BAR 23:02, Mar/Apr 1997
Backward Glance: The Ur-Archaeologist
Leonard Woolley and the treasures of Mesopotamia
Sir Leonard Woolley, renowned as the excavator of Ur of the Chaldees, was no stranger to publicity. Through best-selling books, popular magazine articles and extensive newspaper interviews, Woolley painstakingly translated the results of his Near Eastern archaeological investigations into a language accessible to the public, winning himself legions of friends and followersamong them, Agatha Christie, T.E. Lawrence, Freya Stark, Gertrude Bell, Winston Churchill and even Englands Queen Mary.
Born in London in 1880 to a strict clerical family fallen on hard times, Woolley spent much of his youth focused on school. He won a scholarship to Oxford in 1899, where he studied theology with the clergyman William Archibald Spoonerwhose nervous manner of speech gave rise to the term spoonerism, a tendency to transpose the initial consonants of words. It was Spooner who advised Woolley to give up the notion of becoming a schoolteacher and to pursue a career in archaeology. From 1905 to 1908, Woolley worked for Oxfords Ashmolean Museum, where he came to value artifacts for bringing what he called the dead-and-gone back to life. Thereafter, he worked almost exclusively for museums.