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The Art-Deco doors of the Oriental Institute, sculpture by Ulric Ellerhusen.
Head of a bull that once guarded the entrance to the Hundred-Column Hall in Persepolis.

The Oriental Institute (OI), established in 1919, is the University of Chicago's archeology museum and research center for ancient Near Eastern studies.

The Institute is housed in an unusual Art-Deco/Gothic building at the corner of 58th Street and University Avenue, which was designed by the architectural firm Mayers Murray & Phillip. Construction was completed in 1930 and the building dedicated in 1931.

The Museum of the Oriental Institute has artifacts from digs in Egypt, Israel, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Notable possessions are the famous Megiddo Ivories, various treasures from Persepolis, the old Persian capital, a collection of Luristan Bronzes, a colossal 40 ton human-headed winged bull (or Lamassu) from Khorsabad, the capital of Sargon II, and finally a monumental statue of King Tutankhamun. The museum is free to enter, although visitors are encouraged to leave a donation of US $7.00 for adults and $4.00 for children.[1]

Even given unlimited resources and similar archeological discoveries, a collection comparable to the Institute's treasures could not be assembled today, since Middle Eastern governments no longer allow foreign archeologists to take home half of what they find. This had been the typical arrangement in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when most of the holdings were excavated, until the 1930s, when new antiquities laws were instituted.

As its name suggests, the Oriental Institute is a center of active research on the ancient Near East. The building's upper floors contain classrooms and faculty offices, and its gift shop, the Suq, also sells textbooks for the University's classes on Near Eastern studies. In addition to carrying out many digs in the Fertile Crescent, OI scholars have made many contributions to our understanding of the origins of human civilization. In fact, the term "Fertile Crescent" was coined by OI founder and director James Henry Breasted, who is said to have been one of the models for Indiana Jones (another possible Indiana Jones model from the Oriental Institute was Robert Braidwood).

Among other projects, OI scholars have recently completed the 23-volume Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, a basic cultural reference work, an effort begun in 1921 by J.H. Breasted, continued by Edward Chiera and Ignace Gelb, and led for 44 years by Dr. Erica Reiner. Similar dictionaries are under way including the Chicago Hittite Dictionary and one for Demotic.

In 2006, the Oriental Institute became the center of controversy when U.S. federal courts ruled to seize and auction its valuable collection of ancient Persian artifacts, the proceeds of which would go to compensate the victims of a 1997 bombing in Ben Yehuda Street, Jerusalem, that the United States claim was funded by Iran. The ruling threatens the university's invaluable collection of ancient clay tablets held by the Oriental Institute since the 1930s but officially owned by Iran.

In 2009, the Oriental Institute opened a new exhibition centered on the mummy of Meresamun, explaining her life as a singer in the Temple of Amun at Karnak. This brightly decorated mummy was purchased in Egypt by J.H. Breasted in 1920 and has remained unopened at the Oriental Institute since.


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