Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 25th March 2016

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Digital archive immortalises Mesopotamian city


Mesopotamian clay relief

A 4,000-year-old fired clay relief from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur is one of the artefacts being digitalised by the British Museum and the Penn Museum.

London - Objects and archives from the Sumerian city of Ur, one of the most important cities in Mesopotamian history, are being digitalised under the auspices of the British Museum and the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a project inspired by the looting of the Iraq Museum in 2003.

Curators then realised that there was no inventory of the finds at Ur, which are housed in the British Museum (25%), the Penn Museum (25%) and the Iraq Museum (50%). The wanton destruction of Iraq’s archaeological sites prompted them to act as they wanted to ensure that the finds at Ur would be documented for the benefit of future generations.

In areas of Iraq that fell in the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS) history is being systematically erased: Damage has been done to ancient Mosul (dating back to 25th century BC), Hatra, 3rd century BC; Nineveh, the Assyrian capital from the 5th millennium BC; Nimrud, founded 3,500 years ago; Khorsabad, built between 717-706 BC. The 4th century Mar Behnam Monastery and the Mosque of the Prophet Yunus (Jonah) and his tomb are no more. Numerous other wonders are being erased as are museums and ancient literary treasures.

But Ur, in southern Iraq, will be immortalised online through the Search Ur Online website scheduled to be launched in summer. “We are photographing and documenting all the finds from Ur in our collections, from small pieces of broken pots to ancient cuneiform texts and exquisite gold jewellery. We are also digitising the original excavation photographs, archives, plans and other documents,” Birger Helgestad, project curator at the British Museum, said.

“These varied sources of information will be brought together for the first time and made available in an online database that will preserve the complete finds and records in digital formats for posterity.”

The first excavations were undertaken in 1854 by J E Taylor, the British vice-consul in Basra who excavated the base of the ziggurat. Inscriptions he found there identified the site as “Ur of the Chalices”, the biblical home of Abraham. Further excavations were carried out by the University of Pennsylvania and the British Museum (1918-19) but the best known work was done by British archaeologist Sir James Woolley between 1922 and 1934.

In 1922, Woolley discovered the Royal Cemetery at Ur and the engraved helmet of King Meskalamshar of beaten gold, one of the finest examples of Sumerian workmanship. The grave of Queen Shubad contained the bodies of 64 servants and four harpists all wearing ceremonial dress and jewellery.

“We want the city of Ur to come to life,” Helgestad said. “Music was a very essential part of the lives of the people and we have instruments from Ur, such as lyres and tablets that describe how to tune them. Street performers from India who played music with their monkeys show us that four or five thousand years ago the people of Mesopotamia enjoyed their lives in much the same way we do.”

The photographs uploaded on the site provide a glimpse of the excavations and some of the experiences during the 1920s and 1930s. One photograph shows workmen being inoculated against cholera.

“We wanted to unify the objects so if you are interested in terracotta objects you don’t have to travel to the [British Museum], the Penn Museum or the Iraq Museum. You can find all the information recorded in one place on the website. This is one of the core aims of the Ur project,” Helgestad emphasised.

Jonathan Taylor, the assistant keeper of cuneiform collections in the British Museum’s Mesopotamia Department, is responsible for taking care of the 11,000 cuneiform inscriptions on clay tablets and other objects such as seals.

“It is a good manageable number, enough to get our teeth into but not so many that it is not overwhelmingly possible to cope with them,” he said.

“The inscriptions provide a nice thread through Mesopotamian history. We have professional documents, legal texts and administrative material but we also see how the scribes learned. We have a tablet with a scribe who is just learning and one with a more efficient scribe. There are also iconic temple foundations which describe which king built which temple and for which God.”

Eleanor Robson, the chairwoman of the Council for the British Institute for the Study of Iraq (formerly known as The British School of Archaeology in Iraq) played down fears for Ur, noting that it is in a safe and tranquil province, a couple hours drive from Basra.

“I hope that by the time of the centenary of the discoveries it will be reasonable and normal for researchers and visitors to go to Ur. The centenary of the start of the excavations at Ur will be in 2022, and thanks in no small part to local archaeologists. it is remarkably similar to how Woolley left it,” Robson said.