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Standard of Ur

Standard of Ur

Standard of Ur

The Standard of Ur is a mosaic of shells, red limestone and lapis lazuli inlaid over a hollow wooden box. It was discovered in the 1920s in a royal tomb at the ancient city of Ur (modern-day Iraq) and is about 4,600 years old.

The standard was constructed to depict scenes of “War” on one side and “Peace” on the other side using elaborately inlaid mosaics. It was next to the skeleton of a ritually sacrificed man who may have been its bearer. However, its original real purpose remains enigmatic.

The present form of this “Standard of Ur” is a reconstruction, presenting the best guess of its original appearance. The inlaid mosaic panels cover each long side of the Standard.

Each side offers a series of scenes displayed in three registers, upper, middle, and bottom.

The two mosaics have been dubbed “War” and “Peace” for their subject matter, respectively, a representation of a military campaign and scenes from a banquet. The panels at each end showed fantastical animals.

The mosaic scenes of “War” are the earliest representations of a Sumerian army, engaged in a battle and its aftermath.

The “War” panel shows the king in the middle of the top register, standing taller than any other figure. He stands in front of his bodyguard and a four-wheeled chariot.

He faces a row of prisoners, all of whom are portrayed as naked, bound, and injured with large, bleeding gashes on their chests and thighs.

Standard of Ur

Standard of Ur -“War” Panel

The “Peace” mosaics portray a banquet scene. The king again appears in the upper register, sitting on a carved stool, and he is faced by six other seated participants, each holding a cup raised in his right hand.

They are attended by various other figures, including a singer, who accompanies a lyrist. In the middle register, bald figures wearing skirts with fringes parade animals, fish, and other goods, perhaps bringing them to the feast.

The bottom register shows a series of figures dressed differently from those above, carrying produce in shoulder bags and backpacks.

The Discovery of the Standard of Ur

The “Standard of Ur” was found in one of the largest royal tombs in Ur, associated with a king who died around 2550 BC.

Sir Leonard Woolley’s excavations in Mesopotamia in 1927–28 uncovered the Standard in the corner of a tomb chamber, lying close to the shoulder of a man who may have held it on a pole. Robbers, in ancient times, had thoroughly plundered the tomb in which it was found.

As one corner of the last chamber as it was being cleared, a workman accidentally spotted a piece of shell inlay, and from this starting point, the remains of the Standard were slowly revealed and reconstructed.

Standard of Ur

Standard of Ur – “Peace” Panel

The Standard of Ur survived in only a fragmentary condition. The ravages of four thousand years caused the decay of the wooden frame and bitumen, which had cemented the mosaics in place.

The tomb’s collapse crushed the object, fragmenting it, which made excavating the Standard a challenging task.

The excavators looked for hollows in the ground created by decayed objects and then filled them with plaster or wax to record the shape of the objects that had once filled them.

When the excavators discovered the remains of the Standard, they found that the mosaic pieces had kept their form in the soil, while their wooden frame had disintegrated.

They carefully uncovered small sections measuring about 3 square centimeters and covered them with wax, enabling the mosaics to be lifted while maintaining their original designs.

Leonard Woolley

Charles Leonard Woolley (1880 – 1960) was a British archaeologist best known for his excavations at Ur. He is recognized as one of the first “modern” archaeologists who excavated systematically, keeping careful records.

Woolley was knighted for his contributions to the discipline of archaeology.

Woolley led a joint expedition to Ur, beginning in 1922 to explore the burial site of many Sumerian royals. His archaeological expedition made essential discoveries of significant historical importance.

In 1936, after the discoveries at Ur, Woolley was interested in finding ties between the ancient Aegean and Mesopotamian civilizations.

This interest led him to the Syrian city of Al Mina. Unfortunately, his archaeological career was interrupted by World War II, and he became part of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section of the Allied Armies.

After the war, he returned, and he continued his work in the Middle-East.

Agatha Christie’s novel, “Murder in Mesopotamia,” was inspired by the discovery of the royal tombs in Ur. Christie later married Woolley’s young assistant, Max Mallowan.

Standard of Ur

  • Title:               Standard of Ur
  • Date:              2600 BC
  • Findspot:        Ur (located in modern-day Iraq west of Nasiriyah)
  • Materials:       shell, limestone, lapis lazuli, bitumen
  • Culture:          Sumerian
  • Dimensions:   W: 21.59 cm; L: 49.53
  • Type:              Mesopotamian Art
  • Museum:        The British Museum

The Standard of Ur

Tour of Mesopotamian Art

Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur

A Tour of the British Museum

Ancient Egypt and Sudan Collection

Middle East Collection

The Standard of Ur

Ancient Greece and Rome Collection

Britain, Europe, and Prehistory Collection

Standard of Ur

Asian Collection

Africa, Oceania and the Americas Collection

The Prints and Drawings Collection

The Standard of Ur


“When digging ceases to be a great game and becomes, as in Egypt, merely a business, it will be a bad thing.”
– Leonard Woolley


Photo Credit: 1) Denis Bourez from France [CC BY 2.0 (] 2) Badger High School [Public domain]

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