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By Gavin Clarke Reviewed By Andreas Zabczyk Jul 14, 2015 Updated Jan 24, 2019

The Treasure of the Tombs of Ur

Carnelian, Lapis Lazuli and Gold Pendant Necklace from the Tombs of Ur
Carnelian, Lapis Lazuli and Gold Pendant Necklace from the Tombs of Ur

Many people all over the world have heard of the wonderful treasures found in the tombs of ancient Egyptian Pharaohs. However, not so many are aware of the ancient Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer, which existed in what is now Southern Iraq, over 5000 years ago. The tombs of Ur were discovered by British archaeologist, Charles Leonard Woolley in 1923. This was around the same time as the discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb by Howard Carter. Like the tomb of Tutankhamun, some of the tombs of Ur were astonishingly intact and contained personal possessions of the deceased. The tombs included both graves of common people and those of royalty.

Sixteen royal graves were discovered by Woolley at the cemetery in Ur and upon excavation, incredible objects were revealed. These beautiful items included gold weapons, necklaces, rings, earrings and diadems. Additionally, there were works of art. One of the most important of these is known as the "Ram in the Thicket". It is one of a pair of figures in the form of a ram stood on its hind legs, with its front legs resting upon a golden tree. The legs, face and tree of the statue are coated in gold leaf with genitals made from gold. The ears are made from copper and the upper part of its fleece is lapis lazuli and the lower part is constructed from shell. The base is inlaid with a mosaic of shell, lapis lazuli and red limestone. This unique figure can be seen in the British Museum in London or its companion in the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia.

Sumerian Lapis Lazuli and Gold Beaded Necklace
Sumerian Lapis Lazuli and Gold Beaded Necklace

Necklaces strung with gemstone beads and decorated with pendants were found on the floor of one of the Royal Graves at Ur. The owners of these items were not determined by Woolley. Materials that were typically used to make beads were gold, carnelian, silver and lapis lazuli. Circular beads were made from pieces of tightly coiled gold wire and carnelian and lapis lazuli were carved and drilled.

The tomb of Queen Puabi was one of the graves left unlooted. It contained a great deal of jewelry, along with attendants, tableware and a magnificent lyre decorated with the head of a bull that was encrusted with gold and lapis lazuli. Also in the chamber was a chariot that featured silver lioness heads. On her head, Queen Puabi wore an elaborate golden headdress made of gold discs, leaves and rings, adorned with lapis lazuli and carnelian beads. Around her neck were chokers and several beaded necklaces, and she wore a cape made from beads. The beads were made from carnelian and lapis lazuli. Additionally, she wore rings on her fingers and crescent-shaped gold earrings. Also found in her tomb were silver, gold and lapis lazuli bracelets. Queen Puabi could be identified by a cylindrical seal bearing her name found against her right arm. The seal was made from lapis lazuli. This and two other seals may have been attached to her cloak with gold or silver pins, one of which had a head made from carnelian and another had a hand-shaped head.

Gold Helmet of Sumerian King Meskalamdug
Gold Helmet of Sumerian King Meskalamdug

Another object of great value and beauty that was uncovered by Woolley in the Royal Cemetery was the golden helmet of King Meskalamdug (see image, right). Due to the location of its discovery, it is thought that this golden helmet could have belonged to the king's grandson. The chased gold is fashioned to look like the wearer's head, with intricate details, including locks of hair, a coiled bun and ears.

The Royal Tombs at Ur have provided us with a unique glimpse into the past. Without such excellently preserved archaeological sites, one of the most important links in the chain of human civilization could have been lost and forgotten forever, and we would never have been given the opportunity to learn about the ancient artistry of the Sumerians.

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