Courtesy University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia

Sir Leonard Woolley (1880–1960) bears aloft a small reconstructed lyre from the graveyard of Ur, in southern Iraq, where the British archaeologist excavated hundreds of graves from the third millennium B.C.E. A golden bull’s head (at right) decorated a much larger lyre found by Woolley in one of the cemetery’s richest graves. The 4.5-foot-long Great Lyre, as Woolley dubbed it, is part of a traveling exhibition of Woolley’s finds now touring the United States.

Woolley’s tendency to give grand names to his spectacular discoveries led him to claim to have found Abraham’s hometown, Noah’s Flood and the tombs of various kings and queens who ruled over Ur in its heyday—each of these identifications has since come under scrutiny.

Nevertheless, during his 12 seasons at Ur, the British archaeologist proved to be a skillful—and creative—excavator. While excavating in the so-called royal cemetery, Woolley found only the impression of the small lyre (shown at left) in the dirt; the wooden bars had disintegrated. So Woolley inserted wooden sticks and wires into the holes and then poured in plaster. When the plaster had hardened, Woolley cleared the surrounding soil and revealed his lyre, with a decorative copper cow’s head and a shell plaque attached to the sound box. Even the lyre’s ten strings were briefly preserved in plaster, although they quickly disintegrated.