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Museum Makeover Volume 58 Number 4, July/August 2005
by Brenda Fowler

[image] A basalt Neo-Hittite (9th century B.C.) female sphinx may have once been the arm of a throne. (Courtesy Oriental Institute Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]

In an age in which some museums are stashing away their artifacts in favor of interactive "experiences," the East Wing of the Oriental Institute Museum of the University of Chicago, which opened earlier this year, is refreshingly old-fashioned, packing a thousand artifacts and 6,000 years of history into three new galleries. The permanent reinstallation of the museum's Near Eastern holdings, one of the finest (and earliest) collections in the U.S., the galleries cover the ancient kingdoms of Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and the Levant, a region famously called the "Fertile Crescent" by James Henry Breasted, the museum's founder. Excavated by the institute during the 1920s and 1930s, many of the artifacts have long been in storage, and some have never been exhibited before. The East Wing opening is the next-to-last phase of a decade-long renovation project that has already updated the Egyptian, Persian, and Mesopotamian galleries. (A refurbished Nubian Gallery opens next year.)

Among the artifacts on display are shoulder-high reliefs from the Assyrian King Sargon II's palace at Khorsabad depicting a procession of men bringing horses in tribute to the conqueror, and the hexagonal prism of Sennacherib, Sargon's son, which boasts of eight military victories, including his siege of Jerusalem under the Israelite King Hezekiah. The exhibit notes that in II Kings, the Bible describes the same event as a defeat for Sennacherib, which emphasizes the point that archaeologists often work with conflicting sources.

Exhibited for the first time are many artifacts excavated by the institute between 1925 and 1939 at Megiddo, a royal Israelite city known in the Bible as Armageddon. Archaeologists traced the site's development through 20 layers of occupation, from a settlement around 8500 B.C. to a late Iron Age city with a diverse population, many of whom worshiped local gods. The Canaanite creator deity El is represented here as a palm-size figurine in a cone-shaped hat, covered in gold leaf and displayed in a modest case. Nearby is a tiny fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls--one of the few in the U.S.--and a tall, narrow clay jar of the type in which the scrolls were found.

The galleries have retained the modest style of the old displays, though there are new wall cases and lighting; the aim is instead to present previously unseen artifacts and new exhibits. This focus gives the patient visitor a comprehensive, if basic, overview of the material remains of these societies and hints at the fascinating debates that animate them.

Brenda Fowler is author of Iceman: Uncovering the Life and Times of a Prehistoric Man Found in an Alpine Glacier.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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