Hello, Reddit!

My name is Christopher Woods—I’m a professor at the University of Chicago and the director of the University’s Oriental Institute.

Both a world-renowned museum and a pioneering interdisciplinary research center for the study of the ancient Middle East, the Oriental Institute (OI) at the University of Chicago aims to understand, reveal, and protect the earliest civilizations. This year, the OI will celebrate 100 years of connecting ancient places, people, and issues, and will expand its rich tradition of excavation, scholarship, and cultural heritage and preservation. Oi100.uchicago.edu

Here’s just a few examples of work/happenings at the OI…

- “OI marks 100 years of discovery in ancient Middle East”: https://news.uchicago.edu/story/oi-marks-100-years-discovery-ancient-middle-east

- "For its centennial, Oriental Institute weds ancient artifacts with contemporary art”: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/oriental-institute-weds-ancient-artefacts-with-cutting-edge-contemporary-art

- "Ancient Persian artifact nearly 2,500 years old returns to Oriental Institute":  https://news.uchicago.edu/story/ancient-persian-artifact-nearly-2500-years-old-returns-oriental-institute

- “Ancient urban villa discovered in Egypt”: https://news.uchicago.edu/story/ancient-urban-villa-shrine-ancestor-worship-discovered-egypt

- “Burned buildings reveal sacking of ancient Turkish city 3500 years ago”: https://news.uchicago.edu/story/burned-buildings-reveal-sacking-ancient-turkish-city-3500-years-ago

As a professor of Sumerian, my work focuses on the origins of writing as well as early Mesopotamia religion, literature, mathematics, and administration. 

Ask me anything—I'll be back around 3PM CT!

Proof: https://imgur.com/a/rQxZj9d

EDIT: Thanks everyone for the great questions—I had a blast answering them! I have to run for now, but I'll do my best to answer any additional ones that come in. Feel free to swing by the OI Museum if you're ever in Chicago!

Comments: 55 • Responses: 14  • Date: 

AllWhiteInk26 karma

I'd like to ask a more personal question, if you don't mind.

How are you able to cope with the fact that so many cultural treasures have been destroyed by wars and vandalism? Knowing they are irretrievably lost?

OrientalInstitute23 karma

It’s very difficult. Scholars who study the ancient history of these civilizations are deeply invested in the current threats to cultural heritage in the regions we study.

We have many projects to preserve and protect cultural heritage—including conservation training programs. It’s also important to educate the public, and we do that by engaging with visitors to our Museum. For our centennial, for example, we are exhibiting works by contemporary artists including Michael Rakowitz and Mohamad Hafez, who deal with the loss of cultural heritage throughout the Middle East as a way of highlighting current issues.

Doktor_Wunderbar12 karma

What would the literacy rate have been in the period you study? Would literacy be limited to rulers and administrative personnel, or would craftsmen, merchants, shopkeepers, etc. have been able to keep written records?

Also, do we have any idea how Sumerian would have been pronounced, and if so, how do we know?

OrientalInstitute17 karma

Thanks for your question! It’s typically assumed that literacy rates were extremely low – limited to elites. But there’s considerable evidence for somewhat more widespread literacy, and varying types and levels of literacy. For instance, in a particularly well-documented period, roughly, 2100-2000 BCE many professionals (including, for instance, boat captains) claimed the title dub-sar ‘scribe’, which must have meant that their educational training included basic literacy in reading administrative texts connected with their professions.

We have a rough idea about how Sumerian was pronounced. Sumerian is a linguistic isolate and not related to any known language, so we cannot compare it to related, better known languages. Most knowledge of Sumerian pronunciation is indirect through renderings in Akkadian, the other main language of ancient Mesopotamia, which is Semitic. So our knowledge of Sumerian is through the lens of Akkadian, a very different language. Also Sumerian is written mainly logographically – with signs representing words, another feature that complicates understanding pronunciation.

javivi123219 karma

My name is Javier, I'm a young student of history who wants to became an Assyriologist since the first time that I start to read about Mesopotamia and his intense history.

What makes someone a good Assyriologist?

Thanks you so much for your time, and for your work.

OrientalInstitute6 karma

Hi Javier. I'd say curiosity, dedication, and a love of languages!

Ron_Maryland9 karma

What are the earliest examples or forms of currency or coinage that you are familiar with in the Middle East?

OrientalInstitute10 karma

Spiral coils of silver were part of the Mesopotamian currency system by the end of the third millennium BC (grain was a common medium of trade in all periods as well). When silver was needed as currency, the desired weight was obtained by removing a piece from the coil. The ends of extant coils reveal that pieces were twisted, hammered, or cut off, and some silver coils have been found with smaller silver pieces wrapped around them. Texts from the Old Babylonian period in Mesopotamia mention money “rings” being used to purchase land, possibly a reference to these coils.

castronotcuban8 karma

What did early Mesopotamian math look like? Did they use the same types of numbers/counting that we think of today?

OrientalInstitute13 karma

The earliest Mesopotamian numerical base was sexagesimal or base 60. In fact, the reason why there are 360 degrees in a circle; 60 minutes in an hour, etc. goes back (indirectly) to Sumerian numeracy. The earliest Sumerian numerals were inscribed with the rounded back end of reed styli, impressed at various angles and incised with various markings.

DigiMagic8 karma

The daily life of people in ancient times must have been generally quite similar to ours: they've had families, had to prepare food, and so on. But were there some interesting significant differences?

Is there any evidence, what did they think how would technology progress in 2500 or 3500 years?

OrientalInstitute14 karma

There are many similarities, but the average person led a difficult life -- working longer, working earlier, eating a diet much less varied than ours in the USA, and certainly had a much lower life expectancy. Their relationship to technological advances was radically different than ours -- generations would pass without substantive technological advances that would affect daily life. There was a notion, expressed in literary texts, that when the world was first created, people led more primitive, less civilized lives.

On the other hand, it was possible to be paid for your labors in beer!

AllWhiteInk7 karma

A lot of historical facts and ancient mythology found the way into contemporary culture and arts like literature and movies.

Did you ever encounter something so stupid or wrong you'd want to erase it?

OrientalInstitute10 karma

We often get asked about the accuracy of what’s portrayed in the Indiana Jones films and the potential connection between the OI and the movie franchise. The OI was in fact selected as the background for the franchise, which is based on the character Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones Jr., a former student and professor of archaeology at the University of Chicago. Allegedly James Henry Breasted, founder of the OI, and Robert John Braidwood, a leading pioneer in prehistory archaeology and OI archaeologist, inspired the characters of Indiana Jones and Ravenswood, the fictional university professor who trained Indiana Jones. Unlike some Hollywood depictions of archaeologists including those in the Indiana Jones films, Breasted and Braidwood were not treasure hunters. Both scholars made significant contributions to the study of the civilizations of the ancient Middle East.

BrianHoweBattle6 karma

What's the most common misconception popular culture has about the "ancient Middle East"?

OrientalInstitute18 karma

There is a popular belief that the Anunnaki in Sumerian myth – Anunnaki is a general term for deities – are extraterrestrial beings who used Mars as a waystation en route to colonizing Earth in antiquity! These and other similar beliefs are categorized as ancient astronaut hypotheses. What these hypotheses have in common is their premise that extraterrestrial beings made contact with ancient civilizations on Earth and brought with them technology so advanced that they were accorded divine status. The tenets of Anunnaki believers are largely based on the writings of Zecharia Sitchin (1920–2010) who, drawing upon his analyses of Sumerian texts, argued that the Anunnaki were extraterrestrial beings who had traveled to Earth from the planet Nibiru and ultimately created humankind in the form of the Sumerians who worshiped them. However, we do not believe that the Sumerians were extraterrestrials!

secondHandFleshlight5 karma

I’m always interested about the population sizes of ancient civilisations/kingdoms but can never find any good info. Are there any good resources you can recommend?

OrientalInstitute15 karma

Rather than one source in particular, we can gather some info from the work of a few scholars and publications. There is a long-standing debate about the number of people who resided in Mesopotamian settlements—the density of occupation of Mesopotamian cities has been discussed for decades, but most scholars accept that anywhere from 100 to 200 people per hectare lived in these cities. The earliest-known city in Mesopotamia was that of Uruk. By 3000 BC, Uruk was about 100 hectares in size, and so we estimate the population of Uruk to have been around 10,000–20,000 inhabitants.

JessNei5 karma

Is there any evidence left for the existence of The Hanging Gardens? I've heard some pieces of panels from the outside are stored at The British Museum, is there more?

OrientalInstitute9 karma

Unfortunately, there is no direct evidence for the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (the primary source is the Greek Historian Herodotus). There are many theories, including that they were not in Babylon at all, but in Nineveh.

kveets944 karma

Since you’ve been at the museum, what is your favorite discovery/exhibit that’s been found?

OrientalInstitute6 karma

My favorite exhibit at the OI was (of course!) mine on early writing systems. See: https://oi.uchicago.edu/research/publications/oimp/oimp-32-visible-language-inventions-writing-ancient-middle-east-and

bsbing4 karma

What mythical figure from ancient Middle East inspired the most interesting creations?

OrientalInstitute10 karma

If you’ve seen the movie the Exorcist, you may recall seeing a demon in the opening scene. The inspiration behind this figure is Pazuzu, a mythological figure from ancient Mesopotamia whom inscriptions refer to as the “king of the evil lilû-demons.” Visual imagery and ancient texts tell us that Pazuzu had a leonine face, scaly body, large razor-like talons, scorpion tail, and wings of a bird. Because of his appearance and supernatural strength, he was invoked as a protective force to expel other destructive demons, making him a complicated and ambiguous figure—in other words, he was not solely the evil demon represented by the Exorcist. For example, bronze figurines and plaques were used to protect homes, and pregnant women wore Pazuzu-head amulets, fibulae (garment pins), and pendants to ward off the lion-headed demoness Lamashtu, who threatened to snatch and devour their newborn children.

On the other hand, the Sumerian god Enki, god of freshwater and intelligence, created all of humankind.

notsureifJasonBourne4 karma

What are some (or just one) of the more surprising facts or findings you've come across in your research of Sumeria or other near-East civilizations?

OrientalInstitute12 karma

Sumerians really like cucumbers! They are mentioned in literary texts, given as gifts at special occasions.

notsureifJasonBourne6 karma

Is there any evidence they figured out how to turn those cucumbers into pickles? :)

OrientalInstitute7 karma

Hmm... not that I know of!