Some 4,500 years ago in the city-state of Ur a mass suicide took place at the tomb of Queen Puabi.
Some 20 people died there. Intentionally. From poison. It was a scene a bit like Jonestown, but lovelier by far.
The doomed were clad in splendor--in jewelry of yellow gold, deep-blue lapis lazuli and orange-red carnelian. Together they descended the slanting ramp that led them deep into the ground. Willow leaves of hammered gold glinted on their necklaces, headdresses and wreaths until swallowed by the shadows of the pit where they would die. The air was filled with sacred music, from lyres of 11 strings, and pipes and drums and cymbals. And hymns were sung to Nanna, the spirit of the moon, who also shone in splendor, and, according to their faith, also went into the earth, died and was reborn.
Ur. The very word means old: In English, as a prefix, "ur" denotes "the primitive, the original, the earliest." In Ur of Chaldees, Abraham was born. According to tradition, the Garden of Eden was nearby. That storied mud-brick city beside the Euphrates was already ancient in the time of Queen Puabi.
Under tons of trampled earth, the crowned corpse of the queen and the flesh of her retainers decayed long ago. So, too, did the wooden shafts of their golden spear points and the wheels of their chariots and the bodies of their oxen who had joined them in the death pit beside the stone-built vaults of the queen's Sumerian tomb.
But her crown of golden willow leaves survived. So did the golden daggers, the beads of gold and blue and red, the carvings of the lyres and the gold and silver tumblers from which the ill fated drank their last.
These ancient, precious, death-touched things are now on exhibition in "Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur" at the Sackler Gallery. The oddest thing about them is how decorative and delicate and unfrightening they are.
In many an early agricultural city-state--and Sumer in Iraq was among the earliest--art was used to terrify. Shape-shifters and dragons and writhing antlered snakes swarm over the grave goods in the fabulous Chinese exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. The statues of the Aztecs, and those of the Mayans, are similarly scary. Peasants told to dig irrigation ditches through the earth of ancient China, Mexico or Egypt would have disobeyed such powers, and the humans who represented them, only at their peril.
But the elegant and twinkly grave goods at the Sackler show aren't like that at all. They're almost endearing. They don't frighten you into obedience. Rather, they invite you. Sir Leonard Woolley, the British archaeologist who unearthed them in the 1920s, imagined the mass suicides of Ur less as slaughters than as festivals.
"Now down the sloping passage," he wrote in 1934, "comes a procession of people, the members of the court, soldiers, men-servants, and women, the latter in all their finery of brightly colored garments and headdresses of lapis-lazuli and silver and gold, and with them musicians bearing harps or lyres. . . . Each man or woman brought a little cup. . . . Some kind of service there must have been at the bottom of the shaft, at least it is evident that the musicians played up to the last, and that each drank from the cup. . . ."
Today we think it obvious that you can't take it with you. But Queen Puabi of Ur was not of that opinion.
She needed handsome gifts (jewelry, cosmetics, foodstuffs, costly weapons) to distribute to the gods who'd escort her to the underworld. The handmaidens and soldiers, the men who drove her oxen, the heavy beasts themselves, and the singers and musicians who joined her on her journey would serve her after death as they had in life.
When Sumerians of significance went into the afterworld they didn't go alone.
King Gilgamesh of Uruk, whose great deeds are recounted in Sumerian sagas, took much of his family. "His beloved life" went with him, recounts "The Death of Gilgamesh," and so did
His beloved son
His beloved favorite wife and junior wife,
His beloved singer, cup-bearer and his beloved barber . . .
Woolley found the royal graves of Ur in 1926-1927 in his fifth season of digging. His expedition was a joint effort of the government of Iraq, the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. They divided what was found. The Pennsylvania museum lent the objects now on view.
In less than three months Woolley uncovered more than 300 burials. Before his dig was discontinued during the Depression he had found 1,000 more.
Queen Puabi's--which, like most of the others, had been robbed in antiquity--was one of the most elaborate.
She was not quite five feet tall. Sir Arthur Keith, the physical anthropologist who examined her remains, estimated that she was roughly 40 when she died. Did she, too, succumb to poison? There is no way of knowing. She may have been a priestess, or a king's wife, or herself the city's ruler. Again, we do not know. But her wealth is beyond question, and a cylinder seal pinned to the right sleeve of her garment identified the wearer as "Puabi, the queen."
She was wonderfully dressed. Her headdress glittered with gold ribbons and eight-petaled gold rosettes, symbols of Inanna, the great Sumerian goddess of both battle and fruition, of love as well as war. Puabi wore a necklace of gold and lapis, as well as 10 gold rings. A garter of gold and lapis was around her right knee.
Her most striking accouterment was her cape of beads. "Although unusual and certainly heavy," writes Holly Pittman in the exhibition catalogue, "this cape of carnelian, agate, lapis lazuli, silver, and gold beads must have been stunning. It would have moved and shimmered as the queen moved." It must have jingled and rustled, too.
Golden tweezers, translucent alabaster bowls, seashells containing cosmetics, a four-foot drinking straw of gold, pins and wreaths and diadems were also buried with her. None of the materials used to make these precious things were found locally in Ur.
There wasn't much in Ur except dry earth and the water of the Euphrates and the mud bricks that dry earth and water produce when mixed. But the Sumerians had a civilization. After figuring out the technologies of irrigation agriculture, they built their first cities (around 6,500 years ago), perfected the first writing, instituted the first written codes of law, smelted metals and used the wheel. Their labors produced little in abundance except labor and food--but with food they could trade.
All the grave goods on display, or at least their raw materials, came from far away.
Their lapis came from Afghanistan, their carnelian from Iran, their obsidian from Turkey, their translucent stone from northern Afghanistan or southern Turkmenistan, their carved beads from the Indus Valley, their seashells from the Gulf of Oman, their silver and their gold from Nubia or Egypt.
Woolley found no mighty statues, nothing that compares with the monuments of Egypt, or ancient China, or pre-colonial Mexico, but he did unearth some superb multicolored figurines, which have been restored and are here on display.
One, known as the "Ram Caught in a Thicket" (from a phrase in the Old Testament describing the sacrifice of Isaac), depicts the blue-horned, shell-fleeced animal nibbling at a golden bush. A second, which once decorated a lyre, is an image of a gold, blue-bearded bull.
The oldest and most powerful divinities of Sumer--among them Ana, who ruled the sky, and Inanna, deity of love and war--were goddesses, not gods. Parallel and wavy lines, evoking the River of Life, and the blooming, and then dying, flowers of the irrigated garden, were among their sacred symbols. Queen Puabi wore both. The river was suggested by the swayings of her beaded cape, the flower by the rosettes of Inanna that gleamed about her head. Both the blue fleece of the ram and the blue beard of the golden bull are derivations of the river sign. The bull's beard also calls to mind the artificial curling beards, also symbols of divinity, which Egyptian pharaohs attached to their chins.
"Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur," which was organized by Richard Zettler and Holly Pittman of the University of Pennsylvania's museum and Donald Hansen of New York University, doesn't have the oomph of the Chinese show across the Mall. It's much gentler, for one thing, and its objects are much smaller.
But its beauty is instructive. Most of the "antiquities" displayed in Washington (say the Greco-Roman temples that stand along the Mall, or George Washington's towering obelisk) are recent re-creations. The history of art surveyed in our museums tends to begin, abruptly, with the Renaissance. We're about to celebrate a new millennium. It's worth remembering the others.
"Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur," which is supported by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, has already been seen in Santa Ana, Calif; Knoxville and Dallas. It will travel to Cleveland, New York, Chicago and Detroit after closing here on Jan. 17.