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Corroded ruin or hidden treasure? An early dynastic copper-alloy cauldron from Ur

Hazel Gardiner, Project Conservator, Ur Project

My work as Project Conservator for the Ur Digitisation Project continues the assessment, investigation and conservation of objects held by the British Museum that were excavated at Ur (located in present-day Iraq) in the 1920s and 1930s by the archaeologist C. Leonard Woolley. Further information on Woolley’s excavation and the Ur Digitisation Project is covered by a previous blog post. One of my current tasks is to work on the metal objects.

One object in this group, an Early Dynastic II or III (2800–2300 BC) copper-alloy cauldron, discovered in the 1928–29 excavation at Ur as part of a grave assemblage, has proved especially interesting…

In the Middle East department in the British Museum, archaeological metal objects are kept in controlled environmental conditions to ensure that corrosion is limited. Ur metal objects are usually stable although many bear the effects of long-term burial in salty, and therefore corrosive, conditions. This cauldron is a prime example!

fig_1

Cauldron. The rim is detached. The wooden supports across the interior were probably added at the same time that the rim was repaired.

Initially it was a pitiful sight, as the on-going effects of several thousand years of burial have taken their toll. The rim was detached and in fragments and the visible parts of the metal body appeared entirely mineralised, that is, entirely corroded. Soil still lines the interior in a thick layer and this is clearly visible where corroded sections of the vessel wall have fallen away from the exterior. Over this soil layer, the interior of the cauldron is lined with strips of waxed calico (coarse cotton), as is the underside of the exterior.

fig_2

Cauldron interior, showing the waxed calico lining the vessel and the fibrous putty-like material used to repair the rim (now orange-brown in colour).

The waxed calico was applied during excavation as a means to protect the object and possibly also to preserve its shape during lifting and transport. A layer of melted paraffin wax was applied over all. In more recent years, probably the 1970s, an attempt was made to secure the rim: a light fibrous putty-like material, used in conservation from the late 1960s to 1980s, is found over much of the area where the rim would have joined the body.

The cauldron initially seemed so deteriorated that it could be of value only as an example of how Woolley secured finds. As such it becomes an historical object – a document of Woolley’s excavation methods – as well as an archaeological object.

However, closer observation revealed that a large section of the rounded wall of the cauldron body appears to have survived intact, that is with only superficial corrosion apparent (the interior is hidden by the waxed calico). The detached rims also proved to be less deteriorated than on first view. The two handles and their fixings, including large square-headed rivets, are clearly visible and in some parts well-preserved.

fig_3

Cauldron rim section showing the handle fittings and rivets.

Although Woolley’s account of the Ur excavations gives barely a page to metal vessels such as this, he created a detailed typology of metal vessel forms. The surviving elements of the cauldron allowed it to be securely identified as Woolley’s ‘Type 49’, distinguished by its riveted handles, rounded profile and splayed rim.

fig_4

Woolley’s vessel Type 49 from Woolley, C. L., Ur Excavations: The Royal Cemetery, 1934.

This information made it possible to identify a series of findspots (burials), eight in total, where this cauldron-type occurred. Of these, one in particular (PG/1422) includes a cauldron of dimensions that correspond very closely to those of the cauldron under discussion.

fig_5

A drawing from one of Woolley’s fieldwork notebooks of Grave PG/1422. The large cauldron found in this grave is depicted at the bottom left of the image.

Further information is provided by the illustration of this burial from Woolley’s field notes. This shows a large cauldron on its side at the foot of the burial. The fact that the cauldron has what appear to be woven fibres preserved on one side could support the idea that it is the one from site PG/1422. Most Ur burials had a floor of matting. Usually the only surviving evidence of this is where it has been preserved by association with metal. A feature of this type is known as Mineral Preserved Organic remains (MPOs). This occurs when an organic substance, such as textile, leather, or natural or man-made fibre, is placed in contact with a metal surface over a prolonged period. Metallic compounds from a corroding object inhibit the decay of organic materials and can eventually replace the entire structure . In archaeology, this process has ensured the preservation of the exact form of textile and other materials which otherwise would have been entirely lost.

The woven fibres are obscured by paraffin wax, although still recognisable. Woolley observed that the pattern of the matting lining the burial was unusual and included a drawing of this in his field notes. Identifying how much of the mineral-preserved woven fibre survives, identifying whether it is matting, and whether it shows the pattern of the matting identified by Woolley are all questions to be explored.

fig_6

A drawing from one of Woolley’s fieldwork notebooks of the matting that lined Grave PG/1422.

Also of potential interest, is a crust of sooty deposit that is readily visible on the exterior of the cauldron wall and around the rim. Similar dark material is found associated with the inner surface of the cauldron, where a section of soil has broken away from the metal surface. The sooty material is embedded in the soil. It is possible that this material could provide evidence of what the cauldron was used for. For example, traces of lipids (fats) could suggest that the vessel was used as a cooking pot. It would be essential to find a sample untouched by Woolley’s paraffin wax.

My aim is to stabilise the cauldron and secure it, as far as possible, for the future. Close on the heels of this, through investigative conservation, I’d hope to extract information from the object, in the least intrusive manner, that will be of use in future research.

This process requires thought and care. For example, removing the obscuring layer of waxed calico and soil within the cauldron could lead to its complete collapse as it is in such a fragmented state. Further, as the object is also an example of Woolley’s excavation practice, there is an argument for this material to be preserved (providing that it is not now causing damage to the object).

First, the cauldron must be secured, supported and stabilised. Next, it should be x-radiographed to identify how much of the metal of the cauldron body survives and possibly also to help glean information about structure and technology. Further work, including analysis of the sooty deposits, and study of the mineral-preserved woven fibres, would all add to the body of data about the cauldron. Methods of removing wax to reveal the surface of the object and the woven fibres could be explored with the support of Organics conservation colleagues.

How much can be achieved within the bounds of the current project, beyond the essentials, remains to be seen, as there are many more objects to assess and treat, but certainly these observations on this cauldron will be documented and thoughts on future investigations outlined.

So, from what initially appeared an unpromising corroded mass, a range of possible investigations has evolved which could help reveal more about the technology, use and significance of this vessel, not to mention helping establish its identity within a particular assemblage. Although a humble object compared to the known treasures of Ur, it is potentially a small treasure house in itself of culturally significant information.

To conclude, Woolley’s tantalising notes on burial PG/1422:

‘This was the first grave which, on internal evidence, we could confidently assign to a period intermediate between the early cemetery and that of the Sargonid age: Even the Arab workmen recognised that it was in some way unlike any of the 1400 graves previously dug, and were greatly interested in it. Their interpretation of some of its characteristics is perhaps worth putting on record: the unusual richness of his personal ornaments meant that he was young as well as wealthy; the number of weapons in the grave and the great size of the spear-heads meant that he was a fighting man and a warrior of note; but when they saw the cauldron at the foot of the coffin, a cauldron very much larger than the norm, they agreed that he was the leader of a band of robbers or else the sheikh of a clan; for only one holding such a position and having numerous followers to feed would require so huge a cooking-pot’ (Woolley, C. L., Ur Excavations: The Royal Cemetery, 1934, 186-187)

Filed under: Archaeology, British Museum, Conservation, Ur Project, , , ,

Conserving the pottery, terracotta and tablets from Ur

Duygu Camurcuoglu, conservator, Ur Project, British Museum

My job is to assess the condition of the objects from Ur being studied as part of the Ur digitisation project, conserve them if necessary, and guide the project team on handling and safe storage of the objects before/during photography and further digitisation work. I joined the project in August 2013 to lead the conservation and my first responsibility was to assess and conserve the terracotta objects and the clay tablets with ancient cuneiform inscriptions on study loan from Iraq.

Assessing the condition of the Humbaba terracotta mask

Assessing the condition of the Humbaba terracotta mask

Fired clay mask of Humbaba. Old Babylonian, 2000–1700 BC; From Ur, southern Iraq.  (ME 127443)

Fired clay mask of Humbaba. Old Babylonian, 2000–1700 BC; From Ur, southern Iraq. (ME 127443)

There are over a thousand terracotta objects from Ur in the British Museum’s collection, primarily reliefs, figurines and models. Although some are skilfully modelled, the majority are rather crude and mass-produced in moulds. My initial task was to assess each one, selecting those that needed treatment and completing the work before they could be handled and photographed. In the image above, you can see me assessing the condition of one of the important objects from Ur, the fired clay mask of Humbaba, a fearsome monster slain by Gilgamesh in Mesopotamian literature. During the process, colleagues from ceramics and glass conservation joined me to complete the assessment work on the objects, while I undertook the actual conservation treatments.

Following the terracotta objects, I assessed the condition of the pottery from Ur. This large collection comprises over a thousand ceramic vessels in various sizes, shapes, colours and fabrics. This was a huge challenge! Every day, my colleague Gareth Brereton and I went to one of British Museum’s storage areas where the pottery from Ur is housed. We set up a small working area in this room for object assessments, photography and registration. There were a large number of cupboards to go through, so Gareth and I worked almost every morning together, assessing the condition of each pot so that Gareth could handle, photograph and register them. We had plenty of exercise going up and down the ladder each morning as some of the objects were stored very high up in the shelves.

Most terracotta objects and ceramic vessels from Ur are in good condition. They sometimes require conservation work, since they have unstable fragments, flakes or cracks on their surfaces. This is very normal due to the age of the objects, most are which are about 4,000 years old. It is crucial that the necessary treatments are undertaken. When unstable objects are not treated using proper conservation techniques and materials, further problems may occur during storage and handling, such as loss of surfaces and decoration, cracks, breakage of fragments that can make it difficult to study and learn more from the objects.

Stabilising the surface of a large ceramic vessel from Ur

Stabilising the surface of a large ceramic vessel from Ur

I identify any cracks and/or unstable flakes on the surface of the vessels before stabilising them using conservation grade materials. I often use a fine brush or a micropipette for this work. Once the treatment is completed, I enter all my treatment records onto the British Museum’s curatorial database, Merlin, so that the information is accessible across the Museum and the world via the collection online.

Assessing a cuneiform tablet from Ur

Assessing a cuneiform tablet from Ur

I have also been assessing and undertaking conservation on the cuneiform tablets from Ur. It is particularly important to prevent the loss of surfaces from tablets, because that would mean loss of the text.

Apart from undertaking remedial ‘hands on’ work with objects, I am also responsible from supporting the Ur team when they have any questions about handling the objects safely, as some are very fragile. I also monitor the environmental conditions in the Ur project lab and storage cupboards, using digital sensors which we place in different areas. This is important because fluctuating temperature and relative humidity can severely damage archaeological objects. For example, soluble salts in the ceramic and clay fabrics can react very quickly with the fluctuating conditions, resulting in delamination and loss of object surfaces, which can contain elaborate decorations, pigments and reliefs.

When I have completed the conservation work on the pottery and the cuneiform tablets, I will move on to the conservation of other types of objects and materials from Ur, in order to prepare them for digitisation and further study. I am looking forward to the challenge!

Read more about the Ur digitisation project in Birger Helgestad’s post in July.

The Ur Project is supported by the Leon Levy Foundation.

Filed under: Conservation, Ur Project, , , , , ,

Ur of the Chaldees: a virtual vision of Woolley’s excavations

Birger Helgestad, Project Curator, Ur Project, British Museum

An almost 4,000-year-old fired clay relief depicting a nude hero. One of a pair of reliefs made from the same mould (British Museum 1924.0920,74)

An almost 4,000-year-old fired clay relief depicting a nude hero. One of a pair of reliefs made from the same mould (British Museum 1924.0920,74)

I am responsible for managing the digitisation of objects and archives for the Ur Project, a dynamic new collaboration between the British Museum and Penn Museum made possible with the lead support of the Leon Levy Foundation. The project takes the successful cooperation of the two organisations of the 1920s and 1930s at Ur into the 21st century, digitally reunifying the remarkable finds from that site in a state-of-the-art website. We are photographing and documenting all the finds from Ur in our collections, from small pieces of broken pots to ancient cuneiform texts and exquisite gold jewellery. We are also digitising the original excavation photographs, archives, plans and other documents. Our resource will bring together these varied sources of information for the first time and make them available in an online database that will preserve the complete finds and records in digital formats for posterity.

Leonard Woolley excavating an almost 4,000-year-old votive figurine in the shrine of Hendursag (1930–­31)

Leonard Woolley excavating an almost 4,000-year-old votive figurine in the shrine of Hendursag (1930–­31)

Katharine Woolley and Sheikh Hamoudi Ibn Ibrahim, the excavation’s foreman, sorting finds (1928­–29 season.

Katharine Woolley and Sheikh Hamoudi Ibn Ibrahim, the excavation’s foreman, sorting finds (1928­–29 season).

Ur was an important city throughout Mesopotamian history. The excavations, led by Sir Leonard Woolley and jointly sponsored by the British Museum and the Penn Museum, uncovered its famous ziggurat complex, areas of densely packed private houses, and the spectacular Royal Graves with rich inventories of gold and evidence of human sacrifice. These unique finds provide crucial information about third-millennium society, as well as the warfare, music, food, drink, and customs of the period. We can also learn much about the people that lived and died in this city through the study of the cuneiform tablets excavated at the site. There are about 10,000 of these ancient texts from Ur in the partner museums’ collections.

A page from an excavation notebook describing 'Private Grave 91'. We are digitising tens of thousands of pages such as the one depicted here.

A page from an excavation notebook describing ‘Private Grave 91’. We are digitising tens of thousands of pages such as the one depicted here.

By 1922–34 Woolley had developed his methods with an increased emphasis on recording. Thus, the vast scale of the finds he recovered – numbering into the tens of thousands – are contextualised by an abundance of documentation. The British Museum houses the core part of this documentation, such as the original glass-plate negative photographs, and the excavation diaries. We are digitising, indexing, and cross-referencing these indispensable resources.

The most exiting aspect of the project is the rare opportunity it provides to reunify dispersed information. Not only will the collections from the three museums (the British Museum, Penn Museum and the Iraq Museum) be integrated, but also the different categories of object brought together in one virtual space, and, crucially, barriers between object data and archives will be broken down.

A Sumerian schoolboy’s practice tablet with proverbs on one side and rough workings from a maths lesson on the back (multiple views). On study loan to the British Museum from the Iraq Museum.

A Sumerian schoolboy’s practice tablet with proverbs on one side and rough workings from a maths lesson on the back (multiple views). On study loan to the British Museum from the Iraq Museum.

Our website will present for the first time an authoritative set of high resolution images of the entirety of the finds, integrated with all field notes, catalogue records, photos, reports, maps, letters and publications. Importantly, data are recorded in a format that allows them to be fully indexable and extractable, enabling people to create their own datasets and make comparisons with their own research. This approach will also allow us to re-establish lost object identifications and crucial findspot information. We will relate internal references between notes, letters, publications and catalogues, connect artefacts to their findspots on maps, and link wherever possible to other resources with the goal of enabling researchers to analyse the site in exciting new ways. All data are thoroughly cross-referenced, facilitating the study of artefacts all the way from excavation context to current display.

Activity is currently underway at the British Museum and at Penn Museum. We hope soon to be joined by our colleagues at the Iraq Museum. Our work feeds into the shared project website, as well as each museum’s own collection database. Our web resource will eliminate traditional barriers between institutions, enabling people to focus on the material from Ur as a single corpus, disregarding the objects’ current locations. We hope that our approach will inspire the digitisation of other similarly dispersed collections.

The project staff bring expertise in archives, photography, programming, conservation, Assyriology and archaeology. This range of skills reflects the diversity of information being collated, and indicates the great potential for research our resource provides. I look forward to bringing you future updates about the project as it progresses.

Dr Gareth Brereton investigating a terracotta relief from Ur

Dr Gareth Brereton investigating a terracotta relief from Ur

Birger Helgestad is joined on the project team by Jon Taylor, Gareth Brereton, Nadia Linder and Duygu Camurcuoglu. The co-directors at the British Museum are the Keeper of the Department of the Middle East, Jonathan Tubb, and Irving Finkel. The co-directors at Penn Museum are Richard L Zettler and Stephen J Tinney, leading a team comprising William B Hafford, Sasha Renninger, Tessa de Alarcon, Ryan Placchetti, and Shannon Advincula.

The Ur Project is supported by the Leon Levy Foundation

Filed under: Archaeology, Ur Project, , , , , , , , , , ,

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