University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
Iraq's Ancient Past Signature Gallery at the Penn Museum

Iraq's Ancient Past closed on April 8, 2017. The new Middle East Galleries are now open.

Iraq's Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur's Royal Cemetery tells the story of the discovery and excavation of the Royal Cemetery at Ur (2600-2500 BCE) in modern-day Iraq by Sir Leonard Woolley. The gallery showcases a famous gold and lapis lazuli bullheaded lyre, the "Ram in the Thicket" sculpture, and Lady Puabi's elaborate headdress and jewelry. This exhibition looks to the present and future as well, exploring the ongoing story of scientific inquiry and discovery made possible by the excavations, and the pressing issues around the preservation of Iraq's cultural heritage today.

In Iraq’s Ancient Past you will discover:

Sir Leonard Woolley’s process of excavation.

A musical artifact depicting early Mesopotamian funerary rituals.

The spectacular headdress of an ancient Queen.

Objects excavated from Ur’s Royal Tombs.

Learn More

In the 1920's, the Royal Cemetery of Ur excavations became one of the great technical achievements of Middle Eastern archaeology and now represents one of the most spectacular discoveries in ancient Mesopotamia. Deep within the site lay the tombs of the mid-3rd millennium BCE kings and queens of the city of Ur, famed in the Bible as the home of Biblical patriarch, Abraham. The tombs date to the period known as Early Dynastic IIIA (2600-2500 BCE), a high point in the history of Sumerian culture.

The renowned excavator of the cemetery was British archaeologist C. Leonard (later Sir Leonard) Woolley. In all, Woolley uncovered some 1800 burials. He classified 16 as royal based on their distinctive form, their wealth, and the fact that they contained the burials of household servants, male and female, along with clearly high-ranking personages.

The tomb of a royal woman named Puabi was intact and its contents typical of the wealth found throughout the cemetery. Like the other royal tombs, it consisted of a chamber set at the bottom of a deep pit accessed by a ramp. (Woolley dramatically dubbed these "death pits" because of the human "victims" they contained.) The vaulted chamber, made of limestone rubble, lay at the northeast side of the pit. It measured about 9 feet by 14 feet, with the ceiling 5 feet above the floor Puabi's body--identified by an inscribed cylinder seal found at her breast--lay on a wooden bier in the chamber.

She wore an elaborate headdress consisting of gold leaves, gold ribbons, strands of lapis lazuli and carnelian beads and a tall comb, along with chokers, necklaces, and large lunate-shaped earrings. Her upper body was covered by strands of beads made of precious metals and semiprecious stones that stretched from her shoulders to her belt. Ten rings decorated her fingers. A diadem or fillet made up of thousands of small lapis lazuli beads with gold pendants depicting plants and animals was apparently on a table near her head. Two attendants were in the chamber with Puabi, one crouched near her head, the other at her feet. Various metal, stone and pottery vessels lay around the walls of the chamber.

While Puabi's tomb was intact, most of the other royal tombs were not. Some of the tomb chambers had been destroyed by the intensive digging of later graves in the proximity of the royal tombs, leaving only the pits. Grave robbers looted other tombs in antiquity.

Much surrounding the Royal Cemetery remains puzzling, not least of which is the extraordinary burial of retainers with the royal figures. Nevertheless, the artifacts from the tombs not only provide us with a glimpse of Sumerian society and material culture of the time, but they include some of the most spectacular examples of Sumerian composite art in a range of precious and semiprecious materials as well.

As provided by Iraq's first Antiquities Law, established in 1922, the artifacts were divided between the excavators and the host country. They are currently housed in the British Museum, the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and the Iraq Museum (Baghdad).

Iraq's Ancient Past features the unique artifacts from Puabi's tomb, which constitute the core of the Museum's holdings from the excavations. It includes her personal jewelry, as well as finds from the tomb chamber and burial pits. Additionally, the exhibit includes some of the more striking and important artifacts from other tombs such as a large wooden lyre with a gold and lapis lazuli bull's head; a silver-covered, boat-shaped lyre with a statuette of a rampant stag; and the world-renowned "Ram-in-the-Thicket," a statuette of a goat standing and nibbling the leaves of a tree or bush.

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Iraq's Ancient Past

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