Update on Ur

It's been a long time since I've updated this journal about the current workings of the Ur project. We've gotten a generous continuation grant and will thus be working for at least two more years. I'm writing several articles and of course museum blog entries, several of which are already out:

Most recently, I wrote an article for the Center for the Study of Architecture about the approach to digital data in our project, largely pointing to our aims but also asking questions that we are struggling with, how do we standardize this so it can be most easily used? How can we get more people involved?

I also wrote a blog entry on archaeo-metallurgical work, the investigation of many of the gold objects from the Ur tombs by visiting German scientists.for the month of March. For the month of April we began looking at clay figurines, plaques and reliefs, so my blog entry for that month was appropriately about two two of those objects.

I'm working on several other articles and entries, and I tend to update more frequently through twitter and occasionally on facebook.

Ancient Housing and Town Planning at Ur

I've been spending much of my time lately researching the domestic areas of the site of Ur. Woolley uncovered a large number of houses--of the Isin-Larsa/Old Babylonian period in particular, roughly 2000-1700BCE--and I've been looking in to his field notes, initial reports, and published reports as well as later analyses to see how much more information we might be able to glean about house form, street traffic flow, and overall planning.

It's not easy going. Even though Woolley did a good job for his day, he was working much more quickly than we would today and that generally means less detail in recording. So we end up with tantalizing possibilities but no way to confirm them. Perhaps one day we will be able to dig again at the site, connecting Woolley's excavations to modern analytical techniques. For now, we have to look closely at what Woolley said and test theories with the data available. Of course, much of that data is not readily accessible, which is why we are turning it all digital and getting it ready to be released on the web. That takes time, but we still hope to be able to get a research website up in the next year or two with information on as many of the artifacts housed in Philadelphia and London as possible, as well as all of the archival documents in the two museums. Hopefully the same can be done for material in the Iraq National Museum as well.

As we gather the data, my colleagues and I are looking at various elements of the site and the artifacts to show how important the unpublished material is and to enhance the available information through modern examinations of some of the objects. We also find interesting questions about the way the excavation was conducted, and some answers in the records of the excavators. For example, I was curious about the street names Woolley assigned to the domestic areas. They are rather typically English and some appear in English towns. Some have suggested Woolley adopted names of streets from Oxford, where he attended university, but the street names aren't found there. Instead, many come from Bath. Woolley bought a house there in 1920. He spent a lot of time there, especially in the summer of 1926. When he returned to Iraq for the 1926-27 field season, he uncovered area EM, the first of the large domestic spaces he excavated and 3 of the 5 street names he assigned have direct correlates in the centre of Bath.

This is a photo taken in 1926/27 of Quiet Street at Ur complete with house numbers. It is one of the streets that appears in Bath but not Oxford and that Woolley assigned to area EM.

For more on this and other issues of the domestic areas, see my latest museum blog post at the Penn Museum site.

Still more Ur

This month's museum blog entry about the Ur project covers the idea of a 'standard house' at the site in the Old Babylonian Period. In fact, there is a lot of debate about just what the 'ideal house' was. There is a good deal of difficulty in reconstructing a house above the remains that still exist. Just how high was the roof? Was there a second floor? How many people lived in the typical house? These questions are far from answered. For example, the bottom of stairs often appear in Ur houses, but did they lead to the roof or to upper floor rooms? There is competing evidence.

Regardless, Sir Leonard Woolley felt he had enough evidence to suggest the standard type of house for the period. He even had his architect, A.S. Whitburn, make a watercolor image of what he felt that house looked like and I include the image in the museum blog entry. In his mind, the house had two floors with a gallery walkway around the upper courtyard to provide access, looking much like a standard townhouse in Baghdad in the 1920s. Although possible, it is far from certain that this was the case. Check out the blog entry for more.

And for more information about the project and its progress so far, you can watch my presentation from this year's Archaeological Institute of America meeting. It was held in Seattle from Jan 3-6 and the presentations from the digital session were recorded and placed on youtube.


New Museum blog entry on Ur

Last month I decided to cover the living conditions at Ur in the museum blog (click to read that entry). I submitted the entry at the end of December, but with the holidays, it didn't actually go up until last week. In the entry, I discussed the building of the Expedition House with direct quotes gleaned from letters that crowdsourcing helped to transcribe. Since it was the holiday season, I also included a mention or two of how the team spent that time of year out in the desert.

Woolley and crew worked at Ur typically 5 months every year (usually Nov-March), so their winter holidays were spent at the site. They took at most 2 days off, and usually not even that. Still, they had a little time for frivolities like trying to make a holiday cake.

Hope your holidays were great. If you want to help transcribe letters and notes from Ur, go to


University College London; Ur Digital Engagement talk

Last month when I was in London, Dan Pett, a friend of mine at the British Museum asked if I would like to give a short talk about the Ur project at a conference he was helping to organize at University College London. I accepted and now that talk is on YouTube. It's a bit dark in the auditorium, but they've done a good job of integrating video with my slides. Dan said I'd have about 15 minutes to talk and I was pleased to note that the video goes 13:52 showing that I was in my time. I probably spoke a bit too quickly at times, though, knowing I wanted to get through a lot.

If you'd like to see the talk, here's the link.

Museum Blog Entry November

I've been travelling a great deal this month, reporting on our first year and attempting to secure funds for the following three years. So my blog entry on the museum website this month is about the scope of the excavations rather than any one artifact. I show field photos of the excavation from the air and of the large numbers of workers employed in the excavation itself. Here's one such, the end of season 1926/27 photo:

In this field photo, number 912, we see some of the workers as well as (at bottom left) Max Mallowan, Katharine Woolley, and Leonard Woolley.

Hundreds of local workers were employed every year with only a few archaeologists present. In the museum blog entry I mention that in the final year of excavation Woolley laments that he could only hire 170 workers, the most he could adequately supervise with a very small staff. considering he only had his wife and one assistant with him as staff, it seems adequate supervision would be difficult. One thing I forgot to mention in the museum blog, however, is that Woolley did have the very able assistance of Hamoudi, his Arab foreman, and Hamoudi's sons as field supervisors. Hamoudi worked so closely with Woolley, even earlier than the excavations at Ur (he began working with Woolley at Carchemish in Syria before WWI) that he was quite familiar with Woolley's methods. Even with Hamoudi, however, we can still wonder if 170 workers could be supervised completely. Nonetheless, they did accomplish amazing things, things we are still analyzing and learning from today.

Museum Blog Entry

I've put a new blog entry up at the museum site (click the picture to be taken to that entry). This one is about a silver pin from the Royal Cemetery, PG165, at Ur. It was used to fasten a garment or cloak and probably had beads and a cylinder seal hanging from it.

The pin and many other artifacts from Ur will be part of a traveling exhibit to Taiwan pretty soon. I'm in the process of writing the catalogue and found this item particularly interesting, especially in light of the Ur digitization project since the context of this pin was not logged in our modern records, but was discoverable in the field records.

Writing: non-fiction Ur, and science fiction London

My science fiction story, Techno-Rat, about car thieves in futuristic London, has now been produced as an audio podcast at Escape Pod. Check it out.

Naturally, I'm writing and editing a lot for work these days, trying to keep up with the crowdsourced transcriptions that are coming in as well as write up the project and the three-year plan for our continuation grant. I've also put some information about the project in general up at

Meanwhile, my scholarly article on Balance Pan Weights from Ur has been published in the journal Akkadica: 133, fasc. 1. I'm the middle on the table of contents of the front cover:


Ur Crowdsource update

The crowdsourcing website for documents concerning the site of Ur in southern Mesopotamia went live Friday, 14 September. In the first week of being up, we received more than 40 volunteers and transcribed more than 100 documents. That may not sound like much when the total number of documents already scanned (5,000) and the estimates of those yet to be scanned (at least another 5,000) are considered, but I find it very encouraging and am most pleased. I placed only 450 documents up as a test of the willingness and enthusiasm of volunteers, so that means that a quarter of my test was completed in only one week! And I'm getting more volunteers every day as more people find out about the site through Ancient World Online (special thanks to Chuck Jones there), MetaFilter, and other services and twitter users that have picked up the announcement and carried it to more and more potential volunteers (thanks to all of you!). To me, that makes this an overwhelming initial success and I have already doubled the sample size on the site to more than 800 documents.

I've noted volunteers from many countries including England, Germany, Australia, Israel, and Canada. And I've made contacts with people who are studying Ur in universities in many places, such as Bern, Switzerland. So the effort is truly international and growing, and it is making far-reaching connections I never expected.

Most transcribers are gravitating toward the letters from the museums and from the field. Those are often the easier items to transcribe, since many are typewritten, but there are handwritten ones as well. We've made it through nearly half of the sample of those items and I don't have many more at the moment. I'm having more scanned at the end of this week.

Meanwhile, the field notes are getting less attention. That's to be expected, perhaps, since they are often hard to read. They tend to be somewhat jumbled, as notes are wont to be, and they contain many drawings interspersed as well as many later annotations. I've tried to cover best practices for transcription in the transcription guidelines section and I'm getting suggestions from active participants that have helped greatly. I think the field notes will have the most potential impact on our understanding of the archaeology itself, but the letters have great historic interest. There are even some telegrams that Woolley sent in code (like one answering a query about a particular person, whether he would make a good director for a new site; Woolley replies in code that he would not recommend that person).

Whatever we get transcribed is a bonus to me. I'll have to do the QC of the transcriptions as time allows, but I'm looking forward to that. For now, I want to extend thanks to everyone who has signed up so far, and encourage anyone who hasn't but who might be interested to check it out at

Ur Crowdsourcing IV

The UrCrowdsource site went live today. In two categories, letters and field notes, 349 documents are currently allocated to be transcribed, but more are on their way. I don't have metadata or relationships between documents associated yet, but am working slowly to put that together. I'd hoped to allow the public to do that as well, but the way the system works, annotations like that are part of Omeka rather than part of Scripto so it would require extra logins that would only complicate matters. For now, the transcriptions will be a great addition and I hope that many people will participate. And the organization at the moment is in reverse order, i.e. latest document first followed by earlier. Filenames show association as well, so 1923-4-17a and 1923-4-17b are part of the same document, written in 1923.

There's a lot of really interesting material contained in these notes and letters. For an example of what is ahead, check out this Museum blog entry by one of my local volunteers, the one who scanned many of the documents that are now available for transcription.

Meanwhile, I encourage you to go to and look through the documents. If you want to transcribe, you'll need a Scripto login which can be obtained by emailing me or by using the Sign Up link on the UrCrowdsource main page. I've already sent emails and automated passwords to those who have given me their email addresses and I've sent tweets to those who expressed interest but who did not send me their emails. I'm afraid I sent too many tweets that essentially said the same thing--I lost followers because of that--but I do want those who are interested to know about the site.

If you have sent me your email but did not receive a password, check your spam filter. The password is sent through an automated mediawiki program that might get caught in such things.

There are a few steps to go through before you can transcribe, but I've put instructions up on how to do it at each major step of the way; I hope they are clear. If there are problems, let me know and I'll try my best to fix them.

When you receive a password, it is a temporary one for the underlying mediawiki site. It must be changed in mediawiki to show that you are going to continue. After that, all work will be done on the Omeka site with that password entered into Scripto. Again, instructions should guide you through the steps.

Finally, there are transcription guidelines on the site to show what to do with undecipherable words, formatting, and special characters. You might want to keep a separate window open with that page up so you can refer to it quickly.

Thank you so much for helping to transcribe these old documents. It would take much longer without you.