Accessibility links

Culture: New York Exhibit Shows Splendor Of Ur In Mesopotamia

  • Robert McMahon

Riches from the royal tombs of Ur dating back more than 4,000 years are now on display at a museum in New York. The exhibit shows how highly developed Sumerian culture was. Organizers attribute the sophistication to a complex trading system that branched into Central Asia. Correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

New York, 21 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The discovery of the royal tombs of Ur almost 80 years ago in southern Iraq has been hailed as one of the great achievements of Middle Eastern archaeology.

Ur was a city-state in ancient Mesopotamia, renowned for a culture that invented the wheel and was one of the first in which people could read and write.

But the treasures found in Ur by British archaeologist Sir Leonard Wooley gave historians a new appreciation of the level of Sumerian culture. Nearly 200 of these treasures, now on display at the Morgan Library in New York, show a degree of artistic accomplishment previously unknown.

Weapons and tools show a sophisticated knowledge of metallurgy. The wide array of jewelry -- from gold, double-hooped earrings to beaded necklaces -- indicates an attention to fine detail as well as lavish living. The stunning Great Lyre, fronted by a large bull's head, helps signify the role of music in Ur society.

For Donald Hansen, one of the organizers of the exhibit, the items on display highlight the importance of the Sumerians in early civilization. Hansen says he's pleased at the reaction of visitors to the exhibit.

"Everyone knows how wonderful Egypt was in the early periods and the great craftsmanship and the wonderful art that was produced, but I don't think the general public had any idea of what the Sumerians -- which is where civilization began really -- what they were doing."

Virginia Auster from Norwalk, Connecticut, is a visitor to the exhibit. She says she's surprised by the high level of craftsmanship and ingenuity.

"There's a lot of very detailed mosaic work that you see around here. They were so sophisticated."

The art on display was made of metal, stone, fine wood and other materials, nearly all of which was acquired in trade that stretched into Central Asia.

The exhibit organizers say the Sumerians went to northern Afghanistan for lapis lazuli, a deep blue stone with veins of white and gold. The calcite used in some of the objects can be traced to eastern Iran, northern Afghanistan or southern Turkmenistan. Gold, tin, copper and silver are believed to have come from Iran, Turkey, Oman and Afghanistan.

One of the finer objects on display is a gold vessel shaped like an ostrich egg. It is inlaid with lapis lazuli, red limestone and shell. An associate curator at the Morgan Library, Sidney Babcock, says such items are likely the product of a complex administrative system that brought valuable commodities to Ur in exchange for grain and animal skins.

"Already by the third millennium and even earlier, there's a tremendously complex trade network for these precious materials and this is probably already in place by the seventh millennium BC, and obviously the quantity and the quality of the things in this exhibition -- this is not the beginning of something -- it's almost the fulfillment and the culmination of a long period in development."

The items on display represent a quarter of the treasures excavated from 1922 to 1934. The British Museum also possesses a portion of the items found and a larger portion resides in Iraq. And many more treasures are believed to be still buried in Ur and many other sites in southern Iraq.

For Babcock, the riches found at Ur and those yet to be uncovered are important for all cultures.

"It's a very rich country in archaeological remains, and it's important to every culture of the world and certainly to the West, if not to the East."

Both Babcock and Hansen expressed regret over the fact that the troubles in present-day Iraq have disrupted archaeological work. Hansen is a professor of ancient Middle Eastern archaeology at New York University and has been part of archaeological digs in Iraq since the early 1950s. He last worked in the region in the period between the Iran-Iraq war and the Gulf War and says it is filled with treasures

"We visited limitless things that are there. The whole area is speckled with tels, which are mounds, which are the remains of ancient cities, and it's rich and it always will be rich."

The treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur are part of the permanent collection of the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The objects have been cleaned and presented in a way not seen before and are gaining wide exposure. The exhibit remains on view in New York until 10 September. After that, the exhibit travels to Chicago and Detroit.