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|
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?
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.
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 connection...one 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 http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/article_index/u/ur.aspx 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.