History : May-Jun 2016
32 MAY/JUNE 2016 Epic Exploration Scholarly and public fascination with the ancient culture of Mesopotamia had been steadily grow- ing 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 inter- national sensation. Smith had been deciphering a series of clay tablets from the Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh, a text today known as the Epic of Gilgamesh, regarded as the world’s oldest known literary work. In this saga, he came upon an account of a flood that was strikingly similar to that of the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. The Epic of Gilgamesh is thought to have been written around 2100 b.c., predating the Hebrew Scriptures. Newspapers were quick to take up the story of Smith’s work, fueling public inter- est in the Mesopotamian era. Museums and universities in France, Great Britain, Germany, and the United States launched archaeological expeditions to seek the vestiges of the civili- zations of Sumer, Assyria, and Babylonia, the regions where the first cities in history devel- oped. Among the sites picked for detailed ex- ploration was Tell al Muqayyar—better known today as Ur. Ur had already been identified some years earlier, thanks to basic excavations carried out in 1853 by the British diplomat J. E. Taylor. Nearly another 70 years passed before a major project was launched to more fully excavate the ancient city. The Penn Museum and the British Mu- seum jointly organized an expedition and chose veteran Leonard Woolley to supervise the dig. A DOZEN YEARS OF PATIENCE British archaeologist Leonard Woolley was charged with excavating the Sumerian city of Ur (in modern-day Iraq) from 1922 to 1934. The 12 years spent meticulously digging down through the strata were rewarded by the discovery of a royal necropolis from the third millennium b.c. LEONARD WOOLLEY CAREFULLY REMOVES THE EARTH FROM A VOTIVE FIGURINE DISCOVERED DURING THE EXCAVATIONS AT UR. SCALA, FLORENCE BRITISHMUSEUM/SCALA,FLORENCE 1922–23 Leonard Woolley arrives in Ur to begin excavations, focusing on the area around the ziggurat. The remains of streets and buildings are uncovered. 1925 As well as excavating the ziggurat, Woolley unearths the temple of the moon god Nanna and other structures from the reigns of Shulgi and Ur-Nammu. HAMMERED GOLD HELMET OF KING MESKALAMDUG SCEPTER OF GOLD AND LAPIS LAZULI ERICH LESSING/ALBUM After having led a dig in Turkey that included the future Lawrence of Arabia, Woolley worked as a British spy in World War I.