From 1922 to 1934, Sir Leonard Woolley led the expeditions at Ur in modern Iraq, funded by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania. I am currently reading his 1929 book, Ur of the Chaldees, which I added to this web site’s Bibliography (see that tab). I have also added Dr. Woolley and some related links to this web site’s Archaeologists tab.
Dr. Woolley’s excavation at Ur popularized archaeology in the Roaring Twenties, and opened the moderns’ eyes to the fact that Mesopotamian civilization had been “civilized” millennia ahead of the Egyptians, which had previously been considered the oldest civilization. I doubt anything will communicate these facts to you better than the video link Treasures from the Royal Tombs at Ur which describes Woolley’s advanced excavation practices, the people doing the digging, and the artifacts found in the royal tombs.
Royal Standard of Ur: War side. Source: Wikipedia
Royal Standard of Ur: Peace side. Source: Wikipedia.
Digging a little deeper in the video link The Royal Standard of Ur you will get a firsthand pictorial look at how the residents of Ur depicted their city’s hierarchical organization and their order of battle for their wars. After you have watched those two videos, we will use that information as a foundation to proceed below.
Burial Headdress of Queen Pu-abi of Ur
It is hard to comprehend a civilization that commands the sacrifice (or self-sacrifice) of some of its own elite to accompany their deceased king (or queen) into the afterlife. Among the excavated burial monuments of Queen Shu-bab (translated by Woolley) now translated Pu-abi (identified by her lapis lazuli cylinder seal) and her husband (no ID), the tomb of a king whose cylinder seal identified him as “Mes-kalam-dug the King,” and among other royal tombs that had been long-ago pillaged, were hundreds of companions who had walked or rode into the tombs’ anterooms and died. Wooley thought each drank from a cup of poison, perhaps opium, because all the bodies were wearing jewelry which was intact and in place on their bodies. No one really knows how they died because the skeletons were crushed by the collapsing ceilings and tons of falling refuse and dirt over the ensuing millennia.
Human, Animal, and Wagon Sacrifices waiting at Royal Burial at Ur — British Museum Agatha Christie Exhibit
A cross-section of the people who died at the tombs would include women bedecked in headdresses of lapis and carnelian beads from which hung ornate pendants, women wearing gold or silver headbands, ranks of soldiers bearing gold and silver spears, other soldiers positioned as guards with spears and short swords, soldiers beside their donkeys yoked to chariots, soldiers beside their oxen yoked to wagons, and so on. Wooley thought the dead were the “court” and personal attendants of the dead royalty. The collateral carnage around the dead royals gives new meaning to the now popular term “regime change.” It was nice to be in the elite, until the boss died.
We can only speculate about the motivations of the hundreds of these “sheeple” who allowed themselves to be sacrificed in this way. Since we do know that in Sumer, as city kings began to expand their borders through violence, they began to be referred to as deities. As we shall later see in Egypt, there were similar ritual sacrifices around the tomb chambers of predynastic Pharaohs, also fancying themselves as gods, which carried over into the first few dynasties of the Old Kingdom. In Mesopotamia, we must work with what we have, and can only conclude that the sacrifices were willingly accepted by the victims through a twisted and evil theology—or a temporary perversion of a long-standing traditional theology which better treated the elites—or there were a few “regime changes” where “throw the bums out” took a murderous turn. We have many historic examples of each of these alternatives in other places. But, we cannot know here.
I highly recommend Woolley’s 1929 book for those who’d like to go into greater detail (see Bibliography).