6,500-Year-Old Skeleton in the Penn Museum Basement, Newly “Discovered,” Can Offer New Insights into Human History at Famous Ur Excavation Site in Iraq

The mystery skeleton had been stored in a coffin-like box for 85 years. Image Courtesy of University of Pennsylvania.
The mystery skeleton had been stored in a coffin-like box for 85 years. Image Courtesy of University of Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia, PA Summer 2014— Sometimes the best archaeological discoveries aren’t made in the field. Scientists at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia have re-discovered an important find in their own storage rooms, a complete human skeleton about 6,500 years old. The mystery skeleton had been stored in a coffin-like box for 85 years, all trace of its identifying documentation gone. This summer, a project to digitize old records from a world-famous excavation brought that documentation, and the history of the skeleton, back to light.

Unearthed in 1929–30 by Sir Leonard Woolley’s joint Penn Museum/British Museum excavation team at the site of Ur in what is now southern Iraq, the skeleton is about 2,000 years older than the materials and remains found in the famous Mesopotamian “royal tombs,” the focus of a Penn Museum signature exhibition, Iraq’s Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur’s Royal Cemetery. According to Dr. Janet Monge, Curator-in-Charge, Physical Anthropology Section of the Penn Museum, a visual examination of the skeleton indicates it is that of a once well-muscled male, about age 50 or older. Buried fully extended with arms at his sides and hands over his abdomen, he would have stood 5’ 8” to 5’ 10” tall.

Skeletons from this time in the ancient Near East, known as the Ubaid period (roughly 5500–4000 BCE) are extremely rare; complete skeletons from this period are even rarer. Woolley’s team excavated 48 graves in an early, Ubaid-era flood plain, nearly 50 feet below the surface of the site; of those, Woolley determined that only one skeleton was in condition to recover: the skeleton that has now been identified in the Penn Museum’s collection. He coated the bones and surrounding soil in wax and shipped the entire skeleton to London, then on to Philadelphia.

Today’s scientific techniques, unavailable in Woolley’s time, may provide new information about diet, ancestral origins, trauma, stress, and diseases of this poorly understood population.

A Mystery Solved

Upper Body and Skull. Image Courtesy of University of Pennsylvania.
Upper Body and Skull. Image Courtesy of University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Monge had long known about the particular skeleton in the basement—one of about 2,000 complete human skeletons in the Museum collection, which houses, altogether, more than 150,000 bone specimens from throughout human history. For as long as she had been a Keeper or Curator, it had been there—a curious mystery, in an old wooden box with no catalog card, no identifying number, nothing to explain its former whereabouts.

In 2012, a new project began to digitize records from the 1922–1934 excavations at Ur. The project, Ur of the Chaldees: A Virtual Vision of Woolley’s Excavations, made possible with lead funding from the Leon Levy Foundation, is, like the original excavations, jointly conducted by the Penn Museum and the British Museum. At the Penn Museum, Dr. William Hafford, Ur Digitization Project Manager and his team, under the supervision of Dr. Richard Zettler, Associate Curator-in-Charge of the Near East Section, and Dr. Steve Tinney, Associate Curator-in-Charge of the Babylonian Section, have examined and digitized thousands of records stored in the Penn Museum Archives and documenting the excavation.

One set of records particularly caught Dr. Hafford’s eye: a set of division lists telling which objects went to which museum. Half of all artifacts stayed in the new nation of Iraq, but the other half was split between London and Philadelphia. The record for the eighth season, 1929–30, surprised him. It said that the Penn Museum would receive, among other items, one tray of “mud of the flood” and two “skeletons.”  Further research into the Museum’s object record database indicated that one of those skeletons, 31-17-404, deemed “pre-flood” and found in a stretched position, was recorded as “Not Accounted For” as of 1990.

Workers carrying skeleton. Image Courtesy of: University of Pennsylvania
Workers carrying skeleton. Image Courtesy of: University of Pennsylvania

Exploring the extensive records Woolley kept, Hafford was able to find additional information and images of the missing skeleton, including Woolley himself painstakingly removing an Ubaid skeleton intact, covering it in wax, bolstering it on a piece of wood, and lifting it out using a burlap sling.  When he queried Dr. Monge about it, she had no record of such a skeleton in her basement storage—but noted that there was a “mystery” skeleton in a box.

When the box was opened later that day, it was clear that this was the same skeleton in Woolley’s field records, preserved and now reunited with its history.

The Skeleton’s History
After Woolley uncovered the Royal Cemetery, he sought the earliest levels in a deep trench that became known as “The Flood Pit” because, around 40 feet down, it reached a layer of clean, water-lain silt. Though it was apparently the end of the cultural layers, Woolley dug still further. He found burials dug into the silt and eventually another cultural layer beneath. The silt, or “flood layer,” was more than ten feet deep in places.

Reaching below sea level, Woolley determined that the original site of Ur had been a small island in a surrounding marsh. Then a great flood covered the land. People continued to live and flourish at Ur, but the disaster may have inspired legends. The first known recorded story of an epic flood comes from Sumer, now southern Iraq, and it is generally believed to be the historic precursor of the Biblical flood story written millennia later.

The burial that produced the Penn Museum skeleton along with ten pottery vessels was one of those cut into the deep silt. Therefore, the man in it had lived after the flood and was buried in its silt deposits. The Museum researchers have thus nicknamed their re-discovery “Noah,” but, as Dr. Hafford notes, “Utnapishtim might be more appropriate, for he was named in the Gilgamesh epic as the man who survived the great flood.”

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