Founder's archaeological journey to Middle East featured in Oriental Institute exhibit
A new exhibition at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute Museum chronicles an amazing and sometimes dangerous journey 90 years ago by James Henry Breasted, a famed archaeologist who brought back Egyptian artifacts to Chicago.
(Media-Newswire.com) - A new exhibition at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute Museum chronicles an amazing and sometimes dangerous journey 90 years ago by James Henry Breasted, a famed archaeologist who brought back Egyptian artifacts to Chicago.
“Pioneers to the Past: American Archaeologists in the Middle East, 1919–1920,” opens Tuesday, Jan. 12 and will feature artifacts as well as photos and letters documenting the journey of Breasted, who was the first American to receive a Ph.D. in Egyptology.
“The exhibit takes visitors along on a real–life adventure story that follows Breasted and his team as they traveled across the Middle East in the unstable aftermath of World War I, with tribal and nationalist rebellions making the trip extremely dangerous at many points,” said Geoff Emberling, Research Associate and Chief Curator of the Oriental Institute.
“This is a fascinating glimpse of a pivotal moment in history—the birth of the modern Middle East as we know it today, and at the same time, the genesis of modern archaeological research in the cradle of civilization,” said Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute. “It’s one of the best examples I know of the ways that scholarship and politics interconnect in important and unexpected ways.”
The Middle East has changed greatly since Breasted’s visit, but his journey reveals some aspects of the region that are familiar to modern audiences. “The story of Breasted’s adventure is joined by another ‘voice’ in the exhibit that comments on the expedition and its aims from a modern perspective, illustrating how much has changed in archaeology and in the Middle East since Breasted’s time,” Emberling said.
Bringing Egypt to Chicago
One of the goals of Breasted’s trip was to purchase material for display at the University’s museum of the ancient Middle East. At the time of his journey, artifacts were sold with few restrictions. John D. Rockefeller Jr., an admirer of Breasted’s books, which popularized an understanding of the heritage of the region, gave him an initial gift of $50,000 ( more than $500,000 in today’s dollars ), an amount supplemented by the University of Chicago, to purchase items.
Breasted’s letters home often told of his excitement for what he found. He was able to choose material that was not only beautiful, but historically important. Among his finds was a Book of the Dead, which rolled out to nearly 35 feet.
“The Book of the Dead was commonly put in tombs and contains a description of the afterlife, as well as spells and instructions meant to help the deceased on the journey to the hereafter. This is one of the most remarkable examples on display anywhere,” said Emily Teeter, coordinator of the exhibition.
Breasted could barely contain his enthusiasm when he wrote home about finding it: “I could hardly believe my eyes, for I saw something which I have never seen in all my years in Egypt—a beautiful roll of papyrus, as fresh and uninjured as if it had been a roll of wall paper just arrived from the shop! An exquisitely written hieroglyphic copy of the Book of the Dead with wonderfully wrought vignettes, the finest Book of the Dead which has left Egypt for many years.”
He purchased more than 700 objects, including a group of limestone serving statues from a tomb that show scenes of daily life in ancient Egypt, including one statue of a butcher at work taking meat from a cow. The mummy Meresamun, the subject of a recently completed Oriental Institute special exhibit, also was acquired on Breasted’s journey.
The exhibition will include some of Breasted’s exceptional photographs. Traveling in an open biplane, Breasted was one of the first archaeologists to see the pyramids and the Delta of the Nile from the air.
A dangerous journey through what is now Iraq
An important part of Breasted’s trip took him through an area of the Middle East that was facing an unsettled time after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. The British were seeking dominance in an area that now includes Iraq, and Breasted wrote home and took photos of an emerging nation in transition. The British military provided an escort for Breasted and his party, who travelled across the region by boat, plane, Model T Fords and sometimes horse–drawn wagons.
At one point, a group of mounted and armed representatives of one of the villages the British had bombed confronted the group, and Breasted was worried his party would not survive. But the horsemen surrendered, and Breasted continued his journey.
Along the way, Breasted identified locations for future exploration, including the site of Khorsabad in what is now northern Iraq, where a team from the Oriental Institute excavated a winged, human–headed bull that is now one of the Oriental Institute Museum’s most popular sculptures.
He visited leading figures along the way, including King Faisal, who ruled in Damascus and would eventually become the first king of Iraq.
Despite Breasted’s connections, the region was not secure enough for him to visit the site of Megiddo, though he saw it from afar and took photos. Later Oriental Institute expeditions were able to excavate the site, which is the location of the Biblical battle of Armageddon. That work is the most important ever done on the site and went back through centuries of occupation. Artifacts from that excavation are on display at the museum.
The Oriental Institute Museum is located at 1155 E. 58th St., Chicago. The museum is open Tuesday, Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. Suggested donation for admission is $7 for adults, $4 for children.
A symposium that explores the issues of how colonial attitudes have influenced archaeology, and how archaeologists work today, will be presented in May. For further information on the program, call ( 773 ) 702–9507 or visit www.oi.uchicago.edu.
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