Revealing Penn Museum’s Middle East treasures

Objects that trace the path of human history—from the era of hunting and gathering to the creation of cities—are on display in the Museum’s new Middle East Galleries.

A footprint, pressed into a clay brick in an ancient city 4,000 years ago, starts the journey through the new Middle East Galleries at the Penn Museum.

More than 1,200 objects, most discovered and preserved by Penn archaeologists since the Museum’s founding in 1887, depict the human journey, from an era of hunting and gathering, to farming and villages, to creation of the world’s first cities. More than half of the artifacts have never been on display.

“No other museum could do this. Most museums acquire things by purchasing them. We actually excavated these items in context,” said Julian Siggers, Museum director. “We have detailed records of where each object was found in relationship to each other, and that’s how you can interpret the human story.”

Siggers and the Museum curators revealed the new galleries to the press on Monday.

No other museum could do this. Most museums acquire things by purchasing them. We actually excavated these items in context. Julian Siggers, Museum director

“We have taken the rich resource that we have had in this basement since the beginning of the 20th century, and we have finally presented it to the public,” said Holly Pittman, Penn history of art professor, and curator of the Museum’s Near East section. “We seek to spark enthusiasm and debate and discussion about this very important part of the world.”

The new galleries will open to the public on April 21, launching with a two-day Opening Weekend Festival that will feature live performances, markets, and arts events.

Pittman was one of 10 curators, along with 16 conservators, who created the new exhibition over the past three years.

The most famous objects include the crowning jewelry of a Sumerian queen from 4,500 years ago and one of the world’s oldest known wine vessels. But the items of everyday life of everyday people—bowls, writing tablets, games—can be some of the most interesting.

The headdress, jewelry, and cloak of Queen Puabi is made from gold, silver, and jewel stones.

“For me the big highlights are the materials never on display before,” said project coordinator Laura Iwanyk, who helped shepherd the objects through selection to preparation to display. In particular, she loves a group of early ceramics, some painted and some a solid steely grey. “They are exquisite.”

Set in 6,000 square feet of renovated space, the galleries incorporate large-scale video projections, made-to-scale models, interactive stations, and touchable reproductions to explore the collections.

“One of our overall goals is to make the Penn Museum a must-see destination in Philadelphia,” said Stephen Tinney, curatorial coordinator for the project. “Philadelphia is a great city, and here we have a history of great cities through time.”

The Middle East Galleries are the first in a series of new signature galleries planned as part of a transformative Museum renovation. The multi-year project is designed to improve the visitor experience and better showcase the collections.

The Museum’s Middle East Galleries were revealed at a preview gala on April 14. Penn President Amy Gutmann was shown around by Stephen Tinney (left), coordinating curator, Museum deputy director, and chief curator.

“Whoever said ‘not all that glitters is gold’ didn’t have the opportunity to visit these incredible new Middle East Galleries,” Penn President Amy Gutmann said at a preview gala on Saturday, April 14. “There’s no better place to start our building transformation than in the Middle East Galleries—home to the cradle of all civilization, and repository of the founding collections of the Museum itself.”

The objects are from archaeological sites excavated by Penn’s researchers from the Museum’s founding more than 130 years ago to today, from the broad region between the Mediterranean Sea and the highlands of Afghanistan, and the Black Sea to the Arabian Peninsula, focused on settlements in modern Iraq and Iran. The Museum’s Near East collection holds more than 100,000 artifacts.

The visual centerpiece of the galleries is created by artifacts from tombs dated to 2450 BCE, unearthed between 1922 to 1934 by Penn Museum/British Museum joint excavations in the Mesopotamian city of Ur.

The Bull-Headed lyre, one of the earliest musical instruments in the world, was found in the royal tombs in the city of Ur.

On display from the intact tomb of Queen Puabi is an elaborate headdress and cloak of gold, silver and jewel stones; a Bull-Headed lyre, one of the earliest musical instruments in the world; and the “Ram-in-the-Thicket” sculpture, once part of a piece of royal furniture.

“I love the Ram-in-the-Thicket,” Siggers said, noting that he has seen that gold-and-lapis sculpture in books since he was a child. “It’s one of the most significant pieces of ancient art here in this country.”

Some of the earliest artifacts in the exhibition are grindstones, hoes, and stone tools used for agriculture. The acquisition of knowledge is also on display, from a stone tablet etched with symbols in what is an ancient “spreadsheet” to an illuminated Qur’an manuscript.

A favorite object for Tinney is a child’s primer from almost 4,000 years ago, symbols stamped into a clay tablet, one of several tablets found in a schoolroom in excavations in Nippur in the 19th century.

“We think it is one of the very first copybook exercises a child would have written to learn how to write a single wedge” in the cuneiform script, he said, noting that the Museum holds the most significant collections of Sumerian literature in the world. “It allows you to understand how an ancient curriculum worked in 1730 BCE.”

Through these galleries we are trying to tell the story of humanity, of people who were not so different from you or me. Holly Pittman, history of art professor and curator of the Museum’s Near East section

For Pittman, a favorite is a translucent bowl of obsidian, which would have required thousands of hours of careful grinding to create. “This is a tour de force of technology,” she said.

“Through these galleries we are trying to tell the story of humanity, of people who were not so different from you or me,” she added. “Remember that each and every object on display was created by a person for purposes in some cases we are confident of, and other cases we are just venturing to understand.”

The Death Pit was one of the city of Ur’s royal tombs, containing 68 women and 6 men. 

The $5 million Middle East Galleries project is the first in a series of renovations of signature galleries: Mexico and Central America and Africa are expected to open in September 2019. The Museum in November launched a three-year, $102 million Building Transformation fundraising campaign, the largest in the Museum’s history, part of the University’s Power of Penn Campaign.

“At the Penn Museum, you can take a trip around the world and across time in just a few hours, and leave with insights and new understanding for a lifetime,” Gutmann said. “Here, the human story becomes our story.”

Photo at top: The new galleries feature an assortment of coins from throughout the Middle East.

Homepage photo: From left: Penn curators and professors Holly Pittman and Stephen Tinney with Museum Director Julian Siggers at the April 16 press preview.