A trip back in time at Penn

UNIVERSITY CITY - November 4, 2010

There is a painting at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. It's not especially well-known as art, but more for its importance in archaeology.

Penn bought it from French-trained artist Osman Hamdi Bey in the late 1800s. He was also in charge of the Ottoman Empire's archaeology museum back then, and his good will enable Penn experts to bring home artifacts they excavated in what's now southern Iraq.

"You could give them presents on behalf of the sultan as a gesture of goodwill," explains Dr. Bob Osterhaut of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. "So if the archaeologists behaved themselves, they could come away with a significant portion of what they excavated." Among the treasures brought to Penn are cuneiform tablets...the written language of the Sumerians some 6,000 years ago. It's three-dimensional.

"It's the shadow of the sun raking in over the clay tablet with the wedges impressed in it that you actually read," says Dr. Phillip Jones of the University of Pennsylvania Musuem.

Most experts agree the Sumerians were the first to write their thoughts down.

There's no doubt their artifacts were the first brought to what became the University Museum.

"The university had to provide a fireproof setting for the artifacts that were brought back to the university, said Osterhaut. "The building that is now (Anne and Jerome) Fisher Fine Arts Library."

You can see these and other artifacts from the 1800's mission at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 33rd and South streets on the Penn campus. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00am to 5:00pm, and Wednesday night until 8:00pm. It's closed Mondays and holidays. For more information about the exhibit, visit its web page, http://www.penn.museum/ and click on "exhibitions." You may also phone 215-898-4000.

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