Photograph by Mahan Kalpa
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Assyriologist Dominique Charpin from Paris’ Sorbonne University, working at the site of ancient Ur, examines a cuneiform tablet excavated by the U.S.-Iraqi team.

Photograph by Mahan Kalpa

City of Biblical Abraham Brimmed With Trade and Riches

Iraqi and American archaeologists are digging at one of the world’s oldest urban centers—and finding evidence of the earliest long-distance commerce.  

The bleak and tawny desert of southern Iraq is a strange place to find dark tropical wood. Even stranger, this sliver of ebony—no longer than a little finger—came from distant India 4,000 years ago.

Archaeologists recently found the small artifact deep in a trench among the ruins of what was the world’s first great cosmopolitan city, providing a rare glimpse into an era that marked the start of the global economy.

Mentioned in the Bible as the hometown of Abraham, Ur around 2000 B.C. was the center of a wealthy empire that drew traders from as far away as the Mediterranean Sea, 750 miles to the west, and the Indus civilization—called Meluhha by ancient Iraqis—some 1,500 miles to the east.

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The ziggurat of Ur loomed over the ancient city 4,000 years ago. Sir Leonard Woolley excavated the site in the 1920s and 1930s. Iraqi and American archaeologists returned last fall for the first large-scale digs there in decades.

“There are texts that speak about the ‘black wood of Meluhha,’” said Elizabeth Stone of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who is co-leading the Ur excavations. “But this is our first physical evidence.”

In the 1920s and 1930s, British archaeologist Leonard Woolley dug up some 35,000 artifacts from Ur, including the spectacular remains of a royal cemetery that included more than 2,000 burials and a stunning array of gold helmets, crowns, and jewelry that date to about 2600 B.C. At the time, the discovery rivaled that of King Tut’s tomb in Egypt.

But Ur and most of southern Iraq has been off limits to most archaeologists during the past half-century of war, invasion, and civil strife. A joint U.S.-Iraqi team reopened excavations there last fall, digging at the site for ten weeks. The work was supported in part by the National Geographic Society. 

Unlike earlier generations, today’s archaeologists are less interested in breathtaking gold objects than in clues like the bit of ebony that will help them understand more fully this critical time in human history.

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Sir Leonard Woolley uncovered this lyre in one of Ur’s royal graves. Dating to about 2600 B.C., this musical instrument features a bull with a beard of lapis lazuli—a stone brought from Afghanistan—that may represent the sun god.

Although now situated on a flat and dry plain, Ur once was a bustling port on the Euphrates River laced with canals and filled with merchant ships, warehouses, and weaving factories. A massive stepped pyramid, or ziggurat, rose above the city and still dominates the landscape today.

Ur emerged as a settlement more than 6,000 years ago and grew to prominence in the Early Bronze Age that began about a thousand years later. Some of the earliest known writing—called cuneiform—has been uncovered at Ur, including seals that mention the city.

But the real heyday came around 2000 B.C., when Ur dominated southern Mesopotamia after the fall of the Akkadian Empire. The sprawling city was home to more than 60,000 people, and included quarters for foreigners as well as large factories producing wool clothes and carpets exported abroad. Traders from India and the Persian Gulf crowded the busy wharves, and caravans arrived regularly from what is now northern Iraq and Turkey.

Ancient Soviet Union?

This period saw the creation of the oldest known law code, the Code of Ur-Nammu, as well as one of the world’s most bureaucratic states. Fortunately for scholars today, its rulers were obsessed with recording the most minor of transactions on clay tablets, usually with a stylus fashioned from a reed. The tapering end of the bit of ebony, Stone said, hints that it was the stylus of a high-ranking scribe.

“This was the first planned economy,” said Dominique Charpin, a specialist in cuneiform at the College de France, during a break from examining recently unearthed tablets. “It was like the Soviet Union.”

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Archaeologist Katherine Burge cleans a later grave dug into an ancient house at Ur. Long after its decline, the temple-studded city remained a popular place for Mesopotamians to bury their dead.

Most of the 28 tablets found during the excavation, he adds, deal with sales and rations of grain, wool, and bronze, as well as slaves and land registry. The sizes of the tablets vary, but all are crammed with tiny symbols that require a lighted magnifier to decipher.

Archaeologists in the past assumed that Ur in its heyday was like the former Soviet Union in another way: A small privileged elite controlled a large population of workers, often assigned to grim work units to manufacture clothes, pots, and other consumer goods. Stone is challenging that theory.

“There has been this assumption of inequality,” she said. “But more recent research points to social mobility in city-states like Ur. People could move up the economic ladder—that’s why they want to live in the city in the first place.”  

Most digs in the past, including Woolley’s, focused on the temples, tombs, and palaces. But during the recent excavation, the team uncovered a modest-sized building dating to a couple of centuries after Ur’s peak.

“This is a typical Iraqi house,” said Abdul-Amir Hamdani, the senior Iraqi archaeologist on the project, who grew up in the area. He gestures at the mud-brick walls. “There are stairs to the roof and rooms around a courtyard. I lived in a house just like this. There’s a continuity in the way people live here.”

That hints, Stone and Hamdani said, at a society that wasn’t under the control of a small tyrannical minority.

Along with the ebony and the clay tablets, the team uncovered a small clay mask of Humbaba, a giant who protects the cedars of distant Lebanon. The excavators also found dried dates in the grave of a child, the first plant remains found at the site. Other botanical finds are now being analyzed to understand how the diet of citizens changed over time.

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This small clay mask unearthed in December represents Humbaba, a fearsome deity believed to protect the cedar forests of distant Lebanon. Humbaba figures in the ancient Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh that was popular during Ur’s heyday around 2000 B.C.

By bringing such analysis to bear on common objects like grains, bones, and less flashy artifacts, the team hopes to shed light on how workers lived, the role of women in the wool factories, and how environmental changes might have impacted the eventual decline of Ur’s power.

Ancient texts suggest that Ur collapsed amid foreign invasions and internal dissension and, possibly, severe drought. But Stone is surprised by the lack of evidence for catastrophic destruction following 2000 B.C. “People seem to keep rebuilding their houses,” she said.

The team hopes to return next fall to dig deeper in the search for evidence of how the non-elite lived at the height of Ur’s wealth and power.