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The Morgan Library's knockout exhibition of the treasures from ancient Ur. Does this Sumerian gold beat "Tut"?
by Thomas Hoving
The hottest show in New York City is at the Morgan Library and it's not Rembrandt drawings or Dürer engravings or the holdings of some English Lordy or even a richly illustrated medieval manuscript.
It's archaeology -- specifically Sumerian of ca. 2600 B.C.-- the "royal" treasures of Ur from the University of Pennsylvania's Museum found in the 1920s in tombs on the western bank of the Euphrates River in what is now southern Iraq.
C. Leonard Woolley, the archaeologist who found the treasures in one tomb out of over 600 hundred containing the remains of some 1,800 souls, was so overwhelmed with his find and so concerned that the world press might learn about it that he cabled his Philadelphia colleagues on Jan. 4, 1928: TUMULUM SAXIS EXSTRUCTUM LATERICIA ARCATUM INTEGRUM INVENI REGINAE SHUBAD VESTE GEMMATA CORONIS FLORIBUS BELLUJSQUE INTEXTIS DECORAE MONILIBUS POCULIS AURI SUMPTUOSAE WOOLLEY.
Or, for those whose Latin is rusty: "I found the intact tomb, stone built, and vaulted over with bricks of queen Shubad [later known as Puabi] adorned with a dress in which gems, flower crowns and animal figures are woven. Tomb magnificent with jewels and golden cups."
The dig, a joint effort by the Philadelphia institution and the British Museum, and paid for wholly by the former, started in 1922 and fizzled out in 1934 when the Depression cut off further funding. The discoveries of masses of objects and jewelry in gold, electrum, lapis lazuli, including sensational lyres, crowns, necklaces, vessels, weapons and statuettes -- all over 3,500 years old -- became worldwide news for years and rivaled the "King Tut" find in splendor and mystery.
People were especially captivated by why Woolley labeled the chambers surrounding the one where Queen Puabi had been buried "the death pit." More than 70 attendants and courtiers had been sacrificed to accompany her and other "royals" into the afterlife.
The exhibition is truly dazzling at the Morgan. The curator in charge, Sidney Babcock, sweated the details on it and was able to veto what had been planned, a jumble of pyramidal showcases. All the pieces have been placed in clear, beautifully lit vitrines in the grand, high-ceilinged gallery just off the entrance. Instantly you can get a sweeping feeling of the goodies. I'll bet you step back in amazement and clap your hand to your chest as I did when I entered the gallery.
Sadly, the catalogue is, in general, a failure. The color photographs could have been far better (think of the shining images in the "Tut" catalogue). Thankfully, the black and white excavation photos are marvelous. The illustrations of the clay impressions of cylinder seals are shown in an ugly blueish tint and do damage to this art form, which was of singular importance in early Sumerian art. They should have been crisp black and white as they are on the walls of the show. The text of the catalogue is turgid and flat even for archaeological writing.
The curator has been able to get rid of some of the more awkward installations thath were planned to travel with the show (which goes next to the Oriental Institute in Chicago, Oct.-Jan., and the Detroit Institute of Art, February-May, 2001). One was the frightful head mannikin used to show the extraordinary gold headdress of Queen Puabi. In the show the mount fades from view and you can see the gold in all its glory. Woolley made a black and white shot of this crown when he found it and had no idea what it was going to look like when the hundreds of pieces were put together.
In this wonderful room at the Morgan there are, until September, I swear, five of the finest, most resplendent and magical works of art in all of America.
* The Golden Goat. It's frequently known as the "Ram caught in a thicket" from the passage in Genesis 22:13. As anyone can see, however, the goat's stance is a sexual one. This gorgeous image, as the catalogue strains to put it, "encapsulates in a highly symbolic manner the fundamental Sumerian concerns with the fecundity of the plant world and the fertility of the animal domain." I guess we know what that means.
Because of a lucky roll of the ancient dice, two goats in gold, lapis, shell and bitumen were found and in a way that facilitated reconstruction of both. One was face up in the dirt and badly crushed. Another, almost identical, was found on its side, also crunched. Only because of having two distinct sides was Woolley able to make an accurate reconstruction from the hundreds of fragments of gold and shell. For the show, the University Museum has corrected some of Woolley's small mistakes in its splendid new reconstruction.
* The necklaces, skirt and girdle worn by Queen Puabi. Woolley and his brilliant wife picked the fragments out of the dirt and made a reconstruction of what the "royal" dress might have looked like.
* The elegant and sensuous tumbler made out a combination of gold and silver called electrum. Queen Puabi must have cherished this one.
* The gold ostrich egg. The creature was much sought after in the hunt in Mesopotamian times and the eggs may have been used as part of meals served to gods.
* The great lyre. This stunner of gold, silver and lapis lazuli was dug out of the "death pit." It was resting on the heads of three bodies, which were loaded with fantastic jewelry. These women, Woolley conjectured, may have been the singers during the ceremonies of burial.
The decorative panel on the sound box just below the stalwart bull's head boasts, in the heroic lad hugging a pair of bulls, one of the earliest nudes in all of art. In the third scene down where the bull is playing the lyre to the amusement of the bear, note the fox shaking a systrum and with his left paw reading an ancient text.
The finest pieces in this impressive array can't be seen -- they are the lapis cylinder seals so wondrously carved that when rolled over clay the scenes look monumental. One, according to curator Babcock, must be a portrait of Queen Puabi, for she sits on a chair more richly decorated than anyone else, her features are more pronounced and she is the only person being fanned and "flattered."
Every queen needs fanning and flattering, so maybe he's right.
"Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur," May 25-Sept. 10, 2000, at the J. Pierpont Morgan Library, 29 East 36th Street, New York, N.Y. 10016.
THOMAS HOVING is editorial director of artnet.com.