Gold working at Ur: A collaborative project to better understand ancient gold smithing

Tessa de Alarcon, Moritz Jansen, and Richard Zettler


This paper presents recent research on gold artifacts from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, ca. 2450-2100 BCE and proposes some possible methods for their manufacture. Sir Leonard Woolley excavated these artifacts at the site of Tell al-Muqayyar (ancient Ur) in southern Iraq in the 1920s-1930s as part of a project sponsored by the Penn Museum and the British Museum. Iraq’s 1924 Antiquities Law provided for a division of finds, and half the material went to the Iraq Museum, with a quarter going to the Penn Museum and a quarter going to the British Museum. The initial data were collected as part of the Ur Digitization Project, a joint initiative between the Penn Museum and the British Museum to digitize objects and records at both institutions. The collaborative nature of the Ur digitization project fostered interdisciplinary research at the Penn Museum. These relationships have continued beyond the Ur Digitization Project and so too has the examination of the gold from Ur.

Initial analysis of the gold from Ur focused on objects from Private Grave (PG) 1422. It has since expanded to include a diverse selection of gold items from the Royal Cemeteries as new research has been conducted in preparation for the re-installation of the Middle East galleries at the Museum. This paper will focus on three distinct object types, gold vessels, gold jewelry, and gold fillets. All the data presented here were captured non-invasively using digital X-radiography and digital photomicrographs. While X-radiography and microscopy are not new techniques for the examination of archaeological objects, new developments in digital processing allows for better data collection that can highlight features previously difficult to capture. The present study combines the knowledge of conservators, archaeometallurgists, and archaeologists to better understand how the gold vessels and adornments from the royal cemeteries may have been manufactured. This interdisciplinary study places the objects within their archaeological context as well as highlights which aspects of their manufacture are significant.


2018 | Houston | Volume 25