Charles Leonard Woolley

Birth: 1880


Sir Charles Leonard Woolley (17 April 1880 - 20 February 1960) was a British archaeologist best known for his excavations at Ur in Mesopotamia. He is recognized as one of the first "modern" archaeologists, who excavated in a methodical way, keeping careful records, and using them to reconstruct ancient life and history. Woolley was knighted in 1935 for his contributions to the discipline of archaeology. He married the British archaeologist Katharine Woolley.

Woolley was the son of a clergyman, and was brother to Geoffrey Harold Woolley, VC, and George Cathcart Woolley. He was born at 13 Southwold Road, Upper Clapton, in the modern London Borough of Hackney and educated at St John's School, Leatherhead and New College, Oxford. He was interested in excavations from a young age. Woolley married Katharine Elizabeth Keeling (June 1888 - 8 November 1945), who was born in England to German parents and had previously been married to Lieut. Col. Bertram Francis Eardley Keeling (OBE, MC). He had hired Keeling in 1924 as expedition artist and draughts-woman; they married in 1927 and she continued to play an important role at his archaeological sites.

Archaeological Career

In 1905, Woolley became assistant of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Volunteered by Arthur Evans to run the excavations on the Roman site at Corbridge (near Hadrian's Wall) for Francis Haverfield, Woolley began his excavation career there in 1906, later admitting in Spadework that "I had never studied archaeological methods even from books ... and I had not any idea how to make a survey or a ground-plan" (Woolley 1953:15). Nevertheless, the Corbridge Lion was found under his supervision.

Woolley next traveled to Nubia where he worked with David Randall-MacIver on the Eckley Coxe Expedition to Nubia conducted under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Between 1907 and 1911 they conducted archaeological excavations and survey at sites including Areika, Buhen, and the Meroitic town of Karanog. In 1912-1914, with T. E. Lawrence as his assistant, he excavated the Hittite city of Carchemish. Lawrence and Woolley were apparently working for British Naval Intelligence and monitoring the construction of Germany's Berlin-to-Baghdad railway.

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During World War I, Woolley, with Lawrence, was posted to Cairo, where he met Gertrude Bell. He then moved to Alexandria, where he was assigned to work on naval espionage. Turkey captured a ship he was on, and held him for two years in a relatively comfortable prisoner-of-war camp. He received the Croix de Guerre from France at the war's end. In the following years, Woolley returned to Carchemish, and then worked at Amarna in Egypt.

Woolley led a joint expedition of the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania to Ur, beginning in 1922, which included his wife, the British archaeologist Katharine Woolley. There, they made important discoveries, including the Copper Bull and the Bull-Headed Lyre in the course of excavating the royal cemetery and the pair of Ram in a Thicket figurines. Agatha Christie's novel, Murder in Mesopotamia, was inspired by the discovery of the royal tombs. Christie later married Woolley's young assistant, Max Mallowan.

Ur was the burial site of what may have been many Sumerian royals. The Woolleys discovered tombs of great material wealth, containing large paintings of ancient Sumerian culture at its zenith, along with gold and silver jewelry, cups and other furnishings. The most extravagant tomb was that of "Queen" Pu-Abi. Amazingly enough, Queen Pu-Abi's tomb was untouched by looters. Inside the tomb, many well-preserved items were found, including a cylindrical seal bearing her name in Sumerian. Her body was found buried along with those of two attendants, who had presumably been poisoned to continue to serve her after death. Woolley was able to reconstruct Pu-Abi's funeral ceremony from objects found in her tomb.

In 1936, after the discoveries at Ur, Woolley was interested in finding ties between the ancient Aegean and Mesopotamian civilizations. This led him to the Syrian city of Al Mina. His archaeological career was interrupted by the United Kingdom's entry into World War II, and he became part of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section of the Allied armies. After the war, he returned to Alalakh, where he continued to work from 1946 until 1949. Woolley died on 20 February 1960 at age 79.


  • Dead Towns and Living Men. Being Pages From An Antiquary's Notebook, Jonathan Cape, 1920
  • Ur of the Chaldees, Ernest Benn Limited, 1938 [1929] republished by Penguin Books, revised 1950, 1952
  • The Excavations at Ur and the Hebrew Records, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1929
  • Digging Up The Past, 1930 , based on talks originally broadcast by the BBC
  • Abraham: Recent Discoveries and Hebrew Origins, Faber and Faber London, 1936
  • Ur: The first phases, Penguin Books Harmondsworth, 1946
  • A Forgotten Kingdom, Penguin Books, 1953
  • Spadework: Adventures in Archaeology, 1953
  • Excavations at Ur: A Record of 12 Years’ Work, 1954
  • Alalakh, An Account of the Excavations at Tell, Oxford University Press, 1955
  • History of Mankind, 1963 (with Jaquetta Hawkes)
  • The Sumerians, 1965


Winstone, H. V. F. (1990). Woolley of Ur. London: Secker and Warburg.

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