Monday, August 13, 2012


Firstly an apology...I know I promised a post on the Laws of Divorce but a recent visit to the Melbourne Museum's current exhibition on The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia (which is on until 7 October) combined with the release on September 3 of my new book, GATHER THE BONES, which coincidentally involves the 1922 discoveries of Ur, has led me in a different direction.

The Royal Standard of Ur
I have always been a closet archaeologist. In fact I was so keen on the dream of becoming an archaeologist that I had obtained all the information on enrolling in the London School of Archaeology when I finished University. Not to be. I finished my legal qualification, met a man, got married...and spent my life as a lawyer.  Not surprisingly I ADORE programs like Time Team. I don’t care if I am watching repeats or new episodes, every time a tiny chunk of dried,  black mud is identified as a piece of Anglo Saxon Pottery from the kiln on the west side of the hill in Chipping Leghorn, I feel a frisson of excitement. On my trips to England my husband and I can now spot a piece of Roman Samian ware pottery at 50 metres.

At University I had studied Ancient History under an eccentric old professor who still wore his gown and whose name, sadly, I can no longer recall. He had a passion for Sumerian History which he inculcated in me. So it is not surprising that when I was casting around for a suitable profession for the hero of GATHER THE BONES, Paul Morrow, he became a frustrated archaeologist. I often wonder if authors tend to vent their own frustrations on their characters, a sort of Munchausen by Proxy!

Despite Paul’s classical education, he had been forced into the army, rather than take up a scholarship at Oxford. Now, in 1923 (when my story is set), he works on the archaeological digs as the expedition manager rather than an archaeologist. To be honest I invented Paul’s position with the expedition, reasoning that someone had to organise the logisitics of an Expedition of this size and who better than an impoverished former army officer? 
C.L. Wooley and his site foreman Hahmoud

The early 1920s were an extraordinary time in archaeology. In Egypt, Carter had just opened the tomb of Tutankhamun and elsewhere in the Middle East activity that had been suspended during the Great War was recommencing.  In Iraq (or Mesopotamia as it was still known) Charles Leonard Woolley had begun work on the excavations, near Basrah, of a site that was to become known as the Royal Tombs at Ur. Some excavation had already been done on the site in the early part of the century but it was not until 1922 when the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania launched a combined dig that serious excavation of the site began.

Woolley and team at the dig house

The digging season took place in the winter months to make the most of the cooler weather and Woolley commenced work in November 1922.   He commenced the dig with two large trenches near the ruins of a Ziggurat and within a week Trench A had already produced extraordinary evidence of high status burials with the discovery of gold items. Trench B produced more prosaic buildings and pottery. Feeling he lacked the experience to proceed with a full scale burials excavation, Woolley closed down Trench A and work continued on Trench B which revealed the important temple of E-Un-Mah and the beginnings of a massive wall. Time ran out and in Spring, the dig closed down and Woolley and his team returned to London (...and Paul to Holdston Hall).

Woolley supervising excavation
The excavations at Ur went on until 1934 and over that period the most extraordinary finds in the history of archaeology were unearthed. A total of about 1,850 burials were uncovered, including 16 that were described as “royal tombs” containing many valuable artefacts, including the Standard of Ur and the Lamb in the Thicket. Most of the royal tombs were dated to about 2600 BC. The finds included the unlooted tomb of a queen thought to be Queen Puabi (the name is known from a cylinder seal found in the tomb, although there were two other different and unnamed seals found in the tomb). Many other people had been buried with her, in a form of human sacrifice.

Cuneiform tablet
I did give Paul something useful to do in translating cuneiform tablets. Cuneiform had been deciphered by the end of the nineteenth century and the clay tablets are eloquent in their insight into Sumerian life. In my research for the book I came across the story of the boy who didn’t want to go to school that Paul tells Alice.

Woolley with Max Mallowan and Agatha Christie 1931
Finally a literary of the archaeologists who worked on the later excavations with Woolley was Max Mallowan, husband of Agatha Christie. Christie would accompany her husband for the dig season and, of course, her book (possibly my favourite of her books) MURDER IN MESOPOTAMIA is based on her experiences on the digs.

If you are interested in the excavations at Ur, visit and, of course, good old Wikipedia is abounding in articles. For my research I went back to the bookshelves and dug out my old text book from University days...The Sumerians by Samuel Noah Kramer, one of the definitive works on the subject.


Joanna Lloyd said...

Very happy you diverged from original subject as I found it so interesting. All the old photos and information were fascinating and especially loved the Agatha Christie connection. Thank you for a great blog, Alison.

Kat Sheridan said...

Very interesting article, and the premise of the books sounds wonderful!

Allison Butler said...

Hi Alison,

Thanks so much for a fascinating post. I can 'hear' your excitement and 'feel' your adoration in your words:)

Gather The Bones sounds like a fabulous read. I'm looking forward to its released.

Best wishes:)

Alison Stuart said...

Thanks for stopping by, Joanna, Kat and Allison. The recent wars in Iraq have played havoc with the archaeological heritage of the country with many of the Ur treasures looted from Baghdad.
The connection had a particular resonance as I lost a great uncle in WW1 in Mesopotamia...his name is recorded on the memorial gate in Basrah.
I had a bit of fun at my hero's expense because everyone thinks he has been in Egypt and wants to talk about the Tutankhamun discovery. Mesopotamia was far less exciting in 1923.

Jenny Schwartz said...

I love Time Team, too :)

Okay, definitely have to buy Gather the Bones in September :)

Carol Challis said...

Digging up dirt on your characters is an archeological endeavour! Thanks for the reminder to visit Melb Museum and good luck with the release of 'Gather the Bones'.

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Anonymous said...

Oh, you have touched a kindred spot with your love of History Alison, especially Egyptian History.
Have loved the whole mysteriousness of it from very young.
So I am really going to enjoy your Book.

Thanks for an interesting post and the TV information of the Time Teams