The Royal Cemetery at Ur

By Darci Clark for Ancient Mesopotamian History and Culture

Some of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century were unearthed during the excavations undertaken by Charles Leonard Woolley in the autumn of 1922 at the site of the ancient Sumerian city of Ur. Woolley led a joint expedition of the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to excavate the Royal Cemetery at Ur. His spectacular discoveries even rivaled Howard Carter’s excavation of King Tutankhamun’s intact tomb. Besides numerous artifacts, thousands of human skeletons were found. Of the two thousand burials Woolley excavated, he believed sixteen to be royal graves based on the quantity of extravagant grave goods and the number of human attendants interred with the royal occupant. Woolley called these tombs “death pits” and believed the attendants were sacrificed to accompany their king or queen to the afterlife. Although some cultures have been known to practice this type of human sacrifice, it is extremely uncommon in Mesopotamian burials. This fact only adds to the mystery of this incredible archaeological discovery.

Reconstructed Ziggurat of Ur
Reconstructed Ziggurat of Ur

Located in what is today southern Iraq, the ancient city of Ur was a powerful and important Mesopotamian city-state in the third millennium BCE. The discoveries at the Royal Cemetery date from the Early Dynastic III period, ca. 2600-2300 BCE.At this time, the majority of the population lived in large walled cities, and conflict was common between the competing city-states. Every city had its own patron deity, and the city was considered the property of the god. The official deity of Ur was Nanna, the god of the moon. Nanna’s temple, or ziggurat, was built in 2111-2004 BCE by rulers of the Third Dynasty of Ur. It was just south of this ziggurat that Leonard Woolley excavated one of two narrow trenches in 1922 which would immediately uncover parts of the Royal Cemetery.

Burial customs were varied during the Early Dynastic period. Formal burials, where the remains were placed in earthen pits, have been found in cemeteries and beneath the floors of houses. The body was placed in a coffin of wood, clay, or wicker, or simply wrapped in a reed mat. The remains of children and infants were usually found buried in houses rather than in cemeteries. Adult remains have been found buried in both areas. Other remains have been found thrown into garbage dumps or pits, apparently with no funeral rites. Even the Royal Cemetery was found in the vicinity of Ur’s garbage dump.

Woolley took part in several archaeological expeditions before excavating at Ur, including sites in Nubia, Syria, and Egypt.His initial goal for excavating the site at Ur was, “to obtain as clear an idea as possible of the topography of the site, so as to guide future excavations and to economize labor by identifying beforehand its more important sections.” Initially, two long and narrow trenches, called A and B, were dug. Trench A was south of Nanna’s ziggurat and crossed the vicinity of the unknown cemetery.There were no markers or indicators of graves in the area. Considering the fact that graves were reused and cemeteries were highly organized, it is possible that graves were somehow marked above ground in antiquity, but the markers did not survive. Trench B was located east of the ziggurat and passed through the remains of a large storehouse. Woolley decided to focus on expanding Trench B even though several Early Dynastic and Akkadian graves were immediately visible in Trench A. He felt excavating burials, “could not be done satisfactorily with the absolutely untrained gang [of workers] which we had just enrolled.”He also wished to excavate the main area of temples and buildings, called the temenos.

Excavations of Trench A finally began five years later. Two extension trenches were dug with one yielding several burials. Six hundred burials were unearthed during the next three months.Woolley concentrated on the excavation of the cemetery for the next several years. Between 1927 and 1930 over one thousand more graves were uncovered. The majority of graves were simple burials and included few grave goods. Jewelry, cylinder seals, bowls, and weapons were common artifacts.

Lunate earrings excavated in the Great Death Pit
Lunate earrings excavated in the Great Death Pit

It was difficult for Woolley to estimate the chronological sequence of the graves. Not only was the cemetery built into natural sloping ground, the mounds of garbage had caused late and early burials to overlap. Dates could not simply be determined by the relative heights of the graves, so he used the developmental sequence of the grave goods to determine approximate dates. The earliest graves were dated to the beginning of the Early Dynastic III period, and the cemetery had remained in use for another 500 years. The highest quality artifacts were found in the earliest graves. Woolley considered these sixteen graves to be Royal Tombs. Besides the greatest wealth of grave goods, these tombs had several similar characteristics. They seemed to represent the center of the cemetery and other graves were placed around them.  A ramp led down to a stone chamber which had been built into a deep pit. The burials consisted of a king andqueen and members of their retinue, as well as other human remains just outside the tomb on the ramp. Woolley called these mass graves “death pits.”

All the graves were assigned a number with the prefix PG for private grave. Two tombs, PG 800 and PG 1054, were discovered intact. PG 1054 contained the remains of an unknown royal female, but PG 800 held the burial of queen Puabi (initially read as Shub-ad).To keep the news of the great wealth of Puabi’s tomb secret, Woolley sent a telegram to the University Museum written in Latin. The telegram read, “I found the intact tomb, stone built and vaulted over with bricks of Queen Shubad (Puabi) adorned with a dress in which gems, flower crowns and animal figures are woven. Tomb magnificent with jewels and golden cups.”

Queen Puabi's Headdress
Queen Puabi’s Headdress

A lapis lazuli cylinder seal engraved with a banquet scene was found adjacent to Puabi’s right arm in the tomb, with the inscription “Pu-abi nin.”The conventional translation of nin is “queen” but it can also mean “lady.” British anthropologist Sir Arthur Keith determined Puabi was approximately forty years old at the time of her death. She was richly adorned beginning with an elaborate headdress made of gold, lapis lazuli, and carnelian. A beautiful beaded cape covered her upper body, and she wore an intricate belt of tubular beads, finished with hanging gold rings. Both were made of gold and precious stones. Gold rings were worn on each finger. Woolley discovered what he thought were the pieces of a diadem on a wooden shelf near Puabi’s head. He reconstructed the elaborate diadem, which was made of tiny lapis beads and gold animal amulets. It is possible the beads and amulets were originally part of a six piece jewelry set, but the diadem Woolley reconstructed is impressive nonetheless.

The remains of three other attendants were interred in the tomb with Puabi. One female, one male, and a third whose sex could not be identified. Daggers and a whetstone were found with the male body. The floor of the tomb was covered with artifacts such as jars and bowls. Five additional male bodies, most likely guards, were found on the ramp leading into the pit. Bones of two oxen, four grooms, two additional male attendants, and ten women were found in the death pit. A harp and a lyre were found with the females who also wore elaborate headdresses.

Lyre from Queen Puabi's Tomb
Lyre from Queen Puabi’s Tomb

While excavating Puabi’s death pit, Woolley uncovered another tomb below it, designated PG 789. The royal tomb had been plundered, but the death pit was intact. There were the remains of six guards on the ramp leading into the pit, similar to Puabi’s tomb. PG 789 had two wagons which had been backed down into the pit by three oxen. Three other bodies were found near the animal remains, presumably a groom and drivers. Fifty-four more bodies were found on the floor of the pit. Most were women, some of which wore elaborate jewelry.Several lyres were also recovered from the tomb.

One called “The Great Lyre” from PG 789, also known as the “King’s Grave,” is considered one of the greatest finds from the Royal Cemetery. A golden bull head with a blue lapis lazuli beard decorated the front of the lyre. The bull symbolized the god Shamash and his divine judgment. On the front panel of the lyre, there is a plaque with scenes that represent the Mesopotamian funeral ritual and entry to the netherworld. The wooden sound box of the lyre had completely deteriorated, but a replacement was built from Woolley’s records of the size and shape of the instrument from the impression in the soil. One of the most important artifacts recovered from the Royal Cemetery was discovered in PG 779.

Standard of Ur
Standard of Ur

Named the “Standard of Ur” by Woolley, it was a small box with mosaic designs depicting war on one side and peace on the other. The war side shows a battle and the king defeating an enemy. The peace side shows a banquet and imagery representing the bounty of the land. Woolley thought the standard had been mounted on a pole and carried into the tomb as symbol of the king, but today it is believed to be a sound box for a musical instrument.

The famous artifact, the “Ram Caught in a Thicket,” was discovered in PG 1237, known as the “Great Death Pit.” Two of these statues were found which actually depict a goat standing on its hind legs eating the leaves of a flowering tree. Woolley named the statue as a reference to the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of a ram in the Bible. The statue was made of wood, gold, silver, lapis lazuli, shell, and red limestone and originally rested on a wooden base. Woolley believed these statues were not simple sculptures, but may have been part of a stand with a small tray fitted on the top of the statue. He deduced this from a contemporary cylinder seal which depicted such a piece of furniture. The tray top may have been made of wood and did not survive. Woolley believed the tray was used to burn something during the funeral ritual since he found ashes in the vicinity of the statues.

Ram in a Thicket
Ram in a Thicket

The “Great Death Pit” was so-called because of the remains of seventy-four bodies which were discovered. Woolley thoughtthe royal grave that would have accompanied this death pit was looted and totally destroyed by tomb robbers. Six male and sixty-eight females were found in the pit. Their sex was not determined by the bones, but by the objects and ornamentation associated with the body. This may have caused misidentification of some bodies. At least some of the attendants were thought to be singers or musicians, based on the harps and lyres which were found near some of the bodies. Some ancient cuneiform texts indicate professional singers may have been eunuchs or transvestites, so Woolley’s interpretation of sex based on how the body was dressed may be inaccurate. The females discussed simply refer to how the body was dressed, rather than a scientific study of the bones.

The females wore fine gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and carnelian jewelry and were laid out in orderly rows on the floor of the pit. The six males were lying at the bottom of the ramp and appeared to possess knives or axes. Woolley believed a mass suicide had taken place so they could serve their master in the afterlife. He said, “There seems to have been no violence done to the men and women who crowd the death pit, but that they drank quietly of the drug provided and lay down to sleep…it was a privilege rather than a doom pronounced on them…(they) were translated to a higher sphere of service.”A large copper cauldron was found in the pit which Woolley theorized could have held a poison or sedating drug. He theorized the participants would have taken part in an elaborate ceremonial procession and proceeded into the pit. Then they would have filled their cup from the cauldron and taken their assigned places before drinking. Woolley suggested once the participants were unconscious, someone entered the tomb and buried them. Several lyres and a decorated canopy frame were found above the bodies indicating they were placed there after the initial burial. Finally the pit was filled in.

Woolley with Lyre
Woolley with Lyre

While many accept Woolley’s theory, there is speculation about different scenarios for the funerary rituals in the “Great Death Pit.” Other theories have alleged the participants were not attendants to a ruler but were sacrificed to ensure the fertility of the land. In addition the participants may have not taken their own lives but may have been killed during the funeral, possibly by strangulation or by having their throats cut. In Woolley’s sketches of the pit, some skeletons show an abnormal position of the skull which could suggest strangulation, or their bodies may have simply been inadvertently trampled during the burial causing some joints to break or become displaced. There is evidence that the bodies were ritually placed in the tomb, whether death was suicide or execution. The heads of all sixty-four bodies in the pit were facing the southwest, while the six bodies at the foot of the ramp were all facing the northeast. If the deaths were truly suicides, someone must have entered the pit and arranged the bodies before burial.

We may never know the reason why seventy-four people died in the “Great Death Pit,” but scientific tests unavailable in Woolley’s time may be able to help explain how they died. Two skulls recovered from the Royal Cemetery were subjected to CT scans and forensic analysis in 2007. One male from PG 789, the “King’s Grave,” and one female from PG 1237, the “Great Death Pit,” were tested even though they were badly fragmented due to the overburden of dirt used to fill the pits. The male wore a copper helmet and the female still wore her elaborate head ornaments and jewelry. The CT scan showed evidence of blunt force trauma to both skulls. A 30mm hole was found in the flat bones of the female skull, while two such holes were found on the male skull.

CT Scan of Skulls
CT Scan of Skulls

No weapon recovered from PG 789 or PG 1237 could have caused this type of blunt force trauma. However, an Akkadian weapon found in PG 689 in the Royal Cemetery could have caused the blow. The only one of its kind found in the Royal Cemetery, the weapon was a copper battle axe with a long spike on one end. If the funeral participants were indeed killed in this violent manner, rather than Woolley’s proposed suicide scenario, it is possible they were killed, preserved, and dressed before being placed in the pit. Photographs of the male’s skeleton show his upper arm was flung over his head, suggesting his body was dumped on the ramp to the pit. There was also evidence of burning damage to the female skull and traces of cinnabar were found which may have been used to preserve the body. The male skull’s copper helmet also offered evidence he was killed then dressed. The helmet appeared to be placed on his head backwards indicating he had been re-dressed after the execution. Also, there were no corresponding marks of the small holes from the trauma to his skull visible on his helmet. The question remains if these people were unexpectedly sacrificed or if they chose their fate.

There is little evidence elsewhere in Mesopotamia of this type of funeral rite. Other sites have poorly excavated cemeteries, so it is hard to determine how widespread this practice was. Evidence of death pits and sacrificial victims were only found in sixteen tombs at the Royal Cemetery at Ur, implying it was a short lived practice.There are some passages in the literary texts of The Death of Gilgamesh and The Death of Ur-Namma which allude to sacrificial funerary rites. The Death of Gilgamesh tells the story of the death and burial of the legendary heroic king of Uruk. A description of his burial is given:

“His beloved wife, his beloved son, His beloved favorite wife and junior wife, His beloved singer, cup-bearer and…, His beloved barber, his beloved…, His beloved attendants who all served (in) the palace, His beloved consignments-When they had lain down in their place with (him), as in the pure palace in Uruk, Gilgamesh, son of Ninsun, Weighed out the meeting-gifts for Ereshkigal, Weighed out the presents of Namtar.”

This passage lists all the attendants that were buried with Gilgamesh, and describes him readying the offerings for the gods of the underworld.

The Death of Ur-Namma describes the death and journey to the netherworld of Ur-Namma, the first king of Ur. After he is killed in battle, Ur-Namma is brought back to Ur. The text says his donkey and chariot are buried, and his soldiers follow him to the netherworld. The path to his grave is hidden, so no one may approach him while he makes the required offerings to the seven gatekeepers of the underworld.

Similar to the offerings made by Ur-Namma, the contents of the death pits may have been gifts for the gods of the underworld. The human and animal sacrifices, carts, weapons, jewelry, and musical instruments could also have been for the king’s or queen’s use in the afterlife, or maybe they were simply considered impure after the sacrifice and were abandoned in the pit. The sacrifices of life and precious objects may also have been a display of the city-state’s power over its own people. The elaborate funeral sacrifices could have been designed to guarantee control over the population of Ur by an extreme use of power and resources.

Leonard Woolley’s discoveries at the Royal Cemetery at Ur are some of the most important in Mesopotamian archaeology, as well as some of the most enigmatic. From Puabi’s wondrous jewelry to the exceptional artifacts like the “Great Lyre” and the “Ram Caught in Thicket,” the site has yielded some of the most iconic archaeological artifacts in the world. The death pits and the hundreds of lives sacrificed for service in the afterlife or as an offering to the gods remain one of the most mysterious rituals of the ancient world.



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