British Museum and the Penn Museum Join Forces to Create New Web Resource of Famous 1922-34 Excavations at Ur in Iraq

News Courtesy of Penn Museum -- A $1.28 Million grant from the Leon Levy Foundation fosters this new collaboration around the ancient site of Ur. The British Museum and the Penn Museum are embarking on a dynamic digital collaboration, made possible with $1.28 million in lead support from the Leon Levy Foundation that will provide unprecedented access to the archaeology of the ancient kingdom of Ur.

This new online resource will open the remarkably successful Mesopotamian excavations conducted by Sir Leonard Woolley on behalf of both museums from 1922–1934—excavations which brought to light some of archaeology’s most extraordinary and famous finds—to scholars and the public alike.

At the time, the public was riveted by the opulence and drama of a 4,500-year-old Royal Cemetery at Ur (in modern-day Iraq), where rulers were discovered accompanied by attendants, soldiers laid out with spears and helmets, and musicians with instruments. Woolley’s excavations uncovered a rich history of this great city, told through objects of royal and of daily life, a plan of the city, and many cuneiform inscriptions. Through these finds scholars have been able to reconstruct the lives of the people of ancient Mesopotamia: the music they listened to, the board games they played, and the school curriculum their children followed.

The Woolley’s campaigns generated exemplary records, now housed, along with the objects, at the British Museum, the National Museum of Iraq, and the Penn Museum. The new project, “Ur of the Chaldees: A Virtual Vision of Woolley’s Excavations,” will combine all available information about each of the objects, along with the extensive maps, drawings, photographs, and archival field records that provide essential context, in a rich, searchable website that will bring out the Ur story as fully as possible.

Find spot, style of manufacture, purpose, and date will be available at your fingertips, together with drawings, photographs, and—in the case of inscriptions—full translations. This will enable online visitors to follow individual objects or access a multi-level site overview in a way only possible in the case of Ur—a site that also drew many famous participants and visitors, including Agatha Christie—and use new digital tools that may well advance the understanding of this ancient society.

The British Museum and the Penn Museum are in communication with colleagues at the National Museum of Iraq about the project and hope to develop an active collaboration as the project progresses.

“This is an innovative project and a most welcome collaboration, designed to open up public and scholarly access to one of the most important excavations of the 20th century,” said Dr. Julian Siggers, Williams Director, Penn Museum. “As we enable wider scholarly access to this material, we believe our understanding of Ur and the ancient Near East will improve dramatically. “

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, said, “I am delighted that through the generosity of the Leon Levy Foundation these sensational discoveries—housed among these three great museums—can be presented to a worldwide audience of millions.”

Shelby White, Founding Trustee, the Leon Levy Foundation, said, “Woolley’s work at Ur revealed much of what we know today about ancient Mesopotamia, and this project has the potential to discover new insights. The Leon Levy Foundation has long supported archaeological publications in print and, more recently, digital archival preservation. The Ur project takes us further into the expanding world of digital scholarship. We are delighted to be part of this effort.”

“Ur of the Chaldees,” which is expected to be complete in 2015, will be unveiled in stages, with the first tranche of information available to scholars in a beta site as early as mid-2014.

Background on the Site and Excavations

Researchers at Expedition House.Ur, located near modern Nasiriyah, was one of ancient Mesopotamia’s largest and most important cities, occupied from ca. 5500 to 300 BCE. An important city-state during the third millennium, it rose to the rank of imperial capital around 2100 BCE. After the fall of the Ur III empire just a century later, it functioned as a major city within the long series of empires that followed. Ur is unique. It offers the opportunity to relate archaeology and text in a way hardly paralleled by any other Mesopotamian excavation. The joint British Museum and Penn Museum excavations of 1922–34 encapsulate the moment when early large-scale explorations gave way to the advent of modern scientific excavation techniques.

Thus the vast scale of the finds recovered—numbering into the tens of thousands—are contextualized by an abundance of documentation. The excavation finds have been made available in a stream of exhibitions, books and articles. In particular, Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur (1998, University of Pennsylvania Museum), the book and catalogue of the Penn Museum traveling exhibition, and the parallel Ur Excavations and Ur Excavations: Texts series, jointly published by the British Museum and the Penn Museum, presented the results of the excavations in the best manner possible in the pre-digital era.

The Penn Museum (the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) is dedicated to the study and understanding of human history and diversity. Founded in 1887, the Museum has sent hundreds of archaeological and anthropological expeditions to all the inhabited continents of the world. With an active exhibition schedule and educational programming for children and adults, the Museum offers the public an opportunity to share in the ongoing discovery of humankind's collective heritage.

The British Museum was founded in 1753, the first national public museum in the world. From the outset its mission was to be a “museum of the world for the world.” This ambition still lies at the heart of the Museum today. The collection tells the story of cultural achievement throughout the world, from the dawn of human history over two million years ago, until the present day.

The Leon Levy Foundation, founded in 2004, is a private, not-for-profit foundation created from the estate of Leon Levy, an investor with a longstanding commitment to philanthropy. The Foundation's overarching goal is to support scholarship at the highest level, ultimately advancing knowledge and improving the lives of individuals and society at large.