Breasted was foremost an epigrapher, studying ancient inscriptions and language, and though not trained as an archaeologist he became one by necessity, given the need to find, excavate, and explore ancient sites. Working from the 1890s into the 1930s, his primary focus was ancient Egypt, and as a young man, struck by the deterioration of the known sites, he began a lifelong project to record and interpret the inscriptions. In time, Breasted became famous; he was, for example, at the opening of the chamber containing the sarcophagus and mummy of King Tutankhamum. He emphasized studying not just past events but past conditions and institutions, which seemed novel for the time.
Breasted also became, through books and lectures, a very well-known popular educator about ancient Egypt and early Eurasian civilizations. In his teaching and writing, he was a pioneer in the use of visual, diagrammatic displays of information, and coined the now well-known term “fertile crescent”. He was one of the first to appreciate the important influence of Egypt’s ancient civilization on that of Greece. The Oriental Institute’s projects eventually encompassed all the civilizations of the Near East and the field work spread out accordingly; its museum displays one of the finest collections of ancient Near East artifacts in the world, and I have enjoyed many a desultory stroll through the exhibits.
|The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago|
Breasted was born in Rockford, Illinois, in 1865, and grew up in Chicago’s western suburbs. He started out in pharmacy, of all things, and graduated from what is now North Central College in suburban Naperville. He eventually turned to theology (at the Chicago Theological Seminary), then to languages (studying Hebrew at Yale), and then finally to epigraphy which became his life’s work. As his career moved on, he became as much an administrator and fundraiser (Rockefeller money) as researcher and educator, and at that point in the story the book gets dry with detail I imagine not of particular interest to the casual reader, who I suspect might be inclined to tread lightly over those sections. An abridged version for the general reader would not be misplaced.
Breasted was the first archaeologist to be elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences, and became so well-known that he made the cover of Time magazine in 1931. When he died at 70 in 1935, his memorial service at Rockefeller Chapel on the UChicago campus featured the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and was broadcast nation-wide on CBS radio. He was buried in Rockford, with a large granite cube from ancient Egypt placed as his tombstone. Years later, when a film maker was creating the fictional story of a young, dynamic epigrapher, he placed his character at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, no doubt because he figured where else would you find someone like Indiana Jones.American Egyptologist: The Life of James Henry Breasted and the Creation of His Oriental Institute
By Jeffrey Abt (University of Chicago Press, 2011)
Richard R Balsamo
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The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
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