Sir Leonard Woolley with his local staff (191952) and Workmen and dig staff digging early tombs (190912). Courtesy of Penn Museum and Ur-Online.
Most of the available data about Ur comes from twelve seasons of excavations conducted from 1922 to 1934, jointly sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the British Museum, and directed by Sir Leonard Woolley. These excavations captured enormous public attention, due in large part to Woolley’s talent at attracting the media through strategic press leaks. Over thirty articles of the Illustrated London News were dedicated to his discoveries. Special care was given to the findings of the so-called “Royal Cemetery,” which at the time was presented as one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time, directly competing with Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Woolley’s methods represented a considerable advance in Mesopotamian archaeology, in terms of context recording and object conservation. He was able to coordinate hundreds of workers digging simultaneously in various trenches over more than a decade. His contribution dramatically expanded the disposable archaeological data for Mesopotamian societies and urbanism, and thanks to his campaigns, Ur is still one of the best-excavated sites in the Middle East. However progressive, his technique still poses limitations when attempting to reconstruct the archaeological context; it lacks relevant data and does not clearly track decision making. Recently the Penn and British Museums have begun a process of digitizing his records in order to facilitate the access and reanalysis of the data.