Digging It Up: 7 of the Biggest and Best Archaeological Finds of the 20th Century


The Royal Tombs of Ur, 1926

Sir Leonard Woolley was not responsible for the initial excavations in the Sumerian city of Ur, in modern Iraq, but was responsible for one of the most significant finds in the city of Ur, the Royal Tombs. Woolley headed the excavations at Ur from 1922 to 1934 and pioneered a number of modern, scientific archaeological techniques..

The cemetery of Ur was found in 1926, some four years after Woolley took over the excavations. The city of Ur had been abandoned more than 2000 years prior, when the Euphrates River changed its course, leaving the city in the desert, and the location identified in the 19th century. In total, Woolley found more than 2100 graves, ranging from rich to poor.

The so-called royal tombs, including the tomb of Queen Puabi, are a rich source of art and artifacts from ancient Ur, and the world of ancient Sumeria. The dead of Sumeria were buried with a variety of grave goods, including beads and seals, pottery, musical instruments, and sculptures. In addition, the fine mosaic Standard of Ur was found in the cemetery of Ur. The placement of bodies suggests that some form of human sacrifice was practiced, providing attendants for the wealthy after death.  Documentary sources from Ur describe extensive funerary proceedings.

The tombs of the elite also provide key information on the social hierarchy in the city of Ur. The city had a clear royal and elite class, but also shows evidence of the presence of a class of tradespeople, and of lower classes, buried with only minimal grave goods.