Fields of Study: Art and Archaeology of the Ancient Near East

The University of Pennsylvania has a long commitment to the study of ancient Near Eastern cultures of Mesopotamia, Syria, Iran, and Anatolia.  Since the nineteenth century, the University Museum has mounted excavations in the Near East. The most important of these were Nippur and Ur, each of which produced thousands of artifacts that have become the basis of the collections at the Penn Museum. From Nippur came cuneiform documents that form the core of the Museum’s world-renowned Babylonian Tablet Collection. From Ur came treasures from the Royal Cemetery of Ur (including the entire contents of the grave of Pu Abi), one of the most celebrated sites of the Ancient Near East. In the early twentieth century, the Museum sponsored work in northern Iraq (Tepe Gawra) and in Iran (Tepe Hissar and Cheshm Ali). This Iranian focus increased in the middle of the twentieth century, when the burned city of Hasanlu and ancient Anshan, the elamite highland capital, added substantially to the Museum’s holdings. These collections serve as one important foundation for the continued study of the art and archaeology of the Mesopotamian and pre-Islamic Iran by Holly Pittman, Bok Family Professor in the Humanities, in the History of Art Department and as a Curator in the Near East Section of the Penn Museum.

The study of the visual culture of the ancient Near East at Penn embraces a long chronological and broad geographical span. Courses and projects extend from the Neolithic through the Persian periods. While the general focus is on Northern and Southern Mesopotamia and Iran, program of study also includes the Indus Valley, Central Asia, the Persian Gulf and Anatolia. Students studying the material culture, religion, architecture, and archaeology of this vast region, are encouraged to pursue interdisciplinary approaches to acquire the skills and methods necessary for their particular interests. This work is supported in the History of Art Department by the research interests of Renata Holod (Islamic Near East) and Michael Meister (India and Pakistan). Further specialists include Richard Zettler (Mesopotamian archaeology); Steve Tinney (Sumerian Language); and Grant Frame (Assyrian Language) in the department of Near East Language and Cultures; Lauren Ristvet (anthropological archaeology) and Clark Erickson (Landscape studies) in Anthropology; and still other colleagues at Bryn Mawr College (available to Penn students through the Penn Consortium). For methodology and theory, students are encouraged to work with a range of professors in Art History and other disciplines as relevant to their interests.

Students working in the art and archaeology of the Ancient Near East will have an opportunity to work on museum-based projects and will be encouraged to participate in field projects. Former students hold positions at Brown University, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New Jersey State College, Penn Museum, and New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. For further information see the web page of Holly Pittman.

Recent and future projects led or coordinated by Penn faculty:

  • 2014, organization of permanent gallery of Ancient Near East materials, University Museum
  • 2014, organization of exhibition of seal collection, University Museum
  • Ongoing excavations at Hasanlu (northwestern Iran), Jiroft (southeastern Iran) and Konar Sandal (southeastern Iran)
  • Ongoing publication of the collections of the University Museum, especially the collections of seals and sealings
  • 2010, organization and re-installation of the Royal Tombs of Ur exhibition, University Museum