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.
While the crate’s contents have been identified, how they came to be hiding in plain sight in Bristol remains a great unknown. Following the conventions of the day, items excavated by Woolley’s expeditions were shipped to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad and to his sponsors back in London and Philadelphia. The University of Bristol had no connection to the dig.
“The remaining mystery is how this material came to be at Bristol in the first place,” says Dr. Tamar Hodos, a senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Bristol. “The environmental remains themselves were published in 1978 in Journal of Archaeological Science. The authors of that study were based at the Institute of Archaeology, London, and at the University of Southampton, and none of them had any known connection to the University of Bristol that might explain how the material came to reside here.”
After discovering the crate, Hodos contacted Dr. Alexandra Fletcher, a curator of Near Eastern archaeology at the British Museum. The pair packed the items in more secure containers, and they were taken to the British Museum to join the rest of the its collection from Ur, which are on display and included as part of a major digitization program being undertaken with the University of Pennsylvania. The University of Bristol is looking to hear from anyone who can shed light on how the relics ended up in their laboratory in the first place.