Oriental Institute to reopen its Persian GalleryBy William Harms
The Oriental Institute houses the nations premier archaeological collection of artifacts from civilizations that once flourished in what is now Iran. The institute will exhibit artifacts from that collection when it opens its Persian Gallery later this summer.
The exhibition will display early forms of seals, sculptures from the ruins of Persepolis and glazed ceramics from the early Islamic period, including juglets and plates that have never before been exhibited.
The gallery will include more than 1,000 items that illustrate a range of artistic styles that flourished in the area from the seventh millennium B.C. through the 10th century A.D., said Karen Wilson, Museum Director. Our goal is to show how cultures developed in the area over time and illustrate the involvement of Oriental Institute archaeologists who did very important work in Iran.
One of the themes of the new gallery will be the development of administration. Early seals, dating to about 4,000 B.C., were used by the ancient inhabitants of southern Iran to keep track of stored goods.
The Persians, 3,500 years later, maintained an elaborate system of record keeping to monitor such administrative matters as payment of rations to official travelers on their journeys. Records of such rations, written at way stations and sub-centers, were then sent to the Achaemenid palace complex at Persepolis to be tallied.
Roughly half of the Persian Gallery will be devoted to artifacts from Persepolis, which thrived from approximately 520 B.C. until, in 331 B.C., Alexander the Great and his troops destroyed it. This portion of the gallery will be dominated by a series of colossal sculptures made of polished, black limestone, including the head of a bull that once guarded the entrance to the Hundred-Column Hall and column capitals in the forms of bulls and composite creatures.
We will display plates from the royal tables, which were broken when Alexander destroyed the city.
They were thrown against the walls and lay in the ruins until a team from the Oriental Institute recovered them, Wilson said.
Matthew Stolper, the John A. Wilson Professor of Oriental Studies and an expert on Persia, said, The Persian Empire was remarkable; it stretched virtually over a continent, from Greece to Afghanistan, and from Egypt and Libya to western India. There was nothing like it before, and its size and durability were not repeated until the time of the Roman Empire.
The empire was remarkable for its ideology as well as its size. The Persians used a word vispazana to describe the immensity of the empire. It means all kinds of people, and it is used in the inscriptions found at Persepolis, along with images of all kinds of people shown holding up the throne of the king. It also is on ordinary administrative texts, referring to the workers who were building Persepolis, Stolper added. Inscriptions on stone found at Persepolis will be part of the exhibition as will be tablets from the administrative archives housed there.
The gallery also will exhibit examples of the world‰s earliest coinage, some of which was part of the treasury of the vast Persian Empire, which, at its height, stretched from the Indus Valley to the Aegean Sea. The coins that will be on display span a range of ages, from two of the worlds earliest-known minted coins of the 6th century B.C., to coins of the seventh century A.D. in Islamic times, when images were replaced with script.
We have some coins that show the transition to Arabic script, a style still used in the Middle East, said Donald Whitcomb, Research Associate at the Oriental Institute and an expert on the Islamic period.
Whitcomb said the plates, juglets and other vessels in the exhibition demonstrate a high degree of artistry as well as the cultural influences on the people during the arrival of Islam to the region. There are blue-and-white ceramics that indicate contact with China, for instance, he said.
Oriental Institute archaeologists excavated the pottery at Istakhr, an Islamic city about five miles north of Persepolis. Some of the stones from Persepolis were reused in Istakhr to build structures, including a mosque. One of the important things about Istakhr is that it provides a link between the ancient world and the modern, as it connects Islam with the cultures that preceded it, Whitcomb said.
In addition to the ceramics, the gallery also will display, for the first time, elaborate bronze and bone votive pins from the isolated mountain shrine at Surkh Dum-i Luri (1000-500 B.C.).
The gallery also will exhibit photographs to illustrate the work of the Oriental Institute archaeologists who began exploring the region in the 1930s. Their work ranged from air reconnaissance from 1935 to 1937, to archaeological expeditions conducted through 1978. One of the displays, based on Oriental Institute field projects, will feature the site of Chogha Mish in southwestern Iran, which was excavated between 1961 and 1978. The site yielded important evidence of the development of administrative record-keeping systems that eventually led to the invention of writing.
The prehistoric collection not only comes from Chogha Mish in southern Iran, but also Tall-i Bakun, in southwestern Iran. Chogha Mish, with its long, uninterrupted sequence of about five thousand years, provides an excellent opportunity to observe prehistoric cultural and economic development through the myriad of material objects and architecture found in the course of 12 seasons of excavations, said Abbas Alizadeh, Research Associate for the Iranian Prehistoric Project of the Oriental Institute.
The institute closed it galleries in 1996 for the installation of state-of-the-art climate-control systems, which are necessary to protect the collections from the damaging effects of Chicagos seasonal variations in temperature and relative humidity. In May 1999, the Joseph and Mary Grimshaw Egyptian Gallery opened to the public. The other galleries will open in two years.
The reinstallation of the Oriental Institutes galleries is supported entirely by private sources; the institute is midway through a $3,450,000 campaign to complete the project.
The Oriental Institute Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Wednesday; and from noon to 4 p.m., Sunday. The Museum is closed Mondays and holidays. Admission is free. For more information, call (773) 702-9514.