Ur is one of the oldest cities in the world. What was life like for its inhabitants about 4000 years ago? A team led by Adelheid Otto, director of the Institute of Archaeology of the Near East at LMU (Ludwig Maximilian University Munich), is conducting excavations in Ur that may provide some answers to this question.

The team has returned from southern Iraq, having completed its second season with the permission of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. This year’s excavation, funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation and the Association of Universities in Munich, lasted for 9 weeks.

Their target was a residential building located on the outskirts of the city, dating back to 1835 B.C. The excavation is part of a broader project led by Professor Elisabeth Stone from Stony Brook University in New York.

Archaeologists began working on the site two years ago and have now uncovered the entire house, along with a vaulted tomb containing the remains of 24 individuals.

What the team revealed was a 17-room house with a large courtyard. The original question they sought to answer was whether lower-class people lived on the outskirts of the city, as excavations in the city center had shown a clearly affluent residential population.

Instead of finding lower-class dwellings, they discovered this ancient Babylonian villa. It was undoubtedly an impressive building given its size. The function of each room has been identified, providing a detailed and accurate picture of how its inhabitants lived nearly 4000 years ago. The kitchen and a complete bathroom with a toilet and drainage system have also been preserved. In terms of hygiene, the structures were excellent.

According to Otto, it is the same model of private residence found in the ancient Babylonian period. Many pieces of the puzzle have been found, providing a picture of the past of this house, including not only the architecture with its various rooms and functions but also texts on clay tablets, including letters and seal impressions. The tablets were deciphered by two cuneiform specialists, Professor Dominique Charpin (Collège de France Paris) and Professor Walther Sallaberger (LMU).

It’s a particular stroke of luck because these findings tell us who the owner was. His name was Sîn-nada, and he was the high priest of Ur’s second most important temple, a position that made him a person of considerable importance in the city. Interestingly, it turns out that his wife was also involved in the administration of the temple, as in Ur, during this period, women also learned to read and write.

LMU researchers also collected botanical samples and animal bones during the excavation, which are now being analyzed and promise to provide information about the residents’ diet.

Preliminary analyses indicate that these people were healthy and well-nourished, and some lived 70 years or more. Further study should provide more information about what they ate, how long they lived, and how healthy they were. It should also tell us whether they were related to each other, and if they were natives of Ur or had moved to the city from elsewhere.

Ur was a major trading center, where the first museum in history was found, so it’s likely that many of its inhabitants came from other places, says Adelheid Otto. A team led by Professor Jörg Fassbinder from the Department of Geophysics also conducted a geophysical study of the Southern Mound, revealing that this part of Ur was densely urbanized but also had open spaces such as squares and public ports.

So far, research in Ur has shown that 4,000 years ago, the city was a lively and densely populated metropolis. It was a flourishing period during which people generally had a good life. That is certainly what this house and its residents tell us.

Its owner Sîn-nada and his family led a prosperous life almost a century before the city came to an end. Their fate was sealed when the city’s population rebelled against the King of Babylon, who had gained control of the city. The King responded by cutting off the city’s water supply by diverting the course of the Euphrates.

Ur, like today, was in the middle of a dry desert, and urban life eventually became impossible, says Adelheid Otto. In a very short time, the water shortage turned this prosperous city into a pile of sand. Around 1720 B.C., Ur ceased to exist, and only hundreds of years later did life in Ur resume again.


Ludwig Maximilians Universität München

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