Footprints in History: Penn Museum with New Middle East Galleries Exhibit

Richard Friswell
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Clay paving brick, walls of Ur-Nammu (c. 2500 BCE). 37.5 cm sq, 9.5 cm deep. Credit: British Museum/University Museum Expedition to Ur, Iraq, 1926.

“Without the city, there can be no civilization” ~Ibn Khaldun, 14th–century, CE philosopher and historian

If ever there were clear evidence of the adage that ‘past is prologue,’ it can surely be found in the newly installed Middle East galleries exhibit at Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Extraordinary artifacts dating back up to 5,000 years Before the Common Era (BCE) are displayed in ways that build on the narrative of an expanding culture, sited principally in the once water and sun-drenched Fertile Crescent (likely site of the Biblical Garden of Eden)—and today’s Iran, Iraq, portions of Syria and Turkey. The preservation of artifacts and the ways in which they can represent the story of everyday life in a Bronze Age community, and thus through five millennia, to their emergence as elegant, highly-organized urban societies is breathtaking and spellbinding.  Curatorial excellence, wedded with extraordinary scholarship were the keys to bringing this exhibition to life—and life’s presence can be felt and seen in what is placed on dynamic interactive display here.

The arc of human history is never more evident than in the opening display of a 4,000 year old, approximately 15 x 15” slab of clay bearing a human footprint, imprinted there by a careless worker who mistakenly stepped into a paving brick drying in the sun. Turning the corner into the first gallery introduces the visitor to everyday life in the ancient Mesopotamian settlement of Tepe Gawra (Kurdish: Great Mound).  Located in the Mosul region of northwest Iraq, it was occupied between 5000 and 1500 BCE. University of Pennsylvania archeologists first explored the site in the 1930s, returning with a wealth of artifacts reflecting a complex and innovative societal structure.

Right: “Wine Jar” pottery jar, one of a series of jars found sunken into the floor along an interior wall of a ‘kitchen’ in a well-preserved Neolithic house in NW Iran. A reddish residue found inside the jar tested positive for wine. Capacity 9 liters (2.5 gallons). It is the oldest known wine storage container in the world.” Credit: The Hasanlu Project (Hajji Firuz); Mary M. Voight, 1969.

Everything from a small clay baby rattle to religious idolatry were discovered in a family residence, once laid asunder and left more-or-less intact after an unrecorded attack by hostile forces. Remarkable in this fourth-millennium BCE collection is a delicate, palm-sized obsidian bowl, carefully abraded over time from a solid chunk of black volcanic glass to become a semi-transparent household object, delicate side-pouring spout included.  This fine object alone (and there are many others, here) should serve to remind the visitor that object d’art like this should never be grouped under the meaningless term, ‘primitive.’

Left: Obsidian bowl, Tepe Gawra settlement, wdth, 12.6 cm x ht. 6.8 cm (circa 4200–4050 B.C.). Credit: American School Oriental Research/University Museum Expedition to Tepe Gawra, Iraq; E. A. Speiser, 1935.

Tepe Gawra illustrates the transition from early Chalcolithic farming villages to complex settlements with mud-brick houses, stamp seals, the first metal objects, and monumental architecture. At the close of the Gawra Period, writing was invented in southern Mesopotamia; but Tepe Gawra shows that writing and advanced civilization did not reach the north until much later, the area remaining essentially the same until about 1700 BCE, when non-Semites and Hurrians invaded the city.

Right: Clay tablet excavated from Nippur in 1890. Considered one of the world’s oldest spreadsheets. Credit: Babylonian Expedition to Nippur II, 1890.

Moving from gallery-to-galley allows the visitor to ‘time travel’ across thousands of years, engaging with communities of rich and poor, noble and common, skilled and increasingly literate, as they evolve into more sophisticated societies. This ‘Dawn of Civilization’ journey takes us to places like Ubaid, another region that predates the rise of the great urban cities (~4000 BCE). Here, distinctive pottery forms and colors help specify the area’s identifying features. Here, too, can be found evidence of distinctive large architecture, agricultural practices like irrigation, paved streets and food processing equipment. Unique among the museum’s artifact collection are the unusual “Lizard Eyed” figures, from this region. The figurines are presented with long heads, almond shaped eyes, long tapered faces and a lizard-type nose. What exactly they represent is completely unknown. According to archaeologists, their postures, such as a female figure breast-feeding, does not suggest that they were ritualistic objects. The serpent was a major symbol used in many societies to represent a number of gods–for example, the Sumerian god Enki–perhaps suggesting a god-like snake figure in human form.

Left: “Lizard Eyed” terracotta figurine, hgt. 16.8 x wth, 5.8 cm. Ubiad period (c. 4500 BCE). Nude female standing and with her hands resting against her waist; bitumen covering of her high head-dress is preserved. Found buried at Ur. Credit:British Museum/University Museum Expedition to Ur, Iraq, 1931.   

There are galleries devoted to emerging early dynastic centers like Khafaje and Hissar, where discoveries of archives with cuneiform tablets were unearthed. These tablets show a complex administrative system in place documenting in extraordinary detail receipts for goods and services—sometimes within the town, and other times with the neighboring areas—clear evidence of complex trading relations within and beyond the region, from western Anatolia to the Indus Valley and from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf..

Which brings us to the great city of Ur (phonetic stem for our word, ‘Earth’, meaning Mound of Pitch), which figures prominently in our journey through time. Much of what we know of the people and cultures of early Mesopotamia comes from the material uncovered in the Royal Cemetery at Ur. Archeologist, Sir Leonard Woolley laid the groundwork with his twelve seasons of excavation in the 1920s and his initial findings and reports. In all probability, Ur is the “Ur of the Chaldees” mentioned in the Bible as the birthplace of the patriarch Abraham (Gen. 12: 4-5). Inhabited from about 5500 BCE, Ur was finally abandoned around 400 BCE because of difficulties with its water supply. In between, Ur was a politically and economically powerful center on the Euphrates, particularly during the 3rd millennium BCE, with easy access to the Persian Gulf and long-distance sea trade.

Right: Bearded Bull’s Head, gold, shell inlay plaques, eyes are either Conus or Strombus,  40 25 x 19 cm. Once mounted to front of lyre. Found in royal tomb at Ur, excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley. Credit: British Museum/University Museum Expedition to Ur, Iraq, 1928.

Perhaps the best known artifacts are from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, a burial ground with more than 2000 internments, including those of the kings and queens who ruled the city-state ca. 2500 BCE. They include the personal jewelry of Puabi, the queen, and the “ram-in-the thicket,” a statuette of a goat rampant in a tree. The “ram-in-the-thicket” is made of shell, lapis lazuli, gold, and copper and typifies early Mesopotamian composite art. Also found here were the remains of dozens of court attendants who were interred at the same time as the kings and queens. This ritual of human sacrifice is effectively and powerfully illustrated with artistic renderings of the ritualistic ceremony leading up to the slaughter, as well as a large-scale photograph of the archeological dig uncovering those remains.

Left: Iran, Koubatcha region. Polychrome decoration on old ivory with floral designs and male figure with turban in center. Late 16th- early 17th c. CE., diam.34.29 cm, Polychrome painted under transparent glaze, known as Kubachi ware.

The exhibition journeys now to the elaborate city-states of Hasanlu and Rayy—in the first case, a site of armed conflict and resultant devastation, as fire ripped through the ancient city following a 9th century BCE invasion by hostile armies. The result, for archaeologists, was a treasure trove of artifacts and remains, where many victims still lay where they fell three-thousand years ago. Large columned halls, golden artifacts, weapons of war and thousands of artifacts of everyday life. The city-state of Rayy (Baghdad’s “second capital”), on the other hand, yielded up countless artifacts from early modern times. Rayy was a city that thrived on the cusp of centuries marking the beginning of the Common Era (CE, or in the West, a.d.), thanks to its location on the main east-west routes between Iraq and central Asia, and the north-south route from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea.

Right: Clay bowl excavated at Rayy, but made in Basra, 9th c. CE. See description, below. Credit:The Boston Museum of Fine Arts / University Museum Expedition to Rayy; Erich F. Schmidt, 1937 

The Penn Museum collection is rich with artifacts from this period, marking civilizations progress toward greater organization and international influence.  Illustrative of Rayy’s influence in an expanding world is a fragile bowl bearing a deep blue inscription by that spans the object. The potter’s inscription reads from right-to-left: “Blessing to the owner. From the work of Abu al-Nasr.” The eclectic importance of this object can be understood at many levels. Its overall shape in ‘Chinese’ by design, though locally crafted, the cobalt blue inscription in the Cufic language, both indigenous to the Middle East region, but intended for export to the Far East, where the pigment would still be considered unusual. This small, fractured object speaks volumes to the globalization of taste and trade, which was already well underway more than 2,000 years ago.

Neil Armstrong, Footstep in moon dust, 1969. Photo: NASA.

If the seeds of creativity can be found in the interface of labor and intellect and if, by extension, we understand the power of the mind resides in the unconscious, the galleries of the Penn Museum dedicated to these innovative ancient civilizations offer up a direct through-line to human motivation in our own ‘modern’ times. But, to believe that we have moved beyond a timeless cultural legacy of enlightened beauty and profound intelligence, coupled with fierce competition, senseless cruelty, gained-then-lost splendor of nations and the random impact of natural disasters on our best-laid future plans, think again. Through the course of human history, the only discernable evidentiary difference between ‘then’ and ‘now’ may reside in the details.

By Richard J. Friswell, Managing Editor

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