Archaeological Wonders of Mesopotamia: The Royal Cemetery at Ur

From the Lecture Series: Between the Rivers — The History of Ancient Mesopotamia

By Alexis Castor, PhD, Franklin & Marshall College

One of the most spectacular and widely publicized archaeological discoveries in Mesopotamia was the cemetery at Ur, excavated in the late 1920s, a monumental site, significant for what it revealed about this ancient culture.

Standard of Ur. Sumerian artwork, ca. 2600-2400 BC. From tomb 779 Ur. British Museum. Detail
Detail from Standard of Ur found in a royal tomb of Ur. (Image: Photographed by Michel wal/British Museum)

Initial excavations began in the mid-19th century when collectors found several texts that were sent back to various European museums. After the First World War, Sir Leonard Woolley led a joint expedition sponsored by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania. He knew that the temple of Nanna was there—she was the patron deity of the city—and so he had reason to believe that further excavations there would be fruitful. Woolley cleared the ziggurat and continued to explore the temple of Nanna, including portions that had been restored and expanded by the king, Nebuchadnezzar.

Image of Sir Leonard holding the hardened plaster mold of a lyre
Sir Leonard Woolley led a joint expedition sponsored by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania to excavate the cemetery at Ur. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

In the sixth year of excavations, the team began to uncover a large group of graves that lay below the foundation of these later structures. In the following year, Woolley focused his attention on these graves. Almost 2,000 graves were discovered, but a small group of about 16 burials found in 1927–1929 was so spectacular that newspapers reported their excavation in detail.

These royal graves, as they were quickly termed, contained lavish quantities of gold, silver, and semiprecious stones—striking enough on their own—but the most surprising feature of the burials was the suggestion that they provided evidence of human sacrifice.

No other known burials from Mesopotamia could prepare the excavators for this discovery. Few other archaeological discoveries were as widely publicized; only King Tut’s intact grave in Egypt, discovered in 1922, had garnered the same attention.

This is a transcript from the video series Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

Most Mesopotamian graves were simple pit graves dug into the ground. These royal graves were chambers made of brick or stone, small vaulted rectangular rooms beneath the earth, with a ramp leading down inside the grave. Inside the chamber would be a body surrounded by grave objects and sometimes a vehicle and the oxen or donkeys that brought the corpse inside. Sometimes numerous other bodies were found either lying in the chamber or more often outside of it, for which Woolley coined the phrase “death pit.” These were attendants or family members who accompanied the occupant of the chamber.

Within these 16 royal graves, there’s a great variation in both the size of the tombs and in the number of bodies buried in them, and they included both male and female bodies. Most of them were robbed in antiquity, although not completely; despite the theft, there exists a massive quantity of artifacts that were left behind by the looters.

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One of the graves was for a woman named Pu-Abi. Her name was inscribed on a cylinder seal with the title Nin, which means queen. She is the first identified queen from Mesopotamia. She was about 40, and she was buried in a chamber tomb of about 12 by 6 feet, similar to another tomb for a male.

Image of Reconstructed Sumerian headgear necklaces housed at the British Museum.
The reconstructed headgear and necklaces of Puabi found in her tomb. (Image: Photographed by JMiall /British Museum)

Her burial costume was very elaborate: Her gold headdress was made of strips of sheet gold that were woven together to create a cap of glittering leaves and flowers. A comb at the back of her head rose above and had large gold flowers that would have swayed as she walked.

On the head itself was a wreath of flowers, made of gold, lapis, and carnelian, and also a row of willow leaves encircled the head; these were made of gold, as well. Finally, immediately across the forehead was a row of gold rings. Several long ribbons of gold were looped along the side of her head, probably weaving in and out of Pu-Abi’s hair or even a wig. We know that Mesopotamian women wore wigs to make their hair even larger and more dominant.

The queen wore a beaded cape composed of gold, silver, lapis, carnelian, and agate beads. These long strings of colorful beads would hang from her shoulders to her waist. This was quite heavy, but would also create a shimmering effect as she walked with strings encircling her body.

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Beneath the cape was a belt of horizontal beads—mostly lapis with alternating rows of gold, lapis, and carnelian—and a row of gold hoops dangled along the lower edge of the belt. As if this weren’t enough, she has other jewelry as well: no fewer than three necklaces made of gold, some stone beads that would create a necklace over her beaded cape, gold pins, large basket-like earrings made of sheet gold, 10 finger rings—sometimes multiple rings would be stacked on a single finger—and other miscellaneous adornments.

Three other bodies were found in Pu-Abi’s chamber tomb; a male lay near the queen and a female at her feet. These figures did not have a significant number of grave goods buried with them, so it doesn’t seem as if they were family members but rather attendants.

The queen had other objects buried with her—gold and silver cups, stone bowls made of agate, furniture inlays that would have decorated perhaps a chair or a stool; those that survive are silver lion heads with very wide, inlaid eyes. Several cosmetic boxes survive that were also decorated.

Image of Bull's Head of the Queens Lyre housed at the British Museum.
Bull’s Head of the Queens Lyre found in her tomb. (Image: Photographed by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP/British Museum)

On a ramp leading to the burial chamber of Pu-Abi were the bodies of several attendants, both male and female. Ten women were set in rows opposite each other, carrying musical instruments, harps, and lyres. The women wore costumes similar to Pu-Abi, but they were much less elaborate. The headdresses were mostly ribbons of gold; a few had combs with flowers like Pu-Abi wore, and they had gold and bead jewelry. There’s a clear distinction between what the Nin wore and what these attendants wore.

The bodies of the men associated with this death pit were also adorned with jewelry—necklaces, rings, and a single earring, in contrast to the two earrings that women wore. They also carried a dagger and a whetstone, so they would have both a defensive weapon and a way to sharpen it always with them, carried at their waist. In addition to the humans found in the grave, the bones of two oxen were identified in the death pit.

The graves, the goods, and the bodies associated with them are extraordinary. They provide definite evidence for human sacrifice accompanying the burial of a person of high status—in this instance the wife of the ruler. The amount of gold and other expensive goods buried in the chamber tombs gives us an idea of what a king and queen would use, and it shows an enormous amount of wealth.

The tombs let us imagine the funeral ritual, which often is not preserved by any archaeological evidence or written sources. We can’t know if the elaborate costume that Pu-Abi wore was something special, reserved just for the grave, or maybe represented what she wore on certain ceremonial occasions. But if it was similar to what she would wear at a religious festival—queens were very closely associated with temples—then we see how her dress would set her apart from the rest of the population and make her the center of attention.

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Perhaps the musical instruments played a dirge or a hymn which was followed by the death of the attendants—perhaps by some poison, as Woolley suggested. This gives us the ultimate symbol of a ruler’s power: He could take his attendants, his courtiers, his subjects with him after death. This ritual suicide could very well have been voluntary. It’s hard to reconstruct the particulars of this; we don’t even know how they died. Woolley suggested poison as reinforced by cups found in these great death pits, but no trace has survived to reveal any poison.

These graves give us remarkable insight into the power of the rulers in the early dynastic period. Scholars continue to puzzle over the significance of these tombs, especially since they remain unique discoveries. Archaeologists always want to find something unique, but then once you do, they aren’t sure how to interpret it.

This is exactly the situation with the royal graves at Ur.

Common Questions About the Cemetery at Ur

Q: Was anything found in the Cemetery at Ur?

There were 16 royal tombs discovered with valuable objects inside in the Cemetery at Ur.

Q: Where is the Cemetery at Ur?

The Cemetery at Ur is located in Dhi Qar Governorate of southern Iraq.

Q: Who discovered the Cemetery at Ur?

Sir Leonard Woolley discovered the Cemetary at Ur.

Q: Is the oldest known city on Earth the city of Ur?

No. Eridu, rather than Ur, is considered the oldest city on Earth.

This article was updated on August 18, 2020

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