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Postcards From the Afterlife

Were Ur's royal retainers willingly buried with their kings and queens? The mystery haunts the exhibit opening at the Bowers Museum on Sunday.

October 01, 1998|ZAN DUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Remember Heaven's Gate? The suicidal cult may have had kindred spirits living and dying in a similarly startling way some 4,500 years ago.

Kings and queens ruling the historic Mesopotamian city-state of Ur, the birthplace of the biblical patriarch Abraham and where history as we know it began, were put to rest alongside scores of attendants who had fed, bathed, dressed and protected them.

At one so-called death pit southwest of Baghdad, 73 such lowly retainers were found, eerily laid out in parallel rows, all of their arms and legs bent at the same angle.

The slaves may have been killed and carted into the ramped subterranean chambers to serve their masters ever after.

But, like the 39 Heaven's Gate victims so neatly arrayed, the servants of Ur may have gone willingly, believing suicide their best hope for blissful eternity.

During a famous excavation performed 65 years ago, beside each of their bodies was found a little cup, supposedly once filled with poison, such as those in "Treasures From the Royal Tombs of Ur," opening Sunday at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art.

"Mesopotamians conceived of the afterworld as a kind of bleak place," says University of Pennsylvania anthropology professor Richard L. Zettler, who curated the traveling show, but research shows that "kings are said to have set up palaces in the nether world."

Zettler doubts that a mass suicide took place at Ur, where one of archeology's greatest moments also unearthed weapons, musical instruments, eating implements, cosmetic containers and a trove of lavish royal baubles.

In tomb after tomb, the deceased were methodically arranged in order of their ceremonious descent: After the royals went members of a ruler's court, then musicians with harps and lyres, followed by oxen-drawn chariots and their drivers. Guards armed with spears and daggers were found closest to the entrance.

"With suicide, you'd expect a little more disarray," Zettler says. "But who knows? Maybe they drank the poison and then lay down to die."

The fascinating question may never be answered, but it continues to lend more than a hint of mystery to the 13-year-long excavation of 1,850 tombs, completed in 1934, that grabbed headlines worldwide and made dashing British archeologist C. Leonard Woolley, the dig's director, a household name.

"It certainly got more play than any excavation of its time," Zettler said during a recent phone interview from his campus office, "in part because of the showmanship and PR skills of Woolley himself."

The charismatic archeologist led the excavation under a joint expedition of the British Museum and the 110-year-old University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. That museum, which owns the artifacts to be shown here, sent them on the road for the first time to accommodate a renovation of its Near East galleries.

"In ancient art [circles], it's very well-known material," Zettler noted.

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Woolley had a way of making Ur, where humanity learned to write by the banks of the Euphrates, seem modern-day real, he said, adding that Woolley inspired Agatha Christie to set her 1936 mystery, "Murder in Mesopotamia" amid an excavation in Iraq.

"While he was speaking," Christie wrote in her autobiography, "I felt in my mind no doubt whatever that the house on the corner had been Abraham's."

Even without the hype, Woolley's find stands apart, Zettler said. Other Mesopotamian cemeteries have been unearthed, but none held evidence of suicide nor the site's wealth of glittery riches, which have "given us greater insights into the material culture of Mesopotamia than many other finds."

Most of the individual burial sites, circa 2500 BC, belonged to simple folk who revered the tutelary moon-god Nanna. But Woolley classified 16 of the tombs, spread over an area 30 yards shorter than a football field but just as wide, as royal because of the number of attendants and precious items found within.

One woman identified as Queen Puabi was interred wearing a headdress fashioned with at least 13 yards of wound gold ribbon, gold willow and poplar leaves, and a bejeweled floral comb. She also was adorned with 10 gold rings on her fingers, a broad gold and beaded belt, and a gold garter around her right knee. Her entire upper body was blanketed in beads of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, carnelian and agate.

At just under 5 feet tall, the petite queen may have struggled under the weight of such finery had she worn it all at once while alive. Perhaps she never did.

"Everybody would like to think that what you see in death in Mesopotamia was a precise reflection of what you had in life," Zettler said, "but it may be they simply put everything she owned on her when she died."

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