can he compared with it. To you, Sir, I need not insist upon its value, which fully repays all the cost of your Expedition up to date, but I should like to say, in view of its fragmentary state, that I by no means despair of recovering more of it. The pieces found this year were so scattered, parts having been removed at an early date for use as building material, that there is every likelihood of more being found in other buildings not yet excavated. I venture: to consider this the most encouraging as well as the most satisfying discovery that we have made on the site.

“On March 2nd Miss Bell and Major Wilson came to Ur for the division of our antiquities with the Iraq Government, I am thankful to say that they were convinced by my arguments and agreed to leave to the Expedition all the great stela fragments, in spite of the outstanding importance of the monument.”

4 March 1925. From Gertrude Bell

” . It has been a good season, though not so sensational as last year, but still there were some wonderful finds, rather more difficult than usual to divide. This year I left the great piece to them—it is a huge stela with amazingly interesting reliefs, but as it was all in fragments and needed a great deal of careful reconstruction, which we can’t do here, I thought it was in the interests of science to let it go to some big museum—the British Museum or Pennsylvania—where it can be properly treated . . ,”

18 July 1925. Woolley to Gordon

“I think that I have found an assistant for the general side, a young Oxford man named Mallowan, who is inexperienced but has the reputation of being clever and a hard worker, and is certainly keen to go out; Kenyon is seeing him, and I hope to fix things up this week.”

30 July 1925. Woolley to Gordon

“Mallowan has been vetted by Kenyon and definitely engaged as assistant for next season; he seems a decent fellow and I trust he will make good.”

10 September 1925. Gordon to Kenyon

“I have been thinking a good deal about the problem of dividing last year’s discoveries at Ur. The light in which the matter presents itself to my mind is as follows. The large stela is worth much more than all the rest put together; therefore, an equal division is not possible.

“The solution that I wish to propose for your consideration is as follows.

“A  That we postpone the division of last year’s finds until these finds can be combined with those of next year or the next two years, in order to furnish a basis for a division more satisfactory than exists at present.

“B  That the large stela, having been exhibited at the British Museum, shall be exhibited also at the University Museum. This is important from our point of view for two reasons. It is now necessary for us to make the best possible display of Ur finds in order to make an impression. At the end of November. we will open a new wing of the building, in which will be installed all of the new Egyptian collections together with the new Palestine collections and the collections from Ur. We are now installing the exhibits in the rooms of this new wing and I am very anxious to have the stela and anything else that can make the Ur exhibit a success.”

18 January 1926. Legrain to Gordon

“We had our Xmas dinner in good English style with one turkey, one goose, four ducks, two plum puddings, six bottles of Champagne, one of golden sherry, two of Vermouth and no end of whiskey. Don’t print that in the Museum Journal please. I like to leave them under the impression of our hardships. Another good improvement was the wire netting at the door and windows which keep the flies effectively out—The white ants still pierce the walls hunting for books and paper their favorite food, but we drown them in kerosine.”

16 February 1926. Legrain to Gordon

“The house has just been flooded—We have been through one of the worst storms of the season. Roofs leeking. Everyone busy piling the bedding and rugs and valuable property on the tables. All tubs, basins, empty bins requisitioned to collect the water from roof and walls—The court in a few minutes was a pond—The staff and men dripping wet were jumping about with spades trying with mud and timber to build a dam and stop the onrush of flood outside. All enjoyed the excitement. Nov the rain has stopped. The ground is absorbing it slowly. The house looks a mess like the following day after battle. We sit where we can smoking, drinking liquor to get a little warmth, and writing home since work is impossible and there is nothing else to do.”

March 1926. Baghdad

Victoria Sackville West quoted by Mallowan [1977) described Miss Bell’s house in Baghdad: “a door in the blank wall, .. a creaking of hinges, a broadly smiling servant, a rush of dogs, a vista of garden-path edged with carnations in pots, a little veranda and a little low house at the end of the garden path, an English voice—Gertrude Bell.”

Mallowan remembers her (1977) as “of striking appearance, always smartly dressed, and her delicate features radiated intelligence . .”

8 July 1926. Gordon to Woolley

“This is personal and confidential. In your letter of Nov. 30th last written from Ur, you mentioned the name of Mrs. Keeling as having been a visitor to the camp of the Expedition at Ur the year before and as having returned as a volunteer assistant. As you have not had occasion to mention Mrs. Keeling again and as Dr. Legrain has not mentioned her presence in camp, it is unlikely that the subject should have occurred to me had it not begun to give rise to some slight and inconsequential comment on the part of people entirely outside of the archaeological interests and outside of our acquaintance.

“The work of the expedition at Ur and everyone connected with it are subjects of interest and discussion from Baghdad to Philadelphia. Tourists and others returning from Iraq and Palestine make it an important part of their recollections though most of them know it only from hearsay.

“Perhaps the presence of a lone woman with four men in camp makes a more interest­ing figure for some of them than the outline of ziggurats. In any case I should be a little apprehensive that a woman in that situation might incur the risk of becoming the subject of inconsiderate remarks which though they might be treated as negligible by their subject could not be regarded as matter of indiffer­ence by you or anyone in a responsible position. Perhaps you will wish to give the matter your best consideration with a view to removing that risk. I do not know how important you may consider Mrs. Keeling’s work as an assistant, but without detracting from her in any way and quite apart from the circumstances that I have mentioned I have very grave doubts, which amount to a convic­ tion, about the wisdom of having any volun­teer assistants on the expedition.

“With every good wish and with entire confidence that I can as usual, count upon your excellent judgement.”

12 July 1926. Baghdad

Gertrude Bell died in Baghdad two days before her 58th birthday.

20 July 1926. Gordon to Jane M. McHugh, Secretary of the University Museum

“The other matter that I want to refer to you is the division with the British Museum…. I can see no reason why a division should not be made while you are in London where you can represent the Museum in this matter. As far as I can see, it reduces itself to tossing a coin after a definite understanding shall have been arrived at about the line of division into two equal parts.

“So far as the collections from the 1924-25 dig are concerned, my understanding about it is that the large stela should be balanced against the rest of the collection and the one that draws the stela relinquishes the rest. I understand that this is the view taken by the British Museum also. There is one point, however, on which 1 remain uncertain. There are, as you know, some smaller detached fragments belonging to the stela or another, but probably to the stela. Are these to be regarded as a part of the stela in the division or should they go with the remainder of the collection? For my part, either way will be satisfactory though I feel that perhaps all parts of the stela should remain in the one place.”

22 July 1926. Gordon to Kenyon

“I have learned with regret of the death of Miss Gertrude Lowthian Bell at Baghdad and I have naturally been wondering how the expedition and any future work in Iraq is going to be affected. Naturally it will depend on who Miss Bell’s successor shall be. One could always depend on Miss Bell’s intelli­gence and sympathy and doubtless her death will be a very great loss to all of us. I hope however that in the appointment of her successor, everything will be considered,

“By this time, no doubt, the finds for 1925-26 at Ur have been arranged for exhibi­tion in the British Museum except those pieces that were retained at Baghdad. It is time to take up the question of the division of the 1924-25 collection all of which, as I understand the situation, is now in this Museum unless some duplicates may have been retained in the British Museum.

“I suppose that the large stela should be balanced against the rest of the collection so that whoever gets the stela relinquishes the rest. I understand that that would be your view except that where there are duplicate inscriptions, naturally one would go to each Museum. I am a little uncertain too about the small fragments of a stela, whether they should be regarded as belonging to the large stela or whether they should go with the rest of the collection. I should he inclined to regard them as a part of the large stela and should remain together with it,

“I should be equally content whether we get the stela or the rest or the collection. I suppose that we had better draw lots to see where the stela will go. Perhaps you may have some other suggestion to make.”

27 July 1926. Woolley to Gordon

“I certainly think that all the small sculptured fragments of limestone found in 1924-1925 ought to be regarded as belonging to the great stela; it is indeed virtually certain, since they were all found together, and ii would be most unwise to separate them. Al any time we may find other fragments which will connect them together; last season a new fragment turned up which I am sure also belongs though it does not, I fancy, fit on to what we have: and more will probably be discovered. As to the division, that of course is not my affair (for which I am duly thank­ful!), but with regard to what you say I must protest that I assuredly did not feel that the stela should be balanced against the rest of the objects found in the same season; rather I agreed (so far as it was for me to do so) with what I understood to be your suggestion, that as there was nothing in the rest of the collec­tion fit to be balanced against it the division had best be left over for a year in the hope that a counterpois might turn up. That was what I understood to be your view, and I believe that that was what Kenyon understood also; but here I speak without authority, and would ask you please to refer to him.”

4 August 1926. Kenyon to Gordon

“I have just received your letter of July 22nd. I am sorry to hear that you are not coming over this summer, but I shall be glad to see Miss McHugh, and to discuss matters with her . . .

“As to the division of the discoveries of the season 1924-5, I do not think I have ever suggested setting the large stela against all the rest. On the contrary, you will remember that in your letter of September 10th, 1925, you expressly ruled out this solution, on the ground that the large stela is worth more than all the rest put together, and proposed that the division should be postponed until the finds of that season could be combined with those of the following year or years, in order to form a more satisfactory basis for a division. In my answer of Sept. 23rd I fully concurred with this and I have assumed that that was settled.

“I will therefore propose to Miss McHugh that we pool the results of the two seasons 1924-5 and 1925-6, and make a division in the manner you suggest. It will be easier then to secure for each Museum objects representing all the principal varieties of interest.

“Miss Bell’s death is a grievous blow, and it is impossible as yet to forecast the consequences. I think she has so far estab­lished the idea of a Department of Antiqui­ties and of a Museum in the mind of the Iraq Government that they are sure to make a new appointment; but who it will be is quite uncertain.”

B August 1926. Woolley to Gordon

“I received your letter of July 8th unduly late as my club didn’t forward it and I only found it there when I went up to town. Its first effect on me was to make me regret once more the fact that 1 can’t see you: I’m always feeling what a loss it is, when I’m working under you, to be always at such a distance.

One clay’s conversation should do more than reams of writing to avoid misunderstandings and settle differences of view. However, I can’t get over to the States at present, and I learn to my regret that you are not coming here this summer, so I must needs write.

“You tell me that you have doubts which almost amount to a principle about the wisdom of having volunteers on an expedi­tion. Once at Carchemish I had a volunteer assistant who might almost have converted me to your view, but on the other hand we had at Ur FitzGerald and my one regret was that other engagements didn’t allow of his coming out a second time. English expeditions (partly perhaps through lack of funds) so constantly employ volunteers—Kish has had two, Petrie in Egypt almost lives on them, and so on—that the idea of an objection to such on principle hadn’t occurred to me. Frankly I don’t share it: it seems to me a matter of expediency not of principle, and I should be really very sorry to be debarred from taking advantage of volunteer help when that is in itself to the advantage of the expedition. But when I got your letter I felt obliged to see Kenyon at once, because I don’t for a moment want to set up my opinion against yours, or against his, and of course if a line of policy is laid down for me I am prepared to act on it. So, though I didn’t show Kenyon your letter, it being marked ‘personal and confidential’ I explained your views and asked his. Well, he certainly doesn’t share the objection to volunteers as such provided that they are properly subordinate to the head of the expedition, and was on the contrary anxious to avail himself of any help we could get provided that it really was helpful. And I do trust that in view of the general practice over here you may incline to share his opinion.

“Kenyon said that as regards the particu­lar question of how far Mrs. Keeling helps the expedition he was prepared to leave that to my judgement (and I’d like to say, Gordon, how very much I appreciate the reliance which both you and he have placed in me and the freedom of action which you have allowed: that has always been a great comfort)—but it’s only fair to you at a distance that I should say something to you on the point.

“The only definite job for which Mrs. Keeling volunteered last season was the drawings for the catalogue and for reproduc­tion. This isn’t in itself a big enough thing to justify the employment of a special paid assistant, but Mallowan, who writes the catalogue, couldn’t draw at all, and the work would therefore have fallen on me; I have quite enough on my hands as it is and was only too thankful to be relieved of this. Actually, though she didn’t undertake the housekeeping, Mrs. Keeling did a great deal in looking after the servants and keeping the house decent and comfortable, as all of us were quick to recognize with gratitude, and that too saved me a good deal of time; also by taking charge of visitors and acting as guide she saved me a vast amount,—for one can’t refuse to show round visitors who have come a long way to see the dig, hut they do waste one’s time frightfully. Lastly I do think that the presence of a lady has a good moral effect on the younger fellows in the camp and keeps them up to standard. Speaking quite officially I can say that I consider the Expedi­tion to be very much indebted to Mrs. Keeling and should be most sorry if she were not coming out again.

“As a matter of fact she decided last season not to do so, and was going to India instead, because it looked as if there’d be no definite work for her since Mallowan was to take drawing lessons in the summer; but as it became clear to me that he will not be up to the work yet I strongly urged her to recon­sider her decision (and in this Mrs. Mallowan, who takes a keen interest in her son’s work, supported me) and a little while ago she agreed, very generously I thought, to give up the plans she had made for India and to come out once more to do the same work as last season and to give Mallowan lessons. He ought to be quite capable of doing the whole work himself next year. In this I acted in what I believe to be the best interests of the expedition, and I couldn’t now ask her not to come without being guilty of a rudeness which I should hate.

“Lastly (this is a long letter; but since I can’t talk to you I must write at length) lastly there’s the point which you raise, very con­siderately, about Mrs. K’s own interests in view of the fact that people have gossiped about her presence in the camp. About this I felt that I ought to speak to her, so put off writing to you until I should see her for I was just coming to Oxford to lecture to the British Association and she was coming to stop with an old friend of hers—a trustee of the British Museum—for the same meeting. You know, it’s quite difficult to believe that such gossip can exist when one’s in this atmosphere of scientific work, with lots of women, by no means all of Mrs. Keeling’s age and standing, engaged in positions very similar to hers, when everyone takes the circumstances of the work as a matter of course and is keenly interested in what she is doing: it isn’t only that in her case her own University is pleased with the progress of an old student, but everyone feels that it’s the right and proper thing. Probably this contrast made the shock greater and Mrs. Keeling was at first very much hurt to think that her name could be so talked about: perhaps that is still the price which women may have to pay for cooperation in scientific work. Of course it’s all wrong. I don’t mean that archaeologists don’t ever marry, and the more happily because many have interests in common; it’s not unlikely that at the beginning the possibilities of that were discussed in Iraq and such discussion may have been at the bottom of the tourist gossip you describe: in a small community like that of Iraq discussions are always about personalities, hut everyone there now accepts the fact that she is out there for work. Since I am discussing a lady confidentially, I might go further and say that Mrs. Keeling is nearly 40 and has been a widow for over 7 years and.

As all her friends recognize, has no intention of remarrying! Moreover I knew that before she came to Ur she sought and acted on the advice of her friends in Baghdad, who are also the best friends of the expedition—and to me, for instance, Miss Gertrude Bell several times said what a good thing it was that she was with us. I am quite sure that in Iraq where, as you know, conditions make a certain amount of freedom for women really necessary, nothing is said to which anyone could object; and I know equally well that over here in scientific circles—as of course with you—her keeness on the work and her presence in camp are regarded as perfectly natural. About the American tourists, espe­cially those who talk without ever having been to Ur, I only know what you have told me, and that is unpleasant enough and how­ever unimportant and stupid must of course be given a certain weight: but I can’t see that to me officially it should count against the good which the expedition gets from Mrs. Keeling’s presence, and if she on her side is willing to put up with it in order to help our work forward I can only be the more grateful. But of course I shall keep my eyes and ears open and do my best to forestall anything of the sort, and I’m very grateful to you for the hint.

“P.S. Reading over the above I’m not sure that I have made it clear how distressed Mrs. Keeling was to learn of these rumors. But I assured her, as I knew you’d wish me to do, that your letter (which of course she has not seen) was written by you in her interest entirely and that apart from her interest you would not have paid any attention to such tales.”

20 August 1926. Gordon to Kenyon

“Miss McHugh has told me about the division which was agreeably consummated while she was in London.” (The Ur-Nammu Stela fell to the University Museum.]

5 October 1926. Gordon to Woolley

“I note that you had made your decision concerning the matter about which I wrote you in private and that you acted, as you believe, entirely in the interest of the Expedition. That interest is, of course, my only concern in the matter.

“… Women, as such, whether married or single, are not disqualified for membership on an expedition. They may be, when properly qualified, attached to an expedition on the same terms as men.

“You will understand that these are my personal views and represent our practice in this Museum.” (In 1927, Katharine Keeling became Mrs. Leonard Woolley.

(With regard to volunteers, it should be remembered that at this time Charles C. Harrison, the President of the University Museum, was raising large sums of money for expeditions and the purchase of collections. With his death and the nation-wide depres­sion of 1929, conditions changed drastically so that in subsequent years this Museum has been happy to welcome volunteers. They are still valued assistants both at home and in the field.]

19 October 1926. Woolley to Gordon

“Mallowan comes again as general assistant … Mrs. Keeling, as 1 have already told you, comes out again an unpaid assistant. ..

“Mr. Cooke has taken Miss Bell’s place as Director of the Iraq Museum, and I shall probably have to deal with him as well as with the Adviser to the Ministry of Education.”

14 December 1926. Baghdad

A new treaty with Great Britain recog­nized the independence of Iraq.

3 January 1927. Woolley cable to Gordon “Found prehistoric cemetery very rich in gold, etc.” [The discovery of the minor graves of the “Royal Cemetery” of Ur. It is ironic that Dr. Gordon never saw any of the treasures of the Royal Tombs whose excava­tion was the crowning achievement of his years as Director of the University Museum.]

6 February 1927. Woolley to Harrison

“I was greatly shocked to receive from the British Museum a cable announcing the death of Dr. Gordon. I at once sent to the University Museum a cable expressing offi­cially the regret of the Staff of this Expedition, but I must also write to express my personal feelings.

“I have of course known Dr. Gordon for many years and we were always good friends. Since I have been in charge of this Joint Expedition I have reaped the benefit of that friendship. When one is working at a distance from one’s Director and seldom has a chance to see him, there is always a risk of misunder­standings and friction: but Dr. Gordon was so generous in his confidence and so patient of another’s point of view even when it might appear opposed to his own that my task has been an easy one and my sorrow at the termination of our relations is the greater. I know well that this Expedition, which to me seems all-important, is but a minor issue in the total of Dr. Gordon’s work for the University Museum, but for that very reason, lest it should be overlooked, I wish to express to the Board my gratitude for his direction of it and my regret that he has not seen concluded what he initiated and so tactfully controlled.”

Cite This Article

Jr., Robert H. Dyson,. "Archival Glimpses of the Ur Expedition in the Years 1920 to 1926." Expedition Magazine 20, no. 1 (October, 1977): -. Accessed June 19, 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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