History of excavations in Ur

History of excavations in Ur

After its abandonment, Ur was left to the forces of nature for approximately 2,000 years. The shifting desert sands and silt from floodwaters eventually buried the structures, leaving only the highest levels of the ziggurat exposed. Local tribespeople visited the site over the years until the start of modern excavations.

1) John George Taylor, 1853

British Vice Consul John George Taylor dug numerous pits and exposed much of the ziggurat. He initially described the site as consisting of a large mound, surrounded by a series of smaller mounds, and noted that it was surrounded by marshy water during the annual flooding of the Euphrates.

2) Harry Reginald Hall, 1919

The site was not excavated again until after the First World War. British Egyptologist and historian Harry Reginald Hall worked at Ur for three months in 1919, when he uncovered more of the ziggurat, as well as some of the surrounding buildings.

3) Charles Leonard Woolley, 1922

The first large-scale scientific excavations were conducted under the leadership of British archaeologist Charles Leonard Woolley. For twelve seasons, between 1922 and 1934, he uncovered approximately 40% of the site. Woolley and his team continued work on the ziggurat and excavated large portions of the site. In addition to completely exposing the ziggurat, he uncovered a number of ceremonial structures, city walls, residential and commercial housing complexes, cemeteries and two harbors (Woolley, 1950, 1965a). Woolley published over 30 books and articles, as well as hand-written field notes that fully described his excavations and findings. He provided invaluable information about the ancient cultures that occupied the site, specifically their religious and burial practices, as well as their domestic habits. Ur was officially declared an archeological city on 17 October 1935. However, excavations were not resumed after Woolley’s last season, and the advent of the Second World War halted the possibility for further digs.

Season One1922-1923
Season Two1923-1924
Season Three1924-1925
Season Four1925-1926
Season Five1926-1927
Season Six1927-1928
Season Seven1928-1929
Season Eight1929-1930
Season Nine1930-1931
Season Ten1931-1932
Season Eleven1932-1933
Season Twelve1933-1934
Table: Leonard Woolley’s Excavation’s Seasons

4) Excavations and conservation work of the Iraqi Directorate of Antiquities, 1960s

Work at Ur did not begin again until 1961, when the Iraqi Directorate of Antiquities (now the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage) carried-out restoration projects on the ziggurat and several of the surrounding buildings.

5) Excavations and conservation work of SBAH, 1999

The State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) conducted additional restorations in 1999, when they also excavated two small areas on the site.

6) The Joint Iraqi-American assessment team, 2009

In April 2009, a joint Iraqi-American assessment team recorded the site conditions and determined that the majority of the ruins needed conservation treatment. While several protective measures were put in place between 2008 and 2014, including guard towers to monitor site activity and sidewalks devised to keep visitors away from the most sensitive areas on the site, the ruins remained susceptible to further deterioration and damage.

Archaeological work was not reinstated again until 2013, when Iraqi archaeologists reexamined previously excavated areas in search of small artifacts that may have been overlooked by Woolley and his predecessors. Additional excavations were conducted in late 2015 by a joint Iraqi-American team who extended a section of Woolley’s original pits. The work carried-out by that team continued each season until the spring of 2019, with results of those excavations to be published in the near future.

7) The UR Survey, 2019

A more in-depth survey was conducted in March and April 2019, with the results presented throughout this body of work.

Modern Warfare and Ur

In addition to visits by archaeologists, Ur and its surrounding landscape has been subjected to foreign and domestic military occupation. British airmen laid out a makeshift airstrip during the First World War and ground troops utilized the ruins as an outpost.

During the early years of the Second World War, Ur was once again briefly occupied by British troops. After 1945, the ruins remained untouched by war. However, in 1971 the Iraqi Air Force constructed an airstrip and accompanying military installation less than a kilometer west of the ziggurat. Ten years later, an Iraqi army unit was encamped approximately 1500 meters northeast of the ziggurat.

During the First Gulf War in 1990, Ur was once again affected by military action, when coalition jets strafed the Iraqi military positions located on the site, as well as two Iraqi fighter jets that were parked next to the ziggurat. In addition, several bombs were dropped near the Iraqi army camp. This conflict also resulted in the United Nations Security Council imposing sanctions on the country that rendered it impossible to import the materials necessary to carry-out site conservation. Bombs were again dropped near the army camp during the 1998 four-day campaign known as Operation Desert Fox.

Lastly, in April 2003, coalition forces seized the airbase during Operation Iraqi Freedom. A fence and military checkpoints were erected around the perimeter, which incorporated the ruins as well as a single paved road that extended from the ziggurat, along the border of Woolley’s excavations, and into the military installation. Military control of the site rendered it off limits to archaeologists and conservators, and the ruins were neglected for 6 years. The site remained within the fixed perimeter until April 2009, when it was turned over to Iraqi control, and the Iraqi Air Force regained possession of the base.

Despite its long troubled history, the archaeological site of Ur was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in July 2016, as part of ‘The Ahwar of Southern Iraq: Refuge of Biodiversity and the Relict Landscape of the Mesopotamian Cities,’ under the new category of mixed natural and cultural sites (UNESCO, 2016). Ur’s universal value was cited as ‘the remains offer a complete testimony to the growth and achievements of southern Mesopotamia urban centers and societies, and to their outstanding contributions to the history of the Near East and mankind as a whole.’