University of Chicago Oriental Institute

The Oriental Institute
Established 1919
Location University of Chicago
1155 E 58th Street
Chicago, Illinois
Coordinates 41°47′21″N 87°35′51″W / 41.789291°N 87.597482°W / 41.789291; -87.597482
Type Archaeology
Website Official website

The Oriental Institute (OI), established in 1919, is the University of Chicago's interdisciplinary research center for ancient Near Eastern ("Orient") studies, and archaeology museum. It was founded for the university by professor James Henry Breasted with funds donated by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. It conducts research on ancient civilizations throughout the Near East, including at its facility, Chicago House, in Luxor, Egypt. The Institute publicly exhibits an extensive collection of artifacts related to ancient civilizations at its on campus building in the Hyde Park, Chicago community.


James Henry Breasted built up the collection of the university's Haskell Oriental Museum. He dreamed of establishing a research institute, “a laboratory for the study of the rise and development of civilization”, that would trace Western civilization to its roots in the ancient Middle East.[1] As World War I wound down, he sensed an opportunity to use his influence in the new political climate. He wrote to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and proposed the foundation of what would become the Oriental Institute. Fundamental to the implementation of his plan was a research trip through the Middle East, which Breasted had optimistically, or perhaps naively, suggested was ready to receive scholars. Breasted received a reply from Rockefeller pledging $50,000 over five years for the Oriental Institute. Rockefeller also assured University of Chicago President Harry Pratt Judson that he would pledge another $50,000 to the cause. The University of Chicago contributed additional support, and in May 1919 the Oriental Institute was founded.[2] The Institute is housed in an unusual Art-Deco/Gothic building at the corner of 58th Street and University Avenue, which was designed by the architectural firm Mayers Murray & Phillip. Construction was completed in 1930, and the building was dedicated in 1931.

In the 1990s, Tony Wilkinson, founded the 'Center for Ancient Middle Eastern Landscapes' based at the institute.[3] Its role is to investigate the Middle East through landscape archaeology and the analysis of spatial data.[4]

Research and collection

Head of a bull that once guarded the entrance to the Hundred-Column Hall in Persepolis

The Museum of the Oriental Institute has artifacts from digs in Egypt, Israel, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Notable works in the collection include the famous Megiddo Ivories; various treasures from Persepolis, the old Persian capital; a collection of Luristan Bronzes; a colossal 40-ton human-headed winged bull (or Lamassu) from Khorsabad, the capital of Sargon II; and a monumental statue of King Tutankhamun. The museum has free admission, although visitors are encouraged to donate US $10.00 for adults and $5.00 for children.[5]

The Oriental Institute is a center of active research on the ancient Near East. The building's upper floors contain classrooms and faculty offices, and its gift shop, the Suq, also sells textbooks for the University's classes on Near Eastern studies. In addition to carrying out many digs in the Fertile Crescent, OI scholars have made contributions to the understanding of the origins of human civilization. The term "Fertile Crescent" was coined by J. H. Breasted, the OI founder, who popularized the connection of the rise of civilization in the Near East with the development of European culture.

In 2011, among other projects OI scholars completed publication of the 21-volume Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, a basic cultural reference work. The effort was begun in 1921 by J. H. Breasted, and continued by Edward Chiera and Ignace Gelb, with the first volume published in 1956. Dr. Erica Reiner as editor-in-charge led the research teams for 44 years. She was succeeded by Dr. Martha T. Roth, dean of humanities at the university. Similar dictionaries are under way, including the Chicago Hittite Dictionary and one for Demotic.

Chicago House

The Institute oversees the work of Chicago House in Luxor, Egypt. The Egyptian facility, established in 1924, performs the Epigraphic Survey, which documents and researches the historical sites in Luxor. It also manages conservation at various sites.[6]


A lamassu from the palace of Sargon II at Dur-Sharrukin

A collection comparable to the Institute's treasures could not be assembled today, since Middle Eastern governments no longer allow foreign archeologists to take home half of what they find. This had been the typical arrangement in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when most of the holdings were excavated, until the 1930s, when new antiquities laws were instituted.

In 2006, the Oriental Institute became the center of controversy when a U.S. federal court ruling sought to seize and auction its valuable collection of ancient Persian artifacts. The proceeds were to compensate the victims of a 1997 bombing in Ben Yehuda Street, Jerusalem, an attack which the United States claimed was funded by Iran. The ruling threatened the university's invaluable collection of ancient clay tablets; held by the Oriental Institute since the 1930s, it is officially owned by Iran. The Achaemenid (or Persepolis[7]) clay tablets were loaned to the University of Chicago in 1937.[8] They were discovered by archaeologists in 1933 and are legally the property of the National Museum of Iran and the Iran's Cultural Heritage Organization.[9][10] The artifacts were loaned based on the understanding that they would be returned to Iran.[7] The tablets, from Persepolis, the capital of the Persian Empire, date to about 500 B.C.[7][8][9]

The tablets give a view of daily life, itemizing such elements as the daily rations of barley given to workers in nearby regions of the empire. The tablets were sent to the capital to provide a record of what they were paying workers.[9] Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute, said that details largely concern food for people on diplomatic or military missions.[7] Each tablet is about half the size of a deck of playing cards and has characters of a dialect of Elamite, an extinct language understood by perhaps a dozen scholars in the world.[7]

University of Chicago Oriental Institute

Stein described the tablets as providing "the first chance to hear the Persians speaking of their own empire".[7] Charles Jones, Research Associate and Librarian at the Oriental Institute and tablet expert, compared them to "credit card receipts".[8] Most current knowledge about the ancient Persian empire comes from the accounts of others, most famously the Greek storyteller Herodotus.[7] Stein added, "It's valuable because it's a group of tablets, thousands of them from the same archive. It's like the same filing cabinet. They're very, very valuable scientifically."[7] The Oriental Institute had been returning them to Iran in small batches.[8][9][10] The Institute had already returned several hundred tablets and fragments to Iran and were preparing another shipment when the court intervened.[7] An appeals court later overturned the order.

See also


  1. C. Breasted, Pioneer to the Past, p. 238
  2. "The Oriental Institute". University of Chicago. Retrieved 27 May 2013.
  3. Stein, Gil. "Tony Wilkinson Remembrance". News. The American Schools of Oriental Research. Retrieved 22 January 2015.
  4. "About CAMEL". The Oriental Institute. The University of Chicago. Retrieved 22 January 2015.
  5. "Oriental Institute". Retrieved 2016-08-01.
  6. "Oriental Institute | The Epigraphic Survey". Retrieved 2013-09-12.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Slevin, Peter (2006-07-18). "Iran, U.S. Allied in Protecting Artifacts". Washington Post. p. A03. Retrieved 2006-08-29.
  8. 1 2 3 4 "University of Chicago returns ancient Persian tablets loaned by Iran". 2004-04-29. Retrieved 2006-07-27.
  9. 1 2 3 4 Herrmann, Andrew (2006-06-27). "Victims claim win in fight for U. of C. tablets". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2006-07-27.
  10. 1 2 "Iranian Antiquities May Be Seized in Suit". 2006-06-28. Retrieved 2006-07-27.
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