Ur, in southern Iraq, is the best known of the Sumerian cities, thanks especially to the well published excavations of Leonard Woolley (1922-1934).Ur is a `tell', an artificial mound consisting of the accumulated remains of habitation. In the case of Ur, habitation here lasted c. 4000 years, from the fifth to the mid-first millennium BC. Since mud brick was the main building material, the mound rose higher when brick buildings went out of use and new buildings were erected on top.
The city of Ur was thus constantly renewed over a long period of time. It was large, too, occupying an area of c. 60 ha. How, then, does an archaeologist investigate a city with such a long history?
Even in the nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, when excavating was faster than it is now, the archaeologist could still only sample such a site. Removing each habitation layer from such a vast area would be impossible, even if the layers were neatly deposited - which in reality they never are. One can only excavate where convenient, such as along the sides, or in selected areas from the top, to descend and find representative sections of the city at different periods in its long history. Thus Ur is quite different from Amarna (a single-period site), Pompeii, and the Athenian agora (where stone and baked bricks could be reused, and thus a high mound was not formed), but very typical of the ancient cities of the Near East.
The buildings excavated at Near Eastern tell sites do not survive well. If exposed to rain, the mud brick dissolves; a modern roofed structure is needed for protection, rarely provided because of high costs and practical problems. Further, the need to remove higher levels of habitation in order to sample earlier periods necessitates destruction of architecture. As a result, the modern tourist cannot expect to visit the site and step into an environment that might evoke the ancient reality - a striking contrast with, say, Pompeii. The ancient Near Eastern city typically lives on after excavation not in its built environment, which has quickly disintegrated, but in books, articles, photographs, plans, and any objects that might have been recovered (clay tablets, seals, pottery, figurines, metal objects, etc.).
Woolley's excavations yielded much information about Ur, especially about its city walls, religious center, tombs, and houses. Ur was located on a promontory between an arm of the Euphrates River and a navigable canal. Although approachable by land only from the south, the city was encircled by a mud brick wall, 27m thick. These walls were built late in Ur's history, in neo-Babylonian times (sixth century BC), but surely followed the placement and appearance of earlier walls.
The religious center was dominated by a ziggurat, built by king Ur-Nammu during the prosperous Ur III period, c. 2100-2000 BC. A distinctively Mesopotamian construction, a ziggurat is a stepped pyramid made of mud brick, a series of platforms one on top of the other, each smaller than the one below, with a temple on top. In the flat landscape of southern Mesopotamia, it resembled a mountain, and allowed people to reach up to the gods. Unlike Egyptian pyramids, ziggurats were never tomb buildings.
Residential districts consisted of narrow, winding streets, the sign of a city developing organically over a long period of time, not planned at a single moment. Houses were plain from the outside. Inside, there was a central court, with rooms around it. Woolley believed they had two stories, but this has been doubted. Most rooms opened onto the courtyard. The function of rooms is rarely certain. As at Pompeii, portable furniture must have meant that functions were constantly changing. Burials were made below the floors of the houses, in tombs of various types, with grave goods.
The most famous tombs are the 16 Royal Tombs of the Early Dynastic period, c. 2600-2350 BC, part of a large cemetery containing some 2000 graves. These graves consisted of built chambers of brick and/or stone used for multiple burials. In these tombs found intact, the deceased were accompanied by wonderful objects. Striking here was the discovery, on the ramp leading down to the chamber, of draft animals, the wheeled vehicles they pulled, and skeletons of soldiers and female attendants. The greatest number of bodies was 74. It is assumed these people were killed at the time of the burial. This practice is unique to Ur in this period, and not explained in any texts.