The Sumerians and the Death Pits of Ur

Lecture transcript

Professor Colin Hope, 7 June 2012

  [intro music]

Adrienne:  Colin Hope is an Associate Professor at Monash University and he's the Director of its Centre for Archaeology and Ancient History. He has participated extensively in archaeological fieldwork around the Middle East, in Jordan, Syria and the Sinai, as well as throughout Egypt, since 1971. One of his areas of particular interest is the interaction between the cultures of the ancient Middle East, Mediterranean and Northern Africa. His teaching and research focus is on Egypt. He has for many years also lectured on the cultural evolution of ancient Iraq and her impact upon the region.

Please join me in welcoming Dr. Colin Hope to the stage.


Dr. Colin Hope:  Thank you very much for that introduction, Adrienne. It's a pleasure to be able to speak to you this evening. In terms of our choosing a topic to talk to you about, because the exhibition covers many millennia, it's quite easy to pick topics to focus on the cultural achievements of ancient Iraq. In selecting this first topic I was inspired by the fact that nothing seems to arouse public curiosity and intrigue like a good murder mystery. In the 1920's and the 1930's the English archaeologist Leonard Woolley made spectacular discoveries in the city of Ur, in the southernmost part of Iraq.

These discoveries were made at the same time as Tutankhamun. These two discoveries, one in Egypt and one in Iraq, vied for popular interest and were broadcast all over the world. The so‑called Great Death Pits of Ur really aroused popular imagination at that time.

In talking about these, what I want to do first of all is say a little about the region, Southern Iraq, and the cultural achievements of the people to whom these burials belonged. You are all aware that the region we're talking about is regularly referred to as ancient Mesopotamia, the land between the two rivers.

The rivers are the Euphrates and the Tigris, which dominate this entire region. The name is derived from ancient Greek. It's not the ancient name for the country. Iraq throughout out the period, from 10,000 onwards right down to the period of Roman conquest, has made incredible contribution to world cultures.

I'm not just framing this from the point of view of Western cultures, but in terms of its own cultural achievement and the impact it had on the region.

I list here just some points for you to consider in relation to this, because above all Iraq is one of the earliest, major, primary cultural zones that we know of in the ancient world. It's a region, where the indigenous culture of the area developed on its own, without major influence from other regions.

In studying it, we can study 10,000 years of cultural evolution. As you will see from some of these points, many things that occurred first in Iraq are encountered later in other regions.

Of great interest is the study of the political organization of the region, where you can document the evolution from cities into city‑state, kingdoms and empires. How people negotiated political systems and how this interfaced with the culture of the region.

In terms of this major cultural interaction, what you need to be aware of. I'm sure everybody knows where Iraq is, but we must think of it in terms of in a global perspective. What you will actually see here, we have the Persian Gulf, Mesopotamia, the two rivers and the Mediterranean here.

I chose to start with this, because when we come to look at the discoveries in the Royal Tombs. The way that Iraq was at the center of an amazing trade network that literally spanned from the Mediterranean, bringing in Egypt, Turkey, through Iraq, over in to Iran, and brought in trade with as far away as Afghanistan.

Iraq occupies this really crucial, central position in the cultural and material interaction of the ancient Mediterranean.

The period I'm going to focus on is at the bottom end of this scale. This time chart will actually show you the period from at the bottom about 4,000 BCE through right down to the domination of the region by the Persians, from 525 onwards.

All of these periods are represented in the exhibition, but what we're going to look at this evening is down here. We're going to be focusing on this period of the Sumerians, the Sumerian Renaissance as it's called before and after 2,000.

That's the date to bear in mind, 2,000 BCE. If you're not used to this term that I'm using, it's the equivalent of the old BC, BCE meaning before the Common Era.

The southernmost part of Iraq witnessed an amazing development in the period from about 5,000. Now, I'm not going to try and cover all of this time span, but I just want to put the discoveries that I'm focusing on in a broader context.

Iraq in the period we're looking at around about 5,000 BC underwent major environmental changes to do with the rising and falling of the sea levels. It produced a very hot environment, but it also produced a very fertile environment, in which early agriculture could really thrive.

These people primarily live in this region here. They also traded all the way up to Northern Iraq and into Syria, and Turkey. Although I'm focusing on that area, it is the network of very wide exchange.

From at least 4,600 you have the beginnings of urbanisms, so city life in Iraq. Some of the oldest cities that we know of in the region are in the southernmost part of Iraq. One of them is the great city of Uruk, you see located here.

This region of the southernmost part of Iraq, we often refer to as Sumer. And the people are regularly referred to as the Sumerians. Now Uruk is an important city, because it shows us this early stage of urbanism, the beginning of settled life with concentration of people in one area, elaborate cultural systems developing wide ranging trade networks and the idea of a city.

Iraq is dominated throughout its history by these so called city‑states, and what you actually find is that round about 3,000, you will have up to 80 percent of the population of Southern Iraq were city dwellers. In the regions around the cities, you actually have smaller settlements that were aimed at producing food for the occupants of the city, and those living in the city could develop a wide range of specializations.

So you have the emergence of complex society in these areas. In terms of just looking a little bit at those regions, this is an artist reconstruction of what they think these ancient, southern Mesopotamian cities looked like, and particularly Uruk.

They cover many hectares. They are walled. They've got main systems of communication within the cities. You have the equivalent of the CBD. You have the heart, the administrative heart of the city, and regularly at that heart is a temple, the famous Ziggurats.

Then you have associated with it the palace complexes. So, you have the interaction between the religious systems and the ruling elite. This is at the core of all of these particular systems. To make the system flourish, you needed zoning. You need the different administrative economic areas.

I just put this in, because if we compare the notion this creates with the previous one. This is a rather sterile, clean environment, and very few cities as we know are like that. If you want to envisage what these ancient cities were like, teeming with people, made of mud bricks, animals everywhere. That is a much better reflection of what these cities were like. Of course, you have the more restrained area in the center.

One of the greatest achievements at Uruk going back to somewhere around about 3,200, and associated with the temple complexes, is the emergence of writing. Professor Sagona from Melbourne in the earlier talk discussed that, so I'm not going to say very much about it.

But, the emergence of writing is connected with the temple administration and the administration of the regions. Here you just see some of the fine relief work that originates from the temple at Uruk, and images reflecting votive statues left by people to show their dedication within the temples.

This is the nearest you come really to getting a glimpse of what these ancient Sumerians looked like. Notice it's a very formalized style that we have, and of course, the writing system cuneiform or wedge shaped script. The oldest examples come from the temple complex at Uruk dating to about 3,200 to 3,300 BCE. It's a writing system that developed from pictographic into phonetic script. It was dominated by the elite, so it was accessible only to a limited range of people.

We have examples of this writing from Uruk and widely throughout the region and as I say it's associated with the temple administration. Here again, just to show you in color what these temple figures look like. You will see that the blocks that give us so much information, but the text are actually also built in to monuments. These are all inscribed tablets, and they are written on clay, which is baked. Then they can be used as a building material. This is why so many of them actually have survived. Here, you can just see them closer.

The Sumerians were great metal workers, craftsman in a wide variety of materials. Here you see a bronze bull with silver inlay. You have magnificent stone figures like this. If you've been around the exhibition you will have gained a sense of this.

What we actually have is a wide and rich, varied, mythology associated with this culture, each city with its own god. One of the more important figures that I want to mention to you is the literary figure, the famous "Epic of Gilgamesh." One of the most famous pieces of ancient literature, where a tale is told about the quest for eternal life by Utnapishtim who has to travel around the world to see how it is possible to gain eternal life.

You will see why I say this is relevant to my talk. When we come to look at the finds at Ur, you need to be aware this broader cultural context and the actual exploration of issues about life after death, the nature of human experience on Earth and then how this is reflected in the archaeological record. You have these interconnecting aspects.

In the period from about 2,100 to 2,200 the focus moves from Uruk even further south to Ur. We begin to see rulers of Ur emerging that try to dominate this entire region. So they move from city‑states, in to smaller kingdoms. The cultural influence of Ur can actually be felt all the way up in North Syria and way off down the Karadel Bay in Iran. It has a wide range of influences.

What you actually find with this culture that I want to move in to then, the dynastic period as it's referred to. You can see where it fits in this chronological chart.

What we actually begin to find then is the move in to a more cohesive community, broader based political units. This inevitably results in greater wealth, and people will express their wealth in their living environments, but also in their funerary environments.

It was this case of if you've got it you can take it with you. It's buried in the tombs. This is an issue to remember. The Sumerian elite were becoming more despotic and they wanted to show their power in the afterlife as well. I will come back to these issues in a moment.

What we then find is that, how does the archaeological record reflects this? We got the sacraments made of mud brick with large numbers of inscriptions. But of course, as I've said, the discovery I want to focus on is that of the tombs at Ur.

These discoveries made in the 1920s and the 1930s, the period that we are looking at, closing up you can see here, Royal Graves at Ur around about 2,500, relating to the Early Dynastic period III.

Now the dates are being changed all the time, and some of the graves date after that period, were from about 2,000 down to 2,400 maybe. So, we are looking at this time span, the end of the dynastic period, and coinciding with the emergence of the Akkadian Empire.

So, these large cities had a vault. Here is Uruk and here is Ur, and you begin to find great similarities in the urban layout of these sites. Walled in closures, the temples and administrative areas right in the middle of the areas given over to market place and people of different socio‑economic status.

But the discovery I wanted to focus upon was made within the temple enclosure, right in the middle. In here, there you see a plan of it. These are the series of very large and impressive religious buildings, and we are going to an area down in the corner, that is down here.

And this is where, these graves which when they were discovered, and you will see why, were called the great death pits. Now of course, that will stray your imagination, and of course, it is a big publicity stunt. It is like curses of the mummies and all of these things. So, these great death pits there, what did they actually mean, and what was found?

So, they are located in a very special area, within the heart of the city, within a religious and politically significant area, that is dominated by the great Ziggurat, these mud brick, stepped structures which are temples. This is the reconstruction.

So the drawing and the reconstruction of the great Ziggurat by Ur Namu just before 2100, and this is it, as it was. I can't say that it is still like this now, but this is it after a certain degree of reconstruction. And you can see that these enclosures dominate it, physically the city.

And of course, there are the centers of large quantities of donations, so that the gifts were made to the temples by high‑ranking people, and so the temples were a major source of wealth. So, this is the region we are going to. Just in case you couldn't see it before, it is down there.

So, in the early 1920s, excavation started in that region, and it is the area in the foreground of the slide. Below these buildings, and this is the excavator, Leonard Woolley, later knighted, and he began in the 1920s, worked through to the 1930s conducting 13 excavation campaigns at the site.

And, it was actually in his fifth season, in 1926 to 1927 that he came across the cemetery. Now the reason for this is, as you will see in a moment, it was buried under much lighter material. This is a very bad image, I know, but if you stare at it long enough, you will just see that what we actually have is, there is the surface of the site with a row of men.

This is where he has to dig to get down to the major cemeteries, and these are all rows of people moving the dirt up to the top. So, that is why it many years to get down there. What he actually found in his three‑month season, in the corner of this enclosure, he came across no fewer than 600 burials in a period of three months.

Now, of course, he then began to focus his work in this area. In his seventh season, another 300 were found. In his eighth season, over 450, and in his ninth season, 350. So, he is going at a fair pace through this cemetery. The richest three were discovered in 1927 to 1928 and 1928 to 1929.

And these were a series of large graves with stone burial chambers at the heart associated with which were large numbers of what he called sacrificial victims, and this is why you get the name, the Great Death Pits of Ur. And I will give you some of the figures in a moment.

Woolley cleared 1,850 graves. So, it is a sizeable cemetery, and he estimated that there were at least two or three times more in this cemetery. So, it is a huge area occupied over a long period of time. But what he did as soon as he discovered these extensive graves, he began to claim that these were the tombs of the ruling elite of Ur, and they were called royal graves.

So, they labeled the Royal Tombs of Ur or the great death pits. So, two of the most spectacular are actually shown here, the so called King's Tomb and the tomb of a queen who we now label Puabi. Now, the first thing I should point out to you is that from these graves, we don't have the names of the occupants.

We don't know their status. We don't know exactly who they were, but because they were large, there were numerous subsidiary burials and wonderful material in large quantities buried with them, they were assumed to be royalty. I will come to that in a moment.

Woolley dated them everywhere through the early dynastic period, early dynastic I, II and III. Now they are generally dated later than Woolley assigned them. But he thought at the heyday, there were at least 660 graves in the early dynastic III cemetery. Now most of them are simple burials.

But 16 are of this very elaborate type, and these are the ones that aroused great interest. Now within the graves, there are only mentions of two kings' names, and they only occur twice. And we don't know whether this tells us who was buried in that grave, or that that person simply took an object in to the next world mentioning that king.

So, I am emphasizing this because it is a problem with who was buried here. Now, in one of the graves, we actually have a person named Meskalamdug, and there is a king of that name, and it is thought that maybe the one that we have found, although we have is a descendant of that earlier one.

We can say that one grave belonged to this Puabi. Her name is actually found there. So, if you look at the architecture, you can see the entrance way coming down here, then the outer part, then the stone‑lined inner burial, and then a subsidiary part here. Now, these graves remember, there is no original plan.

One is cut, then another one is cut, and another. So, they intrude upon one another, and sometimes it is difficult to work out, which part goes with which grave, though there is an issue. What you will see in terms of Puabi, you have the main burial, so it is easy identify which is the main structure.

It is the elaborate one here and here, where you tend to get a single burial. This one is disturbed, but we have the body here in a coffin, and then, outside these large numbers of subsidiary burials. So, how many people were included in these subsidiary burials? Why call them great death pits?

Well, tomb number 789, which is one of the larger ones, had 63 subsidiary burials outside the main one. Tomb 1237 had 73, and that is the maximum number. Others have 40, 23, right down to five, and many of them have none. So notice, not all of the large graves are accompanied by these large numbers of subsidiary burials.

And it is interesting that when at the time the skeletons were examined, now remember it is the 1920s in to 1930s, when they were examined, it was claimed that the majority of the subsidiary burials were those of young women. And tomb 1237, there were five men and 68 women. So, the definite focus was on women who were being buried in these graves.

Now, what do you these retainers tell us? Were they because the main person was a ruler who had power over life and death and wanted servants in the next world? Was it a mark of their rank? So, it was a big abuse of royal power, and a great waste of human resources, although I don't like that term.

Who were in the graves? Were they rulers or were they priests and priestesses who functioned within the cult? What was the actual purpose of this waste of life, and the expenditure upon them? So, let us just look at what was actually found.

Here is the great death pit. So, you can see it is associated with grave 1237. I have written 72 there, there is of course 73. So, notice that the bodies are not random. They are laid out in rows. It's a big messy in the middle there, but you can see that there is a row here, another row, another one, another one coming here, another one there.

You also have carts, and in addition to humans, you have the skeletons of oxen in there. So, there is no way that people were just thrown in, or that they were dead when they were interred. It looks as though, it is a very organized burial system. And it is quite distinguished from the inner burials.

In the main burial, you tend to get one person. You can see the skeleton here in a coffin with a certain array of objects around. Now this is 555, assigned to the Meskalamdug who I mentioned to you. From Meskalamdug’s tomb came this wonderful piece of headwear. Now what is it?

Is it a helmet or a crown? How do you want to interpret this? It is made of gold. You have the ear here. It covers the entire head. You got stylized representation of hair, and then this diadem around it which is presumably a mark of rank. But the use of gold and this rank marker would indicate somebody really quite special in the tomb.

Now such headgear is worn regularly by the highest members of the society. And I am just showing you one of the slightly later date. This is King Sargon of Akkad, the first person to form an empire of this region. And you can see, he is wearing the diadem with this elaborate hair.

Now, this is probably, it is very stylized, but you can see these diadems are a mark of rank, and later they are worn by royalty. Now in these graves, it is suggested that what happened was that people, now we don't know how they were chosen, and I am not sure you are particularly lucky to be chosen to go in to these tombs, but we don't know what the situation was.

And you can see it. So just that they came in, they were organized. We don't know whether they were arranged by status or function, but you can see here, that you have the carts with the oxen, people lined up here, and then the rows of women at the back around the tomb.

And it is suggested because of the orderly arrangement of the burials that they were given poison, and they just lay down and died. None of them, at that time at least, were thought to have suffered any sort of brutal execution. Now I should point out that these graves are buried tens of meters below ground.

The bodies have been exposed to moisture, they are not well preserved, and most of the bones do not survive any longer. So, they can't be examined now with modern techniques to try and workout age, accuracy of sex, and then cause of death. So, there is a problem. Were they mostly women? Were they mostly young women? How did they die?

So, we have a problem here. Now, if we start to look at what's in the grave, so, you can always get a sense of the status from what's buried with the person. So, there are two ways of looking at this. There are status markers and then from the point of view of the technology of the culture we are dealing with, and then, the range of contacts that we have.

Now you saw the grave of Puabi a moment ago, and this is the reconstruction of the major headdress. So, you will see that these people buried in the tombs and the main occupants were given elaborate accoutrements which must be a mark of their status. Now based on the reconstruction, that's what it looked like when it was found.

Remember, the burials, 4,000 years old. They have been filled in with mud, the objects have been compressed. Then there is more and more building on top of them. So, how can we reconstruct them? With this of course Woolley, what you can actually see is that, if you look here, you can see that some of the items are in their original position.

And what's happened is simply the thread has rotted, and Woolley realized this. And so, by carefully collecting and reconstructing these, he can get a sense of what they look like, but Woolley also adopted a very nifty technique.

When he was excavating in these graves, and elsewhere in fact, he actually noticed cavities. We'd be digging down and poke away and you can get the sense of a hole underneath. Now, instead of just digging and therefore removing the hole, what Woolley began to do was to pour wax into the holes. Certainly when he came across items like this, he would simply pour wax over them so that they can be lifted as they are.

What was the result of pouring the wax into the holes? Well it reproduced the shape of objects that were once there, made of wood and other perishable materials, which had completely disintegrated. These cavities turned out to be the remains of incredibly elaborate items of furniture that were buried in the tombs. By pouring the wax in, the wax if you've got the hole, it fills the hole. You can get a sense of the shape of the original piece. Also, if there is any decoration, any inlay, it holds that in place. Woolley was really ahead of his time in this.

What you will find is that there is an incredible array of materials and types of jewellery buried here. The interesting thing is that while there is more jewellery associated with the principal burial, many of the retainers, whoever they are, were also given elaborate gold jewellery. That makes you wonder, are these servants, who were simply poisoned to accompany the other person into the afterlife?

If so, why are they given marks of higher rank? You could be rather cynical and say well it might make up for the fact that their life was terminated rather soon, but that's a modern, cynical notion. What you've got to look at is, for some reason, these people are being honored in the afterlife.

Did they own this jewellery, or was it given to them by the ruling elite, by the person who was buried there, the descendants of that person? They were being picked out in some way. The jewellery actually shows something about who might be there. Let's just look at some of this material. The pieces I'm going to show you are from Puabi. She was given this fantastic crown.

You can see that you have the huge earrings and the necklaces. If you look at this here, these are in the shape of leaves and petals. You then have the beads added, the gold loops and on the top these floral displays, mostly gold, but with silver, carnelian and lapis lazuli.

Let's just look at those materials. Iraq is not a major source of gold. So where's the gold coming from? Where's the nearest major gold reserves? Egypt. Silver, there is some in Iraq but silver you can get from north Syria and Turkey. What about the lapis lazuli? Afghanistan, no other source, Badakhshan. You have to trade all the way through Iran, into Badakhshan to get this lapis lazuli.

You have this incredible network of materials being used in the burials. The items acquire great value because of the length of distance the materials have to come from. Therefore they will have restricted access. Not everybody can have this sort of material. Now, was this the sort of thing that the queen would wear at formal receptions? Is it the equivalent of a crown? What is it? Don't ask me. I don't know.


Colin:  Obviously we then have the bracelets. You'll notice that there's a wide variety of techniques. You have solid gold items. You have hollow tubes like these bracelets. The other bracelet you'll notice a filigree technique where you form a frame and then you inset the precious material into it. You can see here. Solid, hollow and then the filigree. You have granulation techniques where small grains are actually attached. You note that you've got extremely high craftsmanship in all of this material. It's not just the jewellery, there's a range of objects of so‑called daily life. I'm not quite sure how often they would drink from solid gold vessels, but maybe. If you look here, these are the same, just different views. These may be various types of drinking cups. These are suggested to be child's feeding cups but they are not in the burial of a child, they're in the burial of a high status woman.

You'll notice you have things that could have been drawn from daily life. They're in both gold and silver. A wide range of stone is being used, local and imported. Here you have drinking vessels, ointment vessels but it's the jewellery, which strikes one over again. You'll see a wide variety of motifs but the other interesting thing is that you'll actually see particular color combinations being used over and over again. Particularly these combinations of the carnelian, gold and then the black stones, you see this regularly occurring.

In other words, it's likely that there was significance in the colors and the color combinations. Now in some of the texts certain colors are referred to as having magical value. Certain shapes of objects, like flies. The fly is the symbol of rebirth and fertility, so it is significant to include them in the jewellery. The Gold is generally associated with the Sun. It has this value that it doesn't tarnish therefore it represents longevity and eternal life. Red, you can imagine, is the color of blood, blue, the color of water.

Some of these things are quite obvious but they acquire significance in these combinations. You see, over and over again, the use of these petals is very popular. There are wonderful combinations and there are several very nice examples of this jewellery in the exhibition. These headdresses are quite spectacular. There are bands to which very elaborate elements are attached. The upper parts, when they're worn and you move these would shimmer. They actually move, so you have the gold use again.

We then have to ponder on the function of what is being buried in the tomb. If you noticed in that reconstruction at the front you often have people who look like soldiers or armed figures. Are they there to protect the deceased or are they of use in the next world?

You can't look at what we call simply weaponry and say it was placed in the grave because it was an item of combat. Look at this one, you're not really going to hit anyone with this. It's solid gold. It's a lapis lazuli handle, encrusted and then an open‑work sheath.

You've got to be careful. It's high status. Is it a symbolic item that a ruler carried? Is it something that's used in religious practice? The actual craftsmanship is superb. This one, with an ivory handle, a silver mount and then a gold blade. A lot of the material really takes on this symbolic, rather than highly practical value.

You can move to other items of iconography which indicate iconography within the tombs. Over and over again you find the image of the bull. Why? Symbol of fertility. It's a mark of wealth and rank. Remember these people are essentially farmers. It's a farming community. Cattle and grain are a major source of wealth. Here you see the bull's head modeled with gold and then it's given an unnatural beard.

It's not meant to represent an actual animal. It's probably a divine creature. You also see lions. This one's modeled in silver and then the famous ram. When this was found, it's in the British Museum. This was one of two icons that really were promoted from the Royal tombs. You see the ram stuck in the thicket here. It's wood, overlaid with gold and inlaid with lapis lazuli. It's a wonderful piece. When Woolley found it, there was nothing like this before.

What was the association? Remember archaeology in the ancient Near East, from the '80s through to the 1920s, even the 1950s had often an ulterior motive. What was it doing? It was trying to prove the biblical narrative, so things were related to the biblical accounts. "The Ram in the Thicket" and the "Sacrifice of Abraham." It immediately caused extra interest, not just for what it is, but this notion that it might be equitable with biblical stories.

Now in those holes that I mentioned, one type of item that was regularly found was the great harps. The wood is modern, but we've got all the original inlay. The string has gone and they haven't reconstructed that but you have the sound box, the frame for the stringing and regularly bull's heads at the front.

This is the most famous one and so here you have the sound box. Notice the elaborate inlay. This one has the string reconstructed. There's the bull with these elaborate beards. Look at the decoration down the front. You have animals acting out the roles of humans. They're like what the Greeks called "Aesop's Fables."

No connection, and at the top this wonderful image here of a human holding back two human‑headed animals. This was the symbol developed in Iraq and used for many thousands of years to show the dominance of humanity over wild beasts. It's called "The Master of Wild Beasts."

If you notice the figure at the bottom you've got a scorpion with a human head. Here, is a cat playing one of these harps. Then you have a large cat with a mouse serving wine so you have these wonderful parodies. The inlay technique is not only found on these harps but on a wide range of gaming pieces. Here you can see the most elaborate of them.

The final piece I want to mention is this one because when it was found it was called "The Great Royal Standard of Ur." Notice we can't get away from royalty in the interpretation here. What it actually is, the sound box from one of those harps. When they found it they thought it was actually carried on a pole in front in a procession. Of course, it's not. But what it does show is a battle scene.

This character here is undoubtedly more important than the others, notice that he is shown taller. You have one of these carts drawn by animals, attendants, then this main figure. Here, we then see we've got a scene of conflict so maybe this is celebrating a victory by the local ruler, by the local state and on the other side. What do you do after you've had a victory? Well you have a good banquet. At the top we have the figure again with courtiers and then animals being brought in procession at the bottom, which are presumably what is captured as a result of the victory.

Who is actually buried in here? What does it mean? Is this the local ruler and his family who have the power to kill members of their entourage to accompany them into the next world? Now that is an obvious interpretation and if it's right, it really is a remarkable statement of the power of that individual. The power over life and death and that that person is of such status and so important in the community as a local ruler representative of the religious tradition.

These local rulers were the interface between this world and the divine world. They were empowered by the gods to rule on their behalf. Within that context you could say yes! When they enter the next world their status is marked by this wonderful array of material, but by the sacrifice of people to accompany them in the next world.

It might not be quite so easy as that. Were these people performing roles? It is suggested that they may have been acting out the roles of gods. It was because of this and their divine performance that they had the retainers not because of their earthly performance but they take on divine roles. Who are the retainers? Are they the servants? They were equipped rather remarkably. Were they the members of the court? How were they selected?

Was it an honor to accompany this person into the next world and, you were therefore assured a good burial in the association with this person and you could then move onto an eternal life. Like all ancient people, the Sumerians believed in the eternal life. This was the aim. You didn't rush towards it but you wanted to ensure that you did live forever in the best possible way, so this was maybe a way of gaining that.

What is the selection process? Who are these people? It really is the result of popular imagination that they are called the Great Death Pits and these are the Kings of Ur. We don't know who they are. Unfortunately, the bodies are gone so we won't know from that. When it's possible to re-excavate Ur, if Woolley was right, there's many thousand graves left. That might actually solve the problem. I thank you for your attention.

Adrienne:  Please put your hands together once more and thank Dr Colin Hope. [applause]

[music fades]

Transcription by CastingWords

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