Oct. 10, 2002
Vol. 22 No. 2

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    An explorer feels right at home defining new agenda for Oriental Institute

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    Gil Stein leads the Oriental Institute as its new Director.

    This summer, the Oriental Institute gained a new director and a new agenda. Professor Gil Stein, formerly of Northwestern University, succeeded Professor Gene Gragg as Director of the institute, Monday, July 1.

    Stein is an archaeologist whose fieldwork has investigated early civilization on two continents and whose theoretical writings have challenged common ideas about what colonialism is. Gragg, a linguist whose career began at the Oriental Institute with groundbreaking work on Sumerian and branched out into Semitic and African languages, praised Stein as committed “to both the institute’s research mission and obtaining the support necessary to carry out that mission.”

    Stein earned a B.A. with honors in archaeology from Yale University, going on to complete his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania in 1988. He has excavated in Arizona and New Mexico, Syria, and since 1981, in Turkey. From 1992 through 1997, he directed excavations at Hacinebi, a Mesopotamian colony in Turkey, which is part of the world’s first-known colonial system.

    Comparing what he knew of Hacinebi with the ideas about colonialism that were then current led Stein to write his controversial Rethinking World Systems: Diasporas, Colonies, and Interaction in Uruk Mesopotamia.

    “Doing the book got me into cross-disciplinary integration: reading social anthropologists, Africanists, historians. There are so many good ideas out there in other disciplines, and comparative studies let you see how what you have is different.

    “In Rethinking World-Systems I was trying to look at the world’s earliest colonial system and see how it was different from the model that everyone has in their head. If you mention the word ‘colony’ most people in this country think of white guys in pith helmets being carried around. But all kinds of non-western societies established colonial systems, as in [Anthropology Professor Alan] Kolata’s ancient Bolivia. And lots of these systems were organized in completely different ways than what our European prejudices would tell us.”

    In his dark wood-paneled office, Stein seems like an explorer at home gathering energy for new forays. He is as excited about other people’s work as he is about his own and as eager to grapple with new technology as he is with ideas outside his field.

    Stein describes Oriental Institute research with recently declassified NSA satellite images that may revolutionize the way archaeologists see landscapes and hunt for sites, then launches into ways he wants to open up the institute.

    “One of my biggest concerns is having close ties with anthropology. There’s so much in shared goals there. We’re already very good at our work here, but we can increase our ability to present that work by putting it in a comparative context. I want to encourage Near Eastern people to share their results: ‘how is my data set from Egypt different from yours in Syria or America?’

    “We’re all dealing with complex societies, places with hierarchical authority and social stratification, economic specialization, places we’d call chiefdoms or state societies. So many themes beg for integration across disciplinary lines.”

    He laid out his agenda for the upcoming years: “First, I want to get the reinstallation of the museum completed as quickly as possible, within two to three years. Second, I want to reinvigorate research, which has taken a back seat to the reinstallation: it needs to be properly funded and encouraged. Third, I want to encourage dialogue within the institute, to get text people talking with archaeology people. Fourth, I want to connect with other departments: classics, linguistics, anthropology and others that have bodies of theory that relate strongly to the work we do. There’s already a lot going on with team-taught courses between anthropology and the Oriental Institute, and we encourage grad students to take courses there, but we can use more.

    “Finally, I want to rebuild the Oriental Institute’s position as a global center for the study of the past. I’d like to start organizing a regular series of high-level problem-focused conferences, bring together the best people from the United States and the international scholarly community in very small focused conferences on theoretical and integrative themes. I also want to reinvigorate our publication program, getting results rapidly and accessibly published. People who work in Peru ought to know what’s going on in Egypt and vice versa.”

    Stein’s vision extends outside of academia, a picture in keeping with the Oriental Institute’s status as one of Chicago’s main tourist attractions: “The public is very interested in archaeology, it resonates with them because the ancient world is a fascinating place. The institute is a unique resource that the University has; it deserves to be in the forefront.”

    Will the demands of administration call a halt to Stein’s own scholarship? “I’m making it a priority to keep my own research going, because I think my value as member of the Oriental Institute community is in making an intellectual contribution. The reason I came is because I have such a high regard for the scholarly power of my colleagues, and I’m glad I have a chance to be a part of that community. I really feel like I’ve found my intellectual home here.”