Cultures of Europe and the Near East

The prehistory of Europe and southwest Asia is central to our understanding of the evolution of the human species on the planet, as well as for understanding how western civilization emerged, and the Anthropology Department at The Field Museum has had a long history of fieldwork in Europe and the Near East. From Henry Field’s excavations at the ancient Mesopotamian city of Kish to James Philips’ field work in Egypt, to William Parkinson’s current research in Hungary and the Balkans, Field Museum researchers have been studying how human communities grow and become more politically and economically complex over time.

Early in the history of the museum, collections from prehistoric Europe and southwest Asia were central pieces of the Anthropology Department. For example, although it was known primarily for its focus on non-Western cultures, the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 also boasted one of the best exhibitions of European prehistoric artifacts ever displayed in the United States. But the anthropology department has not had a full time curator who works primarily in this part of the world since Henry Field in the 1930s. Henry Field was Marshall Field’s great nephew and Stanley Field’s cousin. Although Henry likely benefited from these old school Chicago-style relationships, he earned his doctorate from Oxford and went on to direct excavations at the ancient Mesopotamian site of Kish. He also built our extensive European Paleolithic and Neolithic collections.

Henry Field certainly played a big role in many Chicagoans' interest in anthropology. He was the curator responsible for the Hall of Prehistoric Man dioramas that many children wandered through. And Henry Field’s contributions still have an impact on the museum, for example, some 20,000 year old stone tools from Europe that he collected in the 1930s are featured in the  Mammoths and Mastodons exhibit, which opened at the museum in 2010.

The European and Near Eastern collections Henry Field added to the museum built upon the extensive Egyptian collections that had been acquired by Edward Ayer and Sir William Flinders Petrie, as well as Roman collections from a villa near Pompeii and several Etruscan tomb groups from northern Italy.

Our Egyptian collection includes the funerary boat of sen-Worset III, a pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom. The funerary boat, is one of only six known outside of Egypt, was the same boat that Willard Libby of the University of Chicago used to help estimate the half-life of radiocarbon – a task that won him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960.

Many artifacts in our Roman collection came from near Pompeii, and many were buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. Much of the collection was brought in by Edward Ayer. The Ayer collection includes almost 200 finely made replicas of Roman bronze pieces. The Roman bronze artifacts—including statues, implements, pots and pans—were taken directly from Pompeii to the workshops of Sabatino De Angelis and Sons, a famous Neapolitan bronze caster. De Angelis made a mold and copies of the bronzes, and the originals were then taken to their final destination, the National Museum of Naples, where they remain today. Many of the original artifacts in Naples are in much worse condition than our replicas, and so, as our Collections Manager, Jamie Kelly, has pointed out, it is likely that our fakes will someday be used to reconstruct the originals in the Naples museum!

Together, the objects in these collections comprise over 80,000 items from Europe and western Asia. They have been used in several exhibits, including Inside Ancient Egypt and Pompeii, and they continue to benefit the institution in other ways. For example, under the direction of Jim Philips, the department has run a very successful program funded by the State Department for training Iraqi museum personnel, and that project was made possible in part because of a long-term grant from the Department of Defense for studying the materials that Henry Field brought back from the ancient city of Kish.

Image above: Reconstructed stucco bust from the archaeological site of Kish in Iraq. Catalog Number 1497.236400.A © The Field Museum, A114645d_06A, Photographer John Weinstein.

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