The cemetery was located just outside the original temenos wall of the Early Dynastic era. Rubbish had accumulated in a space free of buildings -- a typical waste solution I have noticed in modern Iraq as well. Despite being a dump, it was still near the holy temenos, and people thus eventually buried their dead there in the ED II and III eras. The cemetery at Ur consists of two types of burials: those of the common man, a simple pit grave with at most a few unimpressive offerings and a wooden coffin, of which there are about two thousand; and the royal tombs, which were built of stone (sometimes also mud brick) and contained an incredible richness of contents. Built close to one another, the royal tombs at the cemetery are collectively called the Royal Cemetery at Ur.
The Royal Cemetery evidences Ur's highly advanced material culture and court life, and reveals both Ur's wealth and the discrepancies in wealth which arose by social stratification. Among the most famous finds include: from the Great Death Pit, the Ram in a Thicket; from the tombs of Kings A-bar-gi and Ur-Pabilsag, the lyres and the Standard of Ur whose detailed inlays detail court life (in addition to having cleverly funny inlays, the lyres are the earliest chordophones yet found); and the grave of Queen Puabi, with its gold cylinder seal and jewelry with the earliest discovered granulation.
Oddly, the Royal Cemetery also had the only Mesopotamian instances of human sacrifice. Kings A-bar-gi and Mes-kalam-dug were buried with gold- and silver-laden consorts and retinues, including harpists still holding lyres.
There was an open space, free of buildings, and here the people of Ur, with true Oriental insouciance, emptied their rubbish; in time this rose to form a rough talus sloping gently down from the walls of the Sacred Area. Granted that it was a rubbish-mound, none the less did it lie as near as might be to the holiest place in Ur, and it was an empty space; not unnaturally therefore men go into the way of burying their dead there. The burials were of two sorts, the graves of the common folk and the tombs of kings; of the former we cleared about two thousand, and of the latter sixteen were more or less preserved. Woolley 1954, p 54
Ordinary graves of the common man at Ur
The ordinary grave consisted of a rectangular shaft, anything from four to twelve feet deep, in which the dead man was laid either wrapped in matting or enclosed in a coffin which might be of basket-work, of wood or of clay; there was no rule regarding orientation and the head might be facing in any direction, but the attitude of the body was invariable; it lay on its side, the back straight or very slightly curved, the legs more or less flexed at the hip and knee and the hands brought up in front of the breast almost to the level of the mouth; it is the attitude of a person asleep, and is wholly unlike the rigid straightness of the al 'Ubaid dead or the tightly-contracted 'embryonic' position which marks the Jamdat Nasr graves. That this should be invariable whereas so much else in the ritual of the burials seems casual and capricious must mean that a special significance attached to it and that it reflected some religious belief. With the body there were placed such personal belongings as beads and ear-rings, a knife or dagger, the pin that fastened the dress or the shroud and perhaps the cylinder seal ... Outside the matting roll or the coffin were set ... food and drink in vessels of clay, copper or stone, weapons and tools, toilet articles, etc.; in most cases the bottom of the pit was lined with matting and mats were spread over the offerings to keep them from immediate contact with the earth which was thrown in to fill the shaft. ... In no single grave has there been any figure of a god, any symbol or ornament that strikes one as being of a religious nature; the dead man took with him what he might require for a journey to or for a sojourn in another world, but what he thought about the world to which he was going nothing tells us. The tomb furniture is intended to satisfy purely material needs and its quantity and quality merely reflect the social standing of the dead man and his family in this world. ... There was nothing in the way of a tombstone. Woolley 1954, p 54-55
Decorated ostrich eggshell with inlays of stone, shell and mother of pearl set into bitumen. From the Ur Cemetery area, ED III (2600 - 2300 BC). Image © L M Clancy, 2010 01 27. British Museum, ME 123557.
Royal tombs of Ur
There were sixteen royal graves found in the cemetery, and although no two of them were exactly alike yet they all shared certain characteristics which set them altogether apart from the ordinary graves. The dead was laid not merely in a coffin but in a builded tomb of stone or of stone and burnt or mud brick -- it might be a single chamber or it might be a more elaborate structure with several rooms, an underground palace. The ritual of burial included human sacrifice; the number of victims might vary from a mere half dozen to seventy or eighty, but a certain number had to accompany the owner of the tomb. The re-filling of the tomb shaft was not a simple matter of throwing back the earth; it was a long-drawn ceremony involving elaborate rites. Woolley 1954, p 59-60
A sanction of human sacrifice, which is unique in Mesopotamia because it's not at other sits. What exactly is going on is a mystery. Ram in thicket, instruments, etc --- Evidence of a highly developed material culture and also court life. Clue to Ur's wealth during the ED.
Yielded the Standard of Ur.
First evidence of granulation
Mes-kalam-dug's grave was dug down into the shaft of one of the largest of the royal tombs, but was itself an ordinary pit grave with just enough space for a wooden coffin and some offerings; it was distinguished only by its wealth. Along the head of the grave were spears and copper and alabaster vases. Along one side were two gold-mounted daggers, copper daggers, chisels and other tools, about fifty copper bowls (many of them fluted), some silver bowls, copper jugs and plates, and more vessels of stone and clay. At the foot the grave were more spears, and with them arrows having chisel-edged points of chipped flint. Within the coffin the body lay in normal fashion on its right side. Around its waist was a broad belt of silver, now decayed, from which hung a gold dagger and a whetstone of lapis lazuli fixed on a gold ring. In front of the waist were hundreds of lapis and gold beads. Between the hands was placed a heavy gold bowl, a larger oval gold bowl near it, and by the elbow a gold lamp in the form of a shell, with another gold bowl behind the head; on two of the bowls and the lamp is repeated the inscription 'Mes-kalam-dug, hero of the good land' -- while the name Mes-kalam-dug is attributed to a king elsewhere, in the grave there is no mention of the deceased being a king; thus, it likely belonged to some sort of royal prince. Against the right shoulder was a double axe-head of electrum, and an electrum axe-head of normal type by the left shoulder. Behind the body was a heap of gold bracelets, beads, amulets, lunate ear-rings, spiral wire rings and a head-dress. At the head was the famous Mes-kalam-dug helmet, including small holes for the laces which secured inside it a padded cap, of which some traces yet remained.
Looting in antiquity at the Royal Cemetery
Only too many of them contained nothing of very obvious interest, either because of their original poverty or because of subsequent plundering. At least two-thirds of the graves in the cemetery had been plundered or completely destroyed. While the cemetery was still in use the men digging a new grave, if they hit upon one of earlier date -- and in the overcrowded graveyard that was more likely to happen than not -- could not resist the temptation to remove its more valuable contents. At a later date men, induced perhaps by chance discoveries, went in for deliberate tomb-robbing. They must have known -- perhaps from the survival of surface monuments -- the whereabouts of the old royal tombs, but feared to attack them openly, for we found circular shafts (one of them was dated by potsherds found in it to the time of Sargon of Akkad) driven down vertically to the level of the tombs but at some distance from them and then turning horizontally to tunnel towards the tomb they proposed to plunder; in some cases they succeeded only too well, in one or two they missed their mark and abandoned the attempt in disgust. Woolley 1954, p 57
Woolley, Leonard. 1954. Excavations at Ur. London: Ernest Benn Limited. (Pages 52-90, with insightful and often humorous and thrilling details on the Royal Cemetery.)
British Museum. Royal Graves of Ur. http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/article_index/r/the_royal_graves_of_ur.aspx (accessed 11 March 2011)
British Museum. Ram in a Thicket. http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/t/the_ram_in_a_thicket.aspx (accessed 11 March 2011)
Oriental Institute. Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur. http://oi.uchicago.edu/research/pubs/nn/fal00_wilson.html (accessed 11 March 2011)
Elizabeth Carter. ANE 164A Lecture, 16 February 2011. (Regarding the Royal Cemetery at Ur, a colorful lecture to match the colorful folios of artifacts which were kindly brought in for inspection by students.)