British archaeologists have discovered a previously unknown palace or temple near the ancient city of Ur in the first foreign excavation at the site in southern Iraq since the 1930s.

A small team of archaeologists working from satellite images hinting at a buried structure have uncovered the corner of a monumental complex with rows of rooms around a large courtyard, believed to be about 4,000 years old.

“The size is breathtaking,” says Jane Moon, a University of Manchester archaeologist who heads the expedition. Ms. Moon says the walls of the structure are almost nine feet thick, indicating that the building was of great importance or indicated great wealth.

The discovery is even more significant because of its location more than 10 miles from Ur, on what would then have been the banks of the Euphrates River — the first major archaeological find that far from the city.

Ur, the last capital of the Sumerian empire, was invaded and collapsed in about 2000 BC before being rebuilt. The city was dedicated to the moon god and is famous for its ziggurat (a stepped temple). Many believe it is the birthplace of the prophet Abraham, known as the father of monotheistic religion.

The last major excavation at Ur was performed by a British-American team led by Sir Charles Leonard Woolley in the 1920s and the 1930s. After the 1950s revolution, which toppled Iraq’s monarchy, a nearby military air base put the area off limits to foreign archaeologists for the next half century.

“What Wooley found were these tremendous monumental buildings, but it’s difficult to tell a coherent story about them because they were restored again and again and again, and what you see is neo-Babylonian, 7th century BC — very much later,” says Moon. “He wasn’t able to see what they were really used for and that’s where I’m hoping our modern methods might be able to say something.”

At Ur, Wooley also discovered a spectacular treasure trove that rivals King Tut’s tomb. At least 16 members of royalty were buried at Ur with elaborate gold jewelry, including a queen’s headdress made of gold leaves and studded with lapis lazuli. Other objects included a gold and lapis lyre, one of the first known musical instruments.

In the 1930s, the treasures were split between the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania, which funded Wooley’s work, and the newly created Iraq museum.

Moon says it’s impossible to tell whether the new site might contain similar finds.

“Ultimately we’re not looking for objects we’re looking for information.… I guess it’s always a possibility. In archaeology you can always be surprised.” A learning opportunity

She says modern methods, such as examining very thin slices of soil hardened with resin under a microscope, can shed light on details like whether there were carpets on the floor or whether a surface was used for cutting. Putting samples of earth through a wet sieving machine can provide information about climate and agriculture by revealing bone fragments from rodents or lizards.

“You can really look at the ancient economy and that’s the kind of thing they couldn’t do when they last found big buildings like this,” says Moon, who last worked in Iraq in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, documenting archaeological sites in the north before they were submerged by Saddam Hussein’s dam-building projects.

Her team, which has struggled for both funding and visas, consists of six British archaeologists, an Iraqi archaeologist, and two Iraqi trainees. It is funded mostly by a Swiss benefactor, with participation by the British Institute for the Study of Iraq, the successor to an organization founded in 1932 in honor of Gertrude Bell. “Miss Bell,” as she is still known in Iraq, was the British administrator of Iraq after World War II and the founder of the Iraq Museum.

A law passed in 1932 bars archaeologists from removing antiquities from the country, but Moon believes making the knowledge about the antiquities available is as important as the objects themselves. “There’s always been a sense of taking the intellectual property away,” she says, adding that all the information, including drawings, was being done electronically to make it easier to compile and to share.

“We want to make this as public as possible so we can give this information to anyone who wants it. We have no reason to hang on to it and we have the means to spread it around, so that’s what we’re doing,” she says.