This is something I wrote for an archaeology assignment… I have shared it before, but here it is again:
Charles Leonard Woolley was born in 1880 in London, and was a renowned archaeologist with a career of fieldwork in the near and middle east. He became an assistant in the Department of Antiquities in the Ashmolean Museum Oxford at the age of twenty-five but his first experience of field archaeology in the area which became his life’s work, was two years later in 1907. He joined an expedition from the University of Pennsylvania to excavate sites in Nubia (southern Egypt) and worked there for four years, before transferring to a British expedition in the same area. On this expedition he was joined by Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. Until he was taken prisoner in 1916, Woolley worked for two years as an intelligence officer in Palestine (World War I started in 1914 in Europe) using his archaeological knowledge and skills.
After the war he continued his work in Mesopotamia and for this assignment I am going to consider the expedition he led from 1922-24, excavating the Biblical city of Ur, known as Ur of the Chaldees. Ur is a Sumerian city, inhabited since about 2600BCE; Woolley conducted excavations there for twelve years, discovering not only many artefacts, but also gaining a clearer idea of the lives of the inhabitants of the city. He discovered about 1850 graves including sixteen tombs which contained objects which led him to call them the ‘Royal Tombs’. He returned to Ur eleven times after the first expedition, but I am considering how he may have made his first reconnaissance in 1922, when he was accompanied on the dig by another young archaeologist, Max Mallowan. Mallowan later married Agatha Christy who wrote several books set in the area, including ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’ which features an archaeological dig, not dissimilar to the dig at Ur.
What methods of reconnaissance were available to Woolley in 1922? Since the first assents in a balloon in the eighteenth century it had been apparent that aerial reconnaissance was of value, initially for a military purpose. Similarly developments in photography and the portability of cameras allowed pictures of sites to be taken from the air, and one of the first archaeological aerial photos was taken in 1906 of Stonehenge. In World War 1 with aviation technology and engineering improving rapidly, the use of photographs became vital in planning campaigns, and Woolley is sure to have used such photos which were taken over Sinai in 1916 and Gaza in 1917, for example. I have not been able to find out if Woolley had reconnaissance photos of the Ur site, but certainly the technology was available.
As an experienced archaeologist and a skilled, much practiced excavator, Woolley did not begin his ‘dig’ until 1923; he would have spent the first months of the expedition systematically reconnoitring the landscape by car, on foot, possibly on a camel. (Even before he had arrived he would have made an academic reconnaissance, using other records, maps, and documents) He would have tried to locate and record what he identified, taking photos, drawing and sketching, mapping, making diagrams and planning where exactly he would place his trenches. He may have used probes (no geo-physics then!) he may have dug small test pits, but most of all, he would have used his eyes to ‘read’ the landscape and understand its context from the contours and features, sand/soil colour and type, geology and other signifiers of archaeology he observed. He would have ‘walked’ areas to try and visually locate remains, even though they were from as much as five thousand years ago, maybe potsherds, maybe worked stone; the arid desert would have preserved some organic materials as well as inorganic, but such artefacts would only be revealed by natural excavation such as wind shifting sand during a sandstorm.
Woolley spent twelve ‘seasons digging Ur and completed his work there in 1934. However, he continued to write articles and books about his excavations in southern Mesopotamia. He died in 1960 at the age of eighty.