This document is derived from a brochure issued in conjunction with the exhibit Sifting the Sands of Time: The Oriental Institute and the Ancient Near East , held at the Oriental Institute October 6, 1991–December 31, 1992.


The Foundation of the Institute

The University of Chicago has been a center of ancient Near Eastern studies ever since its founding in 1891. The first president of the university, William Rainey Harper, was a Professor of Semitic Languages and his brother, Robert Francis, was an Assyriologist. Both taught in the Department of Semitic Languages at the new university.

In 1896, the Department moved into the Haskell Oriental Museum where galleries devoted to the ancient Near East were established. Initially the collection was composed of a few plaster-cast reproductions and a small group of exhibition cases containing the little collection of antiquities. However, the collection grew rapidly as a result of both private donations and the university’s contributions to British field expeditions working in Egypt. In 1904, the University of Chicago Oriental Exploration Fund sent its first field expedition to Bismaya in Iraq. Two years later, an ambitious photographic and epigraphic survey of the temples in Nubia and Egypt was undertaken as a part of an overall project to publish all the ancient inscriptions in the Nile Valley.

The Haskell Oriental Museum, first home of the Oriental Institute.

View of the Egyptian Gallery of the Haskell Oriental Museum, 1896.

Special Exhibit at the Haskell Oriental Museum, 1922.

Special Exhibit at the Haskell Oriental Museum, northern room, 1922.


James Henry Breasted: Founder

James Henry Breasted, the first American to receive a Ph.D. in Egyptology, was appointed by President Harper to fill the first teaching position in Egyptian studies in the United States. Breasted was among the earliest to champion the role that the ancient Near East played in the rise of western civilization. He envisioned the establishment of a special institute devoted to tracing ancient man’s “progress” toward civilization, long before the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. Breasted received support and encouragement from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. who, in 1919, funded The Oriental Institute as a laboratory for the study of the rise and development of ancient civilization.

Breasted at the Amada Temple, Egyptian Nubia, 1906.

Breasted in his office at Haskell Hall, 1929.

In 1931, through the generous financial support of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the Oriental Institute moved into new permanent headquarters that housed laboratories, museum galleries, libraries and offices for the scientific and teaching staff. Today, this building continues to function as an internationally renowned center of ancient Near Eastern studies. Over 60,000 people visit the museum galleries each year, and hundreds of scholars come to consult the faculty and research collections.


Field Work of the Oriental Institute

Since its establishment in 1919, The Oriental Institute has sponsored archaeological and survey expeditions in every country of the Near East. The results of Oriental Institute excavations have defined the basic chronologies for many ancient Near Eastern civilizations and have helped determine the time when mankind made the transition from hunter-gatherer to settled community life. Oriental Institute archaeologists have pioneered the use of interdisciplinary teams composed of scientists, historians and linguists, and the use of aerial surveys employing kites, balloons and aircraft to map archaeological sites.

A workman examines a hoard of statues excavated at Tell Asmar, Iraq, 1934.

Today The Oriental Institute is still a leader in ancient Near Eastern studies. Not only are expeditions currently working in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Israel, and Turkey, but the Oriental Institute publications department makes the results of research and excavation available in the form of series publications. The Journal of Near Eastern Languages of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations issues articles by scholars from Chicago and throughout the world. The Institute also issues monographs in five other series.


Dictionaries & Epigraphy

A primary concern of The Oriental Institute is the documentation of basic textual information from which interpretive historical and linguistic studies can be derived. That concern has been addressed by the compilation of dictionaries and by special techniques for making accurate copies of ancient texts.

The first dictionary project was instituted in 1921 when Breasted established the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary. To date, nineteen volumes of the Assyrian Dictionary have appeared. Materials for the Sumerian Lexicon, edited by Oriental Institute staff, documents another Mesopotamian language. Other major undertakings that will have a lasting impact upon scholarship include the Chicago Demotic (Egyptian) Dictionary and the Chicago Hittite Dictionary.

The Oriental Institute continues to be on the forefront of epigraphy, the discipline of copying and interpretlng inscriptions and their associated pictorial reliefs. Since 1924, the Epigraphic Survey has been located in Luxor, Egypt, where its staff of Egyptologists and artists record the rapidly eroding historical sources carved on the ancient monuments.

The office of the Assyrian Dictionary in Haskell Hall, 1922.

Epigrapher at work, Luxor Temple.

The Epigraphic Survey at Abu Simbel, 1905-6.


The Oriental Institute: Today & Tomorrow

The goals of The Oriental Institute have remained essentially unchanged: to document and study the languages, history and cultures of the ancient Near East. Today the task is made easier by advances in technology. New computer registration methods are employed to record and trace artifacts from the field to the archaeological laboratories and museum galleries. Video techniques and computer imaging are being employed in field excavations to produce final and complete documentation of each day’s work. Electronic typesetting has made the publication of field reports and historical and linguistic studies more rapid, and makes them accessible to greater numbers of readers. Modern conservation methods ensure that the material legacy of the past is preserved for tomorrow.

View of the Institute’s Computer Laboratory.

Oriental Institute scholars are renowned for training generations of new scholars who, in turn, take the legacy of The Oriental Institute to other museums, universities, schools and research centers throughout the world. The galleries of The Oriental Institute Museum introduce the public, including generations of local school children, to the richness of ancient Near Eastern cultures.

The current Oriental Institute, which opened in 1931.

View of the main entrance to the Oriental Institute.

Tympanum over the main entrance to the Oriental Institute.

View of a gallery of the Oriental Institute Museum, 1994.