Talk about ancient. One of the world”s greatest archeological discoveries, the Sumerian tombs at Ur (modern Iraq), contains nearly 200 luxury objects that date back 4,500 years. Sumer is considered by many to be the cradle of civilization. The Sumerians were also the first people to create a written language and trading system.
Still, it”s hard to imagine people existed then, for how can one possibly relate to such a radically different lifestyle? A bunch of old stuff, perhaps at first glance, is just a collection of irrelevant artifacts. It all seems unrelated to our lives today, but, according to Henry David Thoreau, “The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit.”
The excavation began in the late 1920s and “30s by the famous British archeologist Sir Leonard Woolley. Woolley, his wife, and one other assistant led the excavation, which lasted 30 years. Conditions were often rough, as they often had to deal with sandstorms and heavy rain, and by the time they were through, Woolley and his crew had worked through 17,000 yards of soil. Through the British and University of Pennsylvania museums, Woolley and his team found over 1,500 burials, some in tact. 16 of these were royal tombs and they all contained remains of the ancient Mesopotamian rulers of Ur. These included jewelry, instruments, game boards, cosmetic containers, and weapons, many of which were adorned with gold, silver, lapis lazuli (an azure blue semi-precious stone), turquoise, and carnelian (an orange red stone).
About one third of the items come from Queen Puabi”s tomb. Puabi was buried with 65 female attendants and 5 male retainers. Known as the “Great Death Pit,” her servants most likely willingly accompanied her into the afterlife as a show of honor and respect. However, it is speculated that Puabi was instead Inanna, the goddess of fertility and war. Nevertheless, she was adorned with a magnificent headdress and elaborate jewelry that revealed the importance of the Sumerian” burial rituals. Puabi”s fascinating necklace included a rare blue stone that was brought to Ur from North Afghanistan, and her headdress was made chiefly of gold.
Among the other artifacts found at Ur were various lyres and harps, varying in size from one small enough to hold in a hand to one requiring two people. Music was a huge part of the funeral ceremony and many of these instruments were also adorned with fine copper, lapis lazuli, and gold. The “Great Lyre” from the King”s grave has an intricate goat figure at its base, which is reared and nibbling at the golden leaves of a small tree. This depiction may be a representation of the link between the plant and animal worlds. Woolley referred to the figure as “Ram Caught in a Thicket,” after the biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac, where Abraham kills a trapped ram instead of Isaac for a sacrificial offering.
Woolley says that the only way to get in the minds of dead and gone men is to look at dead and gone things. Perhaps he is right. Archeology involves much more than finding old stuff. Looking at an object”s connection with its environment and its proximity to other objects may tell much more than one would expect. In fact, Woolley says that archeology uses every area to excavate a work, meaning sociologists, doctors, teachers, and engineers alike can contribute to and learn from such findings.