October 23, 2009 / 2:09 PM / 10 years ago

Penn Museum show casts new light on ancient Iraq

PHILADELPHIA, Oct 23 (Reuters Life) - A flattened human head draped with gold and lapis lazuli jewelry lies in a glass case at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, its teeth the only recognizable feature.

The ancient skull of a female courtier from the “Great Death Pit,” a mass burial place of royal retainers flattened under the tombs of later burials in seen in an undated handout photo. REUTERS/Penn Museum/Handout

It’s all that remains of a female courtier to a Mesopotamian monarch who was buried around 4,500 years ago with all of his or her wealth, including the humans who attended the royal court.

The attendant, together with several hundred others, was discovered in 16 royal tombs that generated international headlines in the 1920s when they were unearthed by British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley at Ur, near modern-day Nasiriyah in southern Iraq.

Now the remains, together with some 220 other objects from the site, are going on display at the Penn Museum for the first time in more than 10 years in a show that sheds new light on one of the great archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.

“Iraq’s Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur’s Royal Cemetery”, a long-term exhibition opening on October 25, places the Ur treasures in the historic context of a region known as the “cradle of civilization”, and tells the story of their excavation between 1922 and 1934.

The objects have been on tour at art museums throughout the U.S. over the last decade, and have now returned to Penn — co-sponsor of the original 1922 expedition — which is emphasizing their historic and cultural significance rather than the aesthetic value highlighted by art museums, said co-curator Richard Zettler said.

The royal attendants found in the tombs were not poisoned, as suggested by Woolley, but killed by blows to the back of the head with a sharp object, a theory supported by recent CT scans by the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, Zettler said.

After death, bodies were dried out and treated with preservative so that they could be used in tableaux such as a banquet, demonstrating the monarch’s continued wealth and power even in death.

“These people were made to look like they were part of a funerary ritual,” Zettler said.

During burial, the remains were covered with such a weight of earth that skulls were crushed, explaining the flattened shape of the heads on display.

The centerpiece of the show is the Queen Puabi headdress containing four kilograms (8.8 pounds) of gold and 3,600 beads made of carnelian and lapis lazuli.

The exhibition also includes a lyre topped with a golden bull’s head and the “Ram in the Thicket”, a rare figurine made from gold, copper and lapis lazuli, showing a goat nibbling the leaves of a tree.

The opulence of the Ur treasures shows the prosperity of the Mesopotamian civilization, and its success in trading with distant regions such as the Indus Valley and the eastern Mediterranean, which supplied precious metals and stones in return for textiles and agricultural products, said Zettler.

“It provides a picture of a really elaborate high civilization,” he said.

To help tell the story of how the Ur tombs were excavated, the exhibition highlights some of the characters who visited the site. They include T.E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia, who became a middleman between the archaeologists and the British government, and the English crime writer Agatha Christie, who wrote “Murder in Mesopotamia” based on her experiences there.

More recently, the treasures of Ur have been largely shielded from the war in Iraq. The most important pieces were moved from the Iraq Museum to bank vaults before the 2003 U.S. invasion that led to the looting of the museum, Zettler said.

And the site of Ur itself has been “spared the worst of the looting” because of its position on the edge of the Tallil airbase, one of the largest in the Middle East, according to the exhibition notes.

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