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”
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
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.