Trained as an archaeologist at Oxford University and excavated in Roman Britain (Corbridge) briefly, then in the Sudan under British-born American archaeologist David Randall-MacIver, who was a curator at the Penn Museum. Woolley then conducted excavations at Carchemish near the current Syrian/Turkish border from 1911-1914. In World War I, Woolley's knowledge of the Middle East was extremely valuable and he worked for British Intelligence. Even before the War he was essentially spying on the German railroad that was under construction near Carchemish (the Berlin-Baghdad Railway). Relatively early in the war, however, Woolley was captured and spent two years in a Turkish POW camp.
Woolley was chosen to lead the expedition to Ur as early as 1920 when the two museums began to discuss the details of a joint excavation. He began work at the site late in 1922 and completed excavations in 1934, working long hours and accomplishing a great deal. He was knighted in 1935 for his work at Ur. He went on to run excavations at Al Mina and Alalakh in Syria. In his lifetime he gave many lectures and wrote many articles and books but never held an academic position. He died in 1960 and was lauded by generations of scholars around the world for his contributions to the field of archaeology.
Leonard Woolley was the third of eleven children of a Church of England clergyman, George Herbert Woolley, and his wife Sarah. He attended St Johns, Leatherhead, and New College, Oxford where he studied Classics and theology. It was the warden of New College, W.A. Spooner, who advised him to take up archaeology after graduation. In 1905 Woolley was appointed assistant to Arthur Evans, Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, in Oxford.
Woolleys early career took him to Nubia in 190711, and after that he went as director of the Carchemish expedition sponsored by the British Museum. One of his assistants was T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia). Woolley and Lawrence collaborated in assisting the Palestine Exploration Fund in its programme of making a definitive map of the Holy Land. This work was published in 1915 as The Wilderness of Zin.
After the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Woolley was posted to Cairo where he acted as an intelligence officer. He was promoted to the rank of major in 1916 before being captured by the Turks and imprisoned at Kastamonu. He tried to return to Carchemish after the War but the political situation was too unsettled. In 1921, he excavated at Tell el-Amarna in Egypt with T.E. Peet, sponsored by the Egypt Exploration Society.
In 1922, Woolley was made director of a joint expedition at Ur funded by the British Museum and The University of Pennsylvania Museum. It is with this site that his name will always be associated. He spent twelve years there, until 1934. Within two years of his arrival, Gertrude Bell had established the Iraq Museum in Baghdad which had a statutory right to first choice of all objects excavated. So rich were the finds from the site, however, especially from the Royal Cemetery, that both the British Museum and Penn Museum also contain fabulous objects from Ur in their collections.
Woolleys strengths were his painstaking approach to excavation; for example, excavation of the Royal Cemetery was delayed until he believed his local workforce was sufficiently well-trained to tackle the intricate disclosure of these opulent tombs. He also monitored and instructed his own staff, in particular Max Mallowan who early on acquired the habit of keeping careful field notes, making drawings, preparing monthly reports for sponsors, and most important, publishing in full each seasons work and finds as soon as possible after the seasons end. Woolley had a way with words and both his non-specialist books and lantern slide lectures were very popular with the public. His weakness was a familiarity with the Old Testament which led to unfounded connections between it and the work in hand, as for example, his belief that Ur was the birthplace of Abraham. Woolley also believed he had found evidence of The Flood.
After Ur, Woolley moved to Tell Atchana in northern Syria, digging there before the War in 193739, and after it, from 1946¬49. He was knighted for his services to archaeology in 1935. During the Second World War, Woolley worked for the Military Intelligence Directorate to assess and protect art and museum collections throughout Europe. He reported to Winston Churchill personally. In this work he was most ably assisted by his wife Katharine.
After Katharines death and the end of his active archaeological career at Atchana, Woolley retired to Ashford in Kent. After an unsuccessful relationship, he retired to Dorset where he was looked after by a devoted housekeeper and her husband, thus enabling him to write up his archaeological work.