During my several months’ stay in London, one of the sites I visited most frequently was undoubtedly the British Museum. Apart from contemporary exhibitions, the entrance to the Museum is free of charge so it would be a pity to miss it, especially for someone who loves wandering around ancient artifacts. As a museums expert, Amaya (2017) advises, an average amount of time spent in a museum should be no more than around 90 minutes, as a human brain can focus only during this period and then it simply needs a break. If it is not possible to come back to the museum later, it is essential to have intervals between particular display units and drink water for a better concentration (Ibid.).
I usually stay longer in a museum when we have just one day for a huge exhibition during a study trip, as it was in Mexico. In London or Paris, it was easier as I could come back to the museums during my longer stay in the cities.
Ones of the oldest objects preserved by the British Museum come from the display units dedicated to Mesopotamia (6000–1500 BC.), which is the so-called cradle of human civilization (The British Museum 2020). To get there, I needed to climb up to the upper floor, where the Rooms 55 and 56 are located, within the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery (Rooms 53-59) (Ibid.). Of my particular interest was especially the Room 56, as it displays very important artifacts unearthed in the early twentieth century at the Royal Cemetery at Ur, in southern Iraq (Ibid.). The collection includes jewellery, pottery and musical instruments that were excavated by one of the greatest British archaeologist, Sir Charles Leonard Woolley (Ibid.).
For a while I was found on my own in the Room, accompanied by all these remarkable objects, yet under the surveillance of the divine Sumerian lion-headed eagle, looking down at me from the panel hanging above the entrance door. Finally, I could take a closer look of the burial goods, without any need of waiting in a queue to stand directly in front of the display window. They are placed among other artifacts from the region, “[illustrating] economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians who lived in Mesopotamia at this time” (The British Museum 2020). Yet many of their aspects are still shrouded in mystery as much as the culture who created them.
My attention was suddenly caught by vibrant colours of the triangular object, which was calling me behind the glass. Today, it is just an archaeological reconstruction of its once crushed remains, unearthed in such a state that it is only a best guess how the object was originally shaped (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). Nevertheless, it has been labelled as a standard, the Standard of Ur (Ibid.).
Mound of Pitch
The land of ancient Mesopotamia lay across the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is today Iraq and Syria (Wakely 1999). It has always been a flat desolate land made green by rivers’ canals and marshes (Ibid.). Yet from this unpromising landscape arouse the foundation of the ancient civilisation, including the world’s first cities and the earliest known writing system (Ibid.). Southern Mesopotamia was settled already by the seventh millennium BC. (Ibid.). By the second half of the third millennium, it was divided into twenty or thirty city-states that controlled the smallest towns and villages dispersed across the countryside (Ibid.). Shifting alliances among competing city-states brought conflicts often over water and even war to the city’s walls (Ibid.).
Some objects on display in the Room 56 of the British Museum tell a story about Ur, one of the ancient southern Mesopotamian city-states (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). The site is also known as the cradle of civilization (Ibid.) as “[archaeologists] have discovered there the evidence of an early [settlement] during the [so-called] Ubaid Period (ca. 6500 to 3800 BC.)” (“Ur” 2020). Its name also appears in the Book of Genesis as the home of the biblical patriarch, Abraham (Genesis 11:29-32), and the region itself is referred to as the location of the Garden of Eden (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). “The further occupation of Ur only becomes clear during its emergence in the third millennium BC., although it must already have been a growing urban center during the fourth millennium” (“Ur” 2020), around 3 800 BC. (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). It was equally among the most powerful and prosperous (Wakely 1999). Although the city-state of Uruk was one of the earliest and most prominent cities by this time, in the early third millennium BC., the temple dominated city-state of Ur emerged as one of the most important cities in the new stage of the development of human society and states (McDonald 2013). The modern name of the ancient Ur is Tell el-Muqayyar, which in Arabic means a mound of pitch (Wakely 1999). The name comes from the monumental temple tower, which was made of baked mud bricks set in the bitumen or pitch, a naturally occurring form of tar (Ibid.).
Ziggurat of Ur
In 1922, under the leadership of a little known young archaeologist, Charles Leonard Woolley, excavations jointly sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the British Museum were initiated at the site of ancient Ur (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). The decision to excavate proved to be a prominent one (Wakely 1999).
One of the most important part of the ancient city of Ur turned out to be the temple complex of the Moon god Nanna, at the centre of which was a ziggurat: a series of stepped terraces with a temple on top (Wakely 1999). “The remains of the ziggurat were first discovered by William Loftus in 1850” (“Ziggurat of Ur” 2020), during the first excavations at the site, conducted by a British consul at Basra, John George Taylor (Wakely 1999; “Ziggurat of Ur” 2020). The excavations at the mound in 1854 uncovered inscribed cylinders, which recorded rebuilding of the temple tower by the Babylonian king, Nabonidus (around sixth century BC.), who was the successor of the famous Nebuchadnezzar (Ibid.).
The ziggurat was excavated further by Woolley who managed to uncover its older layers. The core of the huge pyramidal tower was made of packed mud bricks, whereas the outside of the monument was constructed of baked mud bricks, jointed together with bitumen or pitch (Wakely 1999) Many of the bricks have had a stamped inscription with the name of the founder of the third dynasty of Ur, Ur-Nammu, who ruled there over four thousand years ago (Ibid.). Woolley’s recovery of Ur’s ancient ziggurat and the complex of buildings around it was a remarkable find but it paled in a comparison with his discoveries of the so-called Royal Tombs (Ibid.).
The ‘gold trench’
In 1923, Woolley discovered a whole cache of opulent graves in a trench near the ruins of the ziggurat of Ur (McDonald 2013; Ḏḥwty 2017). The archaeologist, “however, decided to halt the excavation [there], as he was aware that neither he nor his men were experienced enough to excavate burials. Hence, Woolley concentrated on excavating buildings, before returning to the [trench] in 1926, [where his] workmen discovered evidence of burials and jewellery of gold and precious stones, leading to it being called the ‘gold trench’” (Ḏḥwty 2017; see Wakely 1999). Excavated burials were so rich that they competed only with Howard Carter’s discovery of the intact tomb of the boy pharaoh, Tutankhamun, unearthed earlier in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, in 1922 (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013).
Ur’s discoveries are noteworthy not just for their contents but for the location of the dig (McDonald 2013). The tombs discovered in Ur seemed to date from about 2 550 BC. (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). It means the cemetery appeared around fifty years after the reign of Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk (2800 – 2600 BC.; see: Gibbor in the Museum of Louvre). Some tombs of Ur were full of gold and silver jewellery and objects as well as colourful and spectacular grave goods (McDonald 2013). The archaeologists discovered things that had never been seen before: wonderous musical instruments, gold headdresses, a golden ostrich egg, weapons and even inlaid gameboards (Ibid.). What was even more fascinating about them was the fact some contained possibly deliberate human sacrifices as a part of burial rituals (McDonald 2013; Amaya March, 2017).
At the early stage of excavations, in 1928, Woolley wanted to keep his breath-taking discovery secret (McDonald 2013). Therefore, he sent his telegram announcing the news in Latin to make it understandable only to his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania Museum (Ibid.). When the news finally reached the public and press in London and New York, it created a high sensation (Ibid.). The New York Times and an Illustrated London News wrote articles recounting the marvels discovered (Ibid.). The Illustrated London News even published an artist’s drawing recreating the moments before the people in the great death pit had met their deaths (Ibid.).
The 1920s and early 30s of the same century are a golden age of archaeological discoveries and the public is fascinated by all the details (Wakely 1999; McDonald 2013). Perhaps no excavation in more than one hundred and fifty years of archaeological working in Mesopotamia had excited as much worldwide interest as Woolley’s work in ancient Ur (Wakely 1999). As a result of extensive publicity, tours from all parts of the globe, including European royalty and the famous crime novelist, Agatha Christie, flocked to the remote site in the Iraqi desert (Ibid.). Christie came to Iraq after her devastating divorce and met there her future husband, who was Woolley’s colleague and assistant from the dig, Max Mallowan (McDonald 2013; National Geographic 2019). Her stay at the site during excavations was also the perfect remedy; she lost her heart for the ancient site of Ur and so she even set her another story of mystery murder in Mesopotamia, at an archaeological dig that resembled that one (McDonald 2013; National Geographic 2019; JOM 2020). Later she recalled it by writing (National Geographic 2019):
I fell in love with Ur, with its beauty in the evenings, the ziggurat standing up, faintly shadowed, and that wide sea of sand with its lovely pale colors of apricot, blue and mauve, changing every minute. I enjoyed the workmen, the foremen, the little basket boys, the pick men—the whole technique and life. The lure of the past came to grab me. To see a dagger slowly appearing with its gold glint, through the sand was romantic. The carefulness of lifting pots and objects from the soil filled me with a longing to be an archaeologist myself.Agatha Christie on Ur. In: National Geographic (2019).
Royal tombs and resourceful researcher
Between 1927 and 1934, Woolley uncovered 1 850 tombs in Ur (Wakely 1999). “The cemetery was used between about 2600-2000 BC. and hundreds of burials were made in pits” (The British Museum 2015). Sixteen (or seventeen) tombs dated to the mid-third millennium stood apart from the others; each contained an extraordinary wealth of artifacts and evidence of human sacrifices (Wakely 1999; Amaya March, 2017).
Woolley called them Royal Tombs because he assumed they contained Ur’s deceased kings (Wakely 1999). Yet, he recognised considerable variations between them (Ibid.). The archaeologist’s skills also proved equal to his task; he turned out to be an imaginative and resourceful researcher under very difficult circumstances (McDonald 2013). First of all, he knew how to rescue objects of art that seemed lost to time like the wooden sound boxes of the lyres that long ago rotted wet (Ibid.; see Wakely 1999). In order to save them, he poured wet plaster into the holes created by the decayed wood and carefully brushed the dirt aside to reveal the plaster form of a lost article (Ibid.; see Wakely 1999).
Object from the Tomb PG 779
A particular mosaic covered object was discovered in the Tomb PG 779, one of the largest graves in the Royal Cemetery at Ur (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). Already in ancient times, “[robbers] had thoroughly plundered the tomb in which [the artifact] was found. As one corner of the last chamber […] was being cleared, a workman accidentally spotted a piece of shell inlay, and from this starting point, the remains of the [mosaic object] were slowly revealed and reconstructed” (JOM 2020). When the artifact was found, its original wood had already rotted away but the remains of an elaborate design created by a multicoloured mosaic were preserved (McDonald 2013; Sailus 2003-2020). As the object was decayed, “the two main panels had been crushed together by the weight of the soil [of the collapsed tomb. Moreover], the bitumen acting as glue had disintegrated and the end panels were [also] broken” (The British Museum 2015). So these were only “the mosaic pieces that had kept [in place the whole] form [of the previously wooden skeleton]” (JOM 2020). This is why the object required Woolley’s special attention (McDonald 2013).
Like in the case of other excavated artifacts, “[the archaeologist] looked for hollows in the ground created by [the] decayed object and then filled them with plaster or wax to record the shape of the [material] that had once filled [it. Woolley] carefully uncovered small sections measuring about 3 square centimetres and covered them with wax, enabling the mosaics to be lifted while maintaining their original designs” (JOM 2020). Due to reconstructing efforts, the remains found in the Tomb PG 779 have eventually become a 21.59×49.53-centimetre hollow wooden box in the shape of a trapezoid, covered in original colourful mosaics (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015; JOM 2020).
But what was it?
As the artifact was found “lying in the corner of a chamber above the right shoulder of a [ritually sacrificed] man” (The British Museum 2015), Woolley imagined that it had once been supported on a pole and borne by the deceased (Ibid.). The archaeologist reasoned such a possibility because of the object’s position along the dead (McDonald 2013). Accordingly, it may have been carried as a standard in war, aloft on a pole in order to identify a military unit (Ibid.). “Another theory suggests, [however], that it once formed the soundbox of a musical instrument” (The British Museum 2015) or was a part of furniture or else served as a box used to hold civic funds (Sailus 2003-2020). The fact is, however, that nothing like it has been known then or since (McDonald 2013).
Today this mysterious object is known as the Royal Standard of Ur and it proves to be the most informative, beautiful and enigmatic of all (McDonald 2013). In such a way, Woolley also describes the artifact in his letter (Ibid.). However, no one knows whether the so-called Royal Standard of Ur is a standard or even royal and our knowledge of the royal cemetery is not much greater than it was known from Woolley’s excavations (Ibid.). Scholars assume, however, that modern understanding of the symbolism of early Sumerian society has been improved since the beginning of the twentieth century, and so interpretation of the figures and actions shown on the objects discovered in the cemetery of Ur is much more nuanced and clear (Ibid.). Yet, any interpretation is still speculating and there are more theories than evidence.
Rendering of the depicted figures on the Standard, both human and animal, is very characteristic of Sumerian stylistic conventions (Feinblatt, Cornelius 2012). Almost all the characters are illustrated in a perfect profile (Ibid.). Accordingly, only one eye is visible (Ibid.). However, it is not directed forward but rather looking outside (Ibid.). By these means, it seems to be depicted in the form of a frontally seen eye but just on the side of the face, like it is present in the Egyptian art (Ibid.). The human shoulders are squared, as if presented frontally, whereas the feet are again depicted in profile, as if one after the other, which evokes movement (Ibid.).
The animals’ figures are superimposed; the four are walking one beside the other, and the outlines of the three animals are visible behind the one at the front, so their number overlapping (McDonald 2013). This artistic technique of overlapping gives a sense of depth, which today results from the use of perspective (Ibid.).
The Standard of Ur, whose function is still shrouded in mystery, is said to tell more about powerful rulers of Ur and a great deal about life in early Sumerian society than almost any other artifact that was discovered from ancient Sumer (McDonald 2013).
The box-like sculpture inlaid with colourful mosaics shows scenes of both, warfare and festivals, with a ruler in their center (McDonald 2013). Accordingly, the prevailing subjects depicted on the Standard are a successful military campaign led by the ruler and the abundance of the land which assures fertility for its people (Ibid.). In some aspects, the Standard of Ur repeats themes from the Uruk vase, known also as the Warka vase (McDonald 2013; “Warka vase” 2020). Even though the vase comes from centuries earlier than the Standard itself, it shows a parallel artistic composition and probably gives a similar message (McDonald 2013).
Treasures of the museums
As Sir. Charles Leonard Woolley’ archaeological expedition was a joint effort between the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the British Museum in London, the objects uncovered by the excavators were in great part shipped off to new homes in those two museums (McDonald 2013). In fact, a great deal of archaeology of that time and earlier sought to recover fabulous treasures and then remove them from their native lands to the museums of their excavators (Ibid.).
This is definitely something that does not happen nowadays (McDonald 2013). New moral standards, nationalism, pride and the better resources of art make such wholesale removal of what has been called the national patrimony no longer allowed (Ibid.). Moreover, archaeology as a discipline has changed throughout centuries (Ibid.). Most archaeologists do not seek to wrest the treasures from the ground to exhibit them in a museum far away as their trophies (Ibid.). Instead, they are intent on finding out more about the culture and the society that produced the excavated artifacts and with this objective it is possible to learn more (Ibid.). Objects that are excavated now usually stay in their countries in local museums or universities (Ibid.).
Lost national patrimony
As a matter of fact, the artifacts, which Woolley uncovered in his excavations in Ur were not only divided among the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the British Museum, but also were granted to the National Iraq Museum in Bagdad (Wakely 1999). Although some authors claim that only a small number of artifacts was left in Iraq (Ḏḥwty 2017), Neil McGregor, in The History of the World in 100 Objects (BBC Radio 4), says that “the Iraq Museum in Baghdad [actually] received the lion’s share of the Ur excavations” (Gerry 2010). Nevertheless, in 2003 some part of this unique treasure was looted and lost forever (Barker 2018). Exceptional artifacts from Woolley’s excavations in Ur, such as the bowl made of gold and lapis lazuli, have been stolen and never found (Ibid.). And although plundering museums and archaeological sites has been “regarded as one of the worst acts of cultural vandalism in modern times” (Ibid.), this crime has never stopped.
Unfortunately, since 2003, “much more of Iraq’s rich cultural history has been destroyed, damaged or stolen […]. Indeed the illegal trade in looted antiquities is growing” (Barker 2018). McGregor says that “the looting of antiquities from the Baghdad Museum during the recent war in Iraq was felt very profoundly by the Iraqis […]; from the moment of discovery, there was a strong connection between Iraqi national identity and the antiquities of Ur. [It was because] the discoveries at Ur [had] coincided with the early years of the modern state of Iraq, created after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. One of the focal points of that new state was the Iraq Museum in Baghdad […]. Mesopotamia’s past [has become] a key part of Iraq’s future. Archaeology and politics are set to remain closely connected as, tragically, are cities and warfare” (Gerry 2010).
Safe by all means
“The museum looting should have been a clarion call for the need for better protection of antiquities in conflict zones, both from combatants and local populations. Sadly, this has not been the case. There has been subsequent destruction of archaeological sites and museums in [Egypt], Syria and Libya, ISIS selling antiquities to finance weapons, and increases in thefts from both private and public collections and from archaeological sites […] The loss of these sites and artifacts is disastrous for humanity” (Barker 2018).
This is also why there are fierce debates weather artifacts taken to overseas museums during colonialism should be returned to their countries of origin, especially when they keep facing unceasing social unrest and wars (Jenkins, Rodet, Stefanidis, Thomas 2019). Actually, there are as many different opinions as scholars (Ibid.). The problem is even more complex; although some authorities definitely agree that archaeological artifacts should be left in the country, where they were unearthed, the overriding matter that counts for them is to keep them safe by all means (Ibid.).
Featured image: Standard of Ur (Peace side); British Museum; Room 56. Photo source: Neil MacGregor (2020). “Standard of Ur. A History of the World in 100 Objects. The First Cities and States (4000 – 2000 BC.) Episode 2 of 5”. In: BBC Radio 4.
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.
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