Penn Museum Rediscovers 6,500-Year Old Human Skeleton

The Penn Museum in Philadelphia announced Tuesday that it had finally rediscovered a 6,500-year old human skeleton. Surprisingly, the skeleton was stored in a coffin-like box in the museum’s basement for about 85 years but nobody cared to notice it until recently. The ancient human skeleton was excavated around 1929-1930 in Ur, what is now southern Iraq.

How Penn Museum rediscovered it

The identifying documentation for this rare specimen was missing. This summer, the Penn Museum launched a project to digitize old excavation records from Ur. That’s when the documentation and the history of the complete human skeleton came back into the light. It was unearthed about 85 years ago by a joint Penn Museum/British Museum team led by Sir Leonard Woolley. The specimen is approximately 2,000 years older than the remains of the famous Mesopotamian “royal tombs.”

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Dr. Janet Monge, curator-in-charge, said a visual examination of the specimen suggests it is that of a well-built male, about age 50. He would have stood about 5′ 10″ tall. Skeletons from the Ubaid period (roughly 5500–4000 BCE) in ancient Near East are extremely rare. Woolley’s team had excavated 48 graves from 50 feet below the surface in an Ubaid-era flood plain. He determined that only one of the 48 skeletons was in condition to recover.

Penn Museum has more than 150,000 bone specimens

Woolley coated the specimen and surrounding soil in wax. The skeleton was shipped to London, and then to Philadelphia. Scientists believe it could provide new information about the ancient population’s diet, origins, diseases, trauma and stress. Dr. Monge had known about this mystery skeleton in the basement for as long as she has been a curator-in-charge. It had been there in a wooden box with no identifying number, no catalog card or anything that could explain its former whereabouts. Penn Museum has more than 150,000 bone specimens.

Documents uncovered during the digitization efforts confirmed that the Penn Museum had received two skeletons from Sir Leonard Woolley’s expedition. Then, the Digitization Project Manager Dr. William Hafford located the museum’s object catalog, which listed the 6,500-year old skeleton as “Not Accounted For.’ Hafford also found some of the images related to the skeleton, including those of Woolley excavating the site.