Book Review: Highlights – The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago

Highlights Cover

This book presents a guide to over 100 highlights of the collection of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. The book presents objects from ancient Mesopotamia, Syro-Anatolia, The Levant, Egypt, Nubia and Persia, including valuable information about the history of the collections, photography, and a brief description of each object.

The ten main objects that captured my attention while going through this book, and also while visiting the Oriental Institute Museum, are presented below:

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  • Clay Prism of Sennacherib (Assyria) – on the six inscribed sides of this clay prism, King Sennacherib recorded eight military campaigns undertaken against various peoples who refused to submit to Assyrian domination. In all instances, he claims to have been victorious. As part of the third campaign, he beseiged Jerusalem and imposed heavy tribute on Hezekiah, King of Judah-a story also related in the Bible, where Sennacherib is said to have been defeated by “the angel of the Lord,” who slew 185,000 Assyrian soldiers.


  • Fragment from the tomb of Diesehebsed (Egypt) -This block came from the now lost tomb or tomb chapel of a woman named Diesehebsed. She bore the title Singer in the Interior of the Temple of Amun, indicating that she was part of a divine chorus that entertained the god during offering rituals. Traces of hieroglyphs in the cartouche before the woman to the right identify her as the God’s Wife Amunirdis II. Another scene of the two women together is known from the Karnak Temple, suggesting that Diesehebsed was a trusted administrator of the God’s Wife, who during this period was the virtual ruler of Thebes. Diesehebsed was from one of the most prominent families of Thebes. She was the daughter of Nesptah, who was a Priest of Amun and the Scribe of the Offering Table, indicating that both father and daughter worked for the administration of Amun at Thebes. Diesehebsed was also the sister of Mentuemhat the mayor of Thebes.


  • Book of the dead (Papyrus Milbank; Egypt) – the Book of the Dead was a collection of spells, hymns, and prayers intended to secure the deceased safe passage to the afterlife. This is one section of a papyrus that was originally 35 feet long. It shows the judgment of the soul before Osiris, the god of the dead, who determined the deceased’s worthiness to enter the next life by assessing his earthly deeds. The heart of a man named Yartiuerow is being weighed in the balance against the feather of the goddess Maat, representing truth and justice. The jackal-god Anubis and falcon-headed god Horus stand below the scale. Thoth, the secretary of the gods, records the favorable verdict. Yartiuerow appears twice. Once, bowing before the scale, and to the right, his hands raised in jubilation, accompanied by a goddess with a feather head who may be Maat or the personification of the West. Between the representations of Yartiuerow is a monster-part hippopotamus, part crocodile, and part lion-called the “the Devourer” who would have consumed Yartiuerow’s heart should the judgment be unfavorable.


  • Colossal Statue of Tutankhamun (Egypt) -This statue represents a king of late Dynasty 18, most probably Tutankhamun. It was usurped by succeeding kings and now bears the name of Horemheb. The king wears the double crown and the royal nemes head cloth. A cobra goddess (uraeus) that was thought to spit fire at the king’s enemies rears above his forehead. The king grasps scroll-like objects thought to be containers for the documents by which the gods affirmed the monarch’s right to divine rule. The dagger at his waist has a falcon’s head, symbol of the god Horus, who was believed to be manifested by the living pharaoh. The small feet at the king’s left side were part of a statue of his wife, Ankhesenpaamun, whose figure was more nearly life-sized. The facial features of this colossal statue strongly resemble other representations of Tutankhamun, suggesting it was commissioned for him. Traces of the name of his successor, Aye, can be seen under the name of Horemheb in the cartouches on the back pillar, indicating that the statue was usurped twice. The Oriental Institute excavated two of these statues. One was graciously given to the University by the Egyptian government; the other is in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.


  • Colossal Bull Head (Iran) – carved in the court style typical of the Achaemenid Empire, this highly polished stone head originally belonged to one of two guardian bulls flanking the portico of the hundred-columned Throne Hall at Persepolis. The heads of the bulls projected in the round and the bodies were carved in relief on the sidewalls of the porch; the ears and horns had been added separately. The use of pairs of guardian figures such as these to protect important buildings was a common architectural feature in the ancient Near East.


  • Persian Roundel (Iran) – this snarling winged lion worked in gold repoussé attests to the exceptional skill of Achaemenid goldsmiths. The back of the horned feline’s body and the slender twisted cord that surrounds it bear sixteen tiny loops for attachment to a garment or textile. Greek writers often speak of the tremendous wealth of the Persians, and Herodotus writes that King Xerxes’ troops “were adorned with the greatest magnificence…they glittered all over with gold, vast quantities of which they wore about their persons”.

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  • Four-faced God and Goddess (Mesopotamia) – illicit diggers found these four-faced statuettes, which may represent a god of the four winds and a goddess of rainstorms. The god wears a low cap with a pair of horns meeting above each face. He carries a scimitar in his right hand and places his left foot upon the back of a crouching ram. The goddess’s tall crown, again with a pair of horns above each face, has the shape of a temple facade or altar. She grasps in her hands a vase from which flow streams of water; a rippled water pattern covers her garment.


  • Gaming Board (Palestine) – two types of gaming boards are found among the Megiddo ivories- one for the “game of 58 holes” and the other for the “game of 20 squares.” This is one of four similarly-shaped gaming boards for the “game of 58 holes.” Every fifth hole, as well as the central panel, was once inlaid with gold and blue paste. “Studs” of gold leaf found alongside the board may have capped the pegs used to play the game.


  • Victorious Assyrian Soldiers (Syria) – after they had conquered Tell Ta’yinat, the Assyrians carved these reliefs and used them to decorate a palace or public structure. The scene shows victorious Assyrian soldiers carrying the cut-off heads of their defeated enemies to a location where the number of those slain would be counted. Beneath the soldiers’ feet lie the decapitated bodies. Each soldier wears a helmet, carries a bow and quiver over his shoulder, and holds three arrows in his right hand. At a later date, perhaps after the decline of Assyrian power, the reliefs were reused, face-down, as paving stones.A7369_051_GreyBackground_thumb
  • Human-Headed Winged Bull (Assyria) – this colossal sculpture was one of a pair that guarded the entrance to the throne room of King Sargon II. A protective spirit known as a “lamassu”, it is shown as a composite being with the head of a human, the body and ears of a bull, and the wings of a bird. Viewed from the side, the creature appears to be walking; but when viewed from the front, it appears to be standing still. Thus it is actually represented with five, rather than four, legs.

Overall, the book highlights the fact that, since its inception, the mission of the Oriental Institute Museum has been to preserve, exhibit, and make available artifacts to scholars who study the ancient Near East. Today, the Museum holds over 300,000 objects, and such collection is one of the few in the world that gives a comprehensive view of all major cultures of the ancient Near East and Nile Valley, and which is scientifically excavated and documented, making the objects of particular value for promoting the study and understanding of the past.


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