Studies on Gold Objects from the Royal Tombs of Ur

Contacts: Prof. Dr. Andreas Hauptmann

The Pennsylvania University Museum for Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia (Penn Museum) has a large collection of metal artefacts made of copper, bronze, silver and gold, which Sir Leonard Woolley had excavated in the royal tombs of Ur (middle of the 3rd millennium) between 1922 and 1934. Of the finds, one quarter went to the University Museum for Archaeology in Philadelphia, one quarter to the British Museum in London, and the remaining half to the Baghdad Museum. Before the 1st Gulf War in 1991 these objects were moved to the vault of the national bank, along with many other gold artefacts, and they have recently been “rediscovered” there.

Fig. 02: This bull’s head was attached to a lyre as decoration. It consists of gold and lapislazuli, the eyes are inlaid with shells, and decorated with bitumen. The find comes from the “King’s Grave”.

Analytical Examinations of the Metal Finds

The DBM’s first work on the artefacts began in 2009. The museum had agreed to a request to carry out analytical examinations of the metal finds. To begin with, 31 of the best known and most beautiful gold objects were analysed non-destructively with a portable x-ray fluorescence spectrometer to determine their chemical composition.

Fig. 03: Numerous beads were recovered from the royal graves, many of them golden “butterfly beads”. They were made of two pieces of gold foil welded together. This image was recorded in the Penn Museum with a transportable digital microscope from Keyence.

Very Interesting Results

The measurements produced very interesting results. Of particular interest was evidence of gilding using a tumbaga alloy: to “simulate” gold, i.e. to create a gold-rich surface layer, the original copper-silver-gold alloy was treated with acids. This ingenious technique was therefore not invented in South America in the 15th century AD, as previously assumed, but was already known in the ancient world around 2500 BC. These preliminary studies gave rise to a DBM research project with several partners. Following offers to extend the analyses to the finds in the British Museum, a continuation of the current project phase is under consideration.

Fig. 04: Equally often, etched Carnelian beads, probably from the Indus valley, were found in the royal graves. The inlaid white enamel stands out from the red bead to attractive effect. This image was also recorded with a digital microscope.