Gil Stein appointed director of Oriental Institute

By Ian Halim

“I feel like I’ve won the lottery,” Gil Stein said with a school-boy grin.

Stein stepped up as director of the Oriental Institute on July 1, succeeding Gene Gragg. Stein is an archeologist; he received a B.A. from Yale and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. From 1992 to 1997, he ran excavations in Turkey at a Mesopotamian colony, the data from which he recently published in a book entitled Rethinking World Systems: Diasporas, Colonies, and Interaction in Uruk Mesopotamia.

“The Oriental Institute is generally considered the single best place to do the archeology of the ancient Near East,” Stein said, commenting on his decision to come to the University. He added that he had worked alongside many of the faculty now at the Oriental Institute, and is happy to be resuming his relationships with them.

The Oriental Institute is a place where archeologists, experts in the ancient languages of the Near East, historians, and anthropologists work together. “There is a tremendous benefit to what you could call a critical mass of scholarship—the kind of things that happen when there are a group of you with similar interests constantly talking with each other, exchanging articles, exchanging ideas,” Stein said. “There is no place else where you will find people who work with the textual materials and people who work with the archeology both together in such great numbers under the same roof.”

The Oriental Institute supports site work in Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Syria, and Yemen, research on artifacts that have already been collected, publication of research, and writing and rewriting the history of the Near East. The Institute is now responsible for the first archeological work by Americans in Iran since the revolution. A survey of all the ancient inscriptions in Egypt is also currently underway that would help preserve the inscriptions if monuments are destroyed, and further make the text of the inscriptions available to scholars.

Additionally, the Oriental Institute houses a museum with two collections now on display, one of Persian and another of Egyptian antiquities. Stein projects that the Mesopotamian gallery will be reopening in September of 2003. The funding has already been established for that gallery, but $1.1 million must be raised for the reinstallation of the remaining two galleries. Stein, who aims to complete reinstallation within two or three years, considers one of his chief responsibilities as director to be balancing the goal of reinstallation, which he described as “urgent,” with support for research.

The Oriental Institute is presently undertaking three ancient language dictionary projects. The Assyrian Dictionary Project was started in 1921 and is now scheduled for completion in 2006. “One of the keys to understanding an ancient civilization is its language,” Stein said about the project, which will be a resource for scholars around the world. Dictionaries of Demotic, the language of ancient Egypt, and Hittite, the earliest known Indo-European language, are also underway.

“One way to think about what the Oriental Institute does is it has a mission of exploration and discovery and presenting those results to the lay public, to the world of scholars, and to students of all ages,” Stein said. The newly renovated museum will include an exhibit introducing visitors to the history of the ancient Near East, and the history of the museum itself.

“The Oriental Institute can take on projects that will take 50 or 60 years to finish. There are very few places in the world that can do that,” Stein explained, citing the Oriental Institute’s financial resources as one of the reasons why these projects were possible.

The Oriental Institute receives half of its funding from the University and must raise the other half from private and corporate donors and federal grants. “It’s increasingly difficult to raise that money and requires an extraordinary effort,” Stein said. But he expressed no doubt as to whether it would get done. “We have to raise those funds.”

According to Stein, the Oriental Institute’s Web site gets one million hits a month, making it the single most used Web resource for the ancient Near East. The Web site contains the texts of Achaemenid inscriptions from the ancient Persian Empire—the dynasty that the Greek historian Herodotus describes—in classical Persian alongside the translated text, as well as updates about the progress of the dictionary projects, and other research being worked on at the Oriental Institute.

Stein believes the current political climate makes the Oriental Institute even more relevant today. “Particularly in our own time there is a real tendency to define the cultures of the Middle East as the other and somehow dangerous or threatening, and to minimize their tremendous importance as great world cultures. If we can understand what they have given to us, it is a real strong antidote to that current tendency,” Stein said.