The staff of the archaeology and anthropology department at Britain’s University of Bristol recently began the tedious work of emptying a laboratory to prepare for the installation of a state-of-the-art facility that will allow for the radiocarbon dating of ancient artifacts and organic material unearthed at archaeological sites. As they worked to clear one of the laboratory’s cupboards, they found a weathered wooden crate stamped with the address of an Army and Navy store in the Lambeth district of London. When the staff examined its contents, they quickly discovered that in the process of making room for the most cutting-edge of technologies that they had found the most ancient of artifacts.
The wooden crate, which appeared to have been undisturbed for years, turned out to be a treasure chest of relics. Inside were pottery, seeds and animal bones. Words such as “Predynastic,” “Sargonid” and “Royal Tombs” scribbled on yellowed index cards provided clues that led to the conclusion that the artifacts had been unearthed during famed British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley’s excavations of the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, in present-day southern Iraq, between 1922 and 1934.
Woolley’s expedition, sponsored jointly by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, made amazing finds, such as the grandiose burial sites of Sumerian royals filled with gold and silver jewelry, furnishings and paintings depicting ancient Sumerian culture. The archaeologist’s discoveries greatly advanced the modern-day knowledge of the art, architecture, literature, government and religion of ancient Mesopotamian civilization.
Sleuthing by the Bristol researchers determined that the contents of the strange crate in their laboratory were food offerings from a royal tomb that date back at least 4,500 years, which is noteworthy because it was unusual for organic materials to have been collected in the Middle East during Woolley’s era of archaeological fieldwork.