Gibson discusses the tombs of UrBy William Harms
McGuire Gibson, Professor at the Oriental Institute, is one of the worlds leading authorities on ancient Mesopotamia. He has done fieldwork in Iraq and elsewhere in the region and has published extensively. In this dialogue, he discusses the importance of the Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur exhibition.
What do the tombs tell us about this era?
These tombs come from ca. 2600 B.C., a period 1,000 years after the invention of writing. Writing was at this time in a fully readable stage, and there are not just economic and administrative texts but also myths, epics and the beginning of poetry, so we have much more information about how people lived and how they thought. The tombs reflect this society and its belief system.
What is particularly remarkable about the material in the tombs?
What is remarkable is that so much really valuable material was getting into Mesopotamia, such as gold and precious stones. Most of the stone you see in the objects had to be imported, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, carnelian from the Indus. In fact, there is quite a bit of connection between this cemetery material and the Indus Valley. There are people who see Queen Puabis headdress as being essentially Indian, Indus-related.
What else can you tell us about the graves?
The Ur cemetery stretches over a long period, starting with 3200 B.C. up to about 2000 B.C. They are simple graves, but the people also built tombs that are chambers underground. These are the tombs of the kings, queens and other members of the royal family. In no other period do we see so much disposal of really valuable, important goods except in the Assyrian Queens tombs found by Iraqi archaeologists in the late 1980s.
Queen Puabi was buried with her attendants, who may have committed suicide. What does this tell us about the culture?
What was happening in the Ur tombs was something that is unusual for the whole Middle Eastthat they were burying human beings with the king or the queen. In Egypt, they were burying statues, representations of human beings. In Ur, theres a sense in which kings were seen as so linked to the gods, that to die with them assured you of going to an afterlife. In certain terms it means that these rulers had real control over the people they dealt with. But I dont want to imply that the inclusion of people in the royal tomb was by force. Maybe it wasnt entirely voluntary, but it was being done as something that was accepted, just like Jonestown, Those people werent forced into killing themselves. They believed, as did the people at Ur.
What should people look for in the material on exhibit?
They should pay attention to the quality of craftsmanship. Some things that are very difficult to do, like granulation, were already well understood at this period. By granulation, we mean taking little balls of gold and attaching them to jewelry to give them an extra motif, to give them an extra touch. The musical instruments also are impressive. Archaeologist C. Leonard Woolley was a real genius at digging and was able to retrieve a great deal of information, so you get intact the decoration that had been applied to the wood. For instance the great lyre in this exhibition is decorated in the most remarkable way. It has a bull head with a beard on the front of it, and under the bulls head is an inlay of shell that depicts animals, bears, scorpions, deer, and lions, acting like human beings, playing musical instruments and carrying out certain kinds of rituals. Its the sort of thing you see human beings doing in scenes on stone reliefs and cylinder seals, the things they would do in front of gods or at royal banquets.
Why did they depict animals in this way?
We dont know, unless it is implied that human beings, and specifically kings, are able to control and tame wild animals. That is best shown in the top scene, which is something you really have to look for, because it is right behind the beard. There is a naked hero with a beard who is holding onto two human-headed bulls. That is one of the central motifs of Mesopotamian art. It goes on and on through time. This motif of total control and others involving animals, such as a pair of goats nibbling on a tree, find their way all through Mesopotamian, Persian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine art and eventually into Medieval and Renaissance art. They are repeated on rug designs and fabrics even today around the world.