Curators typically organize museums with some editorial guidelines. In art, it may be by era, style, or nation; in the natural sciences, by geography, genus, or age. But some museums (usually museums married to a university rather than purely for the public visitor) resemble the curiosity cabinets of yore. Their crowded display cases say, “Look at all the cool stuff I found.”

Based out of the University of Chicago’s Archaeology Department, The Oriental Institute rests nicely in between; the collection is one of the few places to view a university’s acquisitions from archaeological digs, as most universities keep their closed to the public. I visited the museum last week, drawn by an exhibit on the origins of written language. The exhibit outlines the four places where written language arose: Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and Mesoamerica. The tablets with 5,000 year-old cuneiform stunned me. They gave a rough historical sketch of the environments that produced written communication. It was used namely for trade – to trace goods as they traveled across land and water. The words were not transcribed spoken language though, but rather clues that the reader used to fill in what the scribe was telling him. 

Oriental Institute - Cuneiform Exhibit - University of Chicago - Atlas Obscura


But I expected more, more of an explanation. Rather than hypothesize on the sociological, linguistic, or historical implications of these artifacts, the exhibit was primarily the artifacts themselves. There are infinite questions around something about basic and ubiquitous as the written word – the medium I am using right now. When did language representation first become abstract? When did people first start telling stories with the written word? In what kind of society? Under what political and economic conditions? But more than those answers: what would that mean? I didn’t find any answers.

James Henry Breasted founded in the museum in 1919, after twenty years as a practicing archaeologist excavating in Iran and southern Egypt. He may have been the archetype for Indiana Jones, and he also invented the term “fertile crescent” to describe the region. With a large contribution from John D. Rockefeller Jr., the museum moved into a permanent home in 1931, and opened its doors to the public. The entire collection - save rotating exhibitions - were recovered by the archaeological crew at digs throughout the Near East.

From 1925 until the beginning of World War II, the University conducted historic excavations at Tel Megiddo in northern Israel, near Haifa. Tel Megiddo was a trade route from Egypt to Assyria from 7000 BCE to 586 BCE and the site of many wars and conflicts during that era (as it is today). The buried artifacts have contributed volumes to the modern understanding of the culture of the Near East, including the relevance of the Hebrew communities in the region. The Meggido Ivories, a collection of sculptures and engravings from the area, are on permanent display at the museum. One of the smallest artifacts, the gaming boards, reveal a vibrant culture that in many ways resembled ours. 

Megiddo was the site of so many battles that the final battle between good and evil was supposed to happen there, according to the Abharamic tradition. In Hebrew it was “Har Megiddo” or “at Megiddo” where we English-speakers inherited the word “Armageddon.”

Oriental Institute - U of Chicago - Research Archives - Atlas Obscura

Research archives at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute (source)

The Institute still works in the field throughout Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Israel, but most of the collection was found during digs in the early 20th century. In the early days of archaeology, Western academics brought their findings to their home universities. Laws in the 1930s restricted what could be taken out of the country of origin, though academics can still bring some of their findings back to their universities.

From the hairpins and the sandals to the incense burners and the harps, the artifacts themselves were so captivating – not least the statue of Tutankhamen, at 17 feet tall the largest statute of the Egyptian pharaoh outside of Egypt. By the time I left the galleries it hit me how refreshing a simplified collection can be – to have the thing itself. It was archaeology, not a futile, inadequate attempt to explain 5,000 years of human history. 

Interested in paying a visit? Museum admission consists of a $7 suggested donation. It’s a very subtle suggestion, noted only by a wooden box near the entrance. Further details, including hours of operation and directions, at the Oriental Institute’s website.