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Treasures From the

Royal Tombs of Ur

To Jan. 17 at the

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

The lion’s face that opens the exhibition is familiar yet exotic. The silver sculpture is a remarkably naturalistic rendering, but it was made in an era known for stylized, one-dimensional representations of human and animal forms. And it is from Ur, a city that has come to be known as the most ancient place on earth.

The objects in “Treasures From the Royal Tombs of Ur” are certifiably antique—most of them are 4,500 to 4,600 years old—but Ur is not actually the most ancient city archaeologists have unearthed. Older sites have been found near the Sumerian city-state in the area once called Mesopotamia (Greek for “between the rivers”), which is now mostly in Iraq, as well as in areas that are now in Egypt, Pakistan, and China. There are much older pieces across the Mall in the National Gallery’s “Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology.”

But Ur owes its metaphorical prominence—reflected in terms like “Ur-text”—not to archaeology but to the Bible. According to Genesis, it was the birthplace of Abraham, and thus the hometown of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions.

The people of Ur practiced a sort of monotheism, although it was not much like the religions now favored by their spiritual descendants. Ur’s deity was Nanna, the moon god, whose temple dominated the city and who was its metaphysical “owner.” Nanna wasn’t the only god, however. Other gods owned such nearby Sumerian city-states as Uruk and Eridu, and these various deities were worshipped as lesser gods in Ur. Upon their deaths, Sumerian rulers became divine, too—which is why the closing of one of their tombs was such a momentous event. The bodies of the kings and queens were interred with gifts for the gods, as well as with as many as several dozen retainers and musicians, who were apparently obliged to drink poison at the end of the entombment ceremony.

This is partially conjecture, but archaeologist Leonard Woolley did find “death pits” in the 16 largest of the more than 1,800 tombs he and his excavators unearthed in 1922 to 1934. He called these “royal” tombs, although some scholars argue that they may be the resting places of priests and priestesses rather than kings and queens. The two functions were probably related, so Puabi—whose tomb provides many of the most spectacular objects in the show—may well have been both Ur’s queen and Nanna’s priestess.

Ur was not an entirely unexpected discovery. The site had been known before Woolley arrived—an Italian nobleman visited in the 17th century—but it didn’t become a safe place for Western archaeologists until after World War I, when Britain replaced the Ottoman Empire as the area’s colonial overseer. Woolley’s excavation was sponsored by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, which split the uncovered artifacts with the Iraqi government. Most of the pieces in this exhibit belong to the University of Pennsylvania, which has sent them on the road during a three-year renovation of the galleries that normally hold them.

Much of what Woolley found is remarkable in part for what it’s made of. Ur’s major tombs were filled with gold and silver, neither of which is found in the area. In fact, virtually everything that survived 4,500 years underground at the site was imported, either as finished product or raw material. Sumer was a land of sand, water, and mud, and its ancient economy remains mysterious. It must have been agricultural, yet Sumer’s population was overwhelmingly urban, and wealthy enough to import not just precious metals and gems but also timber and blocks of stone from distant sites in what are now Pakistan, Afghanistan, and perhaps even central Asia. Ur’s tombs held little bronze, a metal whose secrets many cultures had yet to master in 2600 B.C.E. but which was clearly unimpressive to Sumerian rulers.

Perhaps Ur had the ancient equivalent of an information economy. Sumer is considered the birthplace of writing, and Woolley found much evidence of sophistication. The lyres that he was able to reconstruct, for example, had 11 strings, whereas contemporary Egyptian ones had only four. (The wood and strings had decayed by the time Woolley found the lyres, but he made plaster impressions that accurately represent their size, shape, and detail.) Still, it’s impossible to say how Ur got so rich.

As reflected in this exhibition, some of that richness is simply stuff, the Chevy Chase or Rodeo Drive artifacts of its time: gold and lapis lazuli jewelry; beaded necklaces; a shell-shaped cosmetic container; a gold dagger; silver bowls in an oval shape distinctive to Sumer; a tumbler made of electrum, an alloy of gold and silver—and perhaps used for the ritual drinking of poison..

Sumerians apparently thought of death as part of an endless cycle; Nanna the moon god was buried every morning but reborn every evening. Maybe this explains the lack of images that depict death’s torments or the afterlife’s punishments. There are no demons here, no monsters that dwell at the edge of civilization or consciousness. There aren’t even many wild animals. That silver lion’s head (with eyes of shell and lapis lazuli) is impressively realistic, but not ominous. It’s no more threatening than the other animals depicted by Ur’s skilled artisans, which include bulls, rams, and onagers—powerful animals, but ones that had been safely domesticated.

The Sumerian notion of the animal kingdom is another enigma. The lion’s head depicts the animal accurately, but other images combine animal and human characteristics. The bull’s head on the exhibition’s great lyre has a man’s hair and beard, which are more stylized than the face, ears, and horns. The same instrument’s front panel depicts bulls with human faces; lions, hyenas, and asses engaging in various human tasks; and a man with the body of a scorpion. Unusual, but not especially disturbing. Although we really don’t know much about Ur in the third millennium B.C.E., these artifacts don’t seem as fierce as those from other, more recent sites in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Was Ur a peaceable kingdom?

In a sense, all Westerners are children of Ur. The Epic of Gilgamesh, which recounts the adventures of a legendary Sumerian king, offers the oldest known report of the Great Flood, later incorporated into Genesis. Nanna’s temples may be just curiosities today, but after Ur’s decline, moon worship survived and evolved in the Middle East, where the name for a phase of the quarter moon, “il” or “ilah,” became the Hebrew and Arabic words for God, “Elohim” and “Allah.” (Unlike Hebrew and Arabic, Sumerian was not a Semitic language, but there’s much evidence that Abraham was not the only Semite who lived in the region.) The remains of Ur may never be fully understood, and yet they don’t seem all that strange. CP