January 28, 2005

Oriental Institute unveils new artifacts

Nearly 9,000 years ago, a worker in the Amuq Valley used a small, bronze knife to prepare his evening meal. The worker is now long gone, but the tool he used can be found on display at the Oriental Institute's new gallery, "Empires in the Fertile Crescent: Ancient Assyria, Anatolia, and Israel."

The gallery, which opens Saturday, January 29, marks the opening of a new wing of the museum's permanent collection, featuring a wide variety of artifacts excavated by University archeologists, many of which have never before been displayed.

The new gallery is part of an ongoing reinstallation project, which dates back to 1996, when the Oriental Institute closed the museum for renovations. Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute and professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, said that the most important feature of the new gallery is its climate control. "Humidity can explode artifacts," Stein said. "These collections are unique, they are from our excavations in the 1920s and '30s, and there is no way we could ever replace them."

The gallery, which focuses on three civilizations in the Middle East during the Bronze and Iron Ages, runs the gamut in terms of archeological objects. Visitors are greeted as they enter with carved stone reliefs from an 8th century B.C. Assyrian palace, and may observe bronze statuettes, small tools, jewelry, and a few gigantic stone tablets as they continue their tour.

The exhibit replicates a geographical crescent in its layout, beginning with Assyria to the east and arching westward through Anatolia before reaching its conclusion in Israel. Geoff Emberling, who was appointed museum director eight months ago, has worked to coordinate the different foci within the gallery, noting that each main area had its own curator. Emberling brings to the museum both his experience as an archeologist (he spent the last six years conducting an excavation), and as a curator, having worked in that capacity for three years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

"The thrust of the exhibit is to emphasize the interconnectedness of these distinct civilizations in the Middle East," Emberling said. "Take, for example, this libation bowl with the image of a lion on its head. Bowls like this were found in both Khorsabad and Megiddo, which are 500 or 600 miles apart. This is no small distance on a donkey," he observed. The exhibit contains many such examples, demonstrating the existence of trade routes and cultural interaction that took place centuries ago.

Stein drew attention to the diversity of the exhibit. "We want to show a holistic view of ancient civilization," he said. "To this end, we have objects that belonged to kings as well as those that belonged to ordinary people."

The exhibit contains quite a few gems, notably a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a series of bronze figurines from Tell Judaidah in Turkey, and a variety of intricately carved pieces of elephant and rhinoceros trunk, known as the Megiddo Ivories.

As Stein indicated, however, the exhibit features a number of other artifacts of lesser prestige. Visitors can find chunks of buildings that have been pieced together, illustrating architectural trends particular to both the society's elite and common people. The oldest artifacts on display are a few small tools from the Amuq Valley, which date back to 6800 B.C.

Stein emphasized the uniqueness of the Oriental Institute's museum as one that could provide an "archeological context." "This museum is different from others of its genre," Stein said. "We exhibit objects that we ourselves excavated, and we know the exact site where they were found."

The museum will open a further wing to expand its permanent collection in February 2006, which will be devoted to Nubia, a civilization along the Nile River just south of Egypt. "There is only one other gallery in the country that can boast a gallery on Nubia," said Stein, referring to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.