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Oriental Institute offers gallery-goers a Persian excursion

image: Campus News Archaeologists from the Oriental Institute have been exploring Iran for remnants of ancient civilizations since they first surveyed it by air reconnaissance in 1935. Although the Institute now holds the world's most important archaeological collection of artifacts from the Persian Empire, a number of these finds have gone from buried beneath Iranian soil to buried in the Institute's basement, some for as long as 65 years. The finds were too delicate for Chicago's notoriously fickle weather, and a cool, dry storage space was the only place they were safe from the temperature variations and humidity.

In 1996, however, the Institute began a $3.45 million renovation to install state-of-the-art climate- control systems for its five galleries. This work was completed in May 1999, and the Institute opened its Persian Gallery on September 9th of this year. The new exhibit covers what is now modern Iran, featuring five sites the Institute has excavated in the area, with objects ranging from 6800 B.C. to 1000 A.D.

In addition to relics that have appeared in other exhibits in the past, the gallery will display a number of delicate objects that have never before been shown in public, ranging from 4th-century B.C. plates and juglets to elaborate bronze and bone votive pins from the isolated mountain shrine at Surkh Dum-i-Luri (850-600 B.C.).

"The gallery includes 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 tenth century A.D.," says museum director Karen Wilson. "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."

"The Persian Empire was remarkable," says Matthew Stolper, the John A. Wilson professor of Oriental studies and an expert on Persia. "It stretched virtually over a continent. There was nothing like it before, and its size and durability were not repeated until the time of the Roman Empire."

Roughly half of the Persian Gallery is devoted to artifacts from Persepolis, which thrived from approximately 520 B.C. until it was destroyed by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C. This portion of the gallery includes stone tableware, armor scales, and samples of the thousands of arrowheads found at the site. Dominating the exhibit is a series of colossal sculptures made of polished black limestone, including several bulls and one hybrid bull/bird/human figure.

One theme of the new gallery is the development of administrative practices. When the Institute excavated the site of Chogha Mish in southwestern Iran between 1961 and 1978, they uncovered important evidence of the development of administrative accounting systems. Tokens were sealed inside of clay balls as an early method of record-keeping. This practice developed into clay tablets with marks, which quickly evolved into the invention of the written word.

Chogha Mish is the oldest site in the exhibit, with artifacts dating as far back as 6800 B.C. "Chogha Mish, with its long, uninterrupted sequence of about five thousand years, provides an excellent opportunity to observe prehistoric cultural and economic development," says Abbas Alizadeh, research associate for the OI's Iranian Prehistoric Project.

The gallery also exhibits examples of the world's earliest coinage, some of which was part of the treasury of the vast Persian Empire. The coins on display span a range of ages, from two of the world's earliest-known minted coins of the sixth century B.C. to coins of the seventh century A.D. in Islamic times, when images that appeared on the coins were replaced with script.

Various examples of pottery from the site at Istakhr, an Islamic city about five miles north of Persepolis, are also on display. Some of the stones from Persepolis were later carried to Istakhr where they were used to build a number of 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," says Donald Whitcomb, another research associate at the Institute.

The permanent exhibit is the second to open since the new climate-control system was installed. Three more exhibits will open over the next two years, featuring objects from Israel and Palestine, Syria and Anatolia, and Mesopotamia and Nubia.--C.S.

  OCTOBER 2000
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