The University of Chicago campus has a facade of history pre-carved into its newly quarried stones. Construction on Hutchinson Hall started in 1890, but its design steals unabashedly from Oxford’s ancient Christ Church college. On a campus so crowded with buildings that project more history than they possess, the unassuming Oriental Institute (OI) is peculiar. Every square foot of the OI, every moment of its existence, is charged with history—the history of a region halfway across the world, but also a story of innovative scholarship. 2019 marked the 100th anniversary of the OI, an occasion which saw the history and future of the Institute spill out of the building which normally contains them.
Advertisements celebrating the anniversary pepper the University campus and the streets of Chicago, all pointing back toward Institute. The OI itself is as much an artifact as the titanic limestone lamassu it holds within. To reach the galleries inside the Institute, a visitor must pass beneath a tympanum depicting a traditionally dressed and posed ancient Egyptian man, symbolizing “the East,” handing hieroglyphs, which act as a symbol of knowledge, to a barrel chested and clean shaven white man who symbolizes “the West.” Each man is flanked by other men intended to represent the best of their respective cultures. “The West” props one foot up on the stones of a ruin. The carving, designed by sculptor Ulric Ellerhusen and put in place in 1931, is like the name of the Oriental Institute itself—a reminder of the past, a time when the University did not imagine it would one day have students who did not see themselves reflected by the stony man of "The West." The name and the tympanum, much like OI’s potsherds and clay tablets, direct modern students to look to history to understand.
Speaking into the Maroon microphone stand, seemingly out of place on the antique wooden table within his high-ceilinged office, the current director of the OI, Christopher Woods, recounted the establishment of the Institute. The Oriental Institute was founded in 1919, Woods said, but its foundation was “closely tied to the origins of the University itself.”
In childhood, William Rainey Harper, a prodigy who went on to helm the University, was fascinated with Hebrew. After finishing his postgraduate studies at age 20, though before he came to Chicago, Harper taught Semitic languages at Yale. It was there that he met and briefly taught James Henry Breasted, the man who would go on to found the Oriental Institute. The same year Breasted was his student, the nascent University of Chicago was wooing Harper with an offer to be its first president. When the two men parted ways in 1891, Harper suggested that Breasted continue his studies in Germany, and promised him a position in Chicago upon his return.
“[Breasted] had an idea that was pretty radical at the time: that civilization didn't start in Greece and Rome—an idea that people often suppose—but that, in the West, [civilization] really has its antecedents in these much older civilizations of the Middle East,” Woods said in an interview.
Breasted took his mentor’s suggestion and spent three years studying Egyptology in Germany. During that time, he also met and married Frances Hart, another American student studying at a German university. Before the Breasteds came to the newly founded University of Chicago to claim the faculty post Harper had promised, the pair embarked on a University-funded working honeymoon to Egypt. Working with the consent of local governments, the Breasteds collected artifacts on nominal loan, promising to return them at some unspecified date. They finally arrived in Hyde Park in 1894. It was a fortunate time for a scholar of Breasted’s interests: Scientific archeology was then beginning to develop as a professional field, and a growing mania in Europe and America for all things Egyptian brought generous funding for any scholars willing to augment their research by engaging in the then common, though now more morally contested, practice of carrying exciting artifacts away from their native lands.
By the early 20th century, the rule of “partage” had been established: “The agreement you would have with the local authorities was: “You can excavate, but we will split the artifacts, with the host country picking first,” Woods explained.
Such practices have been phased out, according to Woods, and the OI now boasts “a very robust acquisitions committee.” The committee vets all prospective acquisitions for ethical provenance and archeological value. The OI prefers to make models of artifacts for study in Chicago, leaving the artifacts to be exhibited in their country of origin.
“Like many institutions and human endeavors, [the OI] doesn’t always have altogether proud roots,” Woods said. “Certainly, early excavations had a strong colonial component to them, but the OI really has been a leader in collaborative work. Almost all of our field work projects are collaborations with local scholars and museums—this is something we are really proud of.”
Back in the early 20th century, Breasted’s finds and accessible teaching style quickly won him a following of admirers, drawing interest even from outside academia. He mounted a number of further expeditions to Egypt, and delighted Americans by supplying the University’s Haskell Oriental Museum (a predecessor of the OI) with a supply of antiquities.
The outbreak of World War I in 1914 made travel difficult and interrupted Breasted’s research. It is no coincidence that the centennial of the OI comes so soon after the centennial of that war’s end. Breasted, who, according to a memoir written by his son Charles, had been disheartened by the war and by conflicts with the University administration, seized the opportunity that came with armistice. In 1919, Breasted skirted the administration’s rules and reached out directly to the son of the University’s founding donor, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., with a proposal for the foundation of an oriental institute. After having underwritten years of budget deficits, Rockefeller, Sr., had made clear his intention never again to donate to the University, so Breasted’s letter was a long shot.
Months after the letter was sent, Charles Breasted was watching his father open the mail when he heard him exclaim “Good lord—at last!”—and then after a pause, “Oh, if I were only 10 years younger!”
To Breasted’s surprise, Rockefeller, Jr., had chosen to provide Breasted with a grant of $10,000 per year for five years. The University assented to the arrangement and placed the newly organized OI in the same building that housed the Haskell Oriental Museum.
The OI was soon producing a steady stream of world-class research. Breasted used the Rockefeller grant to continue traveling to Egypt, but his students and peers were soon expanding the OI’s archeological missions to every part of the Middle East. The Oriental Institute also gained a new home: A curious mix of collegiate Gothic, Art Deco, and Middle Eastern influences, the building which houses the OI to this day was completed in 1931 and opened to the public. Thousands of visitors immediately swarmed the new building’s first floor museum and lecture hall while scholars worked above them in the library—now a well-regarded study space for students and academics alike—and below them in the archives. Breasted, who had previously been in the spotlight for helping Howard Carter identify Tutankhamun’s tomb, soon found himself staring out from a December 1931 issue of *Time* magazine.
“He was a great popularizer,” said Woods. Woods also noted that some of the OI’s new strategies for drawing more visitors during and after the centennial, such as redesigning the building’s lobby to be more welcoming, were inspired by Breasted’s early success.
By the time Breasted died in 1935, the Oriental Institute was strong enough to carry on without him.
“Many of the archeological expeditions that the OI has conducted have really defined their fields,” said Woods.
First among these stands the excavation of Persepolis, the ancient Persian capital which had lain in ruin since Alexander the Great destroyed it. The expedition, sponsored by the OI in the 1930s, was led first by Ernst Herzfeld and then by Erich Schmidt. Schmidt conducted multiple aerial surveys of the ruined city. To carry out his nearly unprecedented plan for archaeology by airplane, Schmidt had to get permission to fly in Iranian airspace, which required him to personally visit Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Iranian monarch. Pahlavi granted permission, and the flights began.
Reza Shah was forced to abdicate when the British and Soviet armies invaded Iran at the end of World War II, but his successor and son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi continued to support the OI’s excavations. Before being overthrown in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi granted women’s suffrage and sought to modernize Iran. His rule was also, however, marked by human rights abuses, including the banning of Leftist parties and the arrest and torture of thousands of political prisoners. He also participated in a 1953 U.S.– and U.K.–backed coup to oust Mohammad Mosaddegh, the prime minister of Iran. Through all this, he was a valued contributor to the OI and the University, pledging $3 million in 1968 for the construction of a Mohammad Reza Pahlavi building which would house the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. The donation was announced at a dinner for the shah at the OI, but the planned building was never completed.
This chapter of the OI’s history was new information to Woods. “I’m not even aware of that episode,” he said. The OI, he said, is now more circumspect about inviting controversial foreign leaders. “There haven’t been any of those dinners under my watch.”
As time passed, the OI settled into a routine of scholarship. The Institute, although less squarely in the press spotlight than when it started out, has maintained a reputation for high quality and field-defining research.
Since 1921, throughout almost the Institute’s whole history, scholars at the OI have been working on the *Chicago Assyrian Dictionary*, compiling, defining, and cataloging each use of every known word of the extinct Akkadian language. When Breasted first proposed the project, he expected it to take around 10 years to complete, but its scope expanded massively, and the final volume was only just published in 2011.
“No doubt, [the *Chicago Assyrian Dictionary*] is one of the greatest humanistic endeavors of the 20th century, a dictionary that took 90 years to write,” Woods said.
Currently, the OI is working on the *Chicago Hittite Dictionary*, a task which began in 1975 and may not be completed until 2045. The project began with the letter L (so they wouldn’t immediately cover the same ground as other Hittite dictionary projects), and over the course of 44 years, has worked its way to the letter S.
Meanwhile, the Center for Ancient Middle Eastern Landscapes (CAMEL) in the OI has taken up the legacy of Erich Schmidt’s archeology-by-plane—CAMEL does archeology from space, using the power of modern mapping technologies for previously impossible landscape archeology research. The OI has had a pioneering role in developing landscape archaeology from ladders to kites, airplanes, and now satellites, said Woods. “It is one of the accomplishments that most people don’t know.”
The OI also continues to perform field work throughout the Middle East, and oversees the Chicago House in Luxor, Egypt. Many of the OI’s contemporary efforts include working with local communities to build archeological and preservation infrastructure *in situ*, marking a distinct shift from its first generation of expeditions in the Middle East.
“A huge component of that work now is training local conservators and making these sites accessible,” said Woods. “You look at a place like Egypt, where tourism of the ancient monuments is a huge foundational economic bedrock of the Egyptian economy: By preserving and conserving these sites, and making them accessible to the public, you really are helping the contemporary Egyptian people.”
While the OI has never caught the public’s attention as consistently as it did in Breasted’s time, it has not kept entirely out of the headlines.
On September 4, 1997, suicide bombers killed seven people and injured many more in an attack on Ben Yehuda Street, Jerusalem. After Hamas, a Sunni fundamentalist militant organization, took responsibility for the attack, David Strachman, a Rhode Island lawyer, sued the nation of Iran on behalf of American victims. Strachman argued that Iran funds Hamas, and a federal judge agreed, awarding millions to the victims to be collected from Iran. The case hinged on a 1976 law which allows U.S. citizens to attempt to sue a foreign sovereign nation under unusual circumstances. The OI entered the picture because many of its artifacts do not actually belong to the OI, but are instead officially on loan from their nations of origin. The plaintiff argued that Persian artifacts at the OI, including an important set of cuneiform tablets, should be claimed and auctioned off to fund the damages payment. The suit went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2018 in favor of Iran and indirectly in favor of the OI. The tablets stayed.
“We obviously have great empathy for the victims of that attack, and would not quibble with them having a favorable settlement,” said Woods. “But our obligation was to return what was lent to us and to preserve the cultural heritage, and this was the appropriate means of doing so. Our concern was, if we had lost the case, the tablets would have been sold off piece-meal. Their value as cultural relics would have been diminished; they would have gone to collections that wouldn’t have been properly cared for.”
Woods explained that the Iranian tablets had been crucial for the study of the Achaemenid Empire. “There are lots of languages represented in them, but they are written primarily in a language called Elamite,” said Woods. “Nothing like it had ever been found to that point. To study these tablets meant really inventing an entire new field of study.”
Since the case, the tablets have begun to make their way back from the OI: “We just returned the first 1,700-odd tablets to Iran,” said Woods.
In 2019, the inside of the glass dome of Mansueto Library was covered in huge translucent pictures of Egyptian and Mesopotamian statues. These haunting figures, watching students as they worked, were scans of OI artifacts. This art installation, called *aeon*, was part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the OI’s founding, which saw a series of celebratory events coupled with permanent changes to the OI’s operations.
Woods said that leading up to the centennial, the OI museum underwent a “massive reinstallation of the galleries, which took five years. It was a massive multimillion-dollar project.” The museum also gained a new Early Islamic section, which displays artifacts which the OI has long held, but never previously displayed, such as the earliest known manuscript of *One Thousand and One Nights*. The OI also collaborated with contemporary artists to create works for display in the museum and around campus, including Ann Hamilton’s *aeon*.
Another core part of the centennial changes was the OI’s effort to rebrand and raise its profile.
During the centennial, the OI made a major publicity push, including event series, media spots, pervasive advertising across the campus and the city, a new website, and a retrospective book.
“Everything here had really been homemade. You had publications or descriptions of our work, all of this was done in house with people, talented but not really trained in this work,” said Woods. “It’s been really a major effort to raise the visibility and profile of the OI really at every level. The OI is an interesting place where we have an international academic reputation that doesn’t need to be burnished…but we need more help with our visibility and our outreach.”
One important new change is that the new marketing material primarily refers to the Oriental Institute as the OI. “The term ‘orient’ as a geographic designation has fallen out of the common vernacular, so it’s easily conflated with other uses of the term. It’s something that we are cognizant of, but what we want to do is look toward the next century and increasingly refer to the Oriental Institute as the OI,” said Woods.
While the OI focuses its studies on worlds frozen in the past, its hundred years of existence have seen great changes in the living world around the OI. Although there have been missteps along the way, the Institute has worked to keep up with, and even drive, historical progress.
When Breasted first envisioned the Institute, it was as an exploration of the lineage of “The West.” Now, Woods sees the OI as studying “the first data point” in the story of many human innovations.
“If you are interested in the origins of cities, if you are interested in how writing was invented, if you are interested in how people domesticated plants and animals, and how sedentary life was created…there are lots of places in the world where these developments happened independently, but what you have in the Middle East is at once a very early data point and one that is incredibly well documented,” said Woods. “I think the differences tell you something profound about human experience and the breadth of the human experiment.”