Apr 172016


Today is the birthday (1880) of Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, the British archaeologist who discovered the Biblical city of Ur  of the Chaldees (in modern day Iraq). Ur means ‘city’ in ancient Sumerian and Akkadian. Genesis says that Ur of the Chaldees was the birthplace of Abraham but many scholars did not believe it existed until Woolley’s discoveries. He is grouped with a number of early 20th century archeologists credited with bringing a modern approach to the study.

Woolley was the son of a clergyman, and was brother to Geoffrey Harold Woolley, VC and George Cathcart Woolley. He was born in Upper Clapton now part of the London Borough of Hackney, and educated at St John’s School, Leatherhead and New College, Oxford. He was interested in excavations from a young age.

In 1905, Woolley became an assistant at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. He was volunteered by Arthur Evans to run the excavations on the Roman site at Corbridge for Francis Haverfield and began his archeological career there in 1906, later admitting in Spadework that “I had never studied archaeological methods even from books … and I had not any idea how to make a survey or a ground-plan.” He was one of the first  of the ‘modern’ archaeologists, who excavated in a methodical way, keeping careful records, and using them to reconstruct ancient life and history. Previously archeologists were more in the mold of Indiana Jones – robbing sites of “precious” artifacts and not concerning themselves with the reconstruction of ancient cultures (a popular image of archeology that I wish would die). T. E. Lawrence worked with Woolley on the excavation of the Hittite city of Carchemish from 1912–14.


Woolley’s work at Ur (a joint venture between the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania) began in 1922, and he made important discoveries in the course of excavating the royal cemeteries there, including the Copper Bull and a pair of Ram in a Thicket figurines, one of which is in the British Museum and the other in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.


When this one was discovered, the 16.5 inch figure had been crushed flat by the weight of the soil above it and its inner wooden core had decomposed. This wooden core had been finely cut for the face and legs, but the body had been more roughly modeled. Woolley used wax to keep the pieces together as it was excavated, and the figure was gently pressed back into its original shape. The ram’s head and legs are layered in gold leaf which had been hammered against the wood and stuck to it with a thin wash of bitumen, while its ears are copper but which are now green with verdigris. The horns and the fleece on its shoulders are of lapis lazuli, and the body’s fleece is made of shell, attached to a thicker coat of bitumen. The figure’s genitals are gold, while its belly was silver plate, now oxidised beyond restoration. The tree is also covered in gold leaf with gold flowers. The figure stands on a small rectangular base decorated with a mosaic of shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli. The figure was originally attached to the flowering shrub by silver chains around its fetlocks, but these chains have completely decayed. It is thought that the two figures originally faced each other as confronted animals, and that the tubes going up from their shoulders were used to support something, probably a bowl or similar object. Agatha Christie’s novel, Murder in Mesopotamia, was inspired by the discovery of the royal tombs. Christie later married Woolley’s young assistant, Max Mallowan.


Ur was the burial site of many Sumerian royals. Woolley discovered tombs of great material wealth. Inside these tombs were large paintings of ancient Sumerian culture at its zenith, along with gold and silver jewelry, cups and other furnishings. The most extravagant tomb was that of “Queen” Pu-Abi. Amazingly enough, Queen Pu-Abi’s tomb was untouched by looters. Inside the tomb, many well-preserved items were found, including a cylindrical seal bearing her name in Sumerian. Her body was found buried along with those of two attendants, who had presumably been poisoned to continue to serve her after death. Woolley was able to reconstruct Pu-Abi’s funeral ceremony from objects found in her tomb. Her headdress, cylinder seal and body were formerly on display at the University of Pennsylvania; however, they are currently being displayed in the British Museum in London.


In 1936, after his discoveries at Ur, Woolley was interested in finding ties between the ancient Aegean and Mesopotamian civilizations. This led him to the Syrian city of Al Mina. From 1937–39, he worked in Tell Atchana.

Woolley was one of the first archaeologists to propose that the flood described in Genesis was local rather than global after identifying a flood-stratum at Ur: “400 miles long and 100 miles wide; but for the occupants of the valley that was the whole world.” Such proposals led to some dramatic rethinking of the way Genesis should be interpreted, and, in turn, provoked decades of debate.

Woolley died on 20 February 1960 at age 79.


The ancient Mesopotamians used beer and bread as staples (see https://www.bookofdaystales.com/birth-scotch-whisky/ ).  We also have the earliest known written recipes in cuneiform documenting the basics of cooking in the region.  It is exactly as one might expect. Main ingredients (at least for royal cooking) are meats (fowl, pigeon, mutton, beef, and gazelle), fish, eggs, vegetables and pulses, flavored with garlic, coriander, and cumin. Recipes call for searing the meat then cooking in water with leeks, onions, garlic and flavorings.

It doesn’t take much imagination to recreate something close. The original recipes are translated here:


The originals contain ingredients and some rudimentary directions for cooking. For lunch today I am cooking the following:

©Mesopotamian Rabbit Stew


1 fresh rabbit jointed in 8 pieces
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 green onions, chopped
2 leeks, chopped
ground coriander and cumin (to taste)


Brown rabbit pieces on all sides in a little olive oil in a heavy pot. Cover the meat with broth (or water).  Add chopped leeks and green onions. Season with chopped garlic, coriander and cumin to taste.

Simmer over low heat for 1 to 2 hours (depending on the age of the meat), or until the meat is tender. I usually let the sauce reduce, but you can serve it as a soupy stew as well.

Serve in deep bowls with flat bread.