SIR C. LEONARD WOOLLEY'S 1922 excavation of the Royal Cemetery of Ur—a Sumerian site located in modern-day Iraq—was, by early 20th-century standards, a major media event. Thomas Edward Lawrence, a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia, who had achieved fame for his dashing exploits during the Arab Revolt several years earlier, helped to organize the expedition. British mystery writer Agatha Christie paid a visit to the site and penned Murder in Mesopotamia as a tribute (she would later marry Woolley's assistant). All this fuss over a box with a picture of a wheel on it.
It wasn't just any box, of course. It was the Standard of Ur, a 4,600-year-old container, the size of a shoebox (above), encrusted in lapis lazuli. Most important, it featured an illustration of ancient warfare that included the oldest uncontested image of the wheel in transportation. A series of images depicted tanklike carriages, each with four solid wheels braced to their axles and a team of horses propelling them forward. The wheeled carriages clearly provided soldiers with better protection against ambush than the poor foot soldiers had, who are shown squirming to avoid horses’ hooves.