J R Ogden and the Royal Cemetery at Ur


JR Ogden (1866 – 1940) was a high class jeweller and goldsmith from the richer reaches of Yorkshire in Harrogate.  He had a passion for archaeology and kept an archive of 10 000 glass slides and a library of contemporary newspaper and magazine cuttings, lecture notes and letters.  As a collaborator of Leonard (1880 – 1960) and Katharine Woolley in the early days of the application of scientific method to archaeology, he used his knowledge of the working of gold to help interpret the material found by the archaeological team.  He was important in the promotional campaigns to attract public attention and funding for the excavations in Iraq.


Woolley started his archaeological career at Hadrian´s Wall and worked with TE Lawrence before the War at the Hittite city of Carchemish on the border between Syria and Turkey.  He took charge of the excavations at Ur on behalf of the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania (1922 – 1934).  The young Max Mallowan worked for him and it was at Ur that Mallowan met Agatha Christie who based her novel “Murder in Mesopotamia” on her experiences at Ur.  She and Mallowan married within six months of meeting in 1930.


Woolley´s work at Ur of the Chaldees matched in glamour that of the contemporary work of Howard Carter at the tomb of Tutankhamun, and at both sites Ogden became noted for his metallurgical expertise. His experience meant he was uniquely placed to recognize the tools and techniques that might otherwise have been missed by a less experienced eye and by 1930 he was referred to as “advising goldsmith to the British Museum”, and he worked closely with Harold Plenderleith from the BM Research Laboratory.  Ogden advised on the metal content of alloys used by the ancients and on the best method of repairing metal objects found in the tombs.  One small pestle had escaped the attention of the archaeologists, and Ogden was able to identify it from the markings that it bears as a goldsmith´s goldleaf hammer.


As well as being promoter and fundraiser of the excavation and metallurgist, Ogden also became restorer of gold objects and replica maker, even to the extent of paying out of his own pocket for precious metal to be used in place of the utilitarian copper where he felt that the more expensive metal would give a better result; and for the use of genuine lapis lazuli to replace lost stones.  Many of his copies were as good as the originals and visitors to the exhibitions on Ur at the Museum in Bloomsbury were unaware that the original artifacts had had to be returned to Iraq.


Because he was not an academic, nor was he actively involved in the excavations, Ogden has largely been either forgotten or ignored by subsequent historians.  At a period in history when archaeology was dominated by single colourful individuals, co-workers and multi-disciplinary supporters were often overshadowed.  But they were the necessary forerunners in the move towards the scientific study that we know today, and Woolley´s and Plenderleith´s acknowledgements of Ogden´s contributions accurately reflect the esteem in which these archaeological heavyweights held him.  Ogden was modest and reluctant to take credit for his contribution to archaeology and preferred to direct attention towards the causes he promoted.


The material for this small review was taken from an article (Interpreting the royal cemetery of Ur metalwork: a contemporary perspective from the archives of James R Ogden) by Alison Millerman which appeared in the Journal Iraq (vol 70, December 2008).  Alison Millerman is completing a doctoral thesis on the relationship between Woolley and Ogden and the effect of this relationship on the presentation of the excavations at Ur.