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University of Chicago Opens New Gallery Devoted to Ancient Nubia

University of Chicago Opens New Gallery Devoted to Ancient Nubia

As the Field Museum in downtown Chicago geared up for another blockbuster visit this spring by the golden treasures of King Tutankhamun, the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago quietly opened a new gallery devoted to ancient Nubia, the mysterious land where all that gold came from.

“Egypt didn’t have any gold,” says Oriental Institute researcher Dr. Emily Teeter. “So when you look at the Tutankhamun art, you’re seeing gold from Nubia, obtained either through trade or by conquest.”

There’s not much gold in the 600 artifacts on display in the new permanent gallery, but the collection contains treasure of a rarer kind: the fruits of 100 years of exploration and research into the poorly understood region that straddles the southern third of modern Egypt and the northern third of present-day Sudan.

Some of the works on display, culled from the museum’s 15,000-piece Nubian collection, are solemn and ceremonial. Others are utilitarian, like a leather quiver, still glossy and supple-looking, that dates from the time of Jesus Christ.

But a surprising number, particularly among the ceramic pieces, use whimsical animal imagery. A smiling frog (“a symbol of rebirth,” says Teeter) gazes heavenward. Cartoonish crocodiles march around one pot, and friendly looking cobras dance around another.

What at first seem to be limp flowers in the snakes’ mouths prove on a second look to be Egyptian religious symbols.

The liveliness of the Nubian pots couldn’t be further from the stiff religious art of Egypt. They hint at the strange relationship between the two civilizations.

For several millennia, Nubia served as the conduit through which the riches of sub-Saharan Africa — precious metals, animal hides, spices and incense — reached Egypt and the Mediterranean world.

Nubia produced the earliest great civilization of Black Africa and maintained its own distinct culture from about 5000 B.C. until its conquest by Arab Muslims in about A.D. 1500. But through most of that long history it was eclipsed by nearby Egypt. And because the Nubian language was an unwritten one for most of that time, its civilization is often seen through an Egyptian filter.

“The relations between Egypt and Nubia were incredibly complex,” says Oriental Institute director Dr. Gil J. Stein in ceremonies opening the new gallery. “To the Egyptians, at various times, Nubia represented a trading partner, an enemy in war, a supplier of troops, a conquered colony and even a conqueror.”

The Oriental Institute has been involved in Nubian studies since 1905, when its founder, University of Chicago archaeologist Dr. James Henry Breasted, led the first of his two expeditions into the area and began the scientific study of Nubia. Previous visits by Europeans and Americans had focused on looting pyramids for gold.

The permanent exhibition is accompanied by a temporary exhibit of photographs from Breasted’s expeditions, titled “Lost Nubia: Photos of Egypt and the Sudan 1905-1907.” That display will run until May 7 and then travel to Egypt’s Nubia Museum of Aswan.

— Associated Press

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