June 12, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 19

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    Laying of cornerstone, ancient ceremony to be re-enacted today

    Portions of an ancient Assyrian ceremony that has not been enacted for more than 2,000 years will be performed at 11 a.m. today, June 12, as the cornerstone for the new wing of the Oriental Institute is dedicated.

    The cornerstone celebrates the construction of a new, 16,000-square-foot addition to the institute as part of a major expansion and renovation project. The public is invited to witness the ceremony.

    "As one of the world's centers for the study of the ancient Near East, we thought it particularly appropriate to use this ancient ritual to commemorate the cornerstone laying," said Karen Wilson, Oriental Institute Museum Director. "The Assyrians, who lived in northern Iraq during the second and first millennia B.C., left detailed instructions for conducting this particular three-day ceremony, and we look forward to re-enacting parts of it. It is amazing how timeless some of these ceremonies are -- although the details of dedicating a building have changed, the overall desire to commemorate new construction has stayed the same for well over 2,000 years."

    The ritual, which is recorded on clay tablets from the famous library of King Assurbanipal (668-627 B.C.) at Nineveh and on tablets which the Oriental Institute excavated at the site of Khorsabad, also in northern Iraq, will be narrated by Oriental Institute staff members assisted by children who will play the parts of the priest, craftsman and servant. The children will wear copies of Assyrian clothing. The re-enactment of the ritual will last approximately 15 minutes.

    The ancient ceremony took place over three days. During that time, the priest made a series of earth, wood and wax figurines of protective deities. Incantations in the archaic language of the Sumerians and in the formal language of the Akkadians were recited to invoke the protection of the gods. On the third day of the ritual, to the accompaniment of sacrifices and purification rituals, the figurines were buried under the doorways and at other locations within the building.

    Today's cornerstone ritual celebrates an ongoing project to install climate control in the galleries and artifact storage areas of the Oriental Institute and to build a 16,000-square-foot wing for artifact and archival storage, library stacks and a state-of-the-art conservation laboratory.