The Foundation of the Institute

The University of Chicago has been a center of ancient studies of West Asia and North Africa ever since its founding in 1891. The first president of the university, William Rainey Harper, was a Professor of Semitic Languages and his brother, Robert Francis, was an Assyriologist. Both taught in the Department of Semitic Languages at the new university. In 1896, the Department moved into the Haskell Oriental Museum where galleries devoted to West Asia and North Africa were established. Initially the collection was composed of a few plaster-cast reproductions and a small group of exhibition cases containing the little collection of antiquities. However, the collection grew rapidly as a result of both private donations and the university’s contributions to British field expeditions working in Egypt. In 1904, the University of Chicago Oriental Exploration Fund sent its first field expedition to Bismaya in Iraq. Two years later, an ambitious photographic and epigraphic survey of the temples in Nubia and Egypt was undertaken as a part of an overall project to publish all the ancient inscriptions in the Nile Valley.

James Henry Breasted: Founder

James Henry Breasted, the first American to receive a PhD in Egyptology, was appointed by President Harper to fill the first teaching position in Egyptian studies in the United States. Breasted was among the earliest to champion the role that West Asia and North Africa played in the rise of western civilization. He envisioned the establishment of a special institute devoted to tracing ancient man’s “progress” toward civilization, long before the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. Breasted received support and encouragement from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. who, in 1919, funded The Oriental Institute as a laboratory for the study of the rise and development of ancient civilization. In 1931, through the generous financial support of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the Oriental Institute moved into new permanent headquarters that housed laboratories, museum galleries, libraries and offices for the scientific and teaching staff. Today, this building continues to function as an internationally renowned center for the study of the ancient cultures of West Asia and North Africa. Over 60,000 people visit the ISAC Museum each year, and hundreds of scholars come to consult the faculty and research collections.

ISAC Field Work

Since its establishment in 1919, ISAC has sponsored archaeological and survey expeditions in every country of West Asia and North Africa. The results of ISAC's excavations have defined the basic chronologies for many ancient civilizations and have helped determine the time when mankind made the transition from hunter-gatherer to settled community life. ISAC archaeologists have pioneered the use of interdisciplinary teams composed of scientists, historians and linguists, and the use of aerial surveys employing kites, balloons and aircraft to map archaeological sites. Today ISAC is still a leader in ancient studies of West Asia and North Africa. Not only are expeditions currently working in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Israel, and Turkey, but the ISAC publications department makes the results of research and excavation available in the form of series publications. The Journal of Near Eastern Languages of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations issues articles by scholars from Chicago and throughout the world. The Institute also issues monographs in five other series.

Dictionaries & Epigraphy

One of ISAC's primary concerns is the documentation of basic textual information from which interpretive historical and linguistic studies can be derived. That concern has been addressed by the compilation of dictionaries and by special techniques for making accurate copies of ancient texts. The first dictionary project was instituted in 1921 when Breasted established the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary. To date, nineteen volumes of the Assyrian Dictionary have appeared. Materials for the Sumerian Lexicon, edited by ISAC staff, documents another Mesopotamian language. Other major undertakings that will have a lasting impact upon scholarship include the Chicago Demotic (Egyptian) Dictionary and the Chicago Hittite Dictionary. ISAC continues to be on the forefront of epigraphy, the discipline of copying and interpretlng inscriptions and their associated pictorial reliefs. Since 1924, the Epigraphic Survey has been located in Luxor, Egypt, where its staff of Egyptologists and artists record the rapidly eroding historical sources carved on the ancient monuments.

ISAC: Today & Tomorrow

ISAC's goals have remained essentially unchanged: to document and study the languages, history and cultures of West Asia and North Africa. Today the task is made easier by advances in technology. New computer registration methods are employed to record and trace artifacts from the field to the archaeological laboratories and museum galleries. Video techniques and computer imaging are being employed in field excavations to produce final and complete documentation of each day’s work. Electronic typesetting has made the publication of field reports and historical and linguistic studies more rapid, and makes them accessible to greater numbers of readers. Modern conservation methods ensure that the material legacy of the past is preserved for tomorrow. ISAC scholars are renowned for training generations of new scholars who, in turn, take the legacy of ISAC to other museums, universities, schools and research centers throughout the world. The galleries of the ISAC Museum introduce the public, including generations of local school children, to the richness of ancient cultures of West Asia and North Africa.