Penn Museum finds 6,500-year-old man in the closet

The museum's own object catalogue had listed the skeleton as "Not Accounted For" in 1990.
By Brooks Hays  |  Aug. 5, 2014 at 6:26 PM
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PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 5 (UPI) -- Clean out your closets, people! Every week, there's a new story about someone finding something remarkable in their storage closets -- one week it's prehistoric amber, another time it's smallpox vials, and now it's 6,500-year-old human remains.

Researchers documenting artifacts forgotten to the storage closets of the Penn Museum in Philadelphia recently came across a complete skeleton dated to 6,500 years ago. The remains have been sitting in storage for some 85 years. The skeleton was first unearthed in 1929 or 1930 by Sir Leonard Woolley, an archaelogist who led a joint expedition, with scientists from Penn Museum and British Museum, to dig up bodies and artifacts in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur in what is now southern Iraq.

In Ur, Woolley and his colleagues found some 48 graves in a floodplain. They dug them up to find skeletons dated to the Ubaid period of the ancient Near East, an extremely rare discovery. Only one was fully preserved and suitable for excavation.

Woolley and his fellow archaeologists dug up the skeleton and coated the bones and surrounding soil in wax. They then shipped the remains to London for examination, and then on to Philadelphia. There, it was neglected. For decades it sat without proper documentation -- one of 150,000 bone specimens in the museums possession -- the museums curators unsure of what or who it was.

But in 2012, an effort to digitize early excavation records from Ur uncovered documents that confirmed Penn Museum was supposed to receive two skeletons from Woolley's expedition. Next, Dr. William Hafford, Ur Digitization Project Manager at Penn, was able to locate the museum's own object catalogue, which listed the skeleton as "Not Accounted For" in 1990. Thankfully, that's no longer the case.

The skeleton is 2,000 years older than -- and was found buried several feet deeper than -- the more famous Mesopotamian "royal tombs" that Woolley found in the same location. The older, deeper remains led Woolley's to conclude that the area of Ur was originally a small island village, and that a devestating flood likely washed away the 48 graves and 6,500-year-old skeletal remains.

The "royal tombs" were proof that the area continued to flourish after the flood, and archaeologists believe the flood likely inspired the biblical story of the great flood. As such, Dr. Hafford and his colleagues named the rediscovered skeleton "Noah."

Though Hafford said the skeleton is much older than the Bible.

"Utnapishtim might be more appropriate," he added, "for he was named in the Gilgamesh epic as the man who survived the great flood."

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