shown within Near East
General view of the Royal Cemetery
at Ur, during excavations
el-Muqayyar, Dhi Qar Province, Iraq
N 46°06'22 E
period to Iron Age
Taylor, Leonard Woolley
The Royal Cemetery at Ur is an archaeological
site in modern-day Dhi Qar Governorate in southern Iraq. The initial
excavations at Ur took place between 1922 and 1934 under the direction
of Leonard Woolley in association with the British Museum and the University
of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia,
Many finds are now in museums, especially
the Iraq Museum, Bagdad and the British Museum.
helmet of Meskalamdug (replica), possible founder of the First Dynasty
of Ur, 26th century BC
The process was begun in 1922 by digging trial trenches, in order for
Woolley to get an idea of the layout of the ancient city. In one trench
where initially nothing was discovered, head archaeologist Leonard Woolley
decided to dig deeper. There, clay vases, limestone bowls, small bronze
objects and assorted beads were found. Woolley thought that there may
have been gold beads and, to entice the workers to turn them in when
found, Woolley offered a sum of money—this led to the discovery
of the gold beads after the workers repurchased them from the goldsmiths
they sold them to.
Dishonesty of the workers was an issue,
but not the only in the preliminary digs. The locals hired to help had
no previous experience in archaeology, leading Woolley to abandon what
they referred to as the "gold trench" for four years, until
the workers became more well versed in archaeological digs. In addition,
archaeology was still in the beginning stages as a field. As a result,
gold objects were identified by an expert who dated them to the "Late
Babylonian" (c. 700 BC), when in fact they dated back to the reign
of Sargon I (c. 2300 BC).
The cemetery at Ur included just over
2000 burials. Amongst these burials were sixteen tombs identified by
Woolley as "royal" tombs based on their size and structure,
variety and richness of grave goods as well as the existence of artifacts
associated with mass ritual.
The ruins of the ancient city of Ur can be found in the desert of southern
Iraq. The city remained abandoned after the Euphrates River changed
its course more than two millennia ago. Early archaeologists, however,
dug into the surface and recovered graves, some of which had royal names
inscribed on them. Woolley began his excavation in 1922 on behalf of
the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology
and Anthropology. However, the actual discovery of the cemetery and
its royal tombs was four years later after the excavation started. The
large cemetery was in operation for at least three centuries during
the second half of the third millennium BC. Most of the graves were
individual burials that had cut into one another. Male and female corpses
were found with their belongings that identified them as either rich
Funeral disposition in tomb PG 789, at the Royal Cemetery of
Ur, circa 2600 BCE (reconstitution)
Woolley initially unearthed 1850 graves but later identified 260 additional
ones. Nevertheless, sixteen were unique to him, because they stood out
from all the rest in terms of their wealth, the structure of their burial
grounds, and rituals. He thought that the stone-built chambers and the
immense value of riches belonged to the dead that came from royal lineage.
Such cadavers inside their respective stone chambers were the only ones
to have abundant provisions in order to meet their needs in the afterlife.
Having that said, the subordinates were not treated in the same manner
and had nothing of the aforementioned goods. They were treated in the
same manner as other provisions and supplies, because the funeral was
solely for the principal corpse. When the main body was buried, the
rest of the people would have been sacrificed in that person's honor
and buried thereafter.
When Woolley found the Great Death Pit
(PG 1237), it was in extremely poor condition. What remained of the
chamber were a few stones and some gold, lapis lazuli, and carnelian
beads in fine condition. The Great Death Pit was an open square-shaped
space, serving as the graveyard for the bodies of armed men that were
laid out inside along with other corpses thought to belong to women
or young girls. The introduction of massive death pits at Ur is usually
associated to Meskalamdug, one of the kings of Ur that was also known
as the paramount ruler of all the Sumerians. He started the practice
of such a massive entombment with the sacrifice of soldiers and an entire
choir of women to accompany him in the afterlife. It has also been suggested
that the Great Death Pit was the tomb of Mesannepada.
Puabi's Cylinder Seal
of a Bull's Head from Queen Puabi's tomb. (British Museum)
In contrast to the Great Death Pit, one of the royal tombs at Ur survived
practically in its entirety, which was most notably due to its treasures
left largely unscathed on the body of royal lineage. Such a body belonged
to Queen Puabi and was easy to identify due to her jewelry made out
of beads of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, carnelian, and agate. Nevertheless,
the biggest clues that denoted her title as queen was a cylinder seal
with her name on the inscription and her crown, which was made out of
layers of gold ornaments shaped in intricate floral patterns. Once more,
Woolley uncovered an earth ramp leading down to the death pit of the
well-preserved tomb, which was twelve by four meters approximately,
and found a menagerie of corpses that ranged from armed men to women
wearing headdresses with elaborate details. In his descent toward the
pit, he found traces of reed matting, and they covered the artifacts
and bodies in order to avoid contact with the soil that had filled the
royal grave. Two meters below the level of the pit laid a tomb chamber
built of stone that had no doorway in its walls, and its only accessible
entrance was through its roof. Once inside, four bodies rested inside
the tomb, but the most important one was evidently that of the queen.
The bodies at the Royal Cemetery underwent certain burial practices.
In the tombs, the primary inhumation is placed inside the tomb chamber
usually accompanied by attendants. More bodies or victims are buried
too often in separate chambers or, more commonly, in ‘death pits’,
an open, sunken court. The amount of sacrificed bodies in one tomb can
range from a small amount of six to between seventy and eighty bodies.
The attendants are usually lying in neat rows within the death pits
or chambers. It is not entirely known if the attendants died placed
in that manner or were positioned after death. The principal body was
always laid on a mat made of reeds which also lined the floor and walls
of the pit where the attendants are located. In some tombs the bodies
are arranged in very specific ways. Some tombs were found with male
skeletons with helmets and spears positioned in front of the entrance
as guards and then contained female attendants inside.
Grave of Meskalamdug (PG 755, marked B) at the Royal Cemetery
at Ur, next to royal tomb PG 779 (possibly belonging to Ur-Pabilsag,
"A") and royal tomb PG 777 (possibly the wife of Ur-Pabilsag,
It is not known for sure who the primary inhumations are but it is generally
assumed that they are royalty. The occupants are possibly related either
by blood or marriage. Additionally, there is little textual evidence
available to explain the tombs at the cemetery and the practices of
the people but it is thought that the burials of the royalty consisted
of multi-day ceremonies. Some of the bodies have evidence of heating
or smoking which could have been an attempt at preserving the bodies
to last through the ceremony. Additionally mercury has been found on
some skulls which could also indicate an attempt of preservation. Music,
wailing, and feasting took place in addition to the burial with the
possibility of the attendants joining in. In the first part of the ceremony
the body was laid in the tomb, along with the offerings, and then sealed
with brick and stone. In the next part of the ceremony the death pits
are filled with guards, attendants, musicians, and animals, such as
ox or donkeys.
Plan of the three chambers of grave PG 779, thought to belong
to Ur-Pabilsag. The Standard of Ur was located in "S"
How the attendants ended up buried with the royalty is somewhat unknown.
All of the bodies are arranged in an ordered fashion and appear peaceful.
The elaborate headdresses worn by women are undisturbed which lends
to the assumption they were lying or sitting down when they died. Woolley
thought initially that the attendants were human sacrifices and were
killed to show the kings power and put on a public show. Later he speculated
that the attendants voluntarily consumed poison to continue serving
their head in death. Each attendant was found with a small cup nearby
which they could drink the poison from. The poison could have been a
sedative with the cause of death being suffocation from having the chamber
sealed. Some research has found that some of the skulls had received
blunt force trauma indicating that, rather than voluntarily serving
their head in death, they were forcibly killed.
Sumerian headgear necklaces found in the tomb of Puabi, housed at the
cemetery at Ur contained more than 2000 burials alongside a corresponding
wealth of objects. Many items come from the handful of royal burials.
Many of these grave goods were likely imported from various surrounding
regions including Afghanistan, Egypt, and the Indus valley. Objects
of significance varied from cylinder seals, jewelry and metalwork, to
pottery, musical instruments, and more.
Cylinder seals :
Cylinder seals found amongst the grave goods in the cemetery at Ur were
often inscribed with the names of the deceased. Excavators retrieved
three cylinder seals near queen Puabi’s remains, one with her
name written in cuneiform.
Jewelry and metalwork :
The various female personages and attendants buried at the cemetery
of Ur were adorned with jewelry made from gold, silver, lapis lazuli
and carnelian including a variety of necklaces, earrings, headdresses,
and hair rings. The presence of Carnelian beads present amongst the
grave goods at the cemetery indicated trade with the Indus Valley. Hair
ornaments included hair combs with floral elements made of gold, lapis,
shell, and pink limestone. In addition, hair ribbons of gold and silver
and inlaid combs with rosettes were also found amongst the human remains
of the jewels contained some sort of botanical reference. Amongst them
are vegetal wreaths fashioned with gold leaves. Notably, Puabi’s
headdress consists of four botanical wreaths including rosettes or stars
The etched carnelian beads in this necklace from the Royal Tombs
of Ur are thought to have come from the Indus Valley civilization, in
an example of Indus-Mesopotamia relations
from child's grave, PG 1133
Other precious metals were found in the form of helmets, daggers, and
various vessels in copper, silver, and gold. A gold helmet, whose ownership
is attributed to Meskalamdug was found in a grave that Woolley believed
to be an elite, but not necessarily a king. The helmet was made from
a single piece of gold and fashioned to resemble a wig.
The presence of fully developed casting
practices is assumed from the discovery of another weapon made from
electrum. At the same time, another weapon, referred to as the “Daggar
of Ur,” was, according to Woolley, the first significant grave
good discovered at Ur. The sheath and blade are both made from gold
with a handle of lapis lazuli with gold decoration. Other examples of
metal work include a variety of golden goblets and vessels made with
handles of twisted wire. Some of these vessels included relief decoration
or patterning. Hammered work in various metals was also discovered.
This included a shield ornament containing an Assyrian style subject
of lions and men being trampled. Other objects included a silver fluted
bowl with engravings and a silver model of a sea faring vessel.
The pottery types at Ur included mostly jar forms and bowls with limited
variety in style. Conical bowls, as recorded by the excavators, fall
into two categorical types based on their rim diameters. Woolley identified
24 different pottery types at the Royal Cemetery based on the excavation
of 238 graves. In order to date the pottery and burials at Ur, some
scholars have looked to the pottery to compare to similar types from
other sites in Mesopotamia and then checked using cylinder seals.
Musical instruments :
Amongst the finds at Ur were the remains of highly decorated musical
instruments. Several lyres were discovered in the main pit associated
with four women. Most of these instruments were wooden with silver overlay
alongside other details. One lyre's sound box was made from silver with
blue and white mosaic detail and engraved shell with pictorial engravings
on the front created using a similar technique to niello work. This
particular lyre also included a silver cast cow's head and silver tuning
rods. Another lyre was shaped like a seafaring vessel supporting the
statue of a stag. Yet another lyre incorporated various materials including
wood, shell, lapis lazuli, red stone, silver and gold. The lyres found
at Ur often included the representation of animals including a cow,
stag, bearded bull, and a calf. Of particular note is the Bull-headed
lyre from PG 789, also referred to as the "King's Grave".
Woolley theorized that each animal might have corresponded to the tone
of the instrument itself.
in a Thicket :
Ram in a Thicket
The discovery of two goat statues in PG 1237 are just two examples of
polychrome sculpture at Ur. These objects, referred to as “rams
in the thicket” by Woolley, were made of wood and covered in gold,
silver, shell and lapis lazuli. The Ram in a Thicket uses gold for the
tree, legs, and face of the goat, silver for the belly and parts of
the base alongside pink and white mosaics. The back of the animal is
constructed using shell attached with bitumen. Other details such as
the eyes, horns, and beard are fashioned from lapis lazuli.
Standard of Ur :
The Standard of Ur
Discovered in PG 779 was a, as yet, unidentified object referred to
as the Standard of Ur. The Standard of Ur is a trapezoidal wooden box
incorporating lapis lazuli, shell and red limestone into the depiction
of various figures on its surface. Its function is debated, although
Woolley believed it to be a military standard, explaining this object's
current name. On each side of the standard, the pictorial elements are
considered part of a narrative sequence divided formally into 3 registers
with all figures on a common ground. The standard uses hierarchy of
scale to identify important figures in the compositions. Read from left
to right, bottom to top on one side of the standard, starting with the
lowest registers, there are men carrying various goods or leading animals
and fish towards the top register where larger seated figures take part
in a feast accompanied by musicians and attendants. The other side depicts
a more militaristic subject where men in horse-drawn chariots trample
over prostrate bodies and soldiers and prisoners process up towards
the top frieze where the central personage is designated by his large
scale, punctuating the border of the upper most frieze.
Present day :
New theories :
Analyses of the findings of Sir Leonard Woolley have led to new theories
concerning the royal tombs.
In 1998, Paul Zimmerman wrote a master's
thesis while at the University of Pennsylvania on the Royal Cemetery
at Ur. Graves PG789 and PG800, the king and queen's graves, according
to Woolley, were complete burials with attendants and worldly possessions.
Zimmerman analyzed the layout and formulated the hypothesis that the
two tombs were in fact three. Pit PG800 had two rooms that were on two
different levels, something that Zimmerman found inconsistent with grave
PG789 (the rooms were connected). In addition, Woolley claimed that
Puabi's grave was built after the king's in order to be close to him.
Zimmerman posits that, because Puabi's grave was 40 cm lower than that
of the king's, her grave was actually built first. With these in mind,
Zimmerman claimed that the death pit assigned to Queen Puabi was actually
a death pit from a different grave that is unknown.
of the royal tombs :
objects from tomb PG 580, replicas in British Museum
Looting of archaeological sites was a common occurrence brought under
control during the reign of Saddam Hussein, whose government declared
the act a capital offense. Due to the Iraq War, however, looting has
occurred more frequently. Entire archaeological sites have been destroyed,
with as many as tens of thousands of holes dug by looters.
The "Royal Cemetery At Ur",
however, has remained largely preserved. The site was located in the
boundaries of the Tallil Air Base, controlled by allied forces. It was
damaged during the first Gulf War, when the air base was bombed. As
a result, in 2008, a team of scholars, including Elizabeth Stone of
Stony Brook University, found that the walls of the royal tombs were
beginning to collapse. Deterioration was also recorded in the team's
findings, due to the occupation of the military.
Neglect, however, was cited as most
harmful to the site. Stone stated that for 30 years the "Iraq Department
of Antiquities" lacked the resources to properly inspect and conserve
the site, along with others that the team examined. As a result, sites
like the Royal Cemetery at Ur have begun to erode.
In May 2009, "Iraq's State Board
of Antiquities" regained control of the site, helping with the
conservation of the ancient site.
A vast number of individual graves, and a few royal graves have been
identified at the Royal Cemetery of Ur. The attribution of the royal
graves is generally tentative, but some efforts have been made to match
them with royal figures otherwise known through inscriptions or regnal
lists such as the Sumerian King List. Julian Reade has tentatively attributed
the main tombs to the following rulers :
area, with royal graves
PG 1236, a twin tomb in the Royal Cemetery at Ur, is the largest and
probably the earliest tomb structure at the cemetery, dated to circa
2600 BCE. It has been tentatively attributed to an early king of the
First Dynasty of Ur named A-Imdugud (ADIM.DUGUDMUŠEN, named after
God Imdugud, also read Aja-Anzu), whose inscribed seal was found in
Several artefacts are known from tomb
PG 1236. Two inscribed seals were found, one is a banquet scene with
an inscription Gan-Ekiga(k), and another with the depiction of a nude
hero fighting lions and a war scene reminiscent of the Standard of Ur,
with the name Aja-Anzu, also read A-Imdugud. This seals is very similar
to the seal of Mesannepada. Gold leaves with embossed designs, as well
as a reconstituted gold scepter, have also been found in the tomb, as
well as a royal scepter.
Scepter, tomb PG 1236
Plan of tomb PG 1236, with three chambers, thought to belong to A-Imdugud.
Royal Cemetery of Ur
PG 1236, at the Royal Cemetery of Ur. Doorway, and domed tomb chambers
seen from above
from PG 1236 with inscription "Aja-Anzu", also read "A-Imdugud".
Upper register: a nude hero fighting lions. Lower register: chariotter
trampling an enemy, and foot soldiers escorting a naked prisoner
scene with an inscription Gan-Ekiga(k), PG 1236
foil, tomb PG 1236
embossed on the gold foil, tomb PG 1236, thought to belong to A-Imdugud,
Royal Cemetery of Ur
779 is an early monumental grave, which has been associated with king
Ur-Pabilsag (ur-dpa-bil2-sag) an early ruler of the First Dynasty of
Ur in the 26th century BCE. He does not appear in the Sumerian King
List, but is known from an inscription fragment found in Ur, bearing
the title "Ur-Pabilsag, king of Ur". It has been suggested
that his tomb was grave PG 779. He may have died around 2550 BCE.
tomb of Ur-Pabilsag (Grave PG 779) is generally considered as the second
oldest at the site, and probably contemporary with grave PG 777, thought
to be the tomb of his queen. Meskalamdug (grave PG 755, or possibly
PG 789) was his son.
artefacts are known from tomb PG 779 at the Royal Cemetery at Ur, such
as the famous Standard of Ur, and decorated shell plaques.
Tomb of Ur-Pabilsag in the center (PG 779, marked "A"),
with the tomb of Meskalamdug on the left (PG 755, marked "B"),
next to the royal tomb of the queen of Ur-Pabilsag (PG 777, marked "C")
of grave PG 779. The Standard of Ur was located in "S"
PG 779, the tomb of Ur-Pabilsag
Standard of Ur, from tomb PG 779
inlay from tomb PG 779
at war, with soldiers, from the Standard of Ur
755: "Prince Meskalamdug" :
PG 755 is a small individual grave without attendants, generally attributed
to king Meskalamdug (MES-KALAM-DUG "hero of the good land").
Alternatively, since the tomb lacks of royal characteristics, it has
been suggested that it may belong to a prince, for example the son of
tomb contained numerous gold artifacts including a golden helmet with
an inscription of the king's name. By observing the contents of this
royal grave, it is made clear that this ancient civilization was quite
wealthy. Meskalamdug was probably the father of king Mesannepada of
Ur, who appears in the king list and in many other inscriptions.
Grave of Meskalamdug (PG 755, "A")
of Meskalamdug (PG 755, marked "B" on the left), next to royal
tomb of Ur-Pabilsag (PG 779, marked "A" in the center) and
tomb of Ur-Pabilsag's queen on the right (PG 777, "C")
gold dagger and a dagger with a gold-plated handle, grave PG 755, Ur
vases and helmet from the grave of Meskalamdug, grave PG 755
bowls found in the tomb of Meskalamdug (grave PG 755), with vertical
inscription of his name, "Meskalamdug"
bowl from the grave of Meskalamdug (PG 755, Ur)
monkey of Meskalamdug (grave PG 755 at Ur)
ewer and copper paten from the tomb of Meskalamdug
PG 1054: "Queen of Meskalamdug" :
This grave exhibits many characteristics of a royal burial. It is thought
to belong to Nibanda, Queen of Meskalamdug.
of King Meskalamdug
PG 789: "the King's grave" :
PG 789 appears in "E", just behind Tomb PG 755
According to Julian Reade tomb PG 755 was the tomb of a "Prince
Meskalamdug", but the actual tomb of King Meskalamdug, known from
seal U 11751, is more likely to be royal tomb PG 789. This tomb has
been called "the King's grave", where the remains of numerous
royal attendants and many beautiful objects were recovered, and is located
right next to the tomb of Queen Puabi, thought to be the second wife
of King Meskalamdug.
Funeral disposition in the great death pit, PG 789. The King's tomb
would be the dome in the back (reconstitution)
of tomb PG 789
head in a lyre
lyre recovered from the royal cemetery of Ur Iraq 2550 - 2450 BCE
plate on lyre, with anthropomorphic animals, PG 789
of animals motif in a panel of the soundboard of the Ur harp
from PG 789
from tomb PG 789
model of a boat, tomb PG 789, 2600-2500 BCE
PG 800: "Queen Puabi" :
This is the tomb of Queen Puabi, located next to tomb PG 789. She is
thought to be the second wife of Meskalamdug.
Tomb PG 800
seal of Queen Puabi, found in her tomb. Inscription Pu-A-Bi-Nin "Queen
Sumerian headgear necklaces found in the tomb of Puabi, housed at the
Lyre, one of the Lyres of Ur, Ur Royal Cemetery
with two standing goats, Ur, Tomb PG 800
1237: "the Great Death Pit" :
According to Julian Reade, tomb PG 1237, nicknamed "the Death-Pit",
may possibly be attributed to king Mesannepada.
Disposition of royal attendants in tomb PG 1237
in a Thicket in PG 1237
lyre, PG 1237
golden bull's head from the lyre, PG 1237
head with jewellery, preserved as excavated, British Museum
PG 580 :
tomb of A'anepada, king, son of Mesannepada.
Gold items PG 580
Alloy Chisel, Harpoons, Lance and Spear Heads
Ur Queen's Lyre from Wooley's published record
decorated with golden leaves; 2600 - 2400 BC; gold, lapis lazuli and
carnelian; length: 38.5 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art
with a libation scene, found in loose ground around the graves. 2550
- 2250 BCE, Royal Cemetery at Ur
tomb as restored today