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Treasures from Ur, Abraham’s ‘home town’, to go online

23 August 2013

by David Keys


The nearest branch: a gold, copper, and lapis-lazuli artefact of a goat browsing on a tree, dating from 2600 BC - one of the items that relates to the Ur digitisation project. It was formerly dubbed "The Ram in a Thicket" by the archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley, who had in mind the story of Abraham and Isaac

The nearest branch: a gold, copper, and lapis-lazuli artefact of a goat browsing on a tree, dating from 2600 BC - one of the items that relates to t...

THIRTY THOUSAND archaeological treasures and other finds from Ur, the Mesopotamian city that Abraham is said to have come from, are to be digitally recorded and the results published online. Carried out by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania, it is one of the largest projects of its type ever launched.

The digitisation programme, costing £834,000, will allow scholars worldwide to investigate ancient Ur - the city traditionally associated with Abraham - to an extent that has never been possible before.

It is thought that, in the era usually associated with Abraham, substantial numbers of people from what is now Syria, and possibly northern Israel, were present in east-Semitic-speaking Mesopotamia, including the Ur area. With the digitisation, scholars may be able to identify the houses where west-Semitic names occur on ancient cuneiform writing tablets, and correlate them with particular types of pottery and other artefacts.

Placing the digitised material online could potentially shed important new light on Ur, and the time period (c.2000 BC) traditionally associated with Abraham.

It will, for the first time, make it easy for scholars or, indeed, interested members of the public anywhere in the world to do new research on Ur.

Although the city was excavated by the British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley between 1922 and 1934, many of the finds that he dug up have never been fully researched. Putting all the material online will now enable that to happen. Above all, it will allow the ancient city to be studied afresh by analysis of the finds - and their original find spots - quantitatively, comparatively, and spatially.

Dr Richard Zettler, of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, which is running the project in co-operation with the British Museum, said: "One part of ancient Ur dug by Woolley in the 1930s - dubbed by him 'Area AH', short for 'Abraham's House' - covered more than 7000 square metres, and had more than 50 houses.

"Although he published some details, the picture of these houses, and how ordinary people lived, remains thin. By putting all of the original notes for individual houses in order, and compiling lists of published and unpublished artefacts from the houses - including cuneiform tablets and other artefacts, as well as burials under the floors of the houses - we will be giving researchers the potential to figure out how people lived in their houses, and what sort of activities they pursued day to day.

"Researchers will be able to query the database for, say, weights, and find all the known locations where these were found, plotting them on a digital map of the ancient city to more clearly see concentrations. The distribution of weights might, for example, reflect the geographic spread of commercial activities."

The project, funded by the Leon Levy Foundation, based in New York, will put online all 2350 of Woolley's photographs from the site, along with pictures and/or details of 30,000 artefacts, and more than 10,000 pages of Woolley's original notes. Members of the public have been volunteering to help to transcribe Woolley's handwritten material, but more volunteers are needed.

Some material is likely to be fully digitised and online by next year. Much of the remainder is expected to be online by mid-2015.

The most spectacular artefacts that feature in the project are thousands of gold, silver, cornelian, lapis lazuli, agate, and other treasures from the mid-third-millennium-BC royal cemetery in Ur.

In the time traditionally associated with Abraham, about 30,000 people would have lived in the 220-acre walled central core of the city. Many thousands more would have lived in the suburbs. Between 2100 BC and 2000 BC, Ur had control of most of Mesopotamia, and was the most powerful state in the Middle East.

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