Skeleton in its original crate.

Penn Museum, 2014

Skeleton in its original crate.

Skeleton in the closet identified: Bones from ancient Ur

The skeleton lay hidden in a crate in the “mummy room” of the museum for decades. Curators at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum) knew about it, but had no idea who lay buried there—or even in what long-ago era he had lived. Now, a careful examination of records has revealed his identity: The bones belong to a man who lived in the ancient Mesopotamian kingdom of Ur, 6500 years ago. They may be the oldest known from this early city, located in present-day Iraq. “It’s really cool we found it now,” said Janet Monge, curator for the museum’s physical anthropology section. “20 years ago we might have damaged it just trying to get a better look.”

The Penn Museum has a large collection of artifacts from Ur, because in 1922, British archaeologist Leonard Woolley led a famous series of excavations there, a joint operation between the British Museum and Penn, bringing back precious stones and pottery, and uncovering an ancient human sacrifice. But researchers thought that the 30 excavated skeletons were shipped back to London and that Penn received only artifacts.

Then, a few months ago, Penn Museum archaeologist Brad Hafford was looking over Woolley’s old notes and got a surprise: Woolley noted saving two skeletons from the hoard to give to the Penn Museum. The morning after his discovery, Hafford bumped into Monge on an elevator and mentioned his findings. After hearing Woolley’s description of the body—lying extended on a board, covered in wax, and stuffed inside a burlap sack—Monge realized she knew that skeleton, and exactly where to find it.

The pair descended to the mummy room to examine the body, carefully prying off the lid of a long crate, rusty nails and all. The body matched Woolley’s description. “There was no doubt,” Hafford said. “We’d found him.”

The ancient man appears to have been about 50 and led a healthy life. He stood about 1.7 meters tall—huge for the period, when people averaged about 1.6 meters, Hafford said.

Despite his good health, after more than 6000 years in the ground and 80 years in storage, the Ur skeleton has suffered from water and other damage. “It’s been buried for so long … the weight of the earth has crushed the body. … But we can do a lot with it still,” Hafford said.

Wary of further damaging the specimen, the museum has no plans to put it on exhibit, although it may be on view for a period in the museum’s open conservation lab. However, the skeleton will eventually find a home in the virtual world. Hafford runs the Ur Digitization Project, which aims to unite all the artifacts from Woolley’s excavations into one place on the Web.

In the meantime, Monge already has a plan for studying the bones. A CT scan is a top priority, to confirm whether the man was as healthy as he looks. Researchers also may be able to extract DNA from his exceptionally well preserved teeth or use isotopic chemical analysis to discover what he ate.

But the skeleton can tell us much more than his personal habits, says Richard Zettler, curator-in-charge of the museum’s Near East section. “The remains come from a period of great change,” when people were just beginning to organize into city-states, Zettler notes.

And what about the other skeleton Woolley promised in his manifest? “We haven’t found him—or her—just yet,” says Hafford with a chuckle. But researchers have their eye on a small, unmarked crate, also of unknown provenance, being kept in storage. For now, it lies waiting, potentially hiding a story thousands of years in the making.

Posted in Archaeology