A 6,500-year-old skeleton from the site of Ur in present-day Iraq was recently rediscovered in the basement of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The skeleton had originally been uncovered in 1929–30 during the joint British Museum/Penn Museum excavation at Ur led by Sir Leonard Woolley. For 85 years, the skeleton has been lying in a wooden box in the Penn Museum’s labyrinthine basement; any associated documentation that may have once been attached to the skeleton or storage box has long been missing.
The remarkable rediscovery of this skeleton is due to the new British Museum/Penn Museum project Ur of the Chaldees: A Virtual Vision of Woolley’s Excavations, which seeks to digitize the records and artifacts from Woolley’s excavations in the 1920s and ’30s. While poring over the excavation records and researching the Penn Museum’s collections, Ur Digitization Project Manager William Hafford saw that one skeleton that had been excavated in 1929–30 was noted in the museum’s object record database as “Not Accounted For” as of 1990.
Inquiries with Janet Monge, curator-in-charge of the physical anthropology section of the Penn Museum, led Hafford to an unidentified skeleton in a box in the museum’s basement storage. Monge had been aware of the skeleton for a long time, but with no identifying records associated with the box, the skeleton remained a puzzling curiosity. Comparing the skeleton with Woolley’s field notes, the researchers determined that they had found the mystery skeleton discovered in the 1929–30 excavation season at Ur and subsequently delivered to the Penn Museum.
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The Penn Museum skeleton had been unearthed from an Ubaid-period (5500–4000 B.C.E.) grave located about 50 feet below the famed Royal Cemetery at Ur. The man whose skeleton was rediscovered at the Penn Museum was alive during a time after a great flood had deluged the region—what Woolley had identified as the Biblical flood. The Penn Museum researchers have therefore nicknamed the skeleton “Noah.”
“Utnapishtim might be more appropriate,” Hafford said in a Penn Museum press release, “for he was named in the Gilgamesh epic as the man who survived the great flood.”
Alan R. Millard, “Where Was Abraham’s Ur? The Case for the Babylonian City,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2001.
Molly Dewsnap Meinhardt, “Abraham’s Ur: Did Woolley Excavate the Wrong Place?” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2000.
Hershel Shanks, “Abraham’s Ur—Is the Pope Going to the Wrong Place?” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2000.
Richard L. Zettler, “Sumer: Woolley’s Ur Revisited,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 1984.
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In the free eBook Exploring Genesis: The Bible’s Ancient Traditions in Context, discover the cultural contexts for many of Israel’s earliest traditions. Explore Mesopotamian creation myths, Joseph’s relationship with Egyptian temple practices and three different takes on the location of Ur of the Chaldees, the birthplace of Abraham.
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