February 7, 2012

By William Harms
FEBRUARY 7, 2012

The way people think about life in the ancient Middle East is largely based on the pictures, paintings and images they see in books and museums. But in many cases, the preconceptions or limited knowledge of the people creating the images may result in representations that may be more illusionary than real, shows a new exhibition at the Oriental Institute Museum.

The exhibition, “Picturing the Past,” explores how architecture, sites and artifacts of the ancient Middle East have been visually documented, and evaluates the accuracy and function of the different types of images.

The exhibition demonstrates how artists, for example, have given Egyptian queen Nefrititi a beauty makeover. It also explains how scholars were led to believe there was a mother goddess cult in ancient Mesopotamia, based on the reconstruction of a woman’s statue that includes a small figure of a child that was probably never there.

The exhibit includes 40 examples of facsimiles, photos, architectural reconstructions, casts, models, impressionistic paintings and computer-aided reconstructions as a basis for examining the influence that these images have had on our perception of the ancient world.

Jack Green, museum chief curator and exhibit co-curator said, “People often accept reconstructed images of ancient buildings and scenes of daily life as being completely accurate, but seeing is not necessarily believing. The commonly held expectation is that such renderings are based on hard scientific facts. But much of what makes up the final image may be informed guesswork. The objects in the exhibit allow us explore the relationship between real and imaginary elements of images that can mislead as well as inform.”

Tracing process of reconstruction

The exhibit opens with the Oriental Institute’s contributions to the documentation of Egyptian monuments, starting in 1905 with an ambitious expedition to Nubia. In the course of that trip, Oriental Institute founder James Henry Breasted devised a method that combined photography with a system of cross-checking images to the original source to produce highly accurate copies of reliefs and inscriptions.

The role of photography in archaeology and the documentation of the past are shown in the development of the technique, from heavy, black-and-white box cameras to aerial photography. The adoption of formerly classified military spy satellite photography (CORONA) to archaeology is an example of how archaeologists and historians have reached out to new technology. Imaging things invisible to the human eye is demonstrated by the use of industrial CT scanners that “see” small tokens that are completely enclosed in a clay envelope.

The exhibit also demonstrates how archaeologists can combine different types of sources to reconstruct entire structures. A computer reconstruction of a building from the site of Chogha Mish in Iran dating to about 3400 BC, for example, is based on the foundations recovered by archaeologists. Its upper stories, which were completely destroyed, were recreated on the basis of seal impressions that depict similar structures. Another example shows how the elaborate glazed tile decoration of a doorway from an Egyptian temple was restored on the basis of a few fragments.

Ever-increasing role of images

The exhibit also explores the role that images of the ancient Middle East have had in stimulating public and academic interest in the region. An early example is a set of early 20th-century stereo cards — a form of entertainment and education that was once a fixture of every household. In 1900, Breasted was commissioned to write commentary for a set of images that introduced the people to the monuments of Egypt and, in varying shades of impartiality, to the cultures of the Middle East. Other images have become iconic representations of the ancient world, such as a painting of Babylon, a model of a ziggurat, and a reconstruction of a Sumerian temple. The show comments on the scientific basis for these images and how embellishments on the part of the artist have, in some cases, created a false reality.

Increasingly, the past is being imaged through computers. The exhibit includes fly-through and static and interactive reconstructions of sites presented on a flat-screen monitor and on a kiosk. Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute, commented, “Science, art and imagination all contribute to the process by which we reconstruct and visualize ancient societies from their material remains. As technology and knowledge improve, archaeologists have been able to make progressively better images of ancient civilizations. But we have to recognize that we are still ‘imagining’ the past, and that our reconstructions are very much shaped by our prior conceptions and understandings.”

A fully illustrated catalog of essays and object descriptions accompany the exhibit.

A free, public symposium at the Oriental Institute scheduled for March 10 from 1 to 5 p.m., will examine the themes of the show. Among the speakers are Jack Green, chief curator of the Oriental Institute and co-curator of the exhibit; Michael Seymour, Metropolitan Museum of Art; noted archaeological illustrator Eric Carlson; Emily Teeter, exhibit co-curator; and Donald H. Sanders, president of the Institute for the Visualization of History.