Ur: The Royal Graves

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In 1922, C. Leonard Woolley began to excavate the ancient city of Ur in southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). By the following year, he had finished his initial survey and dug a trench near the ruined ziggurat. His team of workmen found evidence of burials and jewelry made of gold and precious stones. They called this the “gold trench.” Woolley recognized, however, that he and his workforce had insufficient experience to excavate burials. He therefore concentrated on excavating buildings, and it wasn’t until 1926 that the team returned to the gold trench. Woolley began to reveal an extensive cemetery and gradually uncovered some 1,800 graves. Most of the graves consisted of simple pits with the body laid in a clay coffin or wrapped in reed matting. Vessels, jewelry, and personal items surrounded the body. However, sixteen of the graves were unusual. These were not just simple pits but stone tombs, often with several rooms. There were many bodies buried in the graves, surrounded by spectacular objects. Woolley called these the “Royal Tombs.” From his finds he attempted to reconstruct the burials. One tomb possibly belonged to the queen Pu-abi. Her title and name are written in cuneiform on a cylinder seal found close to her body. When she was buried, soldiers guarded the entrance to the pit while serving ladies crowded the floor. Woolley discovered their bodies. He suggested that they might have taken poison. Pu-abi herself was buried in a stone tomb at the far end of the pit. The finds from the Royal Graves were eventually divided between the British Museum, London, the University Museum, Philadelphia (both sponsors of the dig), and the Iraq National Museum, Baghdad.

Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2003


Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. “Ur: The Royal Graves.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/urrg/hd_urrg.htm (October 2003)

Further Reading

Moorey, P. R. S. "What Do We Know About the People Buried in the Royal Cemetery?" Expedition 20, no. 1 (1977), pp. 24–40.

Woolley, C. Leonard, and P. R. S. Moorey. Ur 'of the Chaldees.' Rev. ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982.

Woolley, C. Leonard, et al. The Royal Cemetery: A Report on the Predynastic and Sargonid Graves Excavated between 1926 and 1931. Ur Excavations, vol. 2. London and Philadelphia: Joint Expedition of the British Museum and of the University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, 1934.