Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures

Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures A leading research center for the cultures of ancient West Asia and North Africa
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The Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures is a world-renowned showcase for the history, art, and archaeology of the cultures of ancient West Asia and North Africa. The museum displays objects recovered by ISAC excavations in permanent galleries devoted to ancient Egypt, Nubia, Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Anatolia, and the ancient site of Megiddo, as well as rotating special exhibits.

One hundred years ago this year, the Epigraphic Survey was founded by James Henry Breasted! The purpose of the survey wa...
01/08/2024

One hundred years ago this year, the Epigraphic Survey was founded by James Henry Breasted! The purpose of the survey was to document the reliefs and inscriptions on ancient Egyptian monuments focusing largely (although not solely) on the Luxor region. This year will be one of celebration of the Epigraphic Survey, including a new exhibition in the fall, as well as other events.

Photograph of a scribe in a relief from Medinet Habu, ca. 1924-1929

This is not an actual gaming board, but rather it is a depiction of one. Specifically this is the mn-hieroglyph (Gardine...
01/05/2024

This is not an actual gaming board, but rather it is a depiction of one. Specifically this is the mn-hieroglyph (Gardiner Y5) depicting a gaming board with gaming pieces. The hieroglyph appears quite early, already in Dynasty 0 and Dynasty 1. It then becomes very popular appearing in the name of the god Amun and in various pharaohs. This fragment comes from Petrie's excavations at the site of Lahun.

E9199, limestone and pigment, Egypt, Dynasty 12 (1991-1802 BCE)

  to the ISAC excavations at Qustul in Nubia! In the course of the excavations, they found what is believed to be exampl...
01/04/2024

to the ISAC excavations at Qustul in Nubia! In the course of the excavations, they found what is believed to be examples of the ancient Egyptian game mn (or men) but coming from an A-Group cemetery. This game is not as well attested as mehen or senet, but two boards (one complete and one fragmentary) thought to be used to play mn, were found in Qustul in two graves. In the tomb with the fragmentary board, excavators also found what they believe are flat ivory plaques that were used as gaming pieces, marbles (also used in mehen) and a small stone hippo that they also thought was used in the game as well.

E44495, E23730E-J, limestone, carnelian, amethyst, and stone, Nubia, A-group (ca. 3800-3100 BCE) and historic photographs

Cube dice of the type that we recognize today are found in Mesopotamia starting in the 3rd millennium BCE. This clay die...
01/03/2024

Cube dice of the type that we recognize today are found in Mesopotamia starting in the 3rd millennium BCE. This clay die was found at the site of Khafajah (ancient Tutub) in the so-called “Akkadian Foundations” building which is a large building that is probably a residence of a wealthy elite at the site. The clay die was identified as probably dating to the Akkadian period, as the field register shows.

A17714, baked clay, Iraq, Akkadian period (2334-2154 BCE)

It’s  ! Animal astragali are used as dice in ancient Mesopotamia, where they played a role in divination as well as bein...
01/02/2024

It’s ! Animal astragali are used as dice in ancient Mesopotamia, where they played a role in divination as well as being used in playing games, such as the Game of Twenty Squares or the Game of 58 Holes. The appearance of the astragalus bone could be used to predict that events would occur. Once an animal was sacrificed and an examination of its body used to determine future events, bones could then be used as dice. In the tablet here, a fragmentary Neo-Babylonian list of omens provides this and indicates that not only the tendon of the hoof/heel was examined, but also the cartilage of the tip of the rib. Further, the astragali are part of 17 bone pins (one in the shape of a bull’s foot) and 11 astragali that they believed formed a “gaming set.” This presumably would have been used to play a game such as the Game of 58 Holes which used pegs, although no gaming board was found with the set.
A3443, baked clay, Iraq, Neo-Babylonian period (626-539 BCE) and A8933-A8934, bone, Iraq, Isin-Larsa period (2025-1763 BCE)

Happy 2024! We celebrate the new year by looking at games! Here is a Mehen gameboard, depicting a coiled serpent of 127 ...
01/01/2024

Happy 2024! We celebrate the new year by looking at games! Here is a Mehen gameboard, depicting a coiled serpent of 127 squares, with its head in the middle. If one looks carefully you can see that the tail on the end of the board ends with a head of a duck or goose. The exact rules of the game are unclear, although it has been speculated that it was a form of a race game and that the gaming pieces used would have lions and lionesses as well as marbles. The ivory lioness piece in the ISAC collection from the excavations at Abydos appears to be of the type that was used to play the game, although her exact role is unclear.

E16950 and E7895, calcite and ivory, Old Kingdom and Dynasty 1 (ca. 2700-2200 BCE and ca. 2950 BCE)

"Life, Death, and Lending in Ptolemaic Thebes: Ancient Egyptian Side Hustles" Dr. Brian Muhs, Associate Professor of Egy...
12/30/2023

"Life, Death, and Lending in Ptolemaic Thebes: Ancient Egyptian Side Hustles"
Dr. Brian Muhs, Associate Professor of Egyptology, University of Chicago, ISAC/NELC.

Individuals in ancient Egypt frequently held titles identifying them with a particular position or occupation, but many also engaged in entrepreneurial side hustles. For example, Panas son of Espmetis was officially a mortuary priest in Ptolemaic Thebes, but he also made large numbers of money and grain loans. Such behavior was not unusual in both pharaonic and Ptolemaic Egypt.

For Zoom attendance please register here in advance:
https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZAkdeqvpz4jGt1yL4MPS3vB4e0PnQNCVWi7 #/registration

The Temple of Osiris on the island of Bigeh was the burial place of the left leg of Osiris, who had been cut up by his b...
12/29/2023

The Temple of Osiris on the island of Bigeh was the burial place of the left leg of Osiris, who had been cut up by his brother Seth into pieces. The temple constructed here was known as the Pure Island or Pure Mound in Ancient Egyptian and Abaton (or Forbidden Place) in Greek. Although the temple probably had New Kingdom foundations, it became closely connected with the Ptolemaic and Roman temple at the nearby island of Philae. The goddess Isis (in statue form) would visit from Philae and see the various milk and water libations performed. The Roman-period inscriptions suggests that not only was it forbidden for anyone who was not a priest to visit the island, but that one could also not hunt or fish in the island’s vicinity, or play music. Here we see the remains of the Temple of Osiris, a photograph taken prior to the removal of the modern houses that were built in its ruins, as well as the island of Philae in the background.

  to the ISAC Epigraphic Survey! Here we see a painting of a scene from the Temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu by Epig...
12/28/2023

to the ISAC Epigraphic Survey! Here we see a painting of a scene from the Temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu by Epigraphic Survey member Laurence Longley. The painting shows Ramses III making food offerings before the god Sokar as part of the 10-day Festival of Sokar. While the festival went on for multiple days, apparently only one day was a recognized holiday and it was the officials and priests who would be the ones involved over the course of the entire festival. Part of the festivities would involve a public procession where not only priests, but also musicians.

Not all festivals were huge events. Some of them were smaller and organized for private individuals, such as that for th...
12/27/2023

Not all festivals were huge events. Some of them were smaller and organized for private individuals, such as that for the 8th century BCE individual Katumuwa, whose stele was found by ISAC at Zincirli, located in Turkey. The stele was found in a house in a room that had originally been a kitchen with bread ovens that was then renovated to be a chapel for Katumuwa’s mortuary cult as seen in the reconstructions by Travis Saul from the video “Remembering Katumuwa” here. On the other side of wall where his stela had been placed was a small temple. There would have been a yearly funerary feast that would be performed by one of Katumuwa’s sons or someone else which would have included wine and sacrificed animals. You can watch the entire video here: https://bit.ly/ISACKatumuwa

“The Plough addressed the Hoe: "I am the Plough... To perform my festival in the fields in the harvest month, the king s...
12/26/2023

“The Plough addressed the Hoe: "I am the Plough... To perform my festival in the fields in the harvest month, the king slaughters cattle and sacrifices sheep, and he pours beer into a bowl. The king offers the ...... libation. The ub and ala drums resound...The king takes hold of my handles, and harnesses my oxen to the yoke. All the great high-ranking persons walk at my side. All the lands gaze at me in great admiration. The people watch me in joy.”
It’s ! In the disputation text, Hoe and Plough, these two implements argue about who is the more useful. The Plough starts the text by boasting to the Hoe about how important he is, namely that the king uses him to perform rituals at an important festival, attended by court officials as well as foreign visitors who also attended festivals. Despite the Plough’s feeling they were important and their festival role, the Hoe, who was far less puffed up with their own self-importance, actually triumphs over them.
A2979C (cast of IM 5816), plaster, modern

This week we’re looking at festivals in the ancient world! In Anatolia, Hittite festivals are recorded in the texts prov...
12/25/2023

This week we’re looking at festivals in the ancient world! In Anatolia, Hittite festivals are recorded in the texts providing us with information about the fact that putting on festivals was an expensive endeavor thanks to the food and drink that would be consumed. The type of food could be very specific. The Great Month festival was celebrated by the Hittite king at the beginning of every month and the participants would take part in consuming an “oily soup” along with beer. Such oily soups were also consumed on the sixth day of the “Great Autumn Festival.” While this pitcher dates to before the Hittite kingdom, pitchers continued to be popular in that period as well. This example has a strainer, which if it was used for beer, would have allowed it to filter out the particles.
A10434, baked clay, Turkey, Middle Bronze Age III (ca. 1750-1650 BCE)

Doing some last minute holiday shopping? The ISAC Museum Store is open this Saturday and Sunday 10-4. The merch from our...
12/23/2023

Doing some last minute holiday shopping? The ISAC Museum Store is open this Saturday and Sunday 10-4.

The merch from our current special exhibit, Back to School in Babylonia, would make excellent gifts for anyone in your life, from the ancient Mesopotamia enthusiast to the cuneiform curious. The exhibit catalog would look great on a coffee table for instance, socks would make for a very meta stocking stuffer, and of course Tuppi the tablet is the perfect gift for all ages.

Sometimes, we don’t know what celebratory drink might have been contained in a particular vessel. At other times, howeve...
12/22/2023

Sometimes, we don’t know what celebratory drink might have been contained in a particular vessel. At other times, however, it is quite clear. Take this rhyton from the site of Alishar Huyuk in central Turkey. The vessel is made to look like a bunch of grapes making it unlikely that the vessel contained anything other than wine. It is also aesthetically pleasing meaning that not only did looking at the vessel immediately tell you what was inside, it was highly decorative as well.
A10637, baked clay, Turkey, Middle Bronze Age III (1650-1550 BCE)

  to the ISAC excavations at the site of Tell Asmar, ancient Eshnunna! The excavations took place over from 1930-1935. T...
12/21/2023

to the ISAC excavations at the site of Tell Asmar, ancient Eshnunna! The excavations took place over from 1930-1935. The excavators uncovered the Northern Palace which has been variously identified as a royal residence or institutional building belonging to the Abu Temple that had workshops. In the Earlier Northern Palace, dating to the Akkadian period, which contained a clay jar filled with over sixty metal objects including the straw (A11291) and strainers (now in the Baghdad Museum) here. As noted yesterday, straws such as this one would have been used for drinking beer and the strainer might have been used to remove any excess debris from the beer before it was drunk. Even gold versions of strainers exist.

The ISAC Museum will be closed Friday, December 22 and Sunday, December 24-January 1, re-opening on Tuesday, January 2. ...
12/21/2023

The ISAC Museum will be closed Friday, December 22 and Sunday, December 24-January 1, re-opening on Tuesday, January 2.
We will be open on Saturday December 23.
While the galleries are closed Sunday, the ISAC gift shop will be open from 10am-4pm
We wish everyone a wonderful festive season!

While beer was everywhere in ancient Mesopotamia, it was also consumed on festive and celebratory occasions. As we see i...
12/20/2023

While beer was everywhere in ancient Mesopotamia, it was also consumed on festive and celebratory occasions. As we see in this cylinder seal here, individuals would sit on stools facing each other drinking beer from jars through straws. One person sitting behind them in the upper register is drinking from a cup.
A11473, stone, Iraq, Early Dynastic period (2600-2300 BCE)

Ancient Iraq is famous for producing the world’s earliest compilations of casuistic law; the Laws of Hammurapi being the...
12/20/2023

Ancient Iraq is famous for producing the world’s earliest compilations of casuistic law; the Laws of Hammurapi being the most renowned example. But what happens when a legal problem occurs that has not been considered by royal legislation? Jana Matuszak, assistant professor of Sumerology, ISAC, explores two Sumerian satirical tales that raise potentially subversive questions – and provide surprising solutions.⁠

In the first story, three foolish ox-drivers suddenly find themselves witness to the miraculous birth of a calf – but to whom does it belong? Even the king is initially at a loss… In the second story, a young wife complains to the king about her aging husband’s loss of virility – will she be able to conceive a child? Find out in the ISAC lecture "Law and Morality in Sumerian Satirical Tales" by Jana Matuszak, assistant professor of Sumerology, ISAC, which is now available to watch on the ISAC YouTube channel! https://bit.ly/SumerianTales⁠

A29458, baked clay and paint, Nippur, Old Babylonian period (ca. 1894-1595 BCE)

It’s  ! Here we have a list of celebratory food that was being supplied for a banquet of Abī-Simtī (the mother of king Š...
12/19/2023

It’s ! Here we have a list of celebratory food that was being supplied for a banquet of Abī-Simtī (the mother of king Šu-Šîn) and possibly also a nocturnal ritual. The food listed as being delivered in this tablet (which comes from Drehem) was 2 oxen, 8 grass-fed sheep, and 6 large grass-fed goats. The queen was a powerful figure who had cultic duties as well as being involved in the important economic activity of textile production.
A2848, baked clay, Iraq, Ur III period (ca. 2037 BCE-2028 BCE)

As we enter the festive season, we may start turning our attention to preparing celebratory foods and drinks. Therefore,...
12/18/2023

As we enter the festive season, we may start turning our attention to preparing celebratory foods and drinks. Therefore, this week we are looking at celebratory food and drink in antiquity, starting with wine. Although vines are not native to ancient Egypt and were originally imported from the Southern Levant before being grown locally by at least Dynasty 2, wine drinking was an important part of Egyptian culture while individuals were alive and also in the afterlife. Tomb M19 from Abydos, excavated by William Flinders Petrie in 1902, was a particularly rich tomb containing a large number of stone vessels, including this goblet-shaped jar, which could have been used for drinking wine.
E7623, calcite, Egypt, Dynasty 1 (ca. 2950 BCE)

We end the week of snow and ice looking at Qajar Iran. This is a photograph by the Armenian-Iranian photographer Antoin ...
12/15/2023

We end the week of snow and ice looking at Qajar Iran. This is a photograph by the Armenian-Iranian photographer Antoin Sevruguin. It depicts an ice cream seller and highlights Sevruguin's distinctive style and his ability at staging.

Join us tomorrow at 7pm for the film Hit the Road. Enjoy this humanist drama that offers an authentic, often comedic, an...
12/15/2023

Join us tomorrow at 7pm for the film Hit the Road. Enjoy this humanist drama that offers an authentic, often comedic, and deeply sincere observation of an Iranian family.

Before the screening, ISAC Research Associate Professor Abbas Alizadeh will introduce the film.

  to Breasted's expedition to Nubia and the photography of Abu Simbel in 1905! This is a photograph of the marriage insc...
12/14/2023

to Breasted's expedition to Nubia and the photography of Abu Simbel in 1905! This is a photograph of the marriage inscription of Ramses II, recording his marriage to the Hittite princess who takes the Egyptian name Maat-hor-neferure. As part of her journey to Egypt, the princess had to journey through lands where the weather might not be conducive. Ramses was concerned about a variety of bad weather phenomenon, including snow. The word for snow occurs rarely in ancient Egyptian and comes from the Semitic root "ṯlg" and is written in ancient Egyptian as sa-ra-qu or sa-ra-qa.

Snow is frequently found in the mountains, even in West Asia and North Africa where we tend to think of the climate as b...
12/13/2023

Snow is frequently found in the mountains, even in West Asia and North Africa where we tend to think of the climate as being too warm for snow. In this cylinder seal, one can see the sun god Shamash rising out from the mountains with two attendants standing on either side who open the gates.

A8584, stone, Iraq, Akkadians period (2334-2154 BCE)

It's  ! In the Sennacherib prism, the Neo-Assyrian king records how he captured and destroyed Elamite cities, leading to...
12/12/2023

It's ! In the Sennacherib prism, the Neo-Assyrian king records how he captured and destroyed Elamite cities, leading to the King of Elam fleeing from his capital. Sennacherib was planning to conquer it, but abandoned the idea due to severe cold and fear of rain and snow.
A2793, clay, Iraq, Neo-Assyrian period (689 BCE)

Our ISAC tour of Egypt ended this weekend in Aswan and a visit to Abu Simbel. There is a lot to see on an ISAC tour! Com...
12/11/2023

Our ISAC tour of Egypt ended this weekend in Aswan and a visit to Abu Simbel. There is a lot to see on an ISAC tour! Coming excursions include Central Asia this June and Egypt next year!

As we get further into winter, this week we're looking at snow and ice in the ancient world! We may not always think of ...
12/11/2023

As we get further into winter, this week we're looking at snow and ice in the ancient world! We may not always think of such weather in West Asia and North Africa, but as we see in this historic photo of Persepolis in Iran here, it does snow in certain regions or in the mountains and in others, while it snows occasionally, it does occur.

This slightly squished-looking tablet is the record of a moment of probable confusion and frustration on the part of the...
12/10/2023

This slightly squished-looking tablet is the record of a moment of probable confusion and frustration on the part of the young person who created it. This student’s task was to copy a proverb onto a round tablet, but in the process they ended up squeezing it a bit too hard and getting the second line of the proverb they were supposed to copy mixed up with a different proverb, writing something that doesn’t make any sense. Its misshapen and nonsensical elements capture the kind of error that is endearingly familiar to anyone who has ever been young and trying to learn something new.

This tablet also directly inspired a scene in our children’s book, The Adventures of Inanaka and Tuni. The authors liked this tablet so much they decided to dramatize the story behind it as part of Inanaka’s story, with some extra excitement and chaos once Tuni got involved!

Object info: ISACM A30154. Old Babylonian, Nippur.

Join us at 7pm, December 15, for Panah Panahi's film Hit the Road. Hit the Road takes the tradition of the Iranian road-...
12/09/2023

Join us at 7pm, December 15, for Panah Panahi's film Hit the Road. Hit the Road takes the tradition of the Iranian road-trip movie and adds unexpected twists and turns. Before the screening, ISAC Research Associate Professor Abbas Alizadeh will introduce the film.

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1155 E 58th Street
Chicago, IL
60637

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Wednesday 10am - 4pm
Thursday 10am - 4pm
Friday 10am - 8pm
Saturday 10am - 4pm
Sunday 10am - 4pm

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(773) 702-9514

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The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago is a leading research center for the ancient Middle East. The museum houses some 350,000 artifacts—around 5,000 of which are on display—excavated mainly by OI archaeologists. Founded in 1919, at a time when the Middle East was called the Orient, the OI has pioneered innovative excavations and comprehensive dictionary projects that chronicle ancient civilizations. The Oriental Institute Museum aims to understand, reveal, and protect ancient Middle Eastern civilizations.


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