Back to Baghdad: the British Museum returns the final consignment of Ur tablets
We are delighted to confirm the return of the final body of cuneiform tablets exported from Woolley’s excavations at Ur to London for study and publication (Figures 1-2). This follows the announcement at the inaugural session of 13ICAANE in Copenhagen on 22nd May this year by Dr Laith, Chair of the State Board of Organisation and Heritage in Baghdad, and the reports which have already appeared in the international media1.
Figures 1-2: Return of Ur tablets (© British Museum)
This is a centennial and historic occasion which has involved many curators and international scholars making use of the facilities of the Western Asiatic Antiquities study room in the British Museum. At the end of each season of excavations at Ur between 1922 and 1934, the tablets were packed and shipped to London, as outlined in a letter from Woolley to Gertrude Bell at the end of his first season:
‘As you at the time of your visit agreed that the tablets and other inscriptional material should, under Clause 12 of the draft law, be taken home for study, subject to the condition that thereafter the Iraq Government should have its agreed share returned to it, I am proceeding to pack such material without waiting for the coming of the official appointed to divide the antiquities’2.
At Ur, most had undergone field conservation, including baking in sand-filled metal containers using an oil-fired Iraq Railways facility at Ur Junction3, before being wrapped in cotton wool donated for the purpose and packed inside sturdy wooden containers donated by the RAF4. The tablets were a priority category for export because, as Woolley outlined in a letter, of the risk of ‘leaving them here over the summer’5. After arriving at the British Museum, many were forwarded to the University Museum in Philadelphia as the partner sponsor of the Ur excavations, and both sets were then studied, copied, photographed and readied for publication. Half were divided between the British Museum and the University Museum Philadelphia (now Penn Museum), and the remaining 50% destined for return to Baghdad under the terms of the partage agreement of the Antiquities Law of Iraq. From the 1920s onwards, tablets were steadily returned in instalments as each group was published6.
The first volumes were quick to produce, but the more complicated and often fragmented literary and religious texts took many years to publish in detail. It was initially conceived that the epigraphist who joined the expedition would be the one responsible ‘for the texts found in his year in the field … provided that the material in any one year is not too great to be handled by one man’, and Gordon went on to concur with Woolley’s suggestion that the comprehensive ‘publication of the texts should include photographs, hand copies, transliterations and translations, all to be selected by the authors’7. This was in response to a letter by Woolley who, writing from the field on 4th January 1924, proposed this, highlighting the fact that ‘there being no cuneiformist at Baghdad, the inscriptions there could only be published by the cuneiformist in the field, [as] he alone had access to them’8. During this first season, the epigraphist was Sidney Smith, of whom Woolley wrote to Kenyon:
‘I have not let him bury himself too much in the inscriptional part of the job, and he does quite a lot of the general digging work and appears to enjoy it. Of course he’s not willing to admit that there’s anything much in archaeology, apart from inscriptions, but I fancy that his attitude has really been a defensive one – he thought that I should run down the importance of the linguistic side, or over-ride it on so-called archaeological grounds, and was very relieved to find that it was given its due weight, and so became more reconciled to association of the two things. He certainly should be more useful in the Museum for his experience out here’9.
Figure 3: Publications of Ur tablets (© British Museum)
Smith was succeeded as site epigraphist by Cyril Gadd (1923/24), then Léon Legrain (1924/25, 1925/26)10, Eric Burrows (1926/27, 1927/28, 1928/29, 1929/30), Chauncey Winkworth (1930/31), with Cyrus H. Gordon briefly joining during the final season (1931/32). In some cases, excavation areas were opened for the purpose of providing tablets11, but these were secondary to Woolley’s over-riding priorities and research strategy of obtaining a clear understanding of its limits, the organisation of the ancient built environment, and a full occupational sequence with pottery which could provide a chronological type series for the region.
The intellectual property and copyright of inscriptions prior to their final publication were issues which came up too, and Woolley strongly recommended that Baghdad should therefore not dispose of duplicate inscriptions in case they therefore were acquired and published by others in advance12. On 24th April 1925, Woolley wrote to Gordon stating that ‘Legrain is strongly of the opinion, which is shared by the other two and myself, that the publication of historical texts ought to be produced as soon as possible’13. The royal inscriptions were the first group to be divided and the first part by Gadd, Legrain, Smith and Burrows published as UET I in 192914. The second volume of UET was devoted to the archaic tablets which were divided in the 1930s15. The Ur III tablets of UET III16, the Neo-Babylonian tablets of UET IV17, and the Old Babylonian tablets of UET V18 were all divided at the time of publication.
Although archaeology continued in Iraq during much of the Second World War, scholarship abroad was interrupted, the contents of the British Museum packed and moved for safety, most of its staff seconded to military service, and it was not for some years after the War that the objects returned to the Museum for unpacking and the building itself was repaired after the Blitz. In 1963, three years after the death of Woolley, the first part of UET VI (Figure 3), devoted to the literary and religious texts, was published19. This was followed two years later by the second volume on the royal inscriptions by Edmond Sollberger (UET VIII)20, and the second part of UET VI in 196621. After almost another decade, the volume on the Kassite tablets was published as UET VII in 197422, and UET IX in 197623. By this date, the political situation in Iraq had changed considerably, and it was agreed that all of the tablets published in these two volumes would be returned without request for division, and this was carried out in 1978.
Figures 4-5: Checking and packing of Ur tablets (© British Museum)
Within Iraq, the archaeological priority was now rescue excavation as three successive dams were constructed in the Hamrin basin, middle Euphrates and upper Tigris, and in September 1980 war broke out between Iraq and Iran. As long-range missiles began to land in Baghdad, the Iraq Museum closed and parts put into deep storage. Ten years later, Iraq invaded Kuwait and the decade which followed was marked by crippling sanctions imposed in retribution, suppressed uprisings, the destruction of provincial museums from Basra to Kirkuk, heavy looting of sites across the southern part of the country, and the formation of Archaeological Police to support Iraqi archaeologists as they sought to salvage information from major sites, sometimes operating under fire from the looters. It was against this depressing backdrop that work continued on the final part of UET VI, finally completed in 200624, although further tablets of the Ur III and Old Babylonian periods were published as four supplementary volumes a second series between 2003 and 201625.
Additional recording of the Ur tablets in London was carried as part of the Ur Digitisation Project supported by the Leon Levy Foundation26, supplemented by a generous grant from the Gerda Henkel Stiftung when it was recognised that the work was incomplete27. It was then decided that, although a large number of small fragments remained unpublished, it was time that the entire group should be returned at the first available opportunity. All tablets were then condition checked, re-photographed and packed (Figures 4-5) for travel in layers of Plastazote within toughened Really Useful Boxes [RUBs] by the Collections Management team in the Department of the Middle East.
Figure 6: finest literary texts from Ur (© British Museum)
In 2020, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, the former Prime Minister of Iraq, came to London as the third and final stop on a whirlwind tour of Germany, France and Britain. On 23rd October, on his final morning he paid a carefully planned private visit to the Museum where he toured the Mesopotamian galleries, heard about the Museum’s work on advising UK law enforcement on antiquities believed to have been stolen or trafficked, and was shown a selection of the finest literary texts from Ur (Figure 6).
Figure 7: Meeting between Iraqi and British authorities in 2020 (© British Museum)
Accompanied by Sir John Whittingdale, then Minister of State in the UK’s Department of Digital, Media, Culture and Sport, he witnessed the signing of a declaration of intent between the Director, Dr Hartwig Fischer, and the Ambassador to the Republic of Iraq, His Excellency Mohamad Jaafar al-Sadr. It was agreed to transfer the tablets to the Embassy as it was they who were the official representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iraq, and responsible for their safe return (Figure 7)28. However, the world was still in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, and there were no direct Iraqi Airways flights between our two countries.
Face to face discussions continued with the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in Baghdad, with the Embassy in London, and through a visit by Dr Ahmed Fakak al-Badrani, Minister of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, and Dr Laith Majeed Hussein, Deputy Minister and Director of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) to the Museum in February 2023. Our Iraqi colleagues insisted on this direct route, and we awaited the next opportunity which was the visit by the President of Iraq, His Excellency Abdul Latif Rashid, to attend the coronation of King Charles III in Westminster on 6th May 2023.
Dr al-Badrani returned and a further official signing took place at the Museum (Figure 8) on 5th May, on this occasion between himself, the Ambassador, His Excellency Mohamad Jaafar al-Sadr, and the Museum’s Director, Dr Hartwig Fischer, agreeing to the return of the tablets with the President. The RUBs were then sealed under supervision to ensure that nothing was omitted or added, an inventory submitted, and all removed by the Embassy. This was not all: it was also the opportunity to deliver a large inventorised donation of cuneiform text catalogues, archaeological monographs, books, journals and carefully selected offprints to the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, all on Mesopotamian civilisation, and offered by past and present curators from across the Museum.
Figure 8: Meeting between Iraqi and British authorities in May 2023 (© British Museum)
Figure 9: Reception of the Ur tablets at the airport (© British Museum)
Three days after the coronation, the President’s plane departed on 9th May, with the packed Ur tablets carefully loaded that morning by Iraqi and British officials.
Later that night, they arrived in Baghdad for a locally organised press call at the airport (Figure 9).
The wishes of Bell, Woolley and all the philologists and conservators who worked on these texts over the past century are now fully vindicated, and, in one consignment, we offer a new beginning to the next generation of Iraqi students and scholars, from gems of Sumerian literature to modern interpretations and publications.
Alberti, A. 1986. Pre-Sargonic and Sargonic texts from Ur edited in UET2: supplement (Studia Pohl, series maior 13). Rome: Biblical Institute Press,
Black, J.A. and G. Spada 2008. Texts from Ur kept in the Iraq Museum and in the British Museum (Nisaba 19). Messina: Dipartimento di Scienze dell’Antichità dell’Università degli Studi di Messina.
Burrows, E. 1935. Ur Excavations Texts II: Archaic Texts. London: British Museum and of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.
D’Agostino, F., R. Pomponio and R. Laurito with Yuko Hongo 2003. Neo-Sumerian Texts from Ur in the British Museum. Epigraphical and Archaeological Catalogue of an Unpublished Corpus of Texts and Fragments. Messina: Dipartimento di Scienze dell’Antichità dell’Università degli Studi di Messina.
Figulla, H.H. 1949. Ur Excavations Texts IV: Business Documents of the Neo-Babylonian Period. London: British Museum and of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.
Figulla, H.H. and W.J. Martin 1953. Ur Excavations Texts V: Letters and Documents of the Old Babylonian Period. London: British Museum and of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.
Gadd, C.J., L. Legrain, S. Smith and E.R. Burrows 1929. Ur Excavations Texts I: Royal Inscriptions. London: British Museum and of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.
Gadd, C.J. and S.N. Kramer 1963. Ur Excavations Texts VI, Part I: Literary and Religious Texts. London: British Museum and of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.
Gadd, C.J. and S.N. Kramer 1966. Ur Excavations Texts VI, Part II: Literary and Religious Texts. London: British Museum and of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.
Gurney, O.R. 1974. Ur Excavations Texts VII: Middle Babylonian Legal Documents and Other Texts. London: British Museum and of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.
Lecompte, C. 2013. Archaic tablets and fragments from Ur (ATFU). From L. Woolley’s excavations at the Royal Cemetery (Nisaba 25). Messina: Dipartimento di Scienze dell’Antichità dell’Università degli Studi di Messina.
Legrain, L. 1947. Ur Excavations Texts III: Business Documents of the Third Dynasty of Ur. London: British Museum and of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.
Loding, D. 1976. Ur Excavations Texts IX: Economic texts from the Third Dynasty. London: British Museum and of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.
Shaffer, A. and Ludwig, M.-C. 2006. Ur Excavations Texts VI, Part III: Literary and Religious Texts. London: British Museum and of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.
Sollberger, E. 1965. Ur Excavations Texts VIII: Royal Inscriptions. London: British Museum and of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.
Spada, G. 2007. Testi economici da Ur di periodo paleo-babilonese (Nisaba 12). Messina: Dipartimento di Scienze dell’Antichità dell’Università degli Studi di Messina.
Taylor, J. 2018. Digitisation training project. British Museum Middle East Newsletter 3: 8.
Walker, C. 2020. The return of tablets excavated at Ur to Baghdad. British Museum Middle East Newsletter 5: 26–27.
Zettler, R.L. 2021. Woolley’s Excavations at Ur: New Perspectives from Artifact Inventories, Field Records and Archival Documentation, in G. Frame, J. Jeffers and H. Pittman (eds) Ur in the Twenty-first Century CE. Proceedings of the 62nd Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale at Philadelphia, July 11-15, 2016: 7–34. University Park, Pennsylvania: Eisenbrauns.
- https://www.rudaw.net/english/middleeast/iraq/070520234; https://www.thenationalnews.com/mena/iraq/2023/05/09/uk-hands-back-6000-antiquities-borrowed-from-iraq-100-years-ago/
- British Museum/Central Archive/Woolley papers: WY1/2/5 / WY/1/1/13, letter dated 11th February 1923, to which Bell confirmed in writing in a reply dated two days later (WY/1/2/6).
- British Museum/Central Archive/Woolley papers: WY/1/2/18, memorandum dated 20th January 1925.
- British Museum/Central Archive/Woolley papers: WY/1/1/13, letter dated 9th March 1925.
- British Museum/Central Archive/Woolley papers: WY/1/1/25, letter dated 3rd January 1925.
- A summary of this process was published by Christopher Walker when it was clear that the final consignment was ready to be returned, but then delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic: Walker 2020.
- British Museum/Central Archive/Woolley papers: WY/1/1/8, letter dated 26th May 1925
- British Museum/Central Archive/Woolley papers: WY 1/1/79, letter dated 4th January 1924.
- British Museum/Central Archive/Woolley papers: WY 1/1/108, letter dated 16th January 1923. Smith joined the Museum in 1914 and was Keeper from 1930 until 1948, when he took up the post of professor of ancient Semitic languages and civilizations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and was succeeded as Keeper by his former deputy, C.J. Gadd.
- After the third season, Woolley specifically requested Legrain return as ‘I could not ask better in any way’: British Museum/Central Archive/Woolley papers: WY/1/1/5.
- British Museum/Central Archive/Woolley papers: WY 1/4/63: letter from Woolley to Kenyon with the intention ‘to keep him [Burrows] busy’.
- British Museum/Central Archive/Woolley papers: WY/1/2/24, letter dated 11th December 1925.
- British Museum/Central Archive/Woolley papers: WY/1/1/10, letter dated 24th April 1925.
- Gadd, Legrain, Smith and Burrows 1929.
- Burrows 1935; with a supplement by Alberti published in 1986.
- Legrain 1947.
- Figulla 1949
- Figulla and Martin 1953.
- Gadd and Kramer 1963.
- Sollberger 1965
- Gadd and Kramer 1966
- Gurney 1974.
- Loding 1976.
- Shaffer and Ludwig 2006.
- D’Agostino, Pomponio and Laurito with Hongo 2003; Spada 2007; Black and Spada 2008; Lecompte 2013.
- Zettler 2021
- Taylor 2018
- Walker 2020.