Two 4600 Year Old Skulls from Famous Excavations at Royal Tombs of Ur, Iraq Traveled to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania For CAT Scans

16 APRIL 2007, PHILADELPHIA, PA—Two ancient skulls, circa 2600 BCE, one bedecked with gold ornaments, one with a copper helmet, traveled from storage at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to the Radiology Department at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, for a state-of-the-art CAT scan procedure.

The CAT scans are providing new information to help archaeologists and physical anthropologists at the Museum understand more about the retainers and soldiers of Ur, and the complex mortuary proceedings of Ur, in Iraq, an important site of the ancient Sumerians at the height of their extraordinary civilization. The procedure is but one of a number of collaborative research efforts undertaken by Penn Museum with the generous and enthusiastic help of the Department of Radiology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, just across the street.

Penn Museum's famous excavations at the Royal Tombs of Ur, Iraq in the 1920s-30s yielded extraordinary material and opened the world's eyes to the wealth and sophistication of the ancient Sumerian civilization. In addition to unrivaled artistic and cultural materials of the Lady Pu-Abi, archaeologists uncovered a "Great Death Pit," so called because in it lay the bodies of 74 sacrificial victims, as well as other tombs with fewer but still significant numbers of victims, supposed royal retainers. Scholars have long been fascinated by the mass gravesite of retainers, and questions abound about who these retainers were, how they died, and what if anything was done to preserve them so well for so long.

Aubrey Baadsgaard, a Penn Anthropology Department graduate student doing her dissertation (under Dr. Richard Zettler) on dress and adornment of the Sumerians from the Royal Tombs of Ur. requested permission of Penn Museum to CAT scan the two crushed, ornamented skulls from this famous collection: one from the "Great Death Pit," and a second skull, with a crushed copper helmet, from a smaller death pit attached to the "King's Grave," and presumed to be one of six soldiers who stood at the entrance of the death pit. The CAT scans, critical to generate 3-D images of the skulls, also are a first step toward examining the ancient skulls to better understand the condition, and determine feasibility of further scientific testing.

"The scans provided us with some great new information," noted Aubrey Baadsgaard. "We wanted to know if there was enough skeletal material there to attempt, in the future, a reconstruction of these skulls, and the answer was yes. We also needed to see if other tests on the skulls, including ancient DNA and isotope studies, would be feasible, and the answer looks good. There are only six crushed skulls from the site of Ur in collections worldwide, and these are the only sacrificial victims from Ur ever CAT scanned and analyzed this way."

With her were Dr. Janet Monge, Acting Curator-in-Charge of Penn Museum’s Physical Anthropology collection, Dr. Tom Schoenemann, Consulting Curator and Research Associate, Physical Anthropology Section at Penn Museum, and Lynn Grant, Penn Museum Conservator.

"This has given us a great opportunity to explore the limits of CT technology as applied to the reconstruction of distorted and crushed specimens," noted Dr. Monge.

Dr. Schoenemann and Dr. Monge are collaborating on a long-term project, funded by the National Science Foundation, to CAT scan Penn Museum's ancient skull collection for use among researchers worldwide, and this project will be added to that growing database.

CAT scan technician Scott Steingall of the Department of Radiology at the University of Pennsylvania, headed by Dr. Nick Bryan, scanned the skulls.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, located at 3260 South Streets on the Penn campus in Philadelphia, is dedicated to the study and understanding of human history and diversity. Founded in 1887, the Museum has sent more than 400 archaeological and anthropological expeditions to all the inhabited continents of the world. With an active exhibition schedule and educational programming for children and adults, the Museum offers the public an opportunity to share in the ongoing discovery of humankind's collective heritage. For general information, visitors may call (215) 898-4000, or visit the Museum’s award-winning website at http://www.penn.museum.

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