In my last post I addressed my time with Dr. Liz Bloch Smith and my first steps into Greek. This post will be about my time with the Ur Digitization Project.

When I finished up my internship at the Penn Museum last summer, I expressed interest to my supervisor Dr. William B. Hafford about the possibility of working for him on the Ur Digitization Project for my senior service project. I met with Brad again in March to hammer out the details. He said that he wanted to help me through a basic research project about the Royal Cemetery of Ur and added that hopefully I would help him out by learning how to use some of the more basic parts of GIS in order to map the royal cemetery. I left his office excitedly and couldn’t wait to start when I got back from France in mid April. After the meeting, he sent me field reports that Sir Charles Leonard Woolley had written between the years of 1927 and 1931. These were the years in which the primary cemetery excavation took place and as a result gave a good chronological picture of the cemetery excavations. These field reports also gave me a good idea as to the gargantuan size of the cemetery itself. I also took the time to read Leonard Woolley’s popular publication about the excavation. Both of these gave me a solid foundation with which to start my work with the project in mid April.

For those who don’t know where Ur is…

Going into the office on my first day was really great. I enjoyed seeing the people who I had worked with before and it honestly felt really great to be able to go to the Museum every day in order to work on something I really loved. After a quick reorientation with Brad, we decided on my initial project. I was going to randomly select 100 graves from the Akkadian Period (c. 2300-c. 2100). Once this was done I would transcribe all of the documentation associated with them and then enter all of the information I could find about them into an excel sheet so I could look for meaningful correlations in grave type, object frequency, and body position within the graves. The transcriptions were really tough. Leonard Woolley’s cursive handwriting is very hard to read and it was only after a week that I could really make sense of anything he wrote without a little nudge in the right direction from my supervisor Kyra Kaercher.

Just as difficult for me the use of excel . Although I had used the program in science class before, it had always been something I allowed my lab partner to do because it looked difficult. I would still not describe myself as being adept with excel, but working on the project certainly gave me greater fluency with the program than I had before. I learned how to make rows and columns and I even learned a couple of functions which helped me immensely and will continue to help me in the future. Excel allowed me to organize all of the data I gathered from archival materials into one place and I’m glad I had the opportunity to improve my skills with it before going to college.

When I started the project I assumed that results would just happen and that I would be able to make some sort of significant discovery. But, after spending countless hours transcribing and entering data into an excel chart, I was at first disappointing to find that results weren’t as forthcoming as I had expected. Based upon the data which I collected which showed that 50% of graves were simple exhumations, 43% mat lined trough  graves, and 7% Coffin/Larnax graves, I had expected to find very clear differences in the quality of items found in the common types of graves and the much more rare Coffin/Larnax Graves. However, after looking through my object type percentages filtered through grave type, I found that the object frequencies in all of the grave types were relatively similar with not a single object having a variance greater than 10%. I initially suspected that perhaps the greater wealth of the coffin graves had been plundered, but this theory was hindered due to Woolley not describing a single one of my randomly selected Coffin graves as having been disturbed. I had also expected to find clear evidence of certain objects being essential parts of the burial process. Instead I found that the most common object, drab pottery, was only found in 56% of graves. This was surprising because drab pottery is the most simple and common object type found in the Royal Cemetery and I had expected the number of burials that had drab pottery to be much higher. The rest of my object data also didn’t particularly stand out. Several objects were certainly more common than others, but there didn’t seem to a specific group of objects which were always buried with the deceased in the Akkadian period. While these results were initially disappointing, I eventually started to look at them from another perspective. I had learned that there were no essential parts of the burial process and I had also learned how common certain grave types were in the Akkadian period. While these were not the results I was looking for, they were still results.

Digging of Graves
Excavation of the Royal Cemetery

The other technology that I had the privilege of learning about at the Museum was GIS, a satellite system designed to store and analyze geographical data. Brad taught me how to match up historical maps that Woolley had drawn with satellite images taken from Google Earth. He then taught me how to draw specific graves from the Royal Cemetery into the satellite map. My GIS project was to draw in around 1200 graves from the Cemetery into the program. The purpose of my project was to make it easier for scholars to search for the location of specific graves within the Cemetery.  Knowing the location of graves will allow researchers to see if correlations exist based upon grave placement. My task was complicated by the fact that many of the graves existed in large clusters, but I was eventually able to mark down 1178 graves. It won’t be the last time I use GIS and I’m happy I had the opportunity to take my first steps into the technology during my project.

Leonard Woolley excavating with his wife Catherine Woolley

The Penn Museum and its amazing staff have been there for me since I started my journey into archaeology. I’ve learned so much as a result of working at the Museum and I’ve been able to build relationships that I know will last a lifetime. I’m so thankful for everything they have done for me and I hope this won’t be the last time I have a chance to work there.

My next post will be about my first week at Abel. I can’t wait to write it.

All my Best, Julian