Leonard Woolley on Digging Up the Past

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
9 min readApr 17, 2024

Wednesday 17 April 2024 is the 144th anniversary of the birth of Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, better known to posterity as C. Leonard Woolley (17 April 1880–20 February 1960), who was born on the outskirts of London on this day in 1880.

Last year I traveled to Philadelphia for a conference, but I had an ulterior motive for going to Philadelphia, which was to visit the Penn Museum. The Penn Museum has an incredible collection covering early civilizations, with exhibits from all over the world. I especially enjoyed the Egyptian, Etruscan, and Mesoamerican collections, but I went there for the Sumerian collection. I had learned that the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the British Museum had together been the sponsors for the excavations at Ur. I wanted to see the “Ram in a Thicket,” two of which were found at Ur, with one now in the British Museum and one in the Penn Museum.

One hundred years ago it was an exciting time in archaeology. The roaring twenties saw Howard Carter opening the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1923, Arthur Evans excavating Knossos from 1922 to 1930, the first excavations of the Indus Valley civilization sites at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, and Leonard Woolley starting the excavation at Ur in 1922, with the Royal Tombs of Ur being excavated in 1926–1927.

Woolley had experience at several digs prior to Ur, including working at Carchemish with T. E. Lawrence, later Lawrence of Arabia, who was eight years his junior. Though experienced in contemporary archaeological techniques, Woolley was frequently making it up as he went. There was little established in the way of best practices for archaeology, and the technology was rudimentary. Nevertheless, Woolley clearly understood the fundamental archaeological imperative:

“In its essence Field Archaeology is the application of scientific method to the excavation of ancient objects, and it is based on the theory that the historical value of an object depends not so much on the nature of the object itself as on its associations, which only scientific excavation can detect.”

I suspect any archaeologist today would endorse this succinct formulation. Further, Woolley had good instincts for getting artifacts out of the ground in as intact a condition as was possible. The recovery of the artifacts from the Royal Tombs of Ur was a sensation, and if you visit the Penn museum or the British Museum you can see for yourself why that was. Woolley’s good judgment is largely responsible for the artifacts we can see today in these museums. All of this archaeological work in the 1920s led to the earliest period of human history being re-written.

Because of archaeology, our knowledge of the past is increasing, and the historical knowledge derived from archaeology is the raw material for both historians and philosophers of history. And it wasn’t only our conception of the material culture of the distant past that was changed. The finds at Ur put ancient religion and mythology in a new light. The apparent ritual burial at the Royal Tombs of Ur is the kind of thing that makes you stop and think; it is a rare glimpse of the pageantry of ancient life. The ritual in which the bodies were interred would have been spectacular, not only for all the treasure that was buried with the bodies, but also for the sacrifices involved.

We don’t know if the many bodies found in what came to be called the “death pit” at Ur were killed away from the site, and then brought there and arranged in the tomb, or if they were killed on the site where they lay. And we don’t know how exactly those in the death pit were killed. The current view is that they probably were given some kind of drug and then dispatched with a blow to the back of the head. However, the remains are in such a condition that we cannot know for certain, as Woolley noted during the excavation. For all we know, the interment ritual might have been a bloody and horrific scene of sacrifice and screaming. In what kind of society will almost a hundred servants be put to death to join their lord in the afterlife? Did they join in the funerary ritual voluntarily, or were they coerced? Woolley’s excavations forced these questions on us, and so changed our conception of prehistory in many ways. For example, mythology scholar Joseph Campbell often referenced the Royal Tombs of Ur in his lectures, almost quoting Woolley’s reports verbatim.

Archaeology has probably done more to expand knowledge of the human past than any other discipline in recent times, though archaeology has been called one of the auxiliary sciences of history. Wikipedia lists twenty-three auxiliary sciences of history, also known as the ancillary sciences of history. That’s a lot, but it’s not an exhaustive list. Here’s a list of auxiliary sciences of history, based on Wikipedia’s list with some additions:

Anthropology — The study of human beings

Archaeology — The study of human activity through the recovery and analysis of material culture

Archaeography — The study of ancient (historical) documents (antique writings)

Archival science — The study and theory of creating and maintaining archives

Campanology — The study of bells

Chorography — The study of regions and places

Chronology — The study of the sequence of past events

Cliometrics — The systematic application of economic theory, econometric techniques, and other formal or mathematical methods to the study of history

Codicology — The study of books as physical objects

Diplomatics — The study and textual analysis of historical documents

Encyclopaedistics — The study of encyclopaedias as sources of encyclopaedic knowledge

Epigraphy — The study of ancient inscriptions

Folkloristics — The study of folklore

Genealogy — The study of family relationships

Geography (or historical geography) — The use of the principles and methods of geology to reconstruct geological history

Heraldry — The study of armorial devices

Mythography — The study of myths

Numismatics — The study of coins

Onomastics — The study of proper names

Paleobotany — The recovery and identification of plant remains in their archaeological context

Palaeography — The study of old handwriting

Paleoanthropology — The study of human evolution and ecology through the fossil record

Palynology — The study of pollen grains and spores

Papyrology — The study of ancient manuscripts preserved on portable media

Phaleristics — The study of military orders, fraternities, and award items

Philately — The study of postage stamps

Philology — The study of the language of historical sources

Prosopography — The investigation of a historical group of individuals through a collective study of their lives

Radiometric dating — The use of nuclear science to date historical objects

Sigillography (or sphragistics) — The study of seals

Sociology (or historical sociology) — The study of society

Toponymy — The study of place names

Vexillology — The study of flags

The more sciences we add to the list of the auxiliary sciences of history, the more we see that there is no clear line between the history and the remainder of the sciences. Woolley himself wrote:

“Between archaeology and history there is no fenced frontier, and the digger who will best observe and record his discoveries is precisely he who sees them as historical material and rightly appraises them: if he has not the power of synthesis and interpretation he has mistaken his calling.”

The elaboration of the detailed technique of archaeology has itself created many auxiliary sciences, including palynology, paleobotony, and radiometric dating techniques, which are at the intersection of natural science and archaeology. Archaeology has become much more than an auxiliary science of history, being itself generative of further sciences and being the source of creative thought about history. Most contemporary theories of the origins civilization are the work of archaeologists.

Given that archaeologists are professionally dedicated to the excavation of the material culture of the past, it should be no surprise than many of them endorsed historical materialism in one form or another. V. Gordon Childe was a noted archaeologist — he’s even mentioned in one of the Indiana Jones films — working from a Marxist perspective, though it remains pretty subtle in his books. Woolley explicitly addressed the Marxism of many of his colleagues. At the end of Chapter III in his The Beginnings of Civilization, Woolley appends a note in which he contrasts what he calls a kaleidoscopic view of change, in which, “…human history is no more than a kaleidoscopic change of whimsical patterns with no inner consistency and no principle in their development.” He contrasts this to the Marxist view of an orderly succession of stages of development. Woolley wrote:

“Since the whole purpose of this book is to trace man’s progress it obviously does not regard history as a ‘kaleidoscopic change of whimsical patterns’; but none the less do I find it impossible to fit the stages of progress in general to the Procrustean bed of what my Marxist friends term ‘the law of social development’. In my view ‘the different local varieties following from the specific conditions of times and place’ rule out any such conformity. Were the historical facts grouped according to a theory of the successive development of primitive communal and slave-holding structures of society those facts might be more easily grasped, but the history would be misrepresented.”

This was a time in British intellectual life in which the British scientific Marxists were highly influential, so when Woolley mentions his “Marxist friends” we need to take him at this word. I’ve previously discussed this in my episode on Christopher Hill. Woolley, then, wasn’t interested in a doctrinaire Marxism; I doubt he would have endorsed any particular philosophy of history, though Woolley’s work also coincided with Collingwood’s attempt to formulate what we might call the first indigenous English philosophy of history. In Creating Prehistory: Druids, Ley Hunters and Archaeologists in Pre-War Britain, Adam Stout writes of Collingwood’s role in the development of archaeology:

“…awareness of the questioner’s ‘positionality’ put Collingwood decades ahead of his contemporaries, and freed him up to ask some uncomfortable questions about the nature of the past itself. The ‘first principle’ of the philosophy of history was the idea that ‘the past which an historian studies is not a dead past, but a past which in some sense is still living in the present’. It is called into being by ‘disentangling it out of the present in which it actually exists’; and elsewhere, ‘the past simply as past is wholly unknowable . . . it is the past as residually preserved in the present that is alone knowable’.” (p. 237)

Collingwood himself was an archaeologist, a “Romanist” as Stout puts it, while Woolley was unearthing a much deeper past, which, arguably, could also be said to lead to uncomfortable questions about the relationship of the present to the past, as with the meaning of the death it at Ur. Woolley, like Collingwood, was acutely aware of the role of the archaeologist in constructing history; we might even say he was aware of the positionality of the archaeologist and how this positionality contributes to a unique view of the reconstruction of history. In Digging Up the Past Woolley wrote:

“As his work in the field goes on, the excavator is constantly subject to impressions too subjective and too intangible to be communicated, and out of these, by no exact logical process, there arise theories which he can state, can perhaps support, but cannot prove: their truth will depend ultimately on his own calibre, but, in any case, they have their value as summing up experiences which no student of his objects and his notes can ever share. Granted that the excavator is adequate to his task, the conclusions which he draws from his own work ought to carry weight, and he is bound to put them forward…”

Since Woolley’s time, many archaeologists have put forward their conclusions, and these conclusions increasingly shape our knowledge and understanding of the past.