The Mesopotamian city of Ur, known as Tell al-Muqayyar, was an important Sumerian city state between about 2025-1738 BC. Located near the modern town of Nasiriya in far southern Iraq, on a now-abandoned channel of the Euphrates river, Ur covered about 60 acres, surrounding by a city wall. When Woolley excavated in the 1920s and 1930s, the city was a tell, a great artificial hill over seven meters high composed of centuries of building and rebuilding mud brick structures, one stacked on top of another.
The earliest known occupations at Ur city date to the Ubaid period of the late 6th millennium BC. By about 3000 BC, Ur covered a total area of 37 acres including early temple sites. Ur reached its maximum size of 54 acres during the Early Dynastic Period of the early 3rd millennium, when Ur was one of the most important capitals of the Sumerian civilization. Ur continued as a minor capital for Sumer and succeeding civilizations, but during the 4th century BC, the Euphrates changed course, and the city was abandoned.
Living in Old Babylonian Ur
The city reached its heyday during the Old Babylonian or Early Dynastic period of 2025-1738 BC. Four main residential areas of the city included homes with baked mud brick foundations arranged along long, narrow winding streets and alleyways. Typical houses included an open central courtyard with two or more main living rooms in which the families resided. Each house had a domestic chapel where cult structures and the family burial-vault was kept. Kitchens, stairways, workrooms, lavatories were all part of the household structures.
The houses were packed in very tightly, with exterior walls of one household immediately abutting the next one. Although the cities appear very closed off, the interior courtyards and wide streets provided light, and the close-set houses protected the exposure of the exterior walls to heating especially during the hot summers.
Important discoveries at Ur included the Royal Cemetery, where rich Early Dynastic burials were found by Woolley in the 1920s; and thousands of clay tablets impressed with cuneiform writing which describe in detail the lives and thoughts of Ur's inhabitants.
In the mid-1920s, C. Leonard Woolley's invstigations at Ur focused on the cemetery, where he eventually excavated over 2000 graves. Based on the wealth of tombs, Woolley designated 16 as "royal tombs", all of which date to the Early Dynastic IIIa period of 2600-2450 BC. Some of tombs had a stone-built chamber with multiple rooms, where the principal royal burial was placed. Retainers--people who presumably served the royal personage and were buried with him or her--were found in a pit outside of the chamber or adjacent to it. Woolley called these areas "death pits", and the largest of them held the remains of 74 people. Woolley came to the conclusion that the attendants had willingly drunk some drug and then lay down in rows to go with their master or mistress.
Recent analysis of a sample of skulls from several pits at Ur suggest instead that the retainers were killed by blunt force trauma, as ritual sacrifices. After they were killed, an attempt was made to preserve the bodies, using a combination of heat-treatment and the application of mercury; and then the bodies were dressed in their finery and laid in rows in the pits.
- See the photo essay Artifacts of the Royal Cemetery at Ur for additional information
Archaeology at the City of Ur
Archaeologists associated with Ur included J.E. Taylor, H.C. Rawlinson, Reginald Campbell Thompson, and, most importantly, C. Leonard Woolley. Woolley's investigations of Ur lasted 12 years from 1922 and 1934, including five years focusing on the Royal Cemetery of Ur, including the graves of Queen Puabi and King Meskalamdug. One of his assistants was Max Mallowan, then married to mystery writer Agatha Christie who visited Ur and based her Hercule Poirot novel Murder in Mesopotamia on the excavations there.