James Henry Breasted
President of the Association, 1928
Annual address of the president of the American Historical Association, delivered at Indianapolis, December 28, 1928. From the American Historical Review 34, no. 2 (January 1929): 215–36.1
The New Crusade
The definition of history which recognizes it as a record of human experience is perhaps the one now most widely accepted. Those definitions which have affirmed it to be chiefly an affair of the state have themselves passed into the limbo of historical evidences for the incredible lack of imagination displayed by some earlier historians—a lack the more extraordinary when one considers the wide prospect of human activity already surveyed by Voltaire in his Les Moeurs. If Europe was slow to recognize a broader definition of history after Voltaire had showed the way, America was still slower. The work of Riehl, of Gustav Freitag, and above all, of Burckhardt, in revealing the whole range of human life as a symmetrical whole, and in conceiving such a disclosure of it as the real responsibility of history, was, as we all know, already having a powerful influence in Germany by 1850, that is two generations ago; but notwithstanding the extraordinary work of Parkman, the historians of America were more than a generation behind in recognizing “Kulturgeschichte”, the history of civilization, as the very life-blood of history.
This slowness of the New World to discern that the very substance of human development lies in those processes which only the history of civilization can set forth, is the more remarkable in view of the fact that the conquest of the New World, consisting as it did so largely in that tremendous drama of the subjugation of the wilderness, was itself a chapter of human experience which could be successfully depicted only by the methods and the inclusiveness of the history of civilization, as Parkman had so powerfully shown. We of America are especially fitted to visualize and to understand the marvellous transformation of a wilderness into a land of splendid cities. But it is obvious that our fathers, whose efforts have planted these great and prosperous cities along the once lonely trails of our own broad land, received all the fundamentals of civilization as a heritage from their European ancestors. There was an age, however, when the transition from savagery to civilization, with all its impressive outward manifestations in art and architecture, took place for the first time. It is the recognition of history as a record of human experience which has inevitably resulted in the inclusion of this conquest of civilization within the framework of a complete human history.
This appearance of civilization for the first time is the most remarkable event in the history of the universe, in so far as it is known to us. It has been shown by the palaeontologists that there were several manlike creatures, physically the equals and rivals of the earliest man himself; but the advance in brain power and the expansion of the forebrain, where the faculties of correlation and coördination reside—this advance which enabled one of these creatures to rise from bestial degradation and savagery to the conquest of civilized life, was an unprecedented occurrence in the evolution of life on our planet. Perhaps following Wallace, one of the leading astronomers of modern times has recently suggested that the culmination of evolution in human life on our planet may still remain without a parallel throughout the universe. In any case, in so far as our knowledge of the universe carries us, the advent of civilization for the first time on our globe represents the highest ascent of the life processes to which evolution had anywhere attained.
It is therefore of fundamental importance to determine where this marvellous process took place, and I believe that the materials for settling this question are already in our hands. Today the traveller on the Nile enters a wonderland at whose gates rise the colossal pyramids of which he has had visions perhaps from earliest childhood. As he ascends the river he sees expanding behind palm-fringed shores vast temple precincts, to which avenues of sphinxes lead up from the shore, dominated by the mighty shafts of tall obelisks and stately colonnades. But it does not commonly occur to the traveller that, just as in America, so there on the Nile the wilderness preceded all this. Where those vast monuments of stone now rise, once stretched the tangled jungle of the Nile canyon, pathless for thousands of years save where the hunter’s winding trail led down through the rustling reeds to the water’s edge.
Here it was then that the prehistoric hunter, whose instinct for self-expression had been for ages quite content to ply the flint graving tool in carving symmetrical lines of game beasts along the ivory handle of a stone dagger, was transformed by fifty generations of social evolution into a royal architect, launching great bodies of organized craftsmen upon the quarries of the Nile cliffs, and summoning thence stately and rhythmic colonnades, imposing temples, and a vast rampart of pyramids, the greatest tombs ever erected by the hand of man, and the first great superstructures of masonry in any country.
Rarely does the modern pilgrim in Egypt realize that there was no civilized ancestry from whom the prehistoric Nile-dweller might receive this inheritance of culture. For example, there was no hewn stone architecture anywhere on earth when the pyramids of Gizeh arose. In their own deepening experience and broadening vision we must find the magic which transformed those primitive hunters and their little settlements of wattle huts into a great society dominated by masterful men of grandly spacious imagination, of imposing monumental vision, whose prodigal hands, stripping off the shackles of tradition, transformed the one-time jungle into a marvellous home of the first known civilization and scattered its mighty monuments far up and down the river. He who knows the story of the transition from the prehistoric hunters of the Nile jungle to the sovereigns and statesmen, the architects, engineers, and craftsmen of a great organized society, which wrought these monumental wonders along the Nile at a time when all Europe was still living in stone-age barbarism, and there was none to teach a civilization of the past—he who knows all this knows the story of the first rise of civilization anywhere on the globe.
To the present writer a careful study of the facts now available seems to leave no doubt that civilization was born at the southeast corner of the Mediterranean. The recent disclosures in Babylonia, especially the remarkable discoveries at Ur, have not furnished conclusive evidence for establishing the remote dates which have been assigned to them. It is quite clear that the valley of the two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, lay so far toward the north as to be immediately under the southern fringes of the Armenian ice-sheet in the glacial age. Prehistoric Assyria was thus exposed to the northern cold as well as to the ravages of the glacial floods, and with the Persian Gulf at that time extending inland as far north as the latitude of the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean, the alluvial plain known as early Babylonia had not yet been formed in an age when Egypt, protected by the Mediterranean from the rigors of the European Ice Age, was already rapidly out-distancing all her rivals in the advance toward civilization. By 3000 B.C. the art of Egypt was so ripe and so far advanced that it is surprising to find any student of early culture proposing that the crude contemporary art of the early Babylonians is the product of a civilization earlier than that of the Nile. There is but little room for doubt that Egypt led the way in the creation of the earliest known group of civilizations which arose on both sides of the land bridge between Africa and Eurasia in the fourth millennium B.C.
The important fact is the existence of such a civilized world at a time when Europe still lay in stone-age barbarism. In that earliest civilized world lay the roots of the civilization which our ancestors transplanted to the Western Hemisphere.
This recognition of the earlier human background, now so obvious to us, did not come all at once, for the inclusion of history itself in university instruction is an event less than two centuries old. The man who first gave history a recognized place in science was an ancient historian. It was Berthold Niebuhr who first grasped the fundamentals of Roman history in terms of human life as he found it all around him little more than a century ago. His studies of the course of Roman affairs are the first investigations of the career of a people, carried on with sound methods, and it is these methods of an ancient historian, clarified and improved as time went on, which have lifted history to its present recognized place among modern sciences. It is perhaps no accident that Berthold Niebuhr’s father, Carsten Niebuhr, was an Orientalist and an explorer of the ancient lands of the East. Associated with such studies from his earliest childhood, the younger Niebuhr’s imagination was kindled by the tales his father told him of the older lands lying behind Greece and Rome. We are therefore able to understand that in 1829, only seven years after the decipherment of Egyptian by Champollion and twenty years before the decipherment of cuneiform writing by Rawlinson, Berthold Niebuhr ventured a prophecy that Nineveh would arise as the Pompeii of Western Asia, and that Assyrian civilization would not lack its Champollion. Thus it happened that in the hands of a specialist in ancient history, and furthermore in the closest contact with ancient Oriental history, the modern study of history was first developed as a methodically pursued scientific discipline.
It is the more remarkable therefore, that over half a century later, in undertaking his universal history begun in 1880, Ranke regarded the origins of society as no longer recoverable and the civilizations of the ancient Near East as wholly unconnected with the main stream of history. Only twenty years later, just at the close of the nineteenth century, Sir Arthur Evans began his epoch-making researches in Crete, which revealed early Cretan culture as the vital link between the civilization of Egypt and that of Southeastern Europe. Evanshimself recognized the fact in these memorable words: “Ancient Egypt itself can no longer be regarded as something apart from general human history.” While this was true of Egypt, it has now become equally true of Western Asia, especially of ancient Babylonia and Assyria. In the intercontinental region enfolding the eastern end of the Mediterranean, a group of civilized nations developed for ages before the rise of European culture and formed the earliest known civilized world. On the borders of this earliest civilized world of Egypt and Western Asia lay for some two thousand years the wilderness of savage Europe, stretching far westward to the Atlantic, untouched by civilization except at its southeastern corner, where the Greek islands looked southeastward to the mouths of the Nile and eastward toward Hittite Asia Minor. The fruits of thousands of years of human experience, garnered in the ancient Near East, thus passed easily and inevitably into the European wilderness. Today it is easy to survey in its main outlines the gradual emergence of Europe from prehistoric savagery, as the light of civilization, dawning slowly in the Southeast, after 3000 B.C., passed gradually westward across all Europe, till its further westward advance was halted for many centuries by the broad barrier of the Atlantic.
There are spots in Europe today where chance has brought strangely near together and left lying side by side the relics of the earliest prehistoric savages and the evidences of so-called modern civilization—the earliest and the latest points in the observable human career. The soil of the battle-scarred hills overlooking the river Somme in northern France is thickly strewn with fragments of steel shells which have penetrated deeply into the slopes and natural terraces made by the river ages ago. Today, when the great guns are silent, a few minutes’ work with a shovel will uncover lying together in the gravels along the brow of the valley the flint fist-hatchet, the earliest surviving weapon of man, and the jagged fragments of the modern explosive steel shell. There they lie as you unearth them, side by side, the flint fist-hatchet and the steel shell fragment, and the whole sweep of human history lies between them—a story of at least several hundred thousand years.
It is this conception of the unity of the human career which is perhaps the greatest achievement of historical study, since it gained a place analogous to that of natural science. For with the recognition of this unity we carry back the study of man into the geological ages from which he has emerged, and we link up human development with the unfolding of lower forms of life on our planet. We historians thus take our places side by side with the natural scientists, and while not claiming for our field the precision of method or result obtainable in a natural science, we are nevertheless taking up the process of evolution where the natural scientists leave it, and in following the upward course of the developing life of man we are tracing later stages of that same development which natural science has disclosed. And what more inspiring task than to follow that tremendous transformation by which the primitive forest of the stone-age savage has at last given way to the modern forest of factory chimneys.
The recognition of this imposing synthesis lays upon us historians a grave responsibility, but it is a responsibility which has emerged so recently that we have hardly become aware of it. How many historians have we in America who contemplate the human career as a whole? Or in doing so, how many have we had who have realized where the greatest body of evidence revealing the past of man still lies unsalvaged and unstudied? It is now a century and a quarter since the preliminary reports of Napoleon’s corps of savants revealed to the civilized West the vast extent of the surviving human records in the Nile Valley alone. Over a century ago Champollion’s great achievement of 1822 first enabled us to read those records of the Nile, and over a quarter of a century later, about 1850, Rawlinson penetrated the mystery of cuneiform. It has long been obvious that those two remarkable achievements pushed back the field of historical research on the basis of written documents almost three thousand years. Are we able to say that the historians of the Western World have stepped forward to occupy this new field?
It has been from the beginning a twofold task, requiring first the salvaging of the available evidence, and second its laborious interpretation and incorporation into the body of recognized knowledge. It is a remarkable fact, and I think also a regrettable fact, that the historians have left the salvaging of this evidence entirely to the archaeologists. Even so gifted an investigator as Burckhardt, when he came to picture Greek culture, using the same methods which have made his Culture of the Renaissance a universal classic, seemed unaware of the fact that a great body of Greek inscriptions revealed by exploration and excavation formed new sources of evidence without which his studies would be hopelessly obsolete. In contrast with this attitude is of course the unconquerable energy of Mommsen in pushing the work of the great Corpus of the Latin inscriptions, and the parallel enterprise which is bringing together the Greek inscriptions, although the leadership of the latter project has not been chiefly in the hands of the historians. The more familiar classic discipline, long entrenched in the great universities, and strongly represented in the European academies by men of outstanding ability, has led to a full realization of the historian’s responsibility to save from destruction the perishing evidences, and especially the written records of Greek and Roman civilization.
In the more recently disclosed field of history in the ancient Near East, however, there has been no such sense of responsibility displayed by historians either in Europe or America. The preliminary work of salvaging the evidence in the field has been left practically exclusively to the archaeologists and philologists in the universities and museums. Such efforts in the field have consisted of temporary expeditions, sometimes nothing more than a university teacher’s sabbatic year’s leave of absence. I well remember my first experience in the ancient East as a wandering pedagogue on an advance six months’ leave of absence. It is now thirty-four years ago that I rode up and stood for the first time under the shadow of the vast temple of Medinet Habu opposite Luxor—a building with its enormous wall-surfaces covered with uncopied and unstudied historical records. There were thousands of square feet of these original sources. An inventory of my equipment for meeting this situation was as follows:
1 donkey on hire for the day, browsing near by;
1 pocket note-book;
1 tiny Kodak hand-camera;
1 basket lunch and 2 bottles of water;
three-quarters of a day;
1 wife newly acquired, also browsing near by.
Such a situation would be fantastically ludicrous if it were not so pathetically futile. Today as I look back upon it, I can not but continually contrast it with our present headquarters at the same temple, with two large buildings including a scientific library, an elaborate graphic and photographic equipment, a non-native personnel of thirteen people, besides a staff of some fifty native servants and overseers, and a gang of several hundred native laborers.
But this transformation is a very recent matter. Nearly a quarter of a century later, when, in the summer of 1920, I returned from a year’s absence, much of it spent in the Near East, the outlook was not promising. The exhaustion following the World War, and the postwar problems which knocked at our doors with imperious insistence, absorbed all the time and energy of our historians. Even now the historians of America have little time or interest to devote to the Ancient World, and much more was this the fact in the years immediately following the war. In that same summer of 1920 I wrote the following paragraph:
The great centers of human life in the ancient world, the mighty cities and capitals of Babylonia, Assyria, Persia, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, and Egypt, the region where the earliest civilized societies arose out of savagery and barbarism to bring civilization to barbarian Europe—all these treasuries of human records which are rapidly perishing in the whole region about the eastern end of the Mediterranean lie there silently awaiting the spade of the excavator. I have seen the ruined capitals of the ancient East slumbering under their gloomy mounds at sunset, and many a time as the sun arose and dispelled the shadows it has seemed as if the banished life that once ebbed and flowed through those now dismantled and rubbish-covered streets must start forth again, till with a regret so poignant that it was almost physical pain I have realized the years that must elapse before these silent mounds can be made to speak again and reveal all the splendid pageant of their marvelous past.
It was obvious that neither the itinerant pedagogue on his sabbatical “Wanderjahr”, nor the casual archaeological expedition supported for a time by some museum or university could cope with a situation like this. Mommsen’s far-seeing plan for collecting the Latin inscriptions in one great Corpus, while he at first greatly underestimated the magnitude of the still unfinished task, was nevertheless from the first conceived as a project which must go on until all Latin records of this kind had been saved. What was true for Mommsen and his colleagues in salvaging the records of the Roman World, must be equally true for the historian who conscientiously faces his responsibility in the study of the ancient Oriental World. But what a colossal responsibility! The surviving remains in Egypt alone probably exceed in bulk all those of the combined Ancient World outside of the Nile Valley; and to this we must add the enormous extent of the surviving documents of Western Asia.
It is appalling to behold these priceless memorials of man’s past rapidly perishing with every passing year. The monuments of the ancient East are calling for a New Crusade, and the task of saving them for science is the greatest responsibility confronting the historian anywhere in the whole range of historical research. In the present writer’s judgment, it is a responsibility which can be successfully met, as far as America is concerned, only by some permanent agency organized as a headquarters from which can be despatched a whole series of carefully organized expeditions working at the same time and side by side, but each one investigating and salvaging the remains of one great civilization. The central organization here in America, like the unified command in the World War, must be able to keep these expeditions systematically operating in correlation with each other along the whole scientific frontier, which stretches in the Near East from the Black Sea on the north around the eastern end of the Mediterranean to the Upper Nile in the south—a front some 2000 miles long, which bends eastward in its centre to include Assyria and Babylonia, together with Persia and its neighbors.
While these field operations are going on, the headquarters in America must be developed as the focus upon which shall converge the growing evidence collected by these expeditions in the field. This American centre must be able to receive the scientific returns from the field, to study and digest them, and eventually to incorporate them into the available body of knowledge where they may be employed in building up and restoring to us the lost or fragmentary chapters of the early human career. The work of the American headquarters thus eventuates in a task which is essentially historical, and the whole organization, whether in its field operations or its research projects at home, should be regarded as an agency aiming to serve the cause of history.
In the spring of 1920, returning from a rapid survey of the colossal task awaiting the historian in the ancient Near East, I could hardly dare to hope that such an organization as I have suggested above would ever be a human possibility. It seemed much more probable that it would always remain a paper dream, a thing one might draw up in one form or another on neatly typewritten sheets, which would always remain in a drawer of one’s desk, keeping company with various other typewritten documents marked: “Plans for the Excavation of Armageddon”, or “Plans for an Expedition to Salvage the Inscriptions of Egypt”, or “Plans for a Hittite Expedition”, or “Notes on the Assyrian Dictionary Project”, etc., etc. Some of these briefs continued to look not less attractive on paper because they had lain buried in my desk for a quarter of a century. Would they ever take tangible form?
In the spring of 1919, Mr. John D. Rockefeller, jr., with his customary vision, had agreed to contribute $10,000 a year for five years, to make possible some preliminary steps leading toward larger operations in the realization of these plans. A year later, on my return from the Near East, the same generous donor promptly raised his annual pledge to $25,000 a year. It would not be possible within the limits of this address to sketch even in the briefest form the development which has followed. Suffice it to say that the modest organization, consisting at first exclusively of members of the department of Oriental languages at the University of Chicago, beginning work in the spring of 1919 on $10,000 a year, with a personnel of four or five, was in 1927 operating on a budget of nearly $300,000 and with a personnel of over fifty, a number which has now risen to sixty people.
It may fairly be expected at this juncture that the Oriental Institute should give some account of its stewardship during these first years of its existence. Beginning chronologically we should first mention the Prehistoric Survey, an effort to collect systematically the evidences still surviving in the ancient East, which disclose the earliest known stages of human life since man began to be an implement-making creature. Heretofore such work has been haphazard and temporary effort, and only two men, Pitt-Rivers and Schweinfurth, ever attempted anything but surface work on the earliest periods which may be called essentially geological. For this reason it was necessary to secure for this task well-qualified geologists possessing at the same time a sufficient acquaintance with archaeology. Under the direction of Dr. K. S. Sandford of Oxford, assisted by W. J. Arkell, the Prehistoric Survey has now begun its third season in Egypt. The policy which these able young men were asked to follow was to determine the geological structure of the Nile Valley, now very insufficiently understood, and not to collect surface evidence primarily, but to search for human handiwork imbedded in the geological strata and therefore dated in terms of geological periods.
In following out these plans this survey has determined for the first time the southern limit of the prehistoric gulf now called the Nile Valley. It extended some seven hundred miles southward from the Mediterranean, to a point well south of Luxor. In this gulf, which the great river eventually entered, it formed a succession of five terraces, the highest terrace about one hundred and fifty and the lowest some twelve feet above present Nile level. Of these terraces the uppermost is of course the oldest and the others are later, the youngest being at the bottom of the series. This survey has found no evidences of man in the one hundred and fifty-foot terrace; but all the others contain human artifacts, the oldest being at the top in the one hundred-foot terrace. Since the age of the men who lived on this terrace, the river has cut down through the solid rock not only the hundred feet above present Nile level, but also the additional erosion below Nile level, which is a large but uncertain amount and which might vary greatly. While this erosion was going on, the Sahara was a vast, well-watered, and vegetation-covered plateau. Then the rainfall of Northeastern Africa gradually decreased, reducing the drainage and resulting erosion in the Nile Valley. The rate of erosion therefore must have declined. The age of these prehistoric men of the terraces is measured here by two natural processes, the desiccation of Northeastern Africa and the erosion of the Nile Valley. The geologists are reluctant to estimate the length of these processes in terms of years, but it is hardly likely that their length was less than several hundred thousand years.
In any case this Prehistoric Survey has found the oldest human remains ever discovered in the Near East. In this connection it should be mentioned that the survey has also found the first geologically dated human handiwork along the African shore of the Red Sea. As soon as the general framework of prehistoric human development in Northeastern Africa has been determined, it is intended to transfer the work of the survey to Western Asia, especially to the valley of the Tigris and the Euphrates, where no such researches have ever been carried on.
Within the historic age so-called, the Oriental Institute’s work in Egypt has been chiefly devoted to salvaging written documents already known, but now perishing without having ever been adequately copied or studied. At Medinet Habu opposite Luxor, there is an enormous temple whose walls are covered with written and pictorial records which reveal the earliest emergence of Europe in the military and political arena of the ancient Near East early in the twelfth century, B.C. It is exactly a century ago that Champollion, the great decipherer, first visited this temple, and with a draughtsman or two and a few ladders, began an effort to save the inscriptions it bears. It was an effort which calls forth our unbounded admiration, and we view the results of his work today with reverence and gratitude. It was not the fault of Champollion that in his day accurate epigraphy was entirely unknown. Indeed we may say that in Champollion’s generation the science of epigraphy had not yet been born. Even at the present day the accurate reproduction of ancient inscriptions is hardly a generation old, a statement which may easily be verified by anyone who will take the trouble to examine the copies of inscriptions published in the earlier instalments of the Latin Corpus. The history of research in Egypt since Champollion’s day has been largely a tale of excavation, and while this work of excavation has been enormously valuable, it has overshadowed the more important responsibility for saving the written records already above ground.
At the temple of Medinet Habu, therefore, the Oriental Institute has erected two permanent buildings, containing living quarters, workrooms, photographic laboratory, and not least the first scientific library in Upper Egypt. The library building is the gift of Mr. Julius Rosenwald, while the books and a permanent endowment for its maintenance were contributed by the General Education Board. At this headquarters, under the direction of Dr. Harold H. Nelson, a corps of epigraphers and draughtsmen, assisted by the best possible modern photographic devices and equipment, are saving the wall records of the Medinet Habu temple. They will be published by the Oriental Institute at heavy cost in five or possibly six folio volumes, and the first of these volumes, which went to the printer last spring, should appear in the course of 1929.
The work of this Epigraphic Expedition has been expanded to include also the architecture of the temple as a beginning of a greatly needed Architectural Survey of Egypt. This new undertaking has involved the Institute in the excavation of the Medinet Habu buildings, especially the elaborate palace which was erected as an adjoining royal residence, really incorporated into the architecture of the temple itself. This excavation, conducted by Professor Uvo Hoelscher, has for the first time disclosed to us the details of a royal dwelling with five apartments, that of the Pharaoh, another for his queen, and three closely adjoining apartments, one for each of three ladies of the harem. Each of these apartments was supplied with a bath, and the equipment for water supply and drainage is still largely in place, although the palace was erected about 1200 B.C. It is greatly hoped that the excavation of the adjoining royal offices may disclose official records, perhaps written on papyrus. The Institute is planning to continue this architectural survey throughout the whole of Egypt.
It is also expected that the work of inscription salvage will continue, and it is planned to extend it as soon as possible to the opposite shore of the Nile to include the colossal temple of Karnak. This enormous building will demand the work of a great expedition for years; but the effort must pass on to other buildings and continue until all the written records of the Nile have been saved for science.
Some of these have already reached the national museum in Cairo, but the scientific staff of the Cairo Museum is too heavily burdened with administration to undertake the publication of the vast body of written records which the museum now includes. The largest group of written documents awaiting study in the museum is a great series of wooden coffins, bearing certain enormously ancient religious texts written in ink on their interior walls. In some cases a single coffin contains as many as five or six hundred lines of writing. The coffins are usually built of massive cedar planks, drawn from the forests of Lebanon a thousand years or more before Solomon purchased his timber there for the temple at Jerusalem; for, as written in the coffins, these Coffin Texts, as we call them, are for the most part over four thousand years old, and the ancient sources from which they were copied into the coffins were probably much older. The coffins themselves begin to contain these texts in the twenty-third century B.C. Written in black ink, if they have been well protected, these texts are as legible today as when they were first written; but unfortunately they have often suffered damage and decay, even after they have reached the museum. In the great majority of cases the work of copying is therefore exceedingly difficult and laborious. Nevertheless their peculiar importance is ample compensation for the labor of copying; for in these writings we find emerging for the first time a new revelation, which was dawning upon the minds of these men of over four thousand years ago: the belief that felicity in the life beyond the grave will be reserved for those who have lived a morally worthy life on earth. In these documents therefore we have the earliest known evidence that man has discovered a realm of ethical values, a new arena of human achievement—the conquest of self, a victory higher than that of purely material conquest such as we find in those colossal royal tombs which we call the pyramids. By such purely material agencies as these titanic husks of masonry, in which they enveloped their royal bodies, the earlier pharaohs had sought to ensure purely physical survival; but after a lapse of five or six centuries which had revealed the futility of merely physical survival, we find in the Coffin Texts the dawning consciousness that worthy character will be the sole basis of survival and happiness after death.
Under the able editorship of Dr. Alan H. Gardiner of London, assisted by Dr. A. de Buck, the Oriental Institute has for six years past been engaged in copying and saving these texts. The coffins are taken to pieces in a large gallery in the Cairo Museum, the planks are set up on tables and photographed, and the hand copies, which contain much that is lost in a photograph, are carefully made and conscientiously checked. Another season will see the great Cairo series completed. The coffins in the European museums are also very nearly finished, and the few remaining in America can probably be completed in a single winter’s work. Then the laborious task of editing, translating, and publication will begin—a task of several years, for the copies comprise many thousand lines of text. When the publication is completed, we shall at last be in a position to understand the famous Egyptian Book of the Dead, which is very largely built up from the Coffin Texts; but the text of the Book of the Dead has been so corrupted by careless scribes that, in spite of the fact that several translations into English exist, much of it is at present quite unintelligible.
As I have elsewhere said, such sources as the Coffin Texts disclose to us the fact that the Nile Valley was being transformed from a battlefield of purely material conquests into an arena of social forces which disclose the emergence of conscience and the earliest known cry for social justice, later to be taken up and sounded far down the ages by the greatest prophets of the ancient East, Egyptian, Hebrew, Christian, and Moslem. At the same time other researches of the Institute are revealing man’s earliest ability to contemplate rationally the visible world about him, and disregarding the shackles of inherited belief in demoniacal medicine, to make a rational effort to penetrate the mysteries of the human body. In the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, the earliest known treatise on surgery, and at present the earliest known scientific discussion, the Institute is about to publish a document copied in the seventeenth century B.C., but without doubt a thousand years older. This extraordinary treatise reveals the fact that man’s earliest ability to divest his mind of theological tradition and to contemplate the world from a rational point of view, is already discernible at least a millennium before the rise of Greek civilization introduced the complete emancipation of the human mind.
It will be observed that in such researches as the Coffin Texts project and the study of this surgical treatise, the Institute is disclosing the gradual unfolding of ancient human life in all directions, as the earlier, purely material conquests created a stabler social situation, in which permanence and stability of institutions offered the human spirit the opportunity and the stimulus, the security and the leisure, for the development of those new and intangible values of which the life of man had never before been aware.
Reference has already been made to the heavy burden of administrative work carried by the staff of the national museum of Egypt—a burden which led the Oriental Institute to undertake the publication of the great body of Coffin Texts preserved in that museum. This situation with regard to the staff, together with the manifest insufficiency of the present museum building, became increasingly evident as the work on the Coffin Texts proceeded, and eventually led to an effort to make outside aid available. It was under these circumstances that Mr. John D. Rockefeller, jr., made his proffer of a gift of ten million dollars for a new museum at Cairo and for the maintenance of an adequate scientific staff. In making the offer of this magnificent gift, the greatest ever placed at the disposition of humanistic and historical research, Mr. Rockefeller asked only for officially guaranteed assurances that the new museum would be administered for a term of years by a staff sufficiently large and scientifically competent. The gift was never refused, as has been commonly stated by the press, but after a reasonable lapse of time, lacking the indispensable assurances for which he asked, Mr. Rockefeller withdrew his offer of the gift.
It has been one of the purposes of the Institute from the first to do all in its power to see that the enormous body of original documents of every kind, already salvaged in the Near East, should be properly housed and protected in modern museum buildings where they may be subjected to the needed processes of physical conservation, installed, and exhibited as far as may be useful and instructive to the public, and above all exhaustively studied, published, and thus made accessible to scientists all over the civilized world. It was in pursuance of this policy that the Institute has done what it could in this direction in Egypt. As we turn now to take up the work of the Institute in Western Asia, it is gratifying to report more satisfactory results in Palestine, where Mr. John D. Rockefeller, jr.’s gift of two million dollars will for the first time enable the Palestine government properly to house, preserve, exhibit, and study the memorials of a land whose past is more cherished and revered than the past of any other land. The new museum building will occupy a noble site just outside the walls of Jerusalem at the northeast corner of the city, where it will command an impressive prospect of the Temple Mount, the city walls, and the Mount of Olives. The architectural plans are about completed and the building will be ready for occupancy in 1930.
The Institute has realized from the first the vital importance of effective attention to Western Asia, where the amount of evidence to be salvaged is overwhelming. So large has been the volume of cuneiform documents, the innumerable multitude of clay tablet writings, that it has ceased to be possible for the individual scholar to keep abreast of the new materials. Every published instalment of new records has brought with it a list of unfamiliar words, which the cuneiform scholars have never seen before, and of which they often do not know the meaning. In the earlier days of cuneiform research each scholar kept his card catalogue of such new words, forming his own personally compiled dictionary. The day has long since passed when the strength and time of the individual scholar were equal to this task. Six years ago, therefore, the Oriental Institute organized a staff of collaborators consisting chiefly of graduate students and doctors of the University of Chicago, and under the editorship of Dr. D. D. Luckenbill, then professor of Assyriology in the same institution, the work of compiling a comprehensive dictionary of the ancient Assyrian language was begun. The plan was to file every occurrence of each word together with its context—a method so successfully followed in the production of the great Murray Dictionary of the English language at Oxford, and also by the Egyptian Dictionary at Berlin, a project which has been going on for over thirty years. Our Assyrian Dictionary materials at present contain nearly six hundred and seventy-five thousand alphabetically filed cards, a block of material which probably represents somewhat more than two-thirds of the available cuneiform sources. In this work we shall have when completed the first Assyrian dictionary to be based on all the known cuneiform documents. After Dr. Luckenbill’s lamented death in June, 1927, Dr. Edward Chiera of the University of Pennsylvania was called as his successor, and Dr. Chiera is now in charge of this great dictionary task.
The work of the Institute in Western Asia, however, has not been confined to home projects carried on here in America. Already in its first winter’s work in 1919–1920, the preliminary reconnaissance of the Institute in Western Asia included a hazardous expedition along the Middle Euphrates, which resulted in salvaging a group of wall paintings, the oldest of which date from the first century of the Christian era, and prove to be the first, and thus far the only known surviving Oriental ancestors of Byzantine painting. The later paintings of the group belong to the third century of our era. They reveal to us a group of Roman soldiers at worship, led by their garrison commander. These are the easternmost representations of Roman legionaries ever found, and the great fortress of Dûra-Europos, which contains the paintings, has been disclosed by further excavation as a Hellenistic foundation which is furnishing priceless evidences of the commingling of East and West in that cosmopolitan age.
In 1925, by the generous aid of Mr. John D. Rockefeller, jr., the Institute was able to begin the excavation of the historic site of Armageddon (Megiddo), the powerful stronghold of central Palestine which was so often the strategic centre of power between Asia and Africa. The commodious house which this expedition has erected at Armageddon serves as the headquarters of the Oriental Institute in Western Asia. Begun under the leadership of Dr. Clarence S. Fisher as field director, the work has been continued under Mr. P. L. O. Guy. The task of salvaging all the evidence in this enormous mound will consume years of labor. At present the excavations have passed down through four levels, and the lowermost of these seems to be a city of King Solomon. Its clearance has disclosed a series of stables, in interesting confirmation of the Book of Kings, which tells us of Solomon’s use of Armageddon as a centre of his horse-marketing operations. While the walls of the building are mostly gone, the massive stone piers which supported the roof are still in position; they still display the tie-holes where the horses were fastened, and a number of the mangers are still preserved.
The portable monuments discovered include a large number of Egyptian scarabs and other indications of Egyptian influence. Early in the work a massive fragment of a huge stone stela was discovered, bearing the name of the Pharaoh Shishak whom we know from the Book of Kings as the conqueror of Palestine in the tenth century B.C., and whom his own records in Egypt proclaim as having captured Armageddon. At the same time a number of Babylonian cylinder seals with admirably cut intaglios and cuneiform inscriptions, besides the statue of a Hittite warrior-god, demonstrate the presence of foreign influence on the Asiatic side. We are now beginning to see the streets and houses, and to behold for the first time the town plan of a Solomonic city. For the Jerusalem of Solomon has long since perished, and we are now uncovering an outlying city of his kingdom, where we can make our first observations among the buildings, like the stables we have just mentioned, which were erected in the reign of the most splendid of the Hebrew kings. This fieldwork is equipped and organized on a permanent basis, and it is expected to continue until all the available evidence in Palestine has been duly salvaged.
Among the northerners whom the Egyptian sculptors have depicted on the walls of our temple at Medinet Habu, we not infrequently find the Hittites. In the ruins of Armageddon we have found the statue of a Hittite warrior-god. During the World War, as is now well known, the researches of Hrozny and Forrer resulted in the decipherment of Hittite cuneiform, revealing a totally new world in which the so-called Hittites are discovered as actors in that great cycle of the Trojan Wars, which have thereby become a well-established sequence of historical events thus disclosed to us in contemporary Hittite sources. We begin to discern the far-reaching Asiatic background in constant contact with which Greek civilization arose. In the investigation of this situation the Oriental Institute is deeply interested.
Three years ago a preliminary exploring expedition sent out by the Institute under H. H. von der Osten as field director, resulted in the discovery of over fifty hitherto unknown Hittite sites, towns, settlements, and cities. On the basis of these observations and with funds contributed by the General Education Board, a mound known as Alishar Hüyük some one hundred and twenty-eight miles east-southeast of Angora was chosen as the first centre of intensive work. Here the excavations under Dr. Erich Schmidt have for two seasons past been revealing for the first time the sequence of evidence to be expected in such a mound, especially the stratigraphically dated pottery, as revealed by the successive strata lying one over the other. No such body of observations has ever been made in a Hittite mound, for no site of Hittite origin has ever been systematically cleared for this purpose. The mound of Alishar therefore is being used as a source for the new and fundamental data which are indispensable to the understanding of the evidence and the dating of the discoveries to be revealed by future Hittite excavation. Among the materials furnished by this excavation the most notable are perhaps a series of Hittite bodies, the first ever found, which should therefore reveal to us for the first time the race of the Hittites as determined by the physical anthropologists. These bodies are now in course of investigation by Dr. Fay Cooper Cole of the University of Chicago. It is a pleasure to express here our appreciation of the cordial spirit of cooperation which the officials of the Turkish government have exhibited toward the Oriental Institute since these Hittite researches began.
These Hittite investigations, following closely upon the heels of Hittite decipherment, are now in a stage about like that of Egyptology immediately after the decipherment by Champollion a century ago, when the great decipherer himself was the first professor of the new science of Egyptology. Hittite, however, deciphered as it was during the Great War, has been somewhat slower in developing as a branch of university teaching and research. There has never yet been a professor of Hittite.
Such were the situation and the record of the Oriental Institute in November, 1928, operating almost exclusively on temporary pledges, the latest of which would expire in 1932, and with an endowment of only $250,000. Was this research laboratory for the study of early man soon to disband its various staffs, forsake its buildings, and cease operations, or could it look forward to permanent operations? This question, a very pressing one a month ago, has now been answered.
I am authorized to announce that the Oriental Institute is now assured a splendid new building, an annual grant which ensures the maintenance of its research projects for the next ten years, and an endowment for teaching which will enable the Institute to call to its ranks a group of the leading Orientalists and historians of the world. These new funds form the larger part of plans for a total endowment of nine and a half million, which will place the Institute and its programme of research and teaching on a permanent basis. Henceforth we shall be able for the first time to look upon the Oriental Institute as a permanent agency, to be employed in meeting this great responsibility for saving and interpreting to the modern world the vast body of perishing human records which still lie scattered far across the distant lands of the ancient Near East.
As a result of this splendid support the Oriental Institute is now able to lay out a programme which will include teaching, research, publication, and a new building. The teaching staff will be comprehensive and will include the establishment of the first chair of Hittitology. Investigation in this new science, both at the University of Chicago and in field expeditions, will be carried on as permanent research projects. Among these it is hoped that the Institute may produce the first dictionary of Hittite, in connection with the development of the Assyrian dictionary. At the same time Sumerian, the language which was the first to be written in cuneiform, and which was deciphered a little earlier than Hittite, will also be represented both in the teaching and in the researches carried on at the Institute, and it is therefore planned also to appoint a professor of Sumerian, who will likewise be the first to occupy such a post.
The programme of the Institute, indeed, makes a highly specialized teaching staff indispensable. To man the staffs of its research projects both at home and abroad, it will be called upon to train many of its own personnel. To deal effectively with the great body of cuneiform documents there must therefore be available a cuneiform group including two general Assyriologists, besides the Hittitologist and Sumerologist just mentioned. All of these specialists will devote as much time as possible to the Assyrian dictionary. In Egyptology there must likewise-be a substaff of at least two men, one for the later age of Demotic and Coptic and the other for the earlier period of classical Egyptian. Both of these men will be training young recruits for service with the Epigraphic Expedition. In Hebrew and Arabic the present staff of three men now in the department of Oriental languages is sufficient. The above group of nine men will form the philological and interpretative staff of the Institute. To these must be added another group teaching the history of civilization as the researches of the Institute disclose it. This group will necessarily include a teacher of field archaeology and practical field methods; a professor of Oriental history, another of Oriental and Mediterranean archaeology, and finally a professor of Oriental art.
Under these thirteen men and often serving as their assistants and research associates, the Institute will be able to appoint a small and carefully selected group of fellows, each receiving a fellowship of $2000 a year. Whenever it becomes necessary or useful to send them out to the field for special service with one of the field expeditions, a special fund will make it possible to pay the travelling expenses of these appointees, whether teachers or fellows. Such service will be part of the fellows’ training and will often be invaluable to the researches of the teaching members of the Institute; for teaching and research will be so closely associated in the Institute that it will sometimes be difficult to distinguish between them.
Such a programme of combined teaching and research will require an extensive headquarters building here in America. There must in the first place be ample space to receive the large bodies of original monuments and other materials which the field expeditions will be sending in. There must be a laboratory with complete equipment, where they may be put through the preservative processes of physical conservation and then carefully consigned to storage magazines, or installed in museum cases. For the proper exhibition of important and instructive monuments the building must contain a series of large exhibition halls, forming the museum of the Institute. There must also be a group of work-rooms for the study of these materials, and their use in teaching will require class-rooms, seminar rooms, a large lecture hall, and especially a library and reading room, with offices for the two librarians. The Institute is already issuing an extensive series of publications, which will necessitate editorial offices, a draughting room, and a photographic laboratory with photostatic equipment. The business and administrative affairs of such an organization with an income and personnel exceeding those of the average college, will of course also require offices for the administrative staff. This building is now being planned and the ground will be broken within the next few months.
The walls of this first laboratory dedicated to the greatest transition in the whole course of evolutionary development, will not inappropriately rise close beside the imposing new cathedral recently dedicated to the upbuilding of religious life at the University of Chicago. For the disclosures which the researches of the Oriental Institute should bring to the world will contribute to make more clear to all modern men that imposing vista of the human past which saw the emergence of the highest human values, and transformed our father Man from savagery in some remote cavern, where at most he could count five by the aid of his fingers, into a godlike creature who reached out to the stars on those Babylonian plains and made the first computations which have at length enabled us to plumb the vast deeps of the universe. It was along with such responses to the visible world of Nature around him in the ancient East that these early men began to look also within and first became conscious of an inner world—a world of new and higher values, the hardly audible whispers of inner impulses about to become the imperious voice of conscience. It was there in the ancient East that the power of character first dawned in the human heart, and with it the realization of social obligations which character lays upon the individual. Here emerge for the first time these fundamentals of enlightened religion and the basis of the great religions which have since arisen in the ancient Near East.
There are some who have fancied that such investigations, dealing with an immature age, concern man exclusively in his endeavors to appropriate the purely material values of the physical world around him, and that it was not until the advent of the Hebrews and especially of Greek culture that we can follow the aspiring soul of man in such a sense that we are at once conscious of kinship and fellowship with him. In following the life of man in the ancient Orient our sense of kinship and of fellowship with him is strangely enhanced and intensified when we realize that in the lives of these men of the East the capacity for contemplation was emerging for the first time in human experience. The flowering of the human spirit is far older than we have fancied.
I wonder if Spenser realized how old were some of the thoughts which he has phrased so beautifully in the Faerie Queene. In the speech of Despair we find the following lines in praise of death, which it is very instructive to place beside the thoughts of an ancient Egyptian Job, who was ruminating on the same subject nearly 2000 years before Christ, that is some 3600 years before Spenser was born.
He there does now enjoy eternal rest,
Is not short pain well borne that brings long ease,
And lays the soul to sleep in quiet grave?
Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas,
Ease after war, death after life, does greatly please.2
The Egyptian Job
Death is before me today,
Like the recovery of a sick man,
Like going forth into a garden after sickness
Death is before me today,
Like the course of the freshet,
Like the return of a man from the war-galley to his house.
It was under the burden of suffering and misfortune that early man first gained the capacity to contemplate human life; it was under the shadow of affliction and death that the contemplative life first emerged. Those who have so often quoted Vergil’s familiar words, “et haec olim meminisse juvabit”, have probably not been aware that the same reflection had been coined in the ancient East 2000 years before Vergil lived, when the Egyptian Sindebad, in telling of-his own hardships, exclaimed: “Happy he who tells of his misfortunes after they are past!” It is to this ancient East of our cultural ancestry that we of the Oriental Institute are turning.
The inspiring task which confronts America in the Near East can not be achieved without the aid of a new generation of young Americans who are willing to spend the years necessary to gain the training and equipment without which we can not hope to meet these new responsibilities which await the historian in the ancient Orient. Such new recruits, both young men and young women, may look forward to a life-work of absorbing interest and of ideal usefulness to science, coupled with a living return for labor achieved. Great opportunities await the young historians in this field. It will be a life of some sacrifices. Those who elect to undertake it must set their faces to the East, feeling a deep reverence for the life of man on the earth and highly resolving to devote their all to this New Crusade. To such spirits it will not be irksome to dwell among the memories of the past; to them the recovery of the unfolding life of man will not be a toilsome task, but rather a joyful quest, the modern quest for the Holy Grail, from which arduous journeys and weary exile in distant lands will not deter us. For in this crusade of modern scientific effort in the ancient Orient, we know what the first crusaders could not yet discern, that we are returning to ancestral shores.
As the address above attests, James Henry Breasted was among the foremost proponents of the “New History,” which rejected the emphasis on politics and matters of state in historical scholarship. His most important work was the History of Egypt from the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest (2nd ed., 1909).
1. The paper contains some quotations, not indicated as such, from the writer’s convocation address entitled “The New Past,” published in the University of Chicago Record, Oct., 1920; and also from his article in Scribner’s Magazine, Nov., 1928.
2. Faerie Queene, IX. 40 ff.