The royal tombs of Ur revealed Mesopotamia's golden splendor

Leonard Woolley’s excavation of Ur yielded an archaeologist’s dream: a series of intact burials from one of the world's most important ancient cities.

Dating from 2600-2300 B.C., a decorative bull's head of gold and lapis lazuli adorns a lyre discovered in the tomb of Queen Puabi in Ur.
Photograph courtesy of Penn Museum

The 1920s marked a golden age in high-profile archaeological discoveries. Beginning with Howard Carter’s landmark 1922 discovery of the tomb of the Egyptian king Tutankhamun, the decade would end with another stunning find: Leonard Woolley’s discovery of intact Mesopotamian royal tombs dating back more than 4,000 years in the ancient city of Ur, located 140 miles southeast of Babylon in modern-day Iraq. The tombs were the work of the ancient culture of Sumer that had flourished at the dawn of civilization.

The discovery of the tombs dominated headlines on both sides of the Atlantic, not only for the quantity and craftsmanship of the objects found but also for the light they shed on the grisly nature of Sumerian burial practices. The finds included exquisitely crafted jewelry and musical instruments, as well as large numbers of bodies: servants and soldiers entombed alongside their dead sovereigns.

Scholarly and public fascination with the ancient culture of Mesopotamia had been steadily growing since the latter part of the 19th century. It was in December 1872 that an Assyriologist, George Smith, presented a paper to a packed session of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, attended by the British prime minister, William Gladstone. What he unveiled in his lecture caused an international sensation.

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