The Archaeology of an Institution

The Oriental Institute (OI)—one of the world's leading centers for the study of ancient Middle Eastern civilizations—is celebrating 100 years of excavation, research, and scholarship. On May 13, 1919, Egyptologist James Henry Breasted of the University of Chicago founded the OI with the support of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. It was the first interdisciplinary research center in the United States devoted to the origins of human civilization and the ancient world.

Piecing together the OI’s past involves sifting through its archival history. The archive is where the multiple iterations and narratives of an institution live. The information and objects found there are continuously transformed by scholars and staff, the implementation of new technologies, and ongoing discoveries at home and abroad. Preserving, maintaining, and studying its archives are critical to remembering, understanding, and empathizing with the people behind the OI’s legacy, the scholarly work of the Institute, and the cultures represented in its public museum.

Today, OI scholars and staff focus on the geographical areas of Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Libya, Palestine, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, and Yemen. They work intensely to discover new sites of cultural heritage, decipher ancient languages, reconstruct the histories of long lost civilizations, and preserve these collections for future generations. During the 2019-2020 academic year, the OI celebrates its centennial, the progress that has been made since Breasted’s original vision, and the future of ancient Middle Eastern Studies.

Oriental Institute, 1931

Oriental Institute, 1931

Courtesy of the Oriental Institute Museum Archives.