Royal Tombs Of Ur: Definition & Treasures

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore some of the incredible artifacts Charles Leonard Woolley recovered from the Royal Tombs of Ur, as well as what these artifacts tell us about ancient Sumerian culture.

Have you ever happened across a dollar on the sidewalk? What about a gold ring or an expensive watch? Perhaps you are part of that rare breed that traipses around the beach with a headset and a metal detector searching for buried treasure. In essence, carefully digging for buried treasure is what archaeologists do every day, except rather than looking for lost jewelry with a metal detector, archaeologists search for the treasures of history, using specialized tools and an incredible amount of care.

The archaeological equivalent of finding the crown jewels occurred in 1926, when Charles Leonard Woolley discovered the Royal Tombs of Ur. Dating back to the approximately 2,600-2,000 B.C. and composed of 16 large tombs, the site contained the burials of 1,840 men, women and children. In addition, the tombs held a rich variety of artwork, inscriptions, and other artifacts that have helped archaeologists and historians to understand better the lives and culture of the ancient Sumerians. Most of the artifacts excavated by Woolley now reside in the British Museum or at the Penn Museum, although some artifacts do make traveling exhibitions.


The Royal Tombs of Ur contained such a wealth of artisanal pieces and historically important discoveries that it is impossible to detail them all here - indeed, many items are still being studied and sorted over 80 years after excavations took place! Here are some of the main discoveries and artifacts that have been studied and their significance to historians' understanding of ancient Sumeria.

  • The 'Ram in the Thicket' - This ornate, 18-inch sculpture is one of the more beautiful works of art recovered from the tombs. Made of gold leaf, copper, shells, and lapis lazuli, it depicts a goat standing on its hind legs to eat the leaves off the top of a bush. It may have had a functional use; historians have theorized that the column protruding from its back may have once held a serving tray or supported a table.

Ram in the Thicket
Ram in the Thicket

  • The Standard of Ur - This 8.5 x 19.6-inch trapezoidal box depicts common life in Sumeria in times of war and peace. Although some historians have theorized that it may have been a musical instrument or a box used to hold civic funds, the box was likely mounted to a pole and used as a battle standard. The detailed scenes depict a Sumerian king marshaling his troops, winning a battle, and then celebrating the victory with a feast supplied by the community.

Standard of Ur
Standard of Ur

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