Eighty-three years ago, Sir Leonard Woolley unearthed an ancient Mesopotamian skeleton in Iraq and sent it to Philadelphia—where it was promptly forgotten until now.
Brad Hafford was getting ready to head to Iraq this past May when he first caught wind of the skeleton.
An archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, Hafford had been working for almost two years at that point on a joint project with the British Museum in London and the National Museum in Baghdad, attempting to digitize the artifacts that the late British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley had excavated from the ancient Mesopotamian kingdom of Ur, which was located in what’s now modern-day Iraq. Woolley had unearthed the kingdom during digs between 1922 and 1934, and had turned over the artifacts along with his notes to the three museums along the way.
Having become particularly adept at reading Woolley’s handwriting after spending many years studying the Ur findings, Hafford was the first scholar at Penn’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to take note, 83 years later, of a curious piece of correspondence that Woolley had sent in 1931. “It said we [the Penn Museum] were going to receive two skeletons,” Hafford says. “But we didn’t have anyone at that time who analyzed skeletons.”
That’s because in 1931, the U.S. was knee-deep in the Great Depression; unemployment was at 15 percent and rising, and institutions everywhere, including Penn, had suffered huge layoffs. So not only had Hafford never heard of any ancient skeletons sent to Penn from Iraq, he thought it was odd that Woolley would have considered sending them in the first place: “I thought, ‘Why would we get that? Most of those ended up in the natural history museum in London.’”
He started asking around. No one in the archaeology department knew anything about the Ur skeletons, and most assumed the note was a mistake—Woolley must have sent the bodies to London. Still, Hafford went to the anthropology department to see if he could turn up any surprises.
Woolley’s note said one body was in an “extended” position—which is not an official term, but which suggested to Hafford that if these remains really did exist, he wouldn’t just be opening up a box of scattered bones. This would be a complete human figure.
Dr. Janet Monge knew of one. And she’d known about it for a while. The curator-in-charge at the museum’s physical anthropology department told Hafford about an unidentified skeleton that had been tucked away inside a sealed crate for at least as long as the three decades she’d been working at Penn. “I periodically visited it,” she says. “I was always drawn to open up the crate and actually see it… and scan the specimen.” But with no identification number, no catalog card, and nothing to actually explain where it came from, she’d never actually had a good reason to do so.
Monge took Hafford to one of the museum’s private areas, to a musky old concrete-floored storage space he’d never even heard of: the Mummy Room, where several Peruvian mummies (plus a couple of bear skulls) were kept. He started looking around. And indeed, tucked away on a shelf, there was a crate with no number on it that looked big enough to hold a human—a big one, at that. It was nailed shut. It had never been opened.
So Hafford did what any archeologist in a room full of mummies would do: got a crowbar and pried the crate open.
Inside, a dirty, dusty skeleton lay intact, enveloped in wax, its bones still positioned as they would have been in life. The condition was striking; Hafford immediately thought of Han Solo frozen in carbonite.
“When you excavate bodies, even when they’re in good condition, you know you have to disassemble them,” he says. Despite what we often see in horror movies, he explains, there’s nothing left holding the bones together after the cartilage has deteriorated. Typically, therefore, the excavator is the last person to see human remains articulated as a full skeleton.
But Woolley had preserved this skeleton in a unique fashion, using wax and perhaps some plaster around the casing, which kept most of the bones preserved—other than the skull, which Hafford describes as a “kind of crushed skull cap where it would have been sticking up the most and the weight of the dirt has pushed it in.”
So opening the crate that had been sitting, unknown, in the Penn Museum’s bowels for the better part of a century, he says, was “almost like finding it in the field. This makes it still more the feeling of encountering the very people we are trying to learn about—and makes for a palpably human connection, despite the intervening six and a half millennia.”
It’s hard to know how many more skeletal remains like this one exist. But one thing’s for sure: No more will ever set foot in Philadelphia.
After World War I, the League of Nations established the state of Iraq and kept it under British control—and British archeologist Leonard Woolley saw a unique opportunity. Modern civilization’s roots, after all, were based in ancient Mesopotamia, where Iraq is situated. Woolley boarded a steamship in September 1922, got an excavation permit in Baghdad, headed to Ur and began digging. During his 12 years working in the country, he found hundreds of bodies buried underground, including what are today thought to be Sumerian royals, gold, silver, and pottery. Writer Agatha Christie, who was one of numerous notable British celebrities who attended the dig, would later write her novel Murder in Mesopotamia about the dig.
The skeleton Woolley would send to Penn was unearthed in what the archaeologist referred to as the Flood Pit. “He found 10 feet of silt from a large water event some 45 feet down from the top of the pit,” Hafford says. “Our skeleton was in that flood layer, [which means] he lived after the flood and his grave was cut down into the silts of it.” Woolley suggested this might have been the very Great Flood referenced in the Biblical book of Genesis.
“Floods were common on the river plain,” Hafford points out, “but this one was big. It may even have inspired legends—but we can’t be sure of that.”
Woolley’s arrangement was set up so that Baghdad’s national museum kept half of what was found in the dig, while Penn and the National Museum in London split the other half.
Iraq’s tumultuous history notwithstanding, the museum and its collections successfully weathered the 20th century—until the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime, during which the museum was famously ransacked and looted for 48 hours in April 2003. Reports say that 40 statues were taken from the public galleries, along with an unknown number of smaller items—estimates put the total number of excavation site pieces stolen at about 3,100—many of which were essentially priceless. There’s been an ongoing effort over the last decade to find the lost artifacts, with mixed results.