Leonard Woolley

British archaeologist Leonard Woolley (1880–1960) conducted significant archaeological excavations across North Africa and the Middle East, most notably at the ancient Mesopotamian site of Ur. Woolley's findings substantially increased modern understanding of the millennia-old Sumerian civilization, and he published several best-selling books detailing his discoveries for general readers during the first half of the 20th century. Later in his career, he helped preserve historical and cultural monuments and artifacts from looting and destruction, especially during World War II.

Daily Herald Archive/Getty Images

Daily Herald Archive/Getty Images

Born Charles Leonard Woolley on April 17, 1880, in London, England, Woolley was the son of the Reverend George Herbert Woolley and his wife, Sarah (Cathcart) Woolley. Reverend Woolley came to the clergy after finding little success as a wine merchant, the traditional family business. Sarah Woolley hailed from a distinguished family with links to Sir George Cathcart, an assistant to the duke of Wellington during the Napoleonic Wars who later served as governor of the British colony in South Africa. The senior Woolley's penchant for collecting art and artifacts contributed to the family's straitened financial circumstances, and Leonard Woolley attended St. John's School at Leatherhead through scholarships. Even as a youth, he showed a penchant for art, regularly visiting London galleries and seeking to educate himself about art history.

Began Career in Archaeology

In 1907, Woolley accepted an invitation to join a University of Pennsylvania excavation team in northeast Africa. It was through this on-the-job experience that he built the skills necessary for archaeology, taking part both in the active historical work of excavating and in the administrative aspects of managing a field team. He spent four years working at digs associated with ancient Nubian and Egyptian culture at Karanog, near the town of Wadi Halfa in what is now Sudan. Although he had little background in Egyptology, he enjoyed field work and contributed to discoveries including that of numerous burial grounds near the Kushite city of Meroë along with the excavation of previously buried ancient fortifications, temples, and shrines.

After conducting a small dig at the site of an ancient baths in Teano, Italy, Woolley was appointed to lead a British Museum excavation in Carchemish, Syria. With him on this expedition was T.E. Lawrence, the archaeologist and writer popularly known as “Lawrence of Arabia.” Together, Woolley and Lawrence excavated a number of sites in the Middle East until the onset of World War I in 1914 forced a halt to their operations. Joining the war effort, Woolley entered the British military and served as an intelligence officer in Egypt. In 1916, he was captured while being rescued from a sinking ship by a Turkish vessel and spent the next two years as a Turkish prisoner of war. He returned to Syria after his release, serving briefly as an officer in the British occupying force before returning his focus to archaeology and writing.

Excavated Ruins at Ur

Woolley began what would become the defining period of his career in 1922. An expedition sponsored jointly by the British Museum and University of Pennsylvania placed him at the site of the ancient city of Ur, the heart of the Sumerian civilization. The Sumerians were among the first human civilizations to form in Mesopotamia along the fertile Tigris-Euphrates river valley, with human activity in the region dating back some 5,000 years. Earlier excavations under H.R. Hall at Ur and at the nearby site of al’Ubaid offered the promise of fruitful archaeological finds. Woolley's theological background gave him a particular interest in the site due to its possible historical links to the events and figures of the Old Testament.

In total, Woolley's expedition worked at Ur for 12 years. During this time, he met and married Katharine Keeling, who served as an archaeological assistant on the Mesopotamian expedition. Another field assistant, Max Mallowan, became the second husband of famed British mystery writer Agatha Christie and Christie's 1930 novel Murder in Mesopotamia was inspired by her trip to the site. Beginning in 1927, Woolley began publishing a series of accounts of the expedition, including the immensely popular 1929 work Ur of the Chaldees. The exotic nature of his expedition and the appeal of his writing helped make the Sumerians—and Woolley—an archaeological smash hit. “In 1900 very few people had heard of the Sumerians,” observed Gyln Daniel in the Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, “but by 1930 the Sumerians had been added to the collection of prehistoric peoples of whom almost everyone knew something.”

Remained Active in Later Career

After completing his excavations in Mesopotamia, Woolley returned to England, where he was knighted by the British crown in 1935. His next major expedition was to the site of Atchana-Alalakh, now commonly known as Tell Atchana and located in what is now Turkey. His team worked there from 1936 until 1939. Woolley spent part of 1938 advising the British Raj on archaeological matters. He helped establish a program for archaeological research in India that was executed by Sir Mortimer Wheeler during the mid- to late 1940s.

War again interrupted Woolley's excavations in 1939. Again supporting his country during World War II, he held a series of posts in the British military, beginning in intelligence operations and ending as an official archaeological adviser to the government's Directorate of Civil Affairs. Deeply worried about the destruction of art and architectural treasures, he spent much of his free time during the war generating a written record of known British and world monuments, artifacts, paintings, and sculptures with their current condition and location. Woolley's efforts in this regard won him audiences with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and at the height of the war his recommendations contributed to U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower's command to Allied troops to take all practical measures to preserve and protect the rich art and architecture of Italy.

In 1944, Woolley helped organize the British branch of the so-called “Monuments Men,” a group of more than 300 experts who worked as part of the Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives program within the Allied armies of World War II. These individuals were tasked with identifying and protecting significant historical and cultural sites from destruction related to the war and, later, with the restoration of works looted by the Nazis and their allies to their rightful owners. Woolley's art and archaeological expertise informed the development of the group's practices and thus contributed to the preservation of threatened cultural treasures.

With the war's conclusion in 1945, Woolley resumed excavations at Atchana-Alalakh, overseeing efforts there between 1946 and 1949. His expedition discovered evidence of human activity dating back to the fourth millennium B.C.E. as well as the remains of a Bronze Age kingdom of the Hurrian, an ancient group thought to have migrated from the Caucasus. Woolley found remains of government buildings, temples, art, and pottery that revealed details about this little-known civilization. The expedition was his last, however, and he retired from field work to his home in England.

Despite his advancing age, Woolley remained an energetic and enthusiastic author. He published both a popular record of his expedition in Atchana-Alalakh, The Forgotten Kingdom, and an autobiography, Spadework, in 1953; a retrospective popular account, Expeditions at Ur, a Record of Twelve Years Work, in 1954; and a more scientific record called Excavations at Atchana-Alalakh in 1955. In his final years, he contributed to the first volume of History of Mankind, a far-ranging world history he coauthored with fellow archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes. This work would be published posthumously in 1963; Woolley died on February 20, 1960, in a medical facility in London. He was 79 years old.

Wooley's death attracted international attention as scholars hailed the man and his contributions to the historical record. Writing in Expedition just months after his death, M.E.L. Mallowan commented that “Woolley will always be remembered as one of the most successful diggers ever engaged in the field [of] archeology. He had an extraordinary flair not only for choosing a potentially rich site but also for attacking those parts of it which concealed the most important remains.” Indeed, Woolley's work continued to be influential well past his death, with archaeologists and ancient historians drawing regularly on the foundations of understanding of the Sumerians and other ancient cultures, as well as rigorous scientific recording practices, which he had laid in his excavations. Observers also pointed to Woolley as one of the archaeologists who inspired filmmaker George Lucas to create the wildly popular movie series featuring dashing excavating adventurer Indiana Jones.


Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Volume 14, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2008.


Expedition, fall 1960.

New York Times, February 21, 1960; February 12, 2015.


National Archives Text Message blog, https://text-message.blogs.archives.gov/ (December 5, 2013), Dr. Greg Bradsher, “Sir Charles Leonard Woolley: The Background and Early Activities of an Unlikely Monuments Man.” ❑

(MLA 8th Edition)