Freshman Seminar Explores Penn’s Contributions to Middle Eastern Studies

For students in a University of Pennsylvania freshman seminar on the evolution of Penn’s engagement in the study of the Middle East, research involved historic objects and materials close at hand. That's because Penn has a long historical connection to the region.

Freshman seminars are designed to provide incoming students an introduction to academic life at Penn in a small class setting.

"Here and Over There: Penn, Philadelphia and the Middle East” looked at the history of “here” at Penn and “over there” in the contemporary Middle East. The 2014-15 course was taught by Heather J. Sharkey, associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department.

The class of seven freshmen and one junior explored Penn’s long and storied history of archaeological excavations in the region and deep scholarly ties to it by researching objects in the Penn Museum, documents in the University Archives, materials in the Penn LibrariesKislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts and thousand-year-old manuscripts in the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies.

“What we found was seminal,” Sharkey says. “A lot of people don’t realize the enormity of our university’s contribution to study of the Middle East. You would not believe how much we have. These students are the heirs to what has been going on here since the days of Benjamin Franklin,” she says.

Students curated their research projects on a class website. Several projects relate to Penn’s early Middle East archaeological expeditions including research on a 4,500-year-old silver flute, representing the oldest musical instrument found in Mesopotamia, and a Roman-era column from the site of ancient Philadelphia, in modern Turkey, that the Jordanian ambassador to the United States delivered to Penn to celebrate the 1976 Bicentennial.

Penn Museum was the first American museum to conduct archaeological excavations in the Middle East. Two students in the class studied topics related to Penn’s late 19th- and 20th-century digs at sites like Ur, in what is now Iraq, and Memphis in Egypt.

Julianne Goodman, now a rising sophomore from Wyckoff, N.J., researched the life of one of the most highly regarded excavators of the time, Katharine Woolley, a woman who had strong ties to Penn.

Goodman examined the difficulties Woolley experienced as one of the first female archaeologists to work in the Middle East at the Royal Tombs of Ur. Woolley’s husband, Leonard Woolley, a British archaeologist, led the joint British Museum and Penn excavation at the site.

She requested that all files about her be destroyed upon her death, but Goodman managed to dig up a number of letters in the University Archives exchanged by Woolley and her husband.

In one of letters from 1926, Leonard Woolley wrote that he considered the expedition to be very much indebted to Katharine, whose job was to draw reconstructions of discoveries, produce press materials and solicit donations for the excavation.

Eugene Shekhtman, a rising sophomore from San Francisco, focused his research on the University’s engagement in foreign policy as part of the excavation process, including a statute that came to be known as the Pennsylvania Declaration.

On April 1, 1970, Penn drafted the statute for museums providing guidelines for collecting policies concerning the protection of the world cultural and natural heritage. Later, the United Nations issued the UNESCO Convention.

“UNESCO modeled its convention on the Penn Declaration.” Shekhtman says, “Penn Museum conducted excavations with integrity.

Another research project curated on the class website concerns a mid-20th century artist who not only drew excavated artifacts in Iraq but also produced caricatures of Penn scholars and excavation workers in his spare time. Yet another is about the role the Penn Muslim Students Association played in founding the Jamia mosque on Walnut Street in the late 1980s.

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