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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 archaeologists to excavate methodically, and use records to reconstruct ancient life. Woolley was knighted in 1935 for his contributions to the discipline of archaeology.[1]

Sir Leonard Woolley
Woolley holding the hardened plaster mold of a lyre.jpg
Sir Leonard Woolley holding the noted excavated Sumerian Queen's Lyre, 1922
Born Charles Leonard Woolley
(1880-04-17)17 April 1880
Upper Clapton, London
Died 20 February 1960(1960-02-20) (aged 79)
Known for excavations at Ur in Mesopotamia
Spouse(s) Katharine Elizabeth Keeling Menke
Scientific career
Fields archaeology; military intelligence

He was one of the first ‘modern’ archaeologists, who excavated in a methodical way, keeping careful records, and using them to reconstruct ancient life and history.[2]


Early lifeEdit

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.


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 traveled to Nubia where he worked with David Randall-MacIver on a project for the University of Pennsylvania. In 1912–1914, with T. E. Lawrence as his assistant, he excavated the Hittite city of Carchemish. Lawrence and Woolley were apparently working for British Naval Intelligence and monitoring the construction of Germany's Berlin-to-Baghdad railway.[5]

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.[6]

In the following years, Woolley returned to Carchemish, and then worked at Amarna in Egypt.[7]

Excavation at UrEdit

Woolley led a joint expedition of the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania to Ur, beginning in 1922. There, he made important discoveries, including the Copper Bull,[8] 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. Christie later married Woolley's young assistant, Max Mallowan.

Ur was the burial site of what may have been many Sumerian royals. Woolley 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.

In 1936, after his 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. From 1937 to 1939, he was in Tell Atchana.[citation needed]

Local Genesis flood theoryEdit

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".[9]

World War IIEdit

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.[10] After the war, he returned to Alalakh, where he continued to work from 1946 until 1949.[11]

Personal lifeEdit

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.[7]

Woolley died on 20 February 1960 at age 79.



  1. ^ "Sir Leonard Woolley (Biographical details)". Retrieved 16 May 2017. 
  2. ^ UR Region Archaeology Project
  3. ^ Sir Leonard Woolley (Historic plaque – 13 Southwold Road, E5) (LB Hackney) accessed 19 August 2008
  4. ^ Crawford (2015), p. 7.
  5. ^ Crawford (2015), pp. 7–9.
  6. ^ 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."
  7. ^ a b Crawford (2015), p. 10.
  8. ^ Copper figure of a bull, British Museum, accessed July 2010
  9. ^ Ur of the Chaldees, Leonard Woolley, Ernest Benn Limited, 1929, p. 31.
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^


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