AP®︎/College Art History
- Introduction to the Ancient Near East
- White Temple and ziggurat, Uruk
- Standing Male Worshipper from Tell Asmar
- The Standard of Ur
- Standard of Ur and other objects from the Royal Graves
- The Law Code Stele of King Hammurabi
- Hammurabi: The king who made the four quarters of the earth obedient
- Lamassu from the citadel of Sargon II
- Persian art, an introduction
- Persepolis: The Audience Hall of Darius and Xerxes
- Capital of a column from the audience hall of the palace of Darius I, Susa
Standard of Ur and other objects from the Royal Graves
by The British Museum
Intentionally buried as part of an elaborate ritual, this ornate object tells us so much, but also too little.
Postcard; printed; photograph showing archaeological excavations at Ur, with Arab workmen standing for scale in the excavated street of an early second millennium B.C.E. residential quarter © Trustees of the British Museum
The city of Ur
Known today as Tell el-Muqayyar, the "Mound of Pitch," the site was occupied from around 5000 B.C.E. to 300 B.C.E. Although Ur is famous as the home of the Old Testament patriarch Abraham (Genesis 11:29–32), there is no actual proof that Tell el-Muqayyar was identical with "Ur of the Chaldees." In antiquity the city was known as Urim.
The main excavations at Ur were undertaken from 1922–34 by a joint expedition of The British Museum and the University Museum, Pennsylvania, led by Leonard Woolley. At the center of the settlement were mud brick temples dating back to the fourth millennium B.C.E. At the edge of the sacred area a cemetery grew up which included burials known today as the Royal Graves. An area of ordinary people's houses was excavated in which a number of street corners have small shrines. But the largest surviving religious buildings, dedicated to the moon god Nanna, also include one of the best preserved ziggurats, and were founded in the period 2100–1800 B.C.E. For some of this time Ur was the capital of an empire stretching across southern Mesopotamia. Rulers of the later Kassite and Neo-Babylonian empires continued to build and rebuild at Ur. Changes in both the flow of the River Euphrates (now some ten miles to the east) and trade routes led to the eventual abandonment of the site.
The royal graves of Ur
Close to temple buildings at the center of the city of Ur, sat a rubbish dump built up over centuries. Unable to use the area for building, the people of Ur started to bury their dead there. The cemetery was used between about 2600–2000 B.C.E. and hundreds of burials were made in pits. Many of these contained very rich materials.
In one area of the cemetery a group of sixteen graves was dated to the mid-third millennium. These large, shaft graves were distinct from the surrounding burials and consisted of a tomb, made of stone, rubble and bricks, built at the bottom of a pit. The layout of the tombs varied, some occupied the entire floor of the pit and had multiple chambers. The most complete tomb discovered belonged to a lady identified as Pu-abi from the name carved on a cylinder seal found with the burial.
Cylinder seal of Pu-abi, c. 2600 B.C.E., lapis lazuli, 4.9 x 2.6 cm, from Ur © Trustees of the British Museum
The majority of graves had been robbed in antiquity but where evidence survived the main burial was surrounded by many human bodies. One grave had up to seventy-four such sacrificial victims. It is evident that elaborate ceremonies took place as the pits were filled in that included more human burials and offerings of food and objects. The excavator, Leonard Woolley thought the graves belonged to kings and queens. Another suggestion is that they belonged to the high priestesses of Ur.
Peace (detail), The Standard of Ur, 2600–2400 B.C.E., shell, red limestone, lapis lazuli, and bitumen (original wood no longer exists), 21.59 x 49.53 x 12 cm (British Museum; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The Standard of Ur
This object was found in one of the largest graves in the Royal Cemetery at Ur, lying in the corner of a chamber above the right shoulder of a man. Its original function is not yet understood.
Leonard Woolley, the excavator at Ur, imagined that it was carried on a pole as a standard, hence its common name. Another theory suggests that it formed the soundbox of a musical instrument.
When found, the original wooden frame for the mosaic of shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli had decayed, and the two main panels had been crushed together by the weight of the soil. The bitumen acting as glue had disintegrated and the end panels were broken. As a result, the present restoration is only a best guess as to how it originally appeared.
War (detail), The Standard of Ur, 2600–2400 B.C.E., shell, red limestone, lapis lazuli, and bitumen (original wood no longer exists), 21.59 x 49.53 x 12 cm (British Museum; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The main panels are known as "War" and "Peace." "War" shows one of the earliest representations of a Sumerian army. Chariots, each pulled by four donkeys, trample enemies; infantry with cloaks carry spears; enemy soldiers are killed with axes, others are paraded naked and presented to the king who holds a spear.
The "Peace" panel depicts animals, fish and other goods brought in procession to a banquet. Seated figures, wearing woolen fleeces or fringed skirts, drink to the accompaniment of a musician playing a lyre. Banquet scenes such as this are common on cylinder seals of the period, such as on the seal of the "Queen" Pu-abi, also in the British Museum (see image above).
Leonard Woolley discovered several lyres in the graves in the Royal Cemetery at Ur. This was one of two that he found in the grave of "Queen" Pu-abi. Along with the lyre, which stood against the pit wall, were the bodies of ten women with fine jewelry, presumed to be sacrificial victims, and numerous stone and metal vessels. One woman lay right against the lyre and, according to Woolley, the bones of her hands were placed where the strings would have been.
Queen's Lyre (reconstruction), 2600 B.C.E., wooden parts, pegs and string are modern; lapis lazuli, shell and red limestone mosaic decoration, set in bitumen and the head (but not the horns) of the bull are ancient; the bull's head in front of the sound box is covered with gold; the eyes are lapis lazuli and shell and the hair and beard are lapis lazuli; panel on front depicts lion-headed eagle between gazelles, bulls with plants on hills, a bull-man between leopards and a lion attacking a bull; edges of the sound-box are decorated with inlay bands; eleven gold-headed pegs for the strings, 112.5 x 73 x 7 cm (body), Ur © Trustees of the British Museum
The wooden parts of the lyre had decayed in the soil, but Woolley poured plaster of Paris into the depression left by the vanished wood and so preserved the decoration in place. The front panels are made of lapis lazuli, shell and red limestone originally set in bitumen. The gold mask of the bull decorating the front of the sounding box had been crushed and had to be restored. While the horns are modern, the beard, hair and eyes are original and made of lapis lazuli.
This musical instrument was originally reconstructed as part of a unique "harp-lyre," together with a harp from the burial, now also in The British Museum. Later research showed that this was a mistake. A new reconstruction, based on excavation photographs, was made in 1971–72.
© Trustees of the British Museum
The British Museum logo
J. Aruz, Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus (New York, 2003).
D. Collon, Ancient Near Eastern Art (London, 1995).
H. Crawford, Sumer and Sumerians (Cambridge, 2004).
N. Postgate, Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History (London, 1994).
M. Roaf, Cultural atlas of Mesopotamia (New York, 1990).
C.L. Woolley and P.R.S. Moorey, Ur of the Chaldees, revised edition (Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 1982).
N. Yoffee, Myths of the Archaic State: Evolution of the Earliest Cities, States, and Civilization (Cambridge, 2005).
R. Zettler, and L. Horne, (eds.) Treasures from the Royal Tomb at Ur (Philadelphia, 1998).
Want to join the conversation?
- We read "...Along with the lyre, which stood against the pit wall, were the bodies of ten women with fine jewelry, presumed to be sacrificial victims..."
Were there signs of trauma dealt to the bones of the "victims"? How can we be sure that these were "sacrificial victims"?(9 votes)
- I don't know how you feel about Wikipedia as a source, but the entry there states, "Recent evidence derived from CAT scans through the University of Pennsylvania Museum suggests that the sacrifices were likely violent and caused by blunt force trauma. A pointed, weighted tool could explain the shatter patterns on the skulls that resulted in death, while a small hammer-like tools has also been found retrieved and catalogued by Woolley during his original excavation. The size and weight fit the damage sustained by the two bodies examined by Aubrey Baadsgaard, PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania."(23 votes)
- I've been noticing that many Sumerian artifacts are in the British Museum, rather than in their land of discovery. Is this controversial? Why haven't the artifacts been returned? What are the politics around this issue?(7 votes)
- Here's a book from 1980 with more than 400 pages on the topic. Yes, it's political and controversial.
- Ur seems like a big, inhabited graveyard. Why would anyone want to live anywhere with graves all over the streets?(1 vote)
- Uf seems like a graveyard because the tombs survived while the houses made of perishable materials like mud bricks did not.(12 votes)
- Is Queen's Lyre also known as sound box?(3 votes)
- The sound box is the hollow, lower portion of the lyre (below the strings) http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=368339&partId=1(5 votes)
- Was Ur a residential area, or was it more a hub for the people surrounding it? This article makes it seem more like a capital, where nobody really lived.(2 votes)
- Ur was a city. It is usually identified as a city-state, meaning that the city and its surrounding territory were independent, not part of some larger entity,(1 vote)
- How do you cite this article page?(1 vote)
- Cite this page as: The British Museum, "Standard of Ur and other objects from the Royal Graves," in Smarthistory, March 3, 2017, accessed February 26, 2018, https://smarthistory.org/standard-of-ur-and-other-objects-from-the-royal-graves/.(3 votes)
- Was the lyre a common stringed instruments among the people in the various ancient kingdoms of this region?(1 vote)
- Lyre have been found in artwork of other kingdoms at the time.(2 votes)
- so i caint remember anything about ur(1 vote)
- Maybe you have not yet been taught. Read a wikipedia article on Ur, then wait 5 minutes and see if you can remember then.(1 vote)
- I realize that many of the artifacts that survive are "grave goods" because those were valued pieces that were buried and not touched. But, doesn't it bother anyone that so many religious/funerary artifacts are now taken from their original resting place? It just doesn't seem like a good idea.(1 vote)
- You're right. It isn't a good idea. But once someone has taken the items, let's imagine someone like Indiana Jones in the 1930s, and the stuff is outside the original location, what would you like to see done with it? would your idea stretch from what should be done with things taken from graves of people to what should be done with dinosaur fossils or things from the Tar Pits in Los Angeles?(1 vote)
- The very first image we see of The Standard Of Ur, is seen before the quote, "Its original function is not yet understood." This image we see, shows us two sides of the standard of Ur, firstly showing the side of peace, in which the ruler and his "friends" dine, as music is played and the land flourishes with animals and goods to use and sell. Though there is another side, which contains one column and three rows, do the pictures in this side of the Ur, depict anything?
(Do look at the image and the sides of the standard of Ur, which are shown by the image, one depicting peace, while the other depicting?)
(Also do note, please do look at the image, to understand the other side of The Standard Of Ur, not the peace or the war side, though the side which is left to the peace side. What does this side represent?)(1 vote)