The University of Chicago News Office
June 3, 1997 Press Contact: William Harms
(773) 702-8356

Ancient Assyrian Rituals Re-enacted for Laying Oriental Institute Cornerstone

Portions of an ancient Assyrian ceremony that has not been enacted for 2,000 years will be performed at 11 a.m. Thursday, June 12, as the cornerstone for the new wing of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, 1155 E. 58th St., is dedicated. The cornerstone celebrates the construction of a new 16,000 square-foot addition to the Institute as part of a major expansion and renovation project. The public is invited to witness the ceremony.

“As one of the world’s centers for the study of the ancient Near East, we thought it particularly appropriate to use this ancient ritual to commemorate the cornerstone laying,” said Karen L. Wilson, Museum Director. “The Assyrians, who lived in northern Iraq during the second and first millennia B.C., left detailed instructions for conducting this particular three-day ceremony, and we look forward to re-enacting parts of it. It is amazing how timeless some of these ceremonies are; although the details of dedicating a building have changed, the overall desire to commemorate new construction has stayed the same for well over 2,000 years.”

The ritual, which is recorded on clay tablets from the famous library of King Assurbanipal (668-627 B.C.) at Nineveh and on tablets which the Oriental Institute excavated at the site of Khorsabad, also in northern Iraq, will be narrated by Oriental Institute staff members assisted by children who will play the parts of the priest and the magician. The children will wear modern copies of Assyrian clothing. The reenactment of the ritual will last approximately 15 minutes.

The ancient ceremony took place over three days. During that time, the priest made a series of earth, wood and wax figurines of protective deities. Incantations in the archaic language of the Sumerians and in the formal language of the Akkadians were recited to invoke the protection of the gods. On the third day of the ritual, a figurine, accompanied by sacrifices and purification rituals, was deposited in the cornerstone and others were buried under the doorways of the building.

The June 12 cornerstone ritual commemorates a project to install climate control in the galleries and artifact storage areas of the Oriental Institute and to build a 16,000-square-foot wing for artifact and archival storage, library stacks, and a state-of-the-art conservation laboratory.

The facility’s improvements also include a new education center, an Archaeological Research Center for Institute faculty and graduate students, and an expanded computer laboratory adapted for the analysis of archaeological data. Completion of the project is anticipated in November of this year. The opening of the galleries is slated for Winter 1998.

The climate-control portion of the project is being undertaken in response to the tremendous variation in Chicago’s relative humidity and temperature. This variation causes irreparable damage to ancient objects by subjecting them to continual expansion and contraction. Once the temperature and humidity in the galleries are stabilized, artifacts of wood, fabric and other delicate materials that previously had to be stored off-view in small climate-conditioned areas of the basement can be exhibited to the public. Vinci/Hamp Architects, Inc. of Chicago are currently preparing a schematic design for the new museum galleries. One of the highlights of the new exhibits will be a reconstruction of a courtyard from a Neo-Assyrian palace from about 705 B.C., dominated by a 40-ton sculpture of a human-headed winged bull.

The Oriental Institute Museum collections include more than 100,000 registered objects from ancient Egypt, Nubia, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Turkey, Palestine, Syria and Jordan. This project is the first renovation of the building since it was completed in 1931.

The architects for the project are Hammond, Beeby & Babka, Inc. of Chicago. The consulting engineer is Landmark Facilities Group, Inc., of Norwalk, Connecticut. Turner Construction Company of Chicago is the contractor and East Consulting Services of Windsor, Connecticut, is providing project management. The Oriental Institute’s Legacy Campaign, now entering its fourth year, has raised $7.6 million of the $10.1 million needed for expansion and renovation.

Although the galleries will not reopen until winter 1998, the public can still visit the Oriental Institute on the via the Internet. Through the Oriental Institute home page, computer users can see highlights of the collection and historic photographs from Institute excavations, check on recent and new research projects, and even browse the Suq gift and book store.

In addition, selections from the Oriental Institute’s permanent collection can be seen in a special exhibit, In the Presence of the Gods: Art from Ancient Sumer, at the Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave. The exhibit opens on July 1 and continues through March 8, 1998. Admission is free.
Last modified at 03:50 PM CST on Wednesday, June 14, 2000.

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