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Argyle Chair
Charles Rennie Macintosh

A Museum of the Ancients
Bob Brooke


Imagine standing in the Great Plaza of Tikal in the northern jungles of Guatemala surrounded by towering temples, the only sound being your heartbeat and the far-off cry of a macaw. The air is thick with humidity and the mosquitoes are large enough to carry a person away, but instead the visitor feels the strange beat of another civilization, one that disappeared long ago.

At the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology—commonly referred to as the Penn Museum—located on Penn’s campus at 33rd and South Streets in Philadelphia, visitors don't have to fight off the mosquitos or brave the humidity to sample Tikal, the mightiest temple complex in the whole Mayan empire. They can wonder at the intricately carved stellae (columns that acted as calenders) and the large round flat altar stones called caracols that were a part of every temple complex. For the Penn Museum isn’t just a museum of history, but one of archaeology and anthropology, and one of the finest in the world.

From the outside, the Museum belays the wonders found within. Unlike other museums in the area, it’s seldom crowded, except for special exhibitions. In its quiet halls, visitors can wander peacefully at their own pace, digesting the hundreds of ancient artifacts on display.

Founded in 1887 by a group of Philadelphians and originally called the Museum of Archaeology and Paleontology, the Museum has devoted itself not just to displaying relics of ancient cultures, but to the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge as well as the preservation of the cultural heritage of mankind.

It has one of the leading archaeological and anthropological research programs in the world and has been responsible for unearthing some of the great treasures of past civilizations. In fact, the research it conducts is the basis for its being. The exhibits are only one way that it shares the knowledge it gains with the public.

Because of this, visitors won't find an endless array of exhibits from every period of history, but instead a well-chosen selection of the best history has to offer.

The vast scope of the research the Museum has conducted began with John Peters, Professor of Hebrew at the University of Pennsylvania, who with the help of several prominent Philadelphians gathered finances for the first expedition. In December of 1887, the Trustees of the University agreed to send "an exploring expedition to Babylon" to bring back artifacts to be housed in a new building the University would construct for this purpose.

Peters selected the site of Nippur, the holy city of the Sumerians and Akkadians, to begin what was to become the first in a long line of firsts for the Museum in the field of archaeology. Since that time, over 300 field excavations and anthropological research projects around the world have set it apart as an active research and educational institution.

The Museum’s varied collection of archaeological finds and ethnographic objects, organized in eleven curatorial sections displayed in over 20 galleries on three floors, documents the peoples of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. Researchers use these holdings, as well as the Museum Archives of excavation and research projects, to study the cultures of these areas and share their knowledge with institutions worldwide.

The Museum's extensive collections fall into two main divisions: archaeology, the artifacts recovered from the past by excavation, and ethnology, the objects and ideas collected from living peoples.

The Museum's Egyptian collection, considered to be one of the finest in the world, was begun by Sara Yorke Stevenson, who, as the first female curator of Egyptology in the country, catalogued the thousands of tablets written in cuneiform script that arrived at the Museum from the Near East, began the Museum’s Egyptian collection.

Today, the museum's Egyptian galleries house an extensive collection of statuary, mummies, and reliefs. Most notably, the museum houses a set of architectural elements, including large columns and a 13-ton granite Sphinx of Ramesses II, dating from around 1200 BCE., from the palace of the Pharaoh Merenptah. A Museum expedition to Egypt excavated these in 1915.

One of the most spectacular expeditions and resulting artifacts came Visitors can see the golden lyre from the Royal Tomb dating to 2650-2550 BCE. and a hammered gold tumbler from the wardrobe chest of the Queen of Ur.

The museum's most important collection came from the excavation of the Royal Tombs of Ur, the capital of ancient Mesopotamia in what’s now modern Iraq. The artifacts from its royal tombs showcase the city's wealth. The collection consists of a variety of crowns, figures, and musical instruments, many of which have been inlaid with gold and precious stones. One of the most impressive is the golden Bull-headed lyre.

To record their trade and purchasing agreements, the people of Ur used clay tablets. The museum's Babylonian section houses a collection of almost 30,000 clay tablets inscribed in Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform, making it one of the 10 largest in the world. The collection contains the largest number of Sumerian school tablets and literary compositions of any of the world's museums.

The Museum's exhibits reach far beyond the Near East to every continent of the globe. It also has one of the largest collections of African ethnographic and archaeological objects in the country. Mostly obtained from 1891 to 1937, the collection contains objects from all regions of Africa, but with a concentration from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Angola, Morocco, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Madagascar.

Visitors can venture to China to see the world's largest cloisonn
é lions. Originally stolen from the royal palace in Beijing, they were eventually donated to the Museum by the Salada Tea Company, after they decided not to use them as their logo.

The Harrison Rotunda houses the Museum’s fine collection of Chinese sculpture, including two reliefs of Emperor Tang Taizong's six horses which he used to unify China during the Tang Dynasty. In the center of the gallery sits a perfectly spherical crystal ball. Someone stole the crystal ball in 1988, and its elegant silver stand, a stylized ocean wave, was found in a culvert not far from the Museum. The Museum staff traced the crystal ball to a home in New Jersey and had it returned to the Museum.

Penn Museum's Mesoamerican collections include objects from Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica. The American Section's ethnographic collections from Mesoamerica include an assortment of masks, pottery, and textiles from Guatemala, as well as objects from Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. In Guatemala,

The Museum's South American collections include anthropological materials from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela while its North American archaeological collections contain specimens from 45 of the 50 United States, including Alaska, New Jersey, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Texas. Its extensive collection of artifacts from the Tlinglit and Inuit cultures of Alaska includes masks, totems, war helmets, blankets, and other items.

The University Museum concentrates on the culture of societies around the world and tries in it's limited space to explain their traditions and customs. In a couple of hours, visitors can take a trip around the world and see things they would never see if they traveled to all those places.

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