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Leonard Woolley

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Leonard Woolley
Woolley in 1915
Charles Leonard Woolley

(1880-04-17)17 April 1880
Clapton, London, England
Died20 February 1960(1960-02-20) (aged 79)
London, England
Alma materNew College, Oxford
Known forexcavations at Ur in Mesopotamia
(m. 1927; died 1945)
Scientific career
FieldsArchaeology; military intelligence

Sir Charles Leonard Woolley (17 April 1880 – 20 February 1960) was a British archaeologist best known for his excavations at Ur in Mesopotamia. He is recognized as one of the first "modern" archaeologists who excavated in a methodical way, keeping careful records, and using them to reconstruct ancient life and history.[1] Woolley was knighted in 1935 for his contributions to the discipline of archaeology.[2] He was married to the British archaeologist Katharine Woolley.

Early life[edit]

Woolley was the son of a clergyman, and was brother to Geoffrey Harold Woolley, VC, and George Cathcart Woolley. He was born at 13 Southwold Road, Upper Clapton, in the modern London Borough of Hackney[3] and educated at St John's School, Leatherhead and New College, Oxford. He was interested in excavations from a young age.


Woolley (right) and T. E. Lawrence with a Hittite slab at Carchemish during excavation, between 1912 and 1914.

In 1905, Woolley became assistant of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Volunteered by Arthur Evans to run the excavations on the Roman site at Corbridge (near Hadrian's Wall) for Francis Haverfield, Woolley began his excavation career there in 1906, later admitting in Spadework that "I had never studied archaeological methods even from books ... and I had not any idea how to make a survey or a ground-plan" (Woolley 1953:15). Nevertheless, the Corbridge Lion was found under his supervision.[4]

Woolley next travelled to Nubia in southern Egypt, where he worked with David Randall-MacIver on the Eckley Coxe Expedition to Nubia conducted under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Between 1907 and 1911 they conducted archaeological excavations and survey at sites including Areika,[5] Buhen,[6] and the Meroitic town of Karanog.[7] In 1912–1914, with T. E. Lawrence as his assistant, he excavated the Hittite city of Carchemish in Syria. Lawrence and Woolley were apparently working for British Naval Intelligence and monitoring the construction of Germany's Berlin-to-Baghdad railway.[8]

During World War I, Woolley, with Lawrence, was posted to Cairo, where he met Gertrude Bell. He then moved to Alexandria, where he was assigned to work on naval espionage. Turkey captured a ship he was on, and held him for two years in a relatively comfortable prisoner-of-war camp. He received the Croix de Guerre from France at the war's end.[9]

In the following years, Woolley returned to Carchemish, and then worked at Amarna in Egypt.[10]

Excavation at Ur[edit]

Woolley led a joint expedition of the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania to Ur, beginning in 1922, which included his wife, the British archaeologist Katharine Woolley. There, they made important discoveries, including the Copper Bull and the Bull-Headed Lyre.[11][12] In the course of excavating the royal cemetery and the pair of Ram in a Thicket figurines. Agatha Christie's novel, Murder in Mesopotamia, was inspired by the discovery of the royal tombs. Agatha Christie later married Woolley's young assistant, Max Mallowan.

Ur was the burial site of what may have been many Sumerian royals. The Woolleys discovered tombs of great material wealth, containing large paintings of ancient Sumerian culture at its zenith, along with gold and silver jewellery, cups and other furnishings. The most extravagant tomb was that of "Queen" Pu-Abi. Amazingly enough, Queen Pu-Abi's tomb was untouched by looters. Inside the tomb, many well-preserved items were found, including a cylindrical seal bearing her name in Sumerian. Her body was found buried along with those of two attendants, who had presumably been poisoned to continue to serve her after death. Woolley was able to reconstruct Pu-Abi's funeral ceremony from objects found in her tomb.

Excavation at Al Mina and Tell Atchana[edit]

In 1936, after the discoveries at Ur, Woolley was interested in finding ties between the ancient Aegean and Mesopotamian civilisations. This led him to the Syrian city of Al Mina. He excavated Tell Atchana in the years 1937–1939 and 1946–1949. His team discovered palaces, temples, private houses and fortification walls, in 17 archaeological levels, reaching from late Early Bronze Age (c. 2200–2000 BC) to Late Bronze Age (c. 13th century BC). Among their finds was the inscribed statue of Idrimi, a king of Alalakh c. early 15th century BC.[13][14]

Local Genesis flood theory[edit]

Woolley was one of the first archaeologists to propose that the flood described in the Book of Genesis was local after identifying a flood-stratum at Ur "400 miles long and 100 miles wide; but for the occupants of the valley that was the whole world".[15][16]

World War II[edit]

His archaeological career was interrupted by the United Kingdom's entry into World War II, and he became part of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section of the Allied armies.[17] After the war, he returned to Alalakh, where he continued to work from 1946 until 1949.[18]

Personal life[edit]

Woolley in Syria, 1912

Woolley married Katharine Elizabeth Keeling (née Menke; born June 1888 – died 8 November 1945), who was born in England to German parents and had previously been married to Lieut. Col. Bertram Francis Eardley Keeling (OBE, MC). He had hired Keeling in 1924 as expedition artist and draughtswoman; they married in 1927 and she continued to play an important role at his archaeological sites.[10]

In 1930, Woolley invited his friend Agatha Christie to visit a dig site in Iraq, where she met her second husband Max Mallowan.

Woolley died at 16 Fitzroy Square, London on 20 February 1960 at age 79. He was cremated at Golders Green on the 24th.[19] Dame Katharine died on 8 November 1945. They had no children.


  • Dead Towns and Living Men. Being Pages From An Antiquary's Notebook, Jonathan Cape, 1920
  • Ur of the Chaldees, Ernest Benn Limited, 1938 [1929] republished by Penguin Books, revised 1950, 1952
  • The Excavations at Ur and the Hebrew Records, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1929
  • Digging Up The Past, 1930 , based on talks originally broadcast by the BBC
  • Abraham: Recent Discoveries and Hebrew Origins, Faber and Faber London, 1936
  • Ur: The first phases, Penguin Books Harmondsworth, 1946
  • Syria as a Link Between East and West, 1936
  • A Forgotten Kingdom, Penguin Books, 1953
  • Spadework: Adventures in Archaeology, 1953
  • Excavations at Ur: A Record of 12 Years' Work, 1954
  • Alalakh, An Account of the Excavations at Tell Atchana 1937-1949, Oxford University Press, 1955
  • History of Mankind, 1963 (with Jaquetta Hawkes)
  • The Sumerians, 1965


  1. ^ "أبطال من التراث | مشروع منطقة اور للآثار".
  2. ^ "Sir Leonard Woolley (Biographical details)". britishmuseum.org. Retrieved 16 May 2017.
  3. ^ Sir Leonard Woolley (Historic plaque – 13 Southwold Road, E5) Archived 1 January 2009 at the Wayback Machine (LB Hackney) accessed 19 August 2008
  4. ^ Crawford (2015), p. 7.
  5. ^ Wegner, Josef W.; Wegner, Josef (1995). "Regional Control in Middle Kingdom Lower Nubia: The Function and History of the Site of Areika". Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt. 32: 127–160. doi:10.2307/40000835. ISSN 0065-9991. JSTOR 40000835.
  6. ^ Randall-MacIver, David (1911). Buhen by D. Randall-Maciver and C. Leonard Woolley. University Museum. OCLC 162857980.
  7. ^ Woolley, Charles Leonard (1910). Eckley B. Coxe Junior Expedition to Nubia. University Museum. OCLC 831392745.
  8. ^ Crawford (2015), pp. 7–9.
  9. ^ Crawford (2015), p. 9. "With these experiences behind him, it was to be expected that when Woolley was commissioned in the Royal Field Artillery at the outbreak of war he found himself seconded to Military Intelligence. He was posted to Cairo, where he worked with Lawrence, and met Gertrude Bell, who was also working there, and who was to be important to him when he was digging at Ur. He was then posted to Alexandria, where he was put in charge of French and English spy ships in the eastern Mediterranean. One of these ships was captured by the Turks while Woolley was on board and he spent the next two years in a Turkish prisoner-of-war camp. The experience does not appear to have been too onerous, because his letters speak of plays, concerts, and a camp newspaper. His work in Alexandria must have been useful to the war effort as he was subsequently awarded the French Croix de Guerre."
  10. ^ a b Crawford (2015), p. 10.
  11. ^ Copper figure of a bull, British Museum, accessed July 2010
  12. ^ Museum, Ur Digitization Project-Penn Museum & British. "UrOnline - The Digital Resource for the Excavation of Ur". www.ur-online.org. Retrieved 23 February 2019.
  13. ^ Woolley, Leonard, (1955). Alalakh, An Account of the Excavations at Tell Atchana 1937-1949 (Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London), Oxford.
  14. ^ Woolley, Sir Leonard, (1953). A Forgotten Kingdom: a Record of the Results Obtained from the Recent Important Excavation of Two Mounds, Atchana and al Mina, in the Turkish Hatay, Penguin Books, Baltimore.
  15. ^ Ur of the Chaldees, Leonard Woolley, Ernest Benn Limited, 1929, p. 31.
  16. ^ "Secrets of Noah's Ark - Transcript". Nova. PBS. 7 October 2015. Retrieved 27 May 2019.
  17. ^ Neil Brodie; Kathryn Walker Tubb (13 July 2003). Illicit Antiquities: The Theft of Culture and the Extinction of Archaeology. Taylor & Francis. p. 61. ISBN 978-0-203-16546-1. Retrieved 20 July 2013.
  18. ^ "British Museum - Leonard Woolley (1880-1960)". www.britishmuseum.org. Archived from the original on 26 March 2013.
  19. ^ "Woolley, Sir (Charles) Leonard". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/37021. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)


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