Woolley, who had already done extensive archaeological work in
Italy, Nubia and Carchemish, was chosen to lead a joint
team of archaeologists from the British Museum
and the Pennsylvania Museum to explore the environs
around the great ziggurat at Ur. Woolley's greatest discovery
at Ur was the so-called 'Royal Cemetery', which he began to
excavate in 1926. Work on the site would continue for the
next twelve years (no further excavations have been done at the
site since then). He would later be knighted for his work in the
field of archaeology.
For further reading see Treasures from the Royal Tombs of
Ur by Richard Zettler, et al; which
is the definitive text on the subject.
15 of the16 Tombs of Ur that Woolley considered to be
"royal". PG 755 is not shown since it is partially buried
beneath PG 779.
The cemetary was originally dug outside
the walls of the city of Ur, and were built over by the
walls of Nebuchadnezzar's larger city about 2,000
years later. Some 1,840 burials were found,
dating to between 2600 BC and 2000 BC. They ranged from
simple burials (with a body rolled in a mat) to elaborate
burials in domed tombs reached by descending ramps. Sixteen of the
early burials Woolley called 'Royal Graves' because of the rich
grave-goods, the presence of burial chambers, and the bodies of the
attendants who had apparently been sacrificed.
The Great Death Pit: PG1237, with its 74 attendants,
was the most spectacular of Ur’s royal tombs.
Woolley called any burial without a tomb chamber a "death
pit”. He named PG1237 “The Great Death Pit"
because of the many bodies that were found within it.
"PG" means private grave. Enlarge.
PG1237 included 6 men and 68
women. The men, near the tomb’s entrance, had weapons so they
could guard the tomb against grave-robbers. Most of the women
were in four rows across the northwest corner of the death
pit. The women were dressed in scarlet. They wore
ornamental headdresses and were adorned with jewelry of silver
and gold, lapis lazuli and carnelian. Six women
lay near two lyres and a harp, near the southeast wall.
Almost all of the women had cups or shells containing
cosmetic pigments. Body 61, in the upper right corner,
was more elaborately attired than the others and
she held a silver tumbler next to her mouth. Half of
the women (but none of the men) had cups or jars, as if at a
One of the women was found still clucthing a
coiled ribbon for her headband, as if she had
been late for the ceremonies and was too hurried (or
frightened) to put it on.
Perhaps the attendants voluntarily took poison and were buried
while unconscious or dead. The neat arrangement of
bodies convinced Woolley the attendants in the tombs had not been
killed, but had willingly gone to their deaths. He
suggested that in so doing they were assured
"a less nebulous and miserable existence” than ordinary
men and women. The soldiers had weapons of gold and silver
and the insignia of their rank. The women had golden
headdresses and were heavily bejeweled. In life they would
have looked like royalty, but the soldiers were commoners and
the women were servants. In sacrificing themselves, they
were hoping for a better life for all eternity.
was recently done at the UPenn Museum on the skulls of a woman and a
soldier. Both skulls show signs of premortum fractures
that were caused by a blunt instrument. This was deemed
to be the cause of death, not poisoning. The two theories, death by
poison and death by blunt force trauma, are not
incompatible. It suggests that the participants whose
dosage of poison had not proved to be fatal were
given a coup de grâce to spare them
prolonged suffering and to insure they wouldn't be buried
while still alive and conscious.
possibility is the attendants drank a strong sedative, rather than
poison, and then were clubbed to death after they were
unconscious. This, however, seems to be a needlessly
crude and messy alternative, and not befitting the dignity
of the occasion. It would also mean the injury would be
evident on all of the skulls. It remains for further
scienitific testing to prove the exact manner of death for
the majority of the participants.
What's notable about this
burial is that it lacks the body of its principal occupant,
such as the body of a king or a
queen. It has recently been suggested that Body 61 is actually
a queen, like Queen Pu-abi (described below) because she is
more elaborately attired than the others. This would seem
unlikely: She wasn't buried with her cylinder seals, like
Queen Pu-abi; she doesn't have her own personal possessions,
and she doesn't lie on a funeral bier in her own
burial chamber. Her body lies in the jumble of other bodies,
with nothing except her better jewelry to show that she
has a greater status than the others. By the same token, she could
just as easily be a favored concubine.
of the drawing are best seen with enlargement. In the picture, you can see two
bull‑headed lyres and a "boat lyre", the two "rams in the thicket"
(pictured below), Body 61, the headdresses worn by the
women, and the small cups that they are holding.
The Great Lyre, found in the King's Grave
The King's Grave:
Burial at the Royal Tombs of Ur: The attendants
were arranged as shown, then they were given poison to
drink. The oxen were also killed. The structure in the background is
the domed burial chamber. The female attendants, with their
elaborate headdresses, are lined up before it. The men on the
left are the soldiers who will guard the tomb for all
When the picture is enlarged, one can see many of the artifacts
displayed on these pages. Included are: the weapons of
the soldiers, the ringed reign posts between the oxen, and the
two bull-headed lyres.
Available from All-Posters is an
interesting illustration by the artist (Amédée Forestier) which
was never published, showing the same scene moments before it
was covered in soil. Also see a painting of the burial.
The floor plan of The King's Grave (PG 789). As can
be seen in the drawing, the burial chamber had
been plundered in antiquity, but the death pit
was completely undistrubed. The silver boat model found
beside the door of the burial chamber is one of the few items that
wasn't taken. It can be seen in the Miscellaneous
The Great Lyre is seen leaning against the wall
with the row of the female attendants. Another
large lyre, now in the British Museum, leans against the
Although designed for younger audiences, Mesopotamia.co, by the British Museum,
has an interesting feature that allows you to drag the cursor
across floor plans of the tombs to find some of the
artifacts in their original
The Standard of Ur:
Perhaps the most iconic artifact from the Royal Tombs is the
Standard of Ur. It was found in one of the largest
gravesites (PG 779) next to the body of a soldier. Leonard
Woolley called it a "standard" because he thought it was
carried aloft on a pole during processions of the king.
A more recent theory is that it's a sound box for a
musical instrument. Another theory is that the standard is
a "cash box" used to store funds for warfare or
civic and religious projects
(for its true purpose, see The "Standard" of Ur?). The standard is made of
shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli overlaid on wood.
The dark lines that add detail to the shell figures were made
with the application of a hot iron. The Standard of
Ur is 21.59 cm high and 49.53 cm long (8.5 x 19.6
inches). The front panel is called "War". The back panel is called
War: In the top row, the king (center) stands
with his troops and chariot while prisoners are
paraded before him. The middle row
depicts Sumerian soldiers on the attack. There is a brief
battle and the enemy runs away. The last row depicts
an attack of Sumerian war chariots, with the bodies of the
enemy being trampled beneath the horses'
Peace: The king (top row, third from the
left) drinks and celebrates his victory while listening
to the music of a bull-headed lyre (see below).
The bottom rows show his subjects in a
ceremonial victory procession.
The details of the
standard show up much better with enlargement. Enlarge:
A Sumerian soldier with a war chariot: He carries a
battleaxe, and his leather plated armor is draped over his
shoulder. The horses are caparisoned with the same kind of leather
Sumerian soldiers on the attack: They wear cloaks
and helmets and they carry spears. See a high-resolution photograph of the soldiers.
War chariot on the move. It is equipped with
javelins and a mace. It carries two soldiers;
one to drive the chariot and one to throw the
spears. Click on any of the chariot images
to see high resolution photographs of them. See
a photographic reconstruction of the chariot.
The reconstruction of the chariot scenes is descibed in Sumerian War Chariots.
War chariot in action. An enemy soldier is trampled
beneath the horses's hooves while a Sumerian soldier prepares to
finish him off with a spear. I reconstructed this chariot scene
(and the one below) to compensate for the damage
done to the figures. See the chariot in its original condition.
Sumerian war chariots on the attack
The details of the war side (along
with a new interpretation of them) are described on a
separate page. See "The Standard of Ur:
After victory comes peace:
The king's audience. After his victory in
battle, the king has a drink with his cronies
(generals and noblemen) while being attended by two
Music for the victory celebration is provided by a man
playing a bull-headed lyre,
accompanied by a singer.
The king's subjects are in a religious procession,
bringing forth the abundance of the Land,
sheep, bulls, goats, etc., in thanksgiving to the god of
victory and their king. They are led by a
man with his hands folded in prayer (top right). The
bulls are led by ropes threaded through their nose rings.
The lines dangling at their sides are not ropes, but ribbons, or
perhaps the hems of a kind of decorative apron.
The bulls (and the goat) are "garlanded for sacrifice",
which will be performed during the opening
ceremonies. The horses shown in the scene below
wear the same apron. The other animals will be eaten
during the victory feast. The man
second from the right (bottom
row) carries some freshly caught fish.
The procession continues with scenes of the defeated
enemy, distinguishable by their
"angled-skirts", carrying tribute in bags and in backpacks to
the victorious Sumerian king.
Notice how the king is drawn larger than the others to indicate
his greater importance. The noblemen are drawn the
second-largest, while the commoners (the servants and musicians)
are drawn the smallest to reflect their lowly status (even
while standing they are no taller than
the seated noblemen). This artistic convention was
used throughout the ancient world. The
servant on the right has his left hand tucked inside
his right armpit, which is the ritualized
gesture of obedience. The king holds something in his
left hand, probably a royal scepter:
The king's royal sceptre. This sceptre was found in
the largest of the royal tombs (PG 779). The end caps
are mushroom-shaped shells, inlaid with red and blue
rosettes. There are five bands of thin gold foil that have
designs in bas-relief, as if they were cylinder seals, but they
are no longer recognizable. The gold bands are separated with
rings of lapis lazuli. The other bands are mosaics of
shell and lapis lazuli triangles, separated by rings of shell and
red limestone. It is 41.5 centimeters in length (16.33
inches). PG 779 is the same tomb where the Standard of Ur
The Lion of Ur: Made of silver,
it was probably used as a finial for the arm of
a chair. His eyes are made of shell and lapis lazuli.
The Ram in the Thicket: Two of these
sculptures were found by Leonard Woolley in the
"Great Death Pit". He named it "The Ram in a
Thicket". It's an allusion to the biblical story of
Abraham, when God offered a ram "caught in a thicket" as a
substitution for Abraham's intended sacrifice of his son,
Isaac. It depicts a ram (or, more accurately, a goat) rearing
up on his hind legs to eat the leaves on the
high branches of a tree (this is also depicted on the
shell plaque pictured below). The branches are tipped with
buds and eight-pointed rosettes. The statue is made of gold
leaf, copper, shell, and lapis lazuli; and it's supported on a
small rectangular base decorated with a mosaic of shell, red
limestone and lapis lazuli. The tube rising from the
goat's shoulders was likely used to hold a small
tray or offering bowl. This kind of statue was
sometimes used to support a table, as can be seen on a cylinder seal drawing
by S. Beaulieu. The statue is 45.7 centimeters high
Click here to see a massive enlargement of The
Ram in the Thicket.
To get some idea of the overall scale of
The Ram in the Thicket, and of the Standard of Ur, click here.
The Tomb of Queen Pu-abi:
Queen Pu-abi: Most of the spectacular treasures from
The Royal Tombs of Ur came from her burial chamber,
which hadn't already been looted by grave robbers. Queen
Pu-abi was less than five feet tall, and she was about 40
years old when she died. Her headdress is
supported by a large wig. The headdress was
reconstructed by Leonard Woolley's wife,
Katherine. The face was modeled on the features of a local
woman living near where the tombs were discovered.
not known for certain if she was actually a queen. She
is referred to as nin, which means
"lady" or "queen". It is unlikely that she was a queen in
the modern sense of the word, meaning "a ruler", because there
aren't any other known examples of the Sumerians being
ruled by a woman, though its possible that she was the
wife of a ruling monarch, and thus a queen in that
regard. There's some speculation that she may have been a high
priestess, though there's no definitive proof of this, except
for the fact that nin can also be eresh, meaning
"priestess". She may have been all of these
things: She was certainly a Lady, a titled noblewoman; she
was probably the wife of a king; and she was possibly a high
priestess, since only women of the high nobility were
appointed to such an exalted position. What's known for certain is
that she was clearly a woman of high status, given
the wealth and abundance of her grave goods,
and the number of men and women who were sacrificed to
serve her in the afterlife.
The funeral procession of Queen Pu-abi: Artist: H.
The floor plan for Queen
Pu-abi's tomb (designated as PG
800): The tomb chamber containing Pu-abi’s bier, body,
and three attendants, is seen at the top of the drawing. The
death pit, with a wooden chest, chariot, oxen, and more
attendants, is shown at the bottom. Puabi's tomb didn't have a
door, which means her body was placed there before the roof was
constructed and the tomb was sealed. The details of the tomb
are best seen when the picture is enlarged.
Queen Pu-abi lay on a
wooden bier, a gold cup near her head. She wore an elaborate
headdress, and the upper part of her body was entirely
hidden by multi-colored beads. She was surrounded with her
personal possessions, the richest found in any Sumerian tomb.
Buried with her were the bodies of 26 attendants, men
and women, and a team of oxen
harnessed to a decorated processional chariot.
The decorated ceremonial "chariot" (sledge) found in Queen
Pu-abi's tomb. Atop the central shaft is the rein rings used to separate the reins
between the two oxen. See the front of the sledge.
A female attendant in situ, as she was found more
than 4,500 years after she was buried. This image is sometimes
ascribed to be Queen Pu-abi herself, but the jewelry doesn't
match, as can be seen in the Jewelry
section. This woman was found in the Great Death Pit.
See a photograph of Pu-abi's gravesite.
cylinder seals: She was found with three cylinder seals which
were pinned to her cloak. The cylinder seals are made
of lapis lazuli.
The first seal impression depicts a
banquet, with the royals feasting and drinking while being
attended by servants (notice how the servants are drawn
smaller than the royal personages). The table is piled high
with food and drink. Pu-abi's name is in the lefthand corner. The
sign on the far left is nin/eresh, meaning "lady" or
"queen". See a different, enlarged image of the seal.
The second seal
impression also shows a royal banquet. The middle of of the top
panel shows a man and a woman (Pu-abi
herself?) drinking from a vat of beer using long straws. The
straws were used to avoid the foul-tasting foam on top
of Sumerian beer and the dregs on the bottom. Other people
are shown feasting and drinking wine. Enlarge.
The third seal impression shows
another banquet scene (starting to notice a pattern here?)
this time all female. On the right of the lower register can be
seen a woman playing a harp. Enlarge.
Queen Pu-abi's attendants, who were sacrificed to serve
her in the afterlife:
An attendant of Queen Pu-abi. All of the women wore
elaborate headdresses and jewelry.
view of the same attendant.
Another attendant, as she was found 4,000 years
Detail of a headdress. See a closeup of the jewelry. (I personally wish this type of
headwear never went out of style.)
Headdress and jewelry.
To wile away the time in the afterlife . . .
Pu-abi was provided with all the earthly pleasures:
Several lyres, and the women who played them, were found
in her tomb.
The Royal Game of Ur:
The Royal Game of Ur: The board is made
of wood, with inlays of shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli.
It has twenty squares. The inside of the board is hollow, and is
used for the storage of the game pieces. The game is
considered to be a predecessor to the modern game
of backgammon. Many examples of this game have been found
throughout the ancient Near East. It’s a two-player game.
At the beginning of the game, a player’s pieces were allowed
onto the board only with specific throws of the dice. The
players then competed to race their pieces across the board.
Five of the squares have flower rosettes. The rosette squares were
considered to be “lucky”. The rosette motif occurs
frequently in Sumerian art, and is thought to have some kind of
symbolic significance. It occurs on the royal sceptre seen above,
and on many of the items seen in the Vessels and Jewelry
sections. This game was found in the tomb of Queen Pu-abi.
A similar version of the game was found in PG 789, the King's
Grave, and is pictured in the Miscellaneous
Game dice. The dice for the Royal Game of Ur wasn't
found, but this is perhaps the kind of dice that was used.
Food and drink were also provided:
Pu-abi's gold cup. The handle is actually a hollow spout.
It was used like a straw to avoid the unsavory foam on top
of the beer and the dregs on the bottom.
Golden bowl. This bowl lay near the body of Queen
Pu-abi. Inside it was found a silver straw, meaning this bowl
was also used for drinking beer.