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October 21, 2002

Sumerian treasures on display at Carlos Museum

By Allison Dixon

Rare and exquisite Sumerian artifacts from the renowned, 4,500-year-old royal cemetery at Ur—the Biblical home of the patriarch Abraham, located in modern-day Iraq—will be on view from Oct. 26 to Jan. 19, as the Carlos Museum presents “Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur,” a major traveling exhibition organized by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.

Extravagant jewelry of gold, lapis lazuli and carnelian, cups of gold and silver, bowls of alabaster, and other extraordinary objects were among the treasures uncovered at Ur in the late 1920s by renowned British archaeologist C. Leonard Woolley in a joint expedition by the British Museum and the Penn museum. One of the most spectacular discoveries in ancient Mesopotamia, the royal tombs at Ur opened the world’s eyes to the full glory of ancient Sumerian culture (2600–2500 B.C.) at its zenith.

The royal cemetery excavations of that early era in archaeology remain one of the most remarkable technical achievements of Near Eastern archaeology, and they helped catapult Woolley’s career. Indeed, at the time of its discovery, the royal cemetery at Ur competed only with Howard Carter’s discovery of the intact tomb of the boy pharaoh, Tutankhamen, for public attention.

By the end of the excavation in 1934, Woolley had become, as The Illustrated London News termed him, a “famous archaeologist” with his own series on BBC radio. A year later, he was awarded knighthood.

The Ur treasures—divided in the 1920s and ’30s among the Penn museum in Philadel-phia, the British Museum in London and the Iraq Museum in Baghdad—never traveled again until now. The Philadelphia collection has visited a number of sites, including the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Sackler Gallery in Washington and the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. The Carlos is its final destination before the collection is permanently reinstalled at Penn in 2003.

The Ur site contained about 1,800 burials. Woolley classified 16 of these as “royal” based on their distinctive form, wealth and the fact that they contained burials of servants and other high-ranking personages along with the “royal” person.

The royal cemetery tomb of Lady Puabi, like the tomb of King Tutankhamen, was an especially extraordinary find for being intact and having escaped looting through the millennia. The tomb featured a vaulted chamber set at the bottom of a deep “death pit”; the lady was buried lying on a wooden bier. She was identified by a cylinder seal found on her body bearing her name. The seal is carved in cuneiform and written in Sumerian, the world’s first written language.

Lady Puabi wore an elaborate headdress of gold leaves, gold ribbons, strands of lapis lazuli and carnelian beads, a tall comb of gold, chokers, necklaces and a pair of large, crescent-shaped earrings. Her upper body was covered in strings of beads made of precious metals and semiprecious stones stretching from her shoulders to her belt, while rings decorated all her fingers. An ornate diadem made of thousands of small lapis lazuli beads with gold pendants of animals and plants was on a table near her head. Two attendants were buried in the chamber with her, one crouched at her head, the other at her feet.

Virtually all of the jewelry from Lady Puabi, including the diadem, is on view in the exhibit.