The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has a long history of field work in the Middle East, beginning with the late 19th century excavations at Nippur, early Mesopotamia’s pre-eminent religious center, in what is today Iraq. The Nippur excavations were the first American archaeological project in that part of the world. Since that time the Museum has worked in nearly every country in the Middle East, with research including not only archaeological surveys and excavations, but also ethnographic studies.
The Near East Section was originally part of the Babylonian Section and maintains close ties with it today. The Babylonian Section houses more than 35,000 cuneiform tablets, many derived from the early Nippur excavations, and its curators/scholars focus largely on the study of the language, history and literature of the ancient Near East. The Museum Near East collections include nearly 90,000 artifacts housed in three main storage areas: Mesopotamia, Syria-Palestine or the Levant and Iran.
Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, includes modern-day Iraq and Syria. In addition to work at Nippur (Iraq), carried out from 1888-1900 and again in the late 1940s and early 1950s (with the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago), the Museum joined with the British Museum to support excavations at Tell al-Muqayyar (ancient Ur), directed by Sir Leonard Woolley, from 1922-1934. In the same years the Museum also worked at the Tepe Gawra, an an important prehistoric site near Mosul in northern Iraq, Khafaje, in the lower Diyala River basin near Baghdad, and Fara (ancient Shuruppak) in the center of the floodplain, and in 1964 at Tell al-Rimah. Tell es-Sweyhat, a large 3rd millennium (Early Bronze Age) site on the upper Euphrates in Syria, represents the Museum’s major project in Mesopotamia today. Excavations at Tell es-Sweyhat began in 1989.
The Mesopotamia collections cover a period of time ranging from 5000 BCE to the early Islamic period (8th or 9th centuries). Perhaps the best known artifacts are from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, a burial ground with more than 2000 internments, including those of the kings and queens who ruled the city-state ca. 2500 BCE. They include the personal jewelry of Puabi, the queen, and the “ram-in-the thicket,” a statuette of a goat rampant in a tree. The “ram-in-the-thicket” is made of shell, lapis lazuli, gold, and copper and typifies early Mesopotamian composite art. The Mesopotamia storeroom also holds smaller collections from other parts of the Middle East, including Palmyrene sculptures and south Arabian artifacts from Yemen.
The Museum’s Near East Section has been active in Iran since the 1930s, when Erich Schmidt excavated a number of sites--Tepe Hissar in the northeastern part of the country, Cheshmeh Ali and Rayy, near Tehran, and Tal-Bakun and Persepolis in the southwest--that yielded remains spanning the prehistoric through the Sassanian and Islamic periods. Schmidt also carried out aerial surveys from his own plane, the Friend of Iran. After the World War, the Museum resumed work in the country at several caves on the Caspian shore and in western Iran; at sites such as Hasanlu; and at Tal-i Malyan, ancient Anshan, a capital of the Elamite empire, in Fars province. The Museum worked at Hasanlu for more than twenty years from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. Its most important remains dated to the Iron Age and included the citadel of the 9th century settlement that had been burned and sacked in antiquity, leaving the victims, their personal possessions and the contents of a several large buildings in situ. The Museum also carried out ethnographic work in Iran (and Afghanistan) from the late 1950s to the time of the Revolution in the late 1970s. The research focused on the Baluch, a tribal group who inhabit the southwestern part of the country, and broadly on human adaptation to desert environments. In recent years the Museum sponsored work at the site of Anau near Ashgabat in the Kopet Dag foothills of southern Turkmenistan.
Syria-Palestine or the Levant includes Israel and the West Bank, Jordan, and Lebanon. Museum excavations in the area began in the early 1920s. The most important projects include Beisan/Beth Shean (1921-33), el-Jib/Gibeon (1956-62), Tell es Sa’idiyeh (1964-68), Sarafand/Sarepta (1969-74) and the Baq’ah Valley in the late 1970s and early 1980s. More recently the Museum sponsored excavations at Khirbet al-Mudayna al-‘Aliya (Jordan). The Syro-Palestinian holdings were expanded in 1962 by the purchase of the finds from Haverford College's excavations at Beth Shemesh (Ain Shems) in which Museum personnel also participated, and in 1997 by the acquisition of artifacts from William Morton’s excavations at Diban in 1955-56 and 1965. Other sites represented in the Museum's holding are Mt. Carmel and Tell Hesban. The Museum's collections from Syria-Palestine date largely to the Bronze and Iron Ages and illustrate the variety of artifacts characteristic of the area's successive archaeological cultures. They include domestic tools, weaponry, jewelry, cult and funerary objects, cosmetics, stone vessels and implements, and above all pottery--an abundant and durable source of information about the past. The collections are currently on display in the exhibit Canaan and Ancient Israel.
The Islamic era begins in 622 CE with the flight of the Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina in western Arabia. Within the next few generations, Islam, and with it the foundations of Islamic civilization, reached west to Spain and east to Central Asia. The Museum's collection emphasizes the central part of this Islamic world, and come primarily from Egypt, Turkey and Iran. They range in time from the 8th to the 19th centuries CE. The collection's foundations were laid during the first quarter of the 20th century. Most of these early acquisitions were purchased, primarily for their artistic qualities. They cover a wide span of time and include fine examples of metalwork, manuscripts, textiles, ceramics and glass, as well as a large number of architectural elements: panels of tile, stone and wood, wooden doors and screens, and stained glass windows among them. Many of these, notably a stone mosaic fountain and basins, are permanently installed in the gallery itself. The collection is enriched by objects from the Museum's own excavations, notably Rayy in Iran, an important commercial center dating to the 8th to 13 centuries, from which the Museum’s large collection of coins derives.