Lost Collections of the Ancient World

Photo Credit: Richard Lilly 

The City of Ur

The Mesopotamian city of Ur (c.5500-400 B.C.E.) is located on the banks of the Euphrates river in modern day southern Iraq; in the region historically known as Sumer. Ur was the home to many distinct cultures in its long history. Beginning with the earliest organized villages during the al-Ubaid Period (c.5500-4000 B.C.E.) and ending during the Persian Period (c. 500 B.C.E.). 

The City of Ur was an important political and economical centre and was at its height in the 3rd millenium B.C.E.

The Arabic name for Ur is Tell al-Muqayyar, which means "mound of pitch", referencing the baked bricks set in bitumen mortar used in building construction.

The Ziggurat

The Ziggurat at Ur was built during the 3rd millenium B.C.E. by King Ur-Nammu and finished by his son, King Shulgi. Ziggurats were built as stepped temples for the city's main god; in Ur the ziggurat was dedicated to Ur-Namma.

Leonard Woolley completed some reconstruction of the top layers during his excavations in the 1920's and more extensive reconstruction to the base facade and monumental stairway was authorized by Saddam Hussein in the 1980's.

Click here to learn more about the Ziggurat of Ur.

Photo Credit: Richard Lilly

The Royal Cemetery

Leonard Woolley excavated at a speed and scale very different from today and uncovered a significant portion of the city. The early years of excavation focused on the city temple or Ziggurat and later attention was switched to the Royal Cemetery (c.2600-2100 B.C.E.), which contained more than 1800 tombs. Woolley identified 16 of these as royal burials. Many of the well known artefacts from Woolley's excavations, such as the Queen's lyre and the Ram in the Thicket, were found in what is known as the Royal Cemetery.

One Royal Burial, identified as that of Queen Puabi, also contained the remains of court attendants who were sacrificed as part of the burial ceremony. Audiences worldwide were following Woolley's excavations closely and were shocked by these human sacrifices. Woolley had theorized that these attendants were sacrificed by drinking poison. However, recent studies by the University of Pennsylvania have found evidence that they were struck in the head using ceremonial hand axes.

The site of Ur has provided much of what we know today about elite Mesopotamian funerary practices.

Click here to watch an informative video about the Royal Tombs of Ur.

Reijibeh X

Laying within a narrow depression, the marshy site of Reijibeh X is a mound approximately 100m in diameter. The site was identified and surveyed by Leonard Woolley and was located 20km west of Ur.

Woolley described the site as, "littered with pottery dating to the  Ubaid period, flint flakes and tools and Ubaid ruins."

Woolley believed the site dates to an early Ur-'Ubaid period (c.6500-3800 B.C.E.)

Stone celt from Reijiebeh X (c. 7000 B.C.E.)

Click here to continue the story...

Cockle-Shells from the Cemetery Period 

(c. 2200 BCE Ur)

From: London Free Press, 

Wednesday February 15, 1933

Ur Antiquities Arrive in City

"Fifteen beautifully shaped cockle shells, with stains of green, dull red, brown or a plain white finish, prove that the women of the days of the Patriarchs were as feminine as the women of today who seek to beautify their natural gifts. For these cockle shells were the vanity cases of the women of Ur; they contained the cosmetics for the women who laughed and lived and loved when Babylon was a dream."

Fun fact:

The Archaeological site of Ur played a unique role in the life of famed mystery writer Dame Agatha Christie (1890-1976). During a visit to the site in 1928 she met her second husband archaeologist Max Mallowan and as a result spent much of the following years living and working along side him on archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria.

Agatha Christie was greatly inspired by her experiences with archaeology in the Middle East and set many of her books on the sites and places she loved, including Murder in Mesopotamia,set during a fictionalized version of Leonard Woolley's excavations at Ur.

"I fell in love with Ur, with its beauty in the evening, the ziggurat standing up, faintly shadowed, and that wide sea of sand with its lovely pale colours of apricot, rose, blue and mauve changing every minute"

                               -Agatha Christie

Click here to watch a video entitled, "How Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia help shape 1920's and 30's Culture".

Above: Queen Puabi's headdress, found by Woolley at Royal Cemetery. (Painting by Brenna Ardiel)

Below: Ram in thicket statue also found at Royal Cemetery. (Painting by: Maya Hirschman)

 Find a printable colouring sheet on our activities page


As the exhibit date loomed nearer, we took a closer look at the flint tools included in our Ur collection. We thought they looked quite a bit like Acheulean hand axes, which would have made them 200 000+ years old. After consulting experts at the Royal Ontario Museum and looking at Leonard Woolley's excavation report, it is clear that they are from Reijibeh X, a site 20km west of Ur. According to Woolley, they were found scattered with 'Ubaid pottery sherds and date to c.7000 B.C.E.

However, so little research has been done on this site and its finds, a closer look wouldn't hurt.

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