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Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur

Dates: February 6, 1999–May 9, 1999

Rare and exquisite Sumerian artifacts from the renowned, 4500-year-old royal cemetery at Ur—the city famed in the bible as the home of the patriarch Abraham—can be viewed in Knoxville, Tennessee, from February 6 through May 9, 1999, when the McClung Museum presents Treasures From The Royal Tombs of Ur, a major traveling exhibition organized by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.


Extravagant jewelry of gold, lapis lazuli, and carnelian, cups of gold and silver, bowls of alabaster, and extraordinary objects of art and culture were among the Mesopotamian treasures uncovered in the late 1920s by renowned British archaeologist C. Leonard Woolley in a joint expedition by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum. One of the most spectacular discoveries in ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), the royal tombs at Ur opened the world’s eyes to the full glory of ancient Sumerian culture (2600–2500 BC) 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 to 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 Tutankhamun 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, and in a little more than a year he was awarded knighthood.


The Ur site excavated by C. Leonard Woolley and his team contained about 1800 burials. Woolley classified 16 of these as “royal” based on their distinctive form, their 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 Queen Puabi, like the tomb of King Tutankhamun, was an especially extraordinary find for being intact, 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 bearing her name that was found on her body. The seal is carved in cuneiform and written in Sumerian, the world’s first written language.

Queen 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 semi-precious stones stretching from her shoulders to her belt, while rings decorated all her fingers.

An ornate diadem 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. Much of the jewelry from Queen Puabi, including the diadem, is on view in the traveling exhibition.

In a pit associated with Queen Puabi’s chamber were five armed men, a wooden sled drawn by a pair of oxen, four grooms for the oxen, and a wood chest or wardrobe which probably contained textiles, long since decomposed. Three more attendants crouched near the wardrobe, surrounded by metal, stone, and clay vessels. At the opposite end of the pit were twelve female attendants, all wearing a less elaborate version of Queen Puabi’s headdress.

Many more artifacts, now world-famous in the fields of art, history, and archaeology, were found by Woolley in the larger cemetery.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum collection includes one of the world’s earliest known musical instruments—a large wooden lyre (reconstructed from the exacting measurements made by the original excavators) with the original gold and lapis lazuli bull’s head and inlaid plaque depicting mythical animals drinking and performing.


The Ur treasures—divided in the 1920s and 1930s among the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, the British Museum in London, and the Iraq Museum in Baghdad—never again traveled, until now. The Philadelphia collection—which has been on display at the University of Pennsylvania Museum—will visit eight sites around the United States before its permanent reinstallation at that museum in 2001.


Among C. Leonard Woolley’s discoveries at Ur were thick layers of water-laid clay found beneath Ur and dating back to between 4,000 and 3,000 BC. Woolley declared this find to be evidence of the “Great Flood” recorded in Mesopotamian narratives and in the Book of Genesis.

By special arrangement with the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the McClung Museum is also featuring an additional display case presenting Woolley’s discovery of these deeply buried flood deposits. Included in the exhibit are samples of the “Flood Mud” discovered beneath Ur, and the Nippur Tablet, a clay tablet from ancient Nippur which is the only surviving document of the Sumerian flood story. Dating from the seventeenth century BC, the tablet contains six columns of text, three per side, with ten to fifteen lines in each column. Written in Sumerian, it not only tells the flood story, but also describes the creation of humans and animals, and records the names of antediluvian cities and their rulers.

Archaeologists and language specialists today doubt that the Ur (or Kish) floods could be the source of the Mesopotamian flood narratives. Instead, they view the discovered flood deposits merely as evidence that flooding was a persistent hazard in the flat alluvial plain of southern Mesopotamia. On the other hand, many scholars believe that the Mesopotamian flood tradition was reshaped by Hebrew writers of the eighth and sixth centuries BC into the biblical account of Noah and the Great Deluge found in the Book of Genesis.

Exhibition curated by Richard L. Zettler and Lee Horne. Sponsors include Lucille S. Thompson Family Foundation, Aletha and Clayton Brodine Museum Fund, Knoxville News-Sentinel, Lamar Advertising, WBIR-TV, and WNOX.

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