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

Tessa de Alarcon, Moritz Jansen, and Richard L. Zettler


This article presents recent research on gold artifacts from the site 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 and 1930s as part of a project sponsored by the Penn Museum and the British Museum. The material finds were divided: half went to the Iraq Museum, a quarter to the Penn Museum, and a quarter to the British Museum. This project grew out of the Ur Digitization Project and continued as part of the Penn Museum’s preparations for the reinstallation of its Middle East galleries. The objects examined include gold vessels, jewelry, and other objects of personal adornment such as diadems or fillets, hair ribbons, earrings, bracelets, and pins. The objects were examined using visual examination, microscopic examination, and x-radiography in an attempt to determine each object’s method of manufacture. Specifically, the authors were looking for evidence of the type of gold production used through the presence of platinum group element inclusions suggesting that the gold used to make the objects was from an alluvial gold source. In addition, the authors checked for evidence of seams, mechanical attachment, soldering, casting, and working. Archival research was also integral in interpreting these results, and the discovery of previously undocumented restoration demonstrates the challenges in studying manufacture of objects that were excavated and collected in a time when treatment was not as well documented as it is today. The results of this study show that a variety of different techniques were used to shape the gold objects, and unlike previous research, the gold smiths at Ur did not appear to favor mechanical attachment methods over soldering and often employed both methods on a single object. Furthermore, both casting and working methods were used at the site. The flat sheet gold objects appear to have been worked, and there is also a variety of shaping methods that were used, including hammers and possibly a rolling or rocking method. The latter is suggested based on the presence of elongated marks visible in the x-ray radiographs and found on most of the diadems/fillets from the site.

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2018 | Houston | Volume 25