Ur of the Chaldees: A Virtual Vision of Woolley’s Excavations

By: Jonathan Taylor, Curator at the British Museum and Birger Helgestad, Project Curator

The Ur project is a dynamic new collaboration between the British Museum  and the Penn Museum. It started in July 2013 with $1.28 million lead support from the Leon Levy Foundation. The project takes the successful cooperation of the 1920’s–1930’s excavations at Ur into the twenty-first century, digitally reunifying the remarkable finds from that site in a state-of-the-art online facility. All finds from Ur in our collections are being documented and photographed, and the original excavation photographs, archives, plans, and other documents are being digitised. These data will be made freely available in an open neoteric database that will preserve the complete finds and records in digital formats for posterity.


We want to stimulate a new level of interest in the rich finds from Ur, and open new avenues of research by scholars and students from a range of fields such as archaeology, history, Assyriology, anthropology, art and architectural history, as well as to engage non-expert audiences in the astonishing remains of this wonderful ancient city. We will reunite the finds from Ur in a new way. Not only will the collections from the three museums (British Museum, Penn Museum, Iraq Museum) be integrated, but also the different categories of object brought together in one place, and crucially, barriers between object data and archives will be broken down. Our multi-faceted website will present for the first time an authoritative set of high resolution images of the entirety of the finds, integrated with all field notes, catalogues, photos, reports, maps, letters, and publications. Importantly, data are recorded in a format that allows them to be fully indexable and extractable, enabling researchers to create their own datasets and make comparisons with their own research. This approach will also allow us to re-establish lost object identifications and crucial find-spot information. We will relate internal references between notes, letters, publications and catalogues, connect artefacts to their find-spots on maps, and link wherever possible to other resources with the goal of enabling researchers to analyse the site in radical new ways. All data are thoroughly cross-referenced, facilitating the study of artefacts all the way from excavation context to current exhibition.

© British Museum

What’s so special about Ur?

Ur was an important city throughout Mesopotamian history. The excavations led by Sir Leonard Woolley and jointly sponsored by the British Museum and the Penn Museum, uncovered its famous ziggurat complex, areas of densely packed private houses, and the spectacular Royal Graves with rich inventories of gold and macabre evidence of human sacrifice; these unique finds provide crucial information about third millennium society, as well as the period’s warfare, music, food, drink, and customs. Ur also offers an amazing opportunity to assess the ancient scribal craft. At around 10,000 texts strong, Ur’s corpus of texts is large enough to provide a meaningful basis for study, yet is still small enough to be manageable. Its chronological range stretches across the span of cuneiform, from the archaic period down into the Late Babylonian period. And the range of genres extends from legal and administrative, through epistolary to scribal training and scholarly texts: lexical, literary, magical, medical and more. Among these are several important corpora, in particular the Old Babylonian school texts published in UET 6, which provide a comparator for the Nippur school corpus.

© British Museum

By 1922–1934 Woolley had developed his methods with an increased emphasis on recording. Thus the vast scale of the finds he recovered—numbering into the tens of thousands—are contextualised by an abundance of documentation. The British Museum houses the core part of this documentation, such as the original glass-plate negative photographs, and the excavation diaries. We are digitising, indexing, and cross-referencing these indispensable resources.

First results

The digitisation of the archival material is only one of several avenues of exploration. In both London and Philadelphia another initial focus has been the fired clay (terracotta) objects. At the British Museum alone there are about 1,151 such objects from Ur. The corpus consists of relatively small fired-clay reliefs, figurines, models, and a few other miscellaneous objects. Although some are skilfully produced, and many are quite engaging, the majority are rather simple. The reliefs are additionally mould-made, and we have some of the original moulds preserved. The objects are interesting from a research point of view, however, as we so far have only very limited understanding of their original functions, and the economies involved in their production and exchange.

UET 6/118, a Hymn to Nippur
UET 6/118, a Hymn to Nippur. © British Museum

The process of digitisation follows conventional methods, although with ambitious scale and scope. As an aim of our project is to facilitate for the study of objects exclusively by using our online resource, more than one photograph are taken of each object, capturing different angles, as well as the backs, and sides. This means that the corpus of c. 1,151 fired-clay objects at the British Museum, has alone generated 2,595 high-quality photographs. At the same time we have begun digitising all the tablets (and other inscribed objects), as well as gathering existing hand drawings of the inscriptions. We aim to make available a full set of transliterations of the texts, together with as many translations as possible, and lemmatised as far as possible. This initiative profits from a broad network of international colleagues: Paul-Alain Beaulieu, British Institute for the Study of Iraq, Dominique Charpin, Camille Lecompte, Marie-Christine Ludwig, Manuel Molina, Palmiro Notizia, Eleanor Robson, Gabriella Spada, Michel Tanret, Radek Tarasewicz, Lorenzo Verderame, Christopher Walker, Aage Westenholz. 

A detail from UET 6/291: an example of the AN-sign
A detail from UET 6/291: an example of the AN-sign. © British Museum

A detailed catalogue describes both text and tablet. We will further provide an overview of tablet typology, and “diplomatic” and palaeographical features. There will also be introductions to the individual corpora, and information about when and where the tablets were found. Our detailed images evidence the widespread use of the reed stylus, visible through the striations visible in the left side of each wedge versus the smooth right edge. They also illustrate the order in which the individual wedges were made in each sign. This was an important skill learned at school.

The team

Activity is currently underway at the British Museum and at Penn Museum. We hope soon to be joined by our colleagues at the Iraq Museum. Our work feeds into a shared project website, as well as each museum’s own collections database. Our web resource will eliminate traditional barriers between institutions, enabling researchers to focus on the material from Ur as a single corpus, disregarding the objects’ current locations. We hope that our approach will inspire the digitisation of other similarly dispersed collections. The project staff bring expertise in archives, photography, programming, conservation, assyriology, and archaeology. This range of skills reflects the diversity of information being collated, and also indicates the great potential for research our resource provides. The co-directors at the British Museum are the Keeper of the Department of the Middle East, Jonathan Tubb, and Irving Finkel. The project team comprises Birger Ekornåsvåg Helgestad, Jon Taylor, Gareth Brereton, Nadia Linder, Alexandra Porter, and Duygu Camurcuoglu. The co-directors at Penn Museum are Richard L. Zettler and Stephen J. Tinney, leading a team comprising William B. Hafford, Sasha Renninger, Tessa de Alarcon, Ryan Placchetti, and Shannon Advincula.