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Tracking pioneering archaeologist James Henry Breasted's 1919-1920 journey through the Middle East


Breasted taking notes on top of the Ziggurat of Ur in 1920 (Courtesy Oriental Institute)

In 1919, the American Egyptologist James Henry Breasted received five years of funding from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to found the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, which was to be a "Research Laboratory" for the study of the civilizations of the ancient Middle East. Even though World War I had just ended and the Middle East was far from stable or safe, the 53-year-old Breasted immediately made plans to travel with four companions through what is now Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel to purchase antiquities and identify sites for excavation.

Breasted's trip is illustrated at an exhibit at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: "Pioneers to the Past: American Archaeologists in the Middle East 1919-20" through August 30, 2010.

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Tales of the Stamps
Stamps in Breasted's passport reveal details of the journey

Breasted's Passport
View Breasted's 1919 passport in its entirety

Adventure in the Desert
While in Mesopotamia in 1920, Breasted and his team made an attempt to visit the remote site of Umma (an important Sumerian city) that could only be reached by a five-hour horseback ride across the desert. Here is his own account of the adventure.

Geoff Emberling is Chief Curator of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.