Among the spectacular finds Sir Leonard Woolley reported from the Royal Cemetery at Ur, the head-dress and “diadem” found in Puabi's tomb are among the best known. Parts of these items look like plants, and many plants had symbolic value to the ancient Sumerians in addition to their practical importance for food, fodder, fuel and all manner of material culture. Insofar as the Ur ornaments refer to real plants, it is therefore important to know what those plants are.
Plant classifications at the level of genus (e.g., oak [Quercus], rose [Rosa], date [Phoenix]) are frequently consistent cross-culturally, which suggests that the way humans process sense data from the natural world is similar, and that the features of plants salient for identification and classification have both a reality in nature and a reality in human perception. That is why we can even hope to recognize stylized and abstracted versions of plants and animals created by people of different times and places, such as those of ancient Sumer. Meaning, being culturally constructed, cannot be dealt with so simply; for example, we may accurately identify the horse depicted in Lascaux, but not know why it was painted. Fortunately, our database for ancient Mesopotamia is so rich archaeologically and textually that we can reasonably try to interpret a representation once we have identified it.
The new exhibit mounted by the University of Pennsylvania Museum, “Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur”, and publication of the associated catalogue prompted the current reconsideration of the material. Detailed justification for previous identifications and new identifications for some of the plants represented in the ornaments from the Royal Cemetery are presented.