By: Gareth Brereton
Tell al-Muqayyar – better known as the ancient city of Ur – is one of the most remarkable archaeological sites discovered in the Middle East. The remains of this ancient settlement form a mound rising to a height of more than twenty meters above the southwestern flood plain of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in southern Iraq, near the modern city of Nasiriyah.
Reviving this important site using twenty-first century techniques is an important challenge. The Ur Digitisation Project is a dynamic collaboration between the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum that began in July 2013 with a generous $1.28 million lead support from the Leon Levy Foundation. The principal goal of the project is to reunify the remarkable finds from Ur using a state-of-the-art online facility. We are currently developing a multifaceted website that integrates artefact data and high-resolution digital images of objects with published reports, the original field notes, excavation photographs, plans, and letters. In creating such a resource, this project builds on the collaborative success of the original joint expedition and takes it into the twenty-first century.
The ancient city of Ur
As early as the mid-seventeenth century, European explorers travelling through the region marveled at the ruins of the massive temple tower or ‘ziggurat’ that protruded from the mound at Tell al-Muqayyar, but it was J.E. Taylor, British vice-consul at Basra, who first dug at the site between 1853 and 1854 on behalf of the British Museum.
Brief investigations at the site by R. Campbell Thompson (1918) and H. R. Hall (1918–19) showed Ur’s potential for detailed excavation, and between 1922 and 1934 Sir Leonard Woolley directed a joint British Museum and University of Pennsylvania Museum expedition to further explore this ancient city. In this time, Woolley revealed the extent of the ziggurat temple complex, unearthed the densely packed houses and winding streets of the city’s residential quarters and discovered the spectacular ‘Royal Tombs’ with their rich grave offerings and accompanying ‘Death Pits’, where numerous individuals were found buried alongside the city’s ruling elite. Woolley explained this macabre event as evidence for mass human sacrifice, which excited the public imagination and caused a media sensation.
Thirteen years of excavation produced a wealth of material spanning the earliest prehistoric remains (Ubaid Period, ca. 5000 BC) through to the Late Babylonian and Achaemenid periods (ca. 500 BC). Under the conditions of Iraq’s new Antiquities Law, the tens of thousands of finds were divided between the newly established Baghdad Archaeological Museum, the British Museum, and the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Woolley’s increased emphasis on recording also yielded a wealth of documentation, which includes field notes, glass-plate negative photographs, and the excavation diaries. The core part of this archive is now held at the British Museum.
Every object and document related to ancient Ur and held in our collections is being reevaluated, catalogued, scanned, and photographed to create a complete picture of the site and its excavation. Researchers and the general public alike will have free access to all this data, which will be thoroughly cross-referenced. This will help researchers to establish relationships between objects, archaeological contexts, publications, and unpublished material such as the field notes. This will create an unprecedented source of information about the site and its excavation.
Crucially, our use of innovative open-data technologies will allow researchers to build and extract their own datasets, making it a powerful research tool. This initiative will also vastly increase public access to an important and fascinating corpus of material from our collections. By virtually reunifying material held by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum, our results will facilitate research across a range of disciplines and reignite public fascination with ancient Ur.
While the digitisation process follows the latest and most effective methods, what really sets the project apart is its ambitious scope and scale. The British Museum alone holds some tens of thousands of objects from Ur, not to mention the abundance of documentation stored in our archives. As a point of entry, we digitised a corpus of fired clay objects, commonly referred to as ‘terracottas’. This collection is made up of small clay objects such as miniature reliefs, figurines, and models. The majority of the terracottas remain unpublished and have primarily been studied in terms of their iconographical content. Little is known, for example, about their production and function in everyday life. We have produced multiple high-resolution images of each object and have amassed and updated all the related descriptive and contextual sources such as published reports, collections databases, field notes, and file cards.
We have also successfully completed the sizeable ceramic collection from Ur, of which there are thousands of examples. Again, the ceramic collection is largely unpublished and only a few examples can be displayed in our public galleries, making their digitisation a priority. Importantly, our project conservators are busy assessing and conserving each object we work on to ensure their preservation for future generations.
This project also offers an invaluable opportunity to study ancient texts inscribed on clay tablets, and to assess the scribal craft. At around 10,000 texts strong, Ur’s corpus of texts is large enough to provide a meaningful basis for study, yet small enough to be manageable. Its chronological range stretches across the span of the cuneiform writing system, from the very first inscriptions of the Late Uruk period (ca. 3000 BC) through to the Late Babylonian period (ca. 500 BC). The range of genres extends from legal and administrative documents, through epistolary to scribal training and scholarly texts: lexical, literary, magical, medical, and more. Digitisation of all the tablets and other inscribed objects in the British Museum is well advanced. Together with digitised hand drawings of the inscriptions produced over the last century, they offer researchers access to a rich library of material. We are also making available a full set of transliterations of the texts, together with as many English translations as possible. This initiative profits from a broad network of colleagues who are currently studying these inscriptions. We will further provide an overview of the physical features of inscribed objects, document formatting and handwriting, as well as introductions to the individual text types, and information about when and where the tablets were found.
Work is already well under way at both the British Museum and University of Pennsylvania Museum, and the initial results are very promising. Importantly, we hope to be joined by our colleagues at the Iraq Museum in the near future. Our work feeds into a shared project website that eliminates traditional barriers between institutions, allowing researchers to access material from Ur as a single coherent corpus. We hope that our approach will inspire the digitisation of other similarly dispersed collections. The project staff brings expertise in archives, photography, programming, conservation, Assyriology, and archaeology. This range of skills reflects the diversity of information being collated and hints at the research potential afforded by such a resource.[i]
[i] The co-directors at the British Museum are the Keeper of the Department of the Middle East, Jonathan Tubb, and Assistant Keeper, Irving Finkel. The project team comprises Birger Ekornåsvåg Helgestad, Jon Taylor, Gareth Brereton, Nadia Linder, Alexandra Porter, and Duygu Camurcuoglu. The co-directors at Penn Museum are Richard L. Zettler and Stephen J. Tinney, leading a team comprising William B. Hafford, Sasha Renninger, Tessa de Alarcon, Ryan Placchetti, and Shannon Advincula.
Ur of the Chaldees
Ur of the Chaldees
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