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The Oriental Institute Museum Gallery Guide


The Oriental Institute Museum is a showcase of the history, art and archaeology of the ancient Near East. An integral part of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, which has supported research and archaeological excavation in the Near East since 1919, the Museum exhibits major collections of antiquities from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Iran, Syria, Palestine, and Anatolia. These lands were called the "Orient" at the turn of the century, when University of Chicago archaeologists began unearthing many of the ancient artifacts on view in the museum today.

Ancient Near Eastern Cross-Cultural Time Line

The Ancient Near East Map shows the major areas of ancient Near Eastern cultures as they stretched from North Africa to central Asia from approximately 3500 B.C. to A.D. 100. This era saw the rise of mightly nations and the emergence of civilization as we know it. Explore the Museum's five galleries to discover the origins of agriculture, the invention of writing, the birth of cities, and the beginning of humankind's most fundamental endeavors in the arts, sciences, politics, and religion.

The Joseph and Mary Grimshaw Egyptian Gallery

The Joseph and Mary Grimshaw Egyptian Gallery contains approximately 800 artifacts selected from the more than 25,000 Egyptian objects in the collection of the Oriental Institute Museum. These objects document ancient Egyptian history and culture from the Predynastic Period (ca. 5,000 B.C.) to the Byzantine (Coptic) era (4th-7th centuries A.D.).

The gallery is divided into three main sections. The introductory section, dominated by the colossal statue of King Tutankhamun, deals with such basic aspects of ancient Egyptian civilization as chronology, writing, and kingship. The central part of the gallery is devoted to funerary beliefs and customs. The final third of the gallery discusses daily life, relying mainly upon objects provided for the deceased for use in the afterlife.

The artifacts in this gallery were acquired through the excavations of the Oriental Institute in western Thebes and from the work of other institutes such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Egypt Exploration Society, London; and the British School of Archaeology in Egypt. Artifacts were granted to these institutions by the Egyptian government as a result of divisions of excavated objects. A smaller number of important objects was purchased by the Oriental Institute before World War II. The source, or provenence, of each object is given on its label.

Most of the objects in this gallery are more than 3,000 years old. Their astoundingly good state of preservation is due to the stable climate of Egypt which preserves even fragile materials like papyrus and leather. Many of the objects were discovered in tomb chambers which further sheltered them from damage. The Oriental Institute Museum has recently completed the installation of state-of-the-art systems to control temperature and relative humidity in all areas of the museum in which artifacts are exhibited, studied, and stored in order to preserve these collections for future generations.

The collections of the museum are, and always have been, basic to research conducted by Oriental Institute faculty, staff, and students. Throughout the gallery are special text panels that discuss some of these research projects, both past and present. In addition, the collections are studied on a regular basis by researchers from around the world and are used to teach students here at the University of Chicago.

The Persian Gallery

The name Persia originally referred to the region of southwestern Iran around the modern province of Fars, where Persian-speakers established kingdoms early in the first millennium B.C. Persia has also come to refer to what is now the country of Iran, an area of great geographical, cultural, and historical diversity, with a rich history. The exhibits in the new Persian Gallery do not cover all of the ancient cultures or regions of Iran, but concentrate on those times and places that were revealed by Oriental Institute archaeological excavations and are illustrated by the collections of the Oriental Institute.

The exhibition begins with the earliest Iranian culture in the Institute's collection, that of prehistoric southern Iran, beginning about 6,800 B.C. The exhibit follows the history of that culture through the Protoliterate period and the earliest stages of the invention of writing in the closing centuries of the fourth millennium B.C. The focus of the exhibition then moves from the edge of the Mesopotamian plain and the highlands of the Iranian plateau to the mountains of Luristan and the isolated site of Surkh Dum-i-Luri. Here the Oriental Institute excavated a small shrine that contained more than 1,800 votive objects , including metal and bone pins, cylinder seals, and animal figurines. These appear to have been deposited between about 800 and 650 B.C. as gifts to a deity in thanksgiving or petition.

About half of the gallery is devoted to the citadel and palace complex that the Greeks called City of Persians, Persepolis. Persepolis was one of the four principal residences where the Achaemenid kings, who traced their descent from an ancestor the Greeks called Achemenes, lived and ruled from about 520 B.C. until the destruction of the site by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C. This part of the gallery features monumental sculptures and architectural fragments as well as clay tablets that document the administrative practices of the Achaemenid empire and some of the royal wealth that had been housed in the Treasury.

The latest material in the gallery dates to the early Islamic period, from the seventh through the tenth century A.D. It comes from the city of Istakhr, about five miles north of Persepolis, and includes silver coins, ceramics imported from China, and imitations of those imports in local wares.

Approximately 1,000 objects are exhibited in the new Persian Gallery. They comprise only one tenth of the Oriental Instituteís collection of objects from Iran, which number more than 10,500 artifacts. This collection, like all others at the Institute, is, and always has been, basic to research conducted by faculty, staff, and students. In addition, the collections are studied on a regular basis by researchers from around the world and are a critical tool used to teach students here at the University of Chicago.

The Edgar and Deborah Jannotta Mesopotamian Gallery

The Edgar and Deborah Jannotta Mesopotamian Gallery begins with a Visitor Orientation Center, including interactive computer programs, designed to give the viewer an overview of the long history and wide-ranging archaeological and philological projects of the Oriental Institute. The Robert and Linda Braidwood Prehistory Exhibit focuses on the work of these two archaeologists and their pioneering research on early human habitation in Iraq. The gallery then traces the history of ancient Mesopotamia from the time of the first cities (ca. 3,500 B.C.) down to the seventh century A.D. Subsequent sections of the gallery deal with the landscape and people of ancient Iraq, Mesopotamia's rich written and scientific traditions, seals and sealing practices, and aspects of daily life. Another section focuses on the essentially urban nature of Mesopotamian civilization. It discusses the characteristics of ancient cities and their two major institutions, the temple and the palace.

The gallery culminates in the Yelda Khorsabad Court, where monumental stone sculptures and reliefs from the throne room facade of King Sargon 11(721-705 B.C.) at Khorsabad evoke the awe-inspiring nature of an Assyrian royal palace. The court is dominated by a 16 foot-tall forty-ton sculpture of a human-headed winged bull, which forms a focal point for the entire gallery.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, scholars at the University of Chicago have contributed greatly to our understanding of the people and cultures of ancient Mesopotamia.

The Mesopotamian Gallery at the Oriental Institute displays many objects that were recovered in the early years of this pioneering archaeological work.

The University began its expeditions in 1903 at the site of Bismaya (ancient Adab). In the 1920s, the Oriental Institute began large-scale expeditions in the desert of Iraq east of the Diyala River at the sites of Khafajah, Tell Asmar (ancient Eshnunna), Agrab and Ishchali. The Mesopotamian gallery includes a display of remarkable statues of praying figures from the Diyala region.

Also beginning in the 1920s, a research team from the Oriental Institute conducted important archaeological work at Khorsabad, the great Assyrian capital city of Dur-Sharrukin, in northern Iraq. Those excavations yielded a human-headed, winged bull, which is a major focal point in the Mesopotamian gallery.

From 1948 until the first Gulf War, the Oriental Institute worked at the site of Nippur, the religious center of Mesopotamia for most of its long history, recovering much information about Mesopotamian cultural history and religious practices. McGuire Gibson, Professor in the Oriental Institute, has for the past 30 years been field director of the Nippur expedition. During the 1990s, Gibson continued his archaeological investigations in Syria at the site of Tell Hamoukar, an early urban center in the upper reaches of Mesopotamia.

Other sites excavated by Oriental Institute teams in Mesopotamia include Jarmo, a prehistoric settlement in northern Iraq, which the late Robert and Linda Braidwood studied in the early 1950s. The Braidwoods, who were Oriental Institute archaeologists, were among the world's leading experts on prehistory. That expedition included anthropologists, archaeologists and other scientists, who studied the environment in which the development of early settlements occurred. The Braidwoods' work there and elsewhere in the region is chronicled in a prehistoric exhibition at the entrance to the Mesopotamian gallery.

Robert McCormick Adams, former Professor and Director of the Oriental Institute, did distinguished work in Iraq from 1956 until the late 1970s. He surveyed thousands of archaeological sites in the southern part of the country, revealing the settlement history of the region over a span of 7,000 years.

The East Wing Galleries:

The Dr. Norman Solhkhah Family Assyrian Empire Gallery

The Henrietta Herbolsheimer, M.D., Syro-Anatolian Gallery

The Haas and Schwartz Megiddo Gallery

With the opening of "Empires in the Fertile Crescent: Ancient Assyria, Anatolia, and Israel," visitors will get a rare look at one of the most important geographic regions in the ancient Near East.  These three galleries showcase artifacts that illustrate the power of these ancient civilizations, including sculptural representations of tributes demanded by kings of ancient Assyria, and some sources of continual fascination, such as a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls--one of the few examples in the United States.

The galleries also contain artifacts connected with the beginning of two important eras, the Bronze Age and the later Iron Age, as well as artifacts from a site connected figuratively with the end of all eras --Megiddo, the site referred to in the Bible as Armageddon.  The galleries include objects from 6000 to 600 B.C. from ancient Assyria, Anatolia (modem-day Turkey), Syria, and Israel/Palestine, which were part of the Fertile Crescent. The Fertile Crescent is a region that was named by James Henry Breasted, the founder of the Oriental Institute, and which extends from the fertile plains of Mesopotamia, across the Taurus Mountains of Anatolia, and down the Mediterranean coast to Israel and Palestine.

The cultures vied for domination and in many ways influenced one another's literary, religious and artistic development. Among the major empires were the Assyrians; the Hittites, who gathered their strength in Anatolia and extended their control to the Fertile Crescent; and the Egyptians, who controlled part of the region through military force and their cultural influence.

"These interactions were part of what we would call today a global society," said Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute. "The three East Wing galleries show how the various powers interacted, adopted each other's styles, respected the accomplishments and cultures of other people, and ultimately developed common perspectives, many of which can be followed as visitors look at the galleries' artifacts."

"Visitors can revisit the geographical regions of the Fertile Crescent as they walk through our galleries," said Geoff Emberling, Director of the Museum. "Visitors begin in Assyria, move across Anatolia and down the Mediterranean coast to the land of ancient Israel. The galleries also trace the conquests of the Assyrian Empire across the Near East and follow their trail to Israel.

The Dr. Norman Solhkhah Family Assyrian Empire Gallery opens with finely carved reliefs from the private section of an 8th-century B.C. Assyrian palace, including several that show dignitaries from the court of King Midas in modern day Turkey bringing tribute to the court of King Sargon II of Assyria.

In the Henrietta Herboisheimer, M.D., Syro-Anatolian Gallery, another case is devoted to objects of bronze such as tools, weapons and figurines. "Among the greatest treasures of the Oriental Institute is the group of figurines from Tell Judaidah in southeast Turkey. These remarkable sculptures of men and women dating to 3000 B.C. are the world's earliest known artifacts made of true bronze, which is an alloy of copper and tin.

"They are the forerunners of the great variety and quantity of bronze figurines and tools that are characteristic of the fully developed Bronze Age, which began in the early third millennium and was one of the most important technological and economic developments in the ancient world," said Stein.

Like the bronzes and the Assyrian reliefs, most of the other 1,000 artifacts in the 3,700 square-foot exhibition space when excavated by archaeologists from the Oriental Institute. Among the rare items they brought back are fragments of a monumental statue of a king of the Neo-Hittite cities that held power in northern Syria and southeastern Anatolia in the 9th century B.C.

The fragments include a head with a curled coiffure and portions of what may have been parts of his throne. Also on display is a monumental column base of basalt, carved with intricate floral designs, which once stood in the king's palace.

Before visitors turn a corner to enter the Egyptian gallery, they can examine artifacts in the Haas and Schwartz Megiddo Gallery from another important Oriental Institute excavation, the dig at Megiddo that covered a span in time from 5000 to 600 B.C. Each layer was carefully uncovered to reveal successive cultures that dominated the city, which is in modern Israel. Many of the items from Megiddo have never been exhibited before.

Megiddo, like the rest of the Fertile Crescent, was a crossroads of cultures. Excavations unearthed altars used by non-Jewish peoples (the Canaanites) as well as a gold figure of El, their principal god.

The Israelites, who emerged as the dominant people of that region in about 975 B.C., are documented by many objects of daily life, a large stamp engraved with a biblical text and an ossuary (box for bones) inscribed in Hebrew.

Probably the most spectacular portion of the Megiddo gallery, however, is the Megiddo ivories. These exquisitely carved pieces of elephant tusks were inlays in furniture, and a particularly large piece was made into a game board.

The ivories are carved in different styles--Egyptian, Mycenaean Greek and local Canaanite--and show how connected Megiddo was to a larger world during the Late Bronze

The Robert F. Picken Family Nubia Gallery

On February 25, 2006, the Robert F. Picken Family Nubia Gallery was opened at the Oriental Institute Museum of the University of Chicago. This permanent installation presents more than 600 artifacts from Nubia that date from the Neolithic era (before 3800 BC) through the Christian and Islamic eras (to the 13th century AD). The gallery includes many objects that have never before been exhibited, including brightly painted gazelle skulls, a bronze leg of a bed upon which a Nubian princess was buried, a section of a multi-hued carpet, one of the world's oldest saddles, and a fabulous array of decorated pottery, some of the finest examples from any ancient culture.

The 1,100 square foot gallery is arranged chronologically to give the visitor a sense of the richness of Nubian history, culture, and achievement. The gallery was co-curated by Nubian scholar Bruce B. Williams and Steven P. Harvey, Assistant Professor of Egyptian Art and Archaeology. The installation was overseen by Geoff Emberling, Director of the Oriental Institute Museum, and designed by Markus Dohner, Oriental Institute, and Dianne Hanau-Strain, of Hanau-Strain Associates.

The gallery allowed the staff of the Oriental Institute new opportunities to examine how the cultures of Nubia can, and should, be presented. Over the years there has been a tendency to view Nubia through the eyes of its rival, Egypt. The curatorial team committed themselves to presenting Nubia as its own culture, rather than from an Egypto-centric perspective. The artifacts are allowed to document the indigenous African culture in all its diversity, ingenuity, and skill.

Nubia is located in northeastern Africa, in today's southern Egypt and northern Sudan. In ancient times, like today, most of Nubia was desert and the climate was very harsh. The floodplain of the Nile was narrow, making farming difficult, and there was little rainfall. Most Nubians were herdsmen. Nubia was protected from invaders by deserts to the east and west, and rocky outcroppings (called cataracts) on the Nile that prevented invaders from approaching by river.

"Nubian" is the term used to refer to the African people who lived along and near the Nile from the First Cataract of the Nile at Aswan, Egypt, south beyond the Sixth Cataract to Khartoum in today's Sudan. We do not know what the people called themselves, because for most of their history they left no written records. Our records are from the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, who presented the Nubians through their own cultural or economic points of view.

Most of our images of Nubians are preserved in Egyptian art where the Nubians are portrayed with a variety of skin tones., from light brown to black. Most are shown with tightly curled hair. Egyptian artists emphasized the exotic" non-Egyptian characteristics of the Nubians by their distinctive clothing made of animal skins, or by their habit or dying or bleaching their hair yellow or orange.

The Egyptians often had an uneasy relationship with Nubia, viewing them as trade rivals or as conquered people. Many Egyptian images of Nubians symbolize the Egyptian conquest of the south, so the Nubians are shown as bound prisoners. One must be cautious about taking the representations at face value, because they are usually images that symbolize the two people's relationship, not actual images of individuals.

The University of Chicago has a long and distinguished history in Nubian studies. In 1905, Professor James Henry Breasted led his Egyptian Expedition to southern Egypt and Sudan to document inscriptions on the temples. In the 1906-07 season, the team reached Khartoum. Over two years, the expedition managed to take more than 1,200 photographs of monuments, some of which no longer stand. This valuable documentation is still consulted by scholars and publishers.

The University again became active in Nubia in the 1960s when Egypt decided to build a dam at Aswan that would drown innumerable archaeological sites, as well as scores of modern villages. The Oriental Institute sent a team to excavate sites from between the First Cataract to just beyond the Second Cataract. The work at Qustul and Ballana in particular made important discoveries about the earliest kings in Nubia and the little-known private tombs of the Meroitic Period. Under the agreement signed with the Egyptian government, the Oriental Institute was allowed to retain thousands of objects that today form the basis of the museum's Nubian collection.

Through the late 1980s and 1990s, the Oriental Institute published a series of books to make the excavation results available to scholars. Eight volumes of lavishly illustrated and documented reports were authored by Bruce B. Williams, who served as co-curator of the Nubia gallery.

With the opening of the Robert E Picken Family Nubia Gallery, the Oriental Institute Museum becomes a major resource for learning about the history and cultures of Nubia.

Revised: June 18, 2010

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