Mesopotamia’s Glorious Great Death Pit

Archeologist Sir Leonard Woolley made a tremendous discovery in 1922-32 when he uncovered the Royal Tombs in the Mesopotamian city of Ur (today’s Southern Iraq). This fantastic find is referred to as “the Great Death Pit”. As well it should! His excavation team unearthed 1800 graves, 16 of which had such treasures that Woolley titled them “royal tombs”, all dating from 2800-2370 BC. Below the simple graves of the common people lay the elite of Ur. Although commoners also made it to that lower level, as some of this Sumerian royalty were accompanied in the afterlife with their attendants!

Among the richest tombs was that of Queen Puabi (we know her name from a fine cylinder seal of lapis lazuli found in display case 13, above that adorable donkey on the double rein-loop). She lay on a wooden bier, a gold cup near her hand. She not only had 25 attendants in her midst, all laid out in orderly rows and with cups near their hands as well, in her adjacent chamber there were another 65 attendants (talk about getting help in the afterlife!). Some were musicians, as instruments such as a wonderful bull-headed harp, were found buried with their owners. The burial process here is a bit of a mystery, and Woolley had several hypotheses which evolved as he discovered more tombs over the course of the excavation.

Queen Puabi’s intricate headdress and crushed skull

We don’t know the cause of Queen Puabi’s death, but do know that her skull was crushed, possibly from the weight of the soil over the thousands of years that passed before the Royal Tomb of Ur was discovered. She, like other fine ladies of Ur, was buried with an elaborate headdress that was crushed. (The picture above shows what the crushed skull and headdress look like today.) Leonard Woolley was ingenious at extracting these treasures, by way of pouring hot wax (THATMuse Bonus?) over them before lifting them out of the Great Death Pit, so to reconstruct them later (incidentally, Leonard’s wife, Katherine, reconstructed Queen Puabi’s headdress to its original grandeur with gold leaf and ribbons, sprinkling through treasured lapis lazuli pendants.)  The image below is an example of this beautiful headdress. 

But let’s back up a bit, and ponder those attendants… When you think of Human Sacrifice you think of the Aztecs or Mayans, no? Well how can you explain all of her attendants? They can’t have ALL died voluntarily, just because their precious Queen died… Yet all the bodies were laid out in an orderly fashion, evidently peaceful. Originally Woolley thought they had been killed to reflect the King’s (or in this case, Queen’s) power. Yet they all had cups by their hands, just like Queen Puabi. Could this be a poison they voluntarily drank in loyalty Woolley wondered. Or perhaps (more likely to my imagination, although I’m not very subservient) they were sedatives and the real cause was sealing off the chamber to suffocate them. A few of the skulls on the other hand received blunt force trauma, implying a less than servile attitude to killing themselves for their Queen!

However you see it, the story of the Royal Tombs of Ur is pretty grisly – just right for a Skull Scouting THATBrit, or of course a Lady Hunt or Kings & Leaders hunt, wouldn’t you say?

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: