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July 15, 2003 Press Contact: William Harms
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Oriental Institute opens major gallery on ancient Mesopotamia

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[cylinder seals]
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Additional press releases:
The Oriental Institute studies the archaeological heritage of ancient Mesopotamia

Assyrian bull provides museum focal point

Dictionary documents ancient Mesopotamian language

It happened first in ancient Mesopotamia

A gallery featuring one of the world’s great collections of antiquities from ancient Iraq will open Saturday, Oct. 18, at the Oriental Institute Museum of the University of Chicago, 1155 E. 58th St.

The Edgar and Deborah Jannotta Mesopotamian Gallery joins two other recently opened galleries at the museum, one devoted to ancient Egypt and the other to Persia. This third gallery, remodeled as part of an ongoing renovation project, includes a visitor’s center that will serve as a main point of orientation to the museum. Computers programmed with information to help visitors learn about the Oriental Institute and its collection will be located there, as will displays that explain how Oriental Institute scholars have conducted their research since the end of the 19th century until today.

“The recent events in Iraq have increased the world’s appreciation of the incredible ancient heritage of Iraq,” said Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute. “We are proud to have played a key role in bringing world attention to that heritage and are delighted to be able to share the many fine objects from our own Mesopotamian collection with the public through the opening of this new gallery. These statues, monumental sculptures and items from everyday life help us appreciate the skills and imagination of the people who made up the great ancient cultures of the region.

“Writing, cities, government, mathematics, literature, and the wheel - these are all the gifts of ancient Mesopotamia to world civilization, and even now, 5000 years later, they still structure almost every aspect of our everyday lives,” Stein added. “We hope that the visitors to our Mesopotamian Gallery will come away with a deeper appreciation for both the tremendous accomplishments of that ancient civilization, and for its fundamental role in defining who we are today.”

Oriental Institute archaeologists, many of them pioneers in this field and many who continue today to be leaders in the discipline, excavated most of the material on exhibition.

“The Mesopotamians were true innovators, and our heritage from them includes many of the things we now take for granted, such as writing and urban life,” said Karen Wilson, Director of the Oriental Institute Museum. Wilson, an expert on ancient Mesopotamia, has been in charge of the re-installation.

“The gallery documents the powerful sweep of the rise and growth of civilization in the region - from its foundations in prehistoric times, through the glories of the city-states at the time of Ur, to the great empires of Babylonia and Assyria, up to the time of Islamic conquest,” she said.

At the far end of the gallery opposite the visitor’s center is the most spectacular object in the Mesopotamian collection - a human-headed winged bull sculpture that stands 16 feet tall. The statue, known by many Chicagoans as the “Assyrian Bull,” is one of the museum’s most popular items and gains splendor in a new setting that calls attention to its original architectural purpose.

Six, 10-foot tall stone reliefs from the throne-room facade in the palace of the Assyrian king Sargon II (ruled from 721 to 705 B.C.), flank the bull statue. Oriental Institute archaeologists excavated the bull and the reliefs at Sargon II’s capital city Dur-Sharrukin, known today as Khorsabad. This stunning new installation, the Yelda Khorsabad Court, which is the result of more than 10 years of work, evokes the feeling of grandeur and power of the palaces and temples of the mighty Assyrian Empire.

The Mesopotamian gallery provides visitors a chance to explore the ancient Near East in chronological fashion. The first section of the exhibition is devoted to the prehistory of Iraq. The Robert and Linda Braidwood Prehistory Exhibition highlights the work of these two pioneering Oriental Institute archaeologists, who began their research in the years just following World War II. It takes visitors back 150,000 years and follows the development of human society from nomadic groups to settled farming villages.

Ancient Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, was a land of cities. The gallery displays a wealth of objects from what may be the world’s first urban civilization, including pottery, clay tablets, stone sculptures, and vessels made of luxurious stones and metals.

The ancient Mesopotamians began writing as a way to record commercial transactions, but quickly developed a rich written tradition that included literature, mathematics and science. Displays trace the development of writing on clay tablets, the training of scribes in ancient schools, and the tradition of royal inscriptions on clay, stone and metal.

The region’s lively commercial life was enhanced by the use of small intricately carved stone seals, made in the shape of cylinders that could be rolled across clay, thereby sealing doorways or containers to identify the individual or administrative unit that had impressed the seal. The decoration of these seals includes combats between fantastic heroes and wild animals, scenes of worship, and images of lions and other animals common to the region. A new series of display cases has been created to show the museum’s extensive collection of these precious seals.

Religion played an important part in the life of ancient Mesopotamians. Each city boasted at least one temple dedicated to its patron god or goddess. During the third millennium B.C., devotees dedicated statues and placed them in these temples to stand in perpetual prayer before the altar. The Oriental Institute has the best collection of these votive figures outside of Baghdad. The finest statues from the museum collection are on display, standing with large staring eyes and hands clasped in prayer.

The wealth and power of the rulers of ancient Mesopotamia is highlighted not only in the Khorsabad Court but also in a series of cases containing gold, jewelry and other finery from royal households. The artistic triumph of Babylon is exhibited in the placement of two glazed brick reliefs of lions that face each other to create a dramatic corridor leading into the Khorsabad Court.

“Beneath the beauty of these pieces is a heritage of technological expertise and invention,” said Wilson. “The ancient Mesopotamians mastered numerous complex techniques to produce magnificent objects ranging in size from tiny cylinder seals to monumental sculptures. They created these amazing works of art that have endured for thousands of years and are what make the gallery so engaging.”

Admission to the Oriental Institute Museum is free, donations are welcome. The museum and the Suq bookstore and gift shop are open Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and Sundays noon to 4 p.m. For more information, call (773) 702-9514.

 

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Last modified at 04:34 PM CST on Tuesday, July 29, 2003.

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