October 15, 2010

Oriental Institute exhibit draws on history of writing

If Indiana Jones were still at the U of C, he’d probably consider the Oriental Institute's latest exhibition the holy grail — of linguistics, at least.

While you won’t find any crystal skulls or lost arks, a new exhibit at the Oriental Institute displays some of the oldest examples of writing; “Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East” features artifacts ranging from cuneiform tablets to papyrus manuscripts.

“The invention of writing was the first information revolution,” said Chief Curator Geoff Emberling, an archaeologist specializing in Mesopotamia. “Today, we are living through a revolution in the storage and processing of information, so it is very timely that we look back.”

A highlight of the exhibit is a set of Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets that depicts the earliest known writing system in the world and date back to 3200 B.C. The tablets are on loan from the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin and have never before been showcased in the U.S.

The exhibit is the largest in the field of comparative writing development for the past 25 years, according to Emberling. It examines forms of writing from Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and Mesoamerica--the four ancient civilizations that created the written word from scratch.

Unlike the majority of the Oriental Institute’s artifacts, which the museum acquired through excavation, many of the items in this exhibit came into the Institute’s possession via purchase—a common practice in the early twentieth century.

In addition to the Vorderasiatisches, four other museums have also loaned items specifically for this exhibit, which runs through March 6, 2011.