Middlebury College Museum of Art

News & Events

Treasures from Ancient Iraq Come to Middlebury

July 25, 2006

“Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur”

September 14–December 10, 2006

For immediate release: 7/25/06
For further information contact: Douglas Perkins, (802) 443–5235

Middlebury, VT—On Sept. 14 the Middlebury College Museum of Art will open “Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur,” the nationally celebrated traveling exhibition from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Nearly 200 ancient treasures—magnificent jewels made of gold, lapis lazuli, and carnelian; weapons and other everyday items forged from precious metals; and stunning art objects widely considered to be among the finest ever created—will provide a lavish look inside the art and culture of Sumeria, the world’s first civilization, located in Mesopotamia in what is now modern-day Iraq. The exhibition will be on display through Dec. 10.

The items that were uncovered in the excavation of the Royal Cemetery of Ur in the 1920s represent perhaps the most spectacular portion of the collection at the University of Pennsylvania, a collection that totals more than one million objects. The famed golden “Ram Caught in a Thicket,” the gold, silver, and lapis bull-headed Lyre from the “King’s Grave,” and Queen Puabi’s magnificent jeweled headdress—all of which are included in the exhibition—are but a few of the best-known pieces that will come to Middlebury. The “Ram Caught in a Thicket” is a standard example of early complex art found in most introductory art history texts.

“A number of the works in this exhibition are text book pieces known to scholars throughout the world,” noted Richard Saunders, director of the Middlebury College Museum of Art. “We are extremely fortunate to play host to this incredible collection of objects, which has not left the University of Pennsylvania since the initial division of the collection in the 1920s.”

According to Dr. Richard Zettler, Associate Curator-in-charge in the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s Near East Section and co-curator of the exhibition, “Ancient Mesopotamia as a culture, and material from the royal tombs at Ur as a supreme artistic expression of that culture, has long fascinated the public. With the war and continuing American involvement in Iraq and the region, that awareness and interest has expanded. We wanted visitors to be able to see and consider this important material while Iraq’s endangered cultural heritage, and in fact the endangered cultural heritage of so many peoples today, is so much in the headlines.”

Ur, strategically located on the banks of the Euphrates River in the area traditionally cited as the location of the Garden of Eden, was among the most prosperous of the southern Mesopotamian city-states, and is said to have been the ancestral home of the biblical patriarch Abraham. By 2600 B.C.E. the city was home to nearly 40,000 residents and was both a political and economic power and the hub of an international trade network that constituted the first global economy. It was this period of prosperity that saw the reign of the kings and queens of Ur whose magnificent tombs were later uncovered by Sir Leonard Woolley.

In 1922, British archaeologist Charles Leonard Woolley was chosen by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania to lead the excavation of the site at Ur, where his discovery of the Royal Tombs of Ur proved to be one of the most amazing archaeological finds of the period rivaling even the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb. A particularly extraordinary find was the tomb of Queen Puabi, which had remained miraculously untouched by looters for nearly 4,500 years. The tomb featured a vaulted chamber set at the bottom of a deep “death pit” in which the queen’s body lay on a wooden bier surrounded by the bodies of her many attendants, guards, and musicians all of whom had participated in the funerary ceremony. The queen’s body was identified by a cylinder seal that bore her name carved in cuneiform and written in Sumerian, the world’s first written language.

When Woolley first discovered the tomb of Queen Puabi her head was crowned with an elaborate headdress of gold leaves and a tall gold comb, and she was draped in gold ribbons, strands of lapis lazuli and carnelian beads, chokers, necklaces, and a pair of large, crescent-shaped earrings. Her upper body was covered in strings of beads made of precious metals and semi-precious stones stretching from her shoulders to her belt, while rings decorated each of her fingers. An ornate diadem made of thousands of small lapis beads with gold pendants of animals and plants was on a table near her head. All of these items are included in the exhibition.

In addition to extravagant jewelry and fine examples of decorative art the exhibit also offers a number of more utilitarian items, including gold and silver cups, alabaster bowls, and royal cylinder seals. Cylinder seals were usually made of stone or some other hard material such as gold or bronze, and their curved sides were carved with some sort of design. When the seal was rolled across an impressionable material the engraved design would appear in relief as a mirror image. They were often used as official administrative stamps or to protect containers and doors against unauthorized opening.

Ur reached the height of its prosperity at a time when the art of writing had evolved to more widespread use, and its tombs produced many examples of written texts ranging from detailed administrative documents to narrative texts, including tablets that describe the life of Gilgamesh, the historic Sumerian king and subject of both myth and poetic epic. Indeed, many scholars agree that if Gilgamesh did live his dates would coincide closely with the period during which the Royal Tombs of Ur were constructed. These texts, in combination with the complex art, magnificent jewelry, and the broad base of funerary evidence uncovered in the tombs, serve to reflect the belief systems of the Sumerians and to illuminate how they lived and how they thought. It is through this evidence that the excavation of the royal tombs at Ur made possible a fuller understanding of the true depth and glory of ancient Sumerian culture.

In conjunction with the exhibition the Museum will offer a school program for grades 5–12. There will be a teacher workshop on Sat., Sept. 16, from 9:30–12:00, and guided tours will be available from Sept. 26–Dec. 8. For further information or to register for the teacher workshop and school programs, please contact Sandi Olivo, curator of education, at (802) 443-2248 or olivo@middlebury.edu.

The exhibition is organized by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. At Middlebury it is supported by the Christian A. Johnson Memorial Fund and the Middlebury College Arts Council. It is accompanied by a 200-page full color catalogue that is available for purchase at the Middlebury College Museum of Art bookstore.

The Middlebury College Museum of Art is free and open to the public Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. It is closed Mondays. The Museum is accessible to people with varying disabilities. Parking is available in the Center for the Arts parking lot. For further information, please call (802) 443–5007 or TTY (802) 443–3155, or visit the Museum’s website at http://museum.middlebury.edu/.