Dr. Breasted, shown on the left photographing King Thutmose inscriptions (1524 BC) during the 1906-7 expedition, is sometimes referred to as the inspiration for the fictional character Abner Ravenwood, mentor of the fictional archaeologist Indiana Jones . I have even heard Dr. Breasted identified with Indy himself—but the timing wouldn’t be right. The deathless myth that Indy earned his PhD. at the Oriental Institute (OI) continues to grow, given the films’ and character’s lasting popularity—just as much at the OI as elsewhere.
The real Dr. Breasted’s accomplishments eclipse fiction, and his legacy to scientific archaeology and Egyptian hieroglyphic history touches even my own family. This link will give you a summary of his accomplishments, and other links to further resources.
However, the hour-long video of the Oriental Institute’s Dr. Emily Teeter’s Lecture about Dr. Breasted will give you a feel for the man and his character, work ethic, vision, writing, translations, family, and legacy. Moreover, if you finish the video, you will hear Dr. Teeter talk about the sacking of several Egyptian museums during the “Arab Spring,” information which is otherwise hard to get, much less from an Egyptologist.
The black and white Human Adventure Film (1936) narrated by onscreen Dr. Breasted may seem quaint and dated, but you will never really comprehend the risks he took and the scope and breadth of his field work in Egypt and the Middle East unless you watch it.
Dr. Breasted put to rest the “received wisdom” of his time that the roots of Western Civilization lie in Greece and Rome. Instead, he postulated that the real roots lie in Mesopotamia and Egypt. After hearing of his timeless writing style, I ordered old copies of two of his books from Amazon: The Dawn of Conscience and The Conquest of Civilization. Bless Amazon for making the ordering of old books so much easier! When I’ve finished reading them, I’ll post reviews here and on Amazon.
Mrs. Breasted (standing camel) and son (kneeling camel) on Expedition.
The Oriental Institute (OI) at the University of Chicago.
A dozen years ago, while I was writing the first draft of the Raising Up Pharaoh epic, an archaeologist at the Oriental Institute helped me understand what proved to be the most important barrage weapon of the 4th millennium BC, the sling ball. He took me inside the OI museum and asked a curator to bring a specific sling ball for me to examine. She withdrew into the storage area and returned with a granite ball weighing a good bit more than the WWII Mark II hand grenade with which I had once been trained (in hand throwing and launching it with the M1 Grenade Adapter) at Camp Geiger.
The sling ball’s weight impressed me that it would be a formidable missile on the receiving end—a bone breaker. As I hefted it, I knew this must have been the primary artillery weapon of its time, launched en masse by a specialized unit at an approaching or ambushed enemy formation. The archaeologist explained to me that it was ubiquitous up through Roman times, and sling balls were abundant artifacts throughout the “Fertile Crescent” (a descriptive term coined by Dr. Breasted).
As I wrote the sling ball into my story, I realized that river stones (or stones of any kind) were very rare in lower Mesopotamia, where my story starts, but there was plenty of clay mud. So, despite anxiety that I was pushing the technology a bit, I “invented” baked clay sling balls to arm my folks.
Lo and behold, a couple years later, the Oriental Institute came to my rescue again, at their excavation at Hamoukar . There, the diggers were unearthing ruins from a very bad day (a “destruction layer”) when the city had fallen under a barrage of sling balls, and then been torched. Amidst the ruins, there was a potter’s shop where two dozen newly manufactured sling balls were neatly lined up, then covered by the collapsing wall and roof. Hamoukar’s destruction was C14-dated to 3500 BC, two hundred years earlier than the setting for my six Raising Up Pharaoh novels.
Oriental Institute’s website is your Professional Portal to the Past.
At the Search button on the Oriental Institute’s home page, you can access the OI’s archives on any subject related to Middle Eastern archaeology starting, of course, with the names of excavations by tell-name like “Tell Brak” (143 hits), or city-name like Uruk (408 hits), but also subjects like “sling ball” (50 hits) or “bow” (308 hits) or “spear” (177 hits), or subjects like “irrigation” (361 hits) and “road” (767 hits) and “cuneiform” (998 hits) and horse (440 hits) and camel (1180 hits), and last and dearest to Dr. Breasted: “hieroglyphics” (521 hits).
As a final example, I insert Hamoukar into Search (230 hits) and click the first on the list, “The Hamoukar Expedition.” I scan that page down to the bottom, where I find the Annual Reports from the expedition crew. I click “2006-2007 Annual Report” and start reading the “company’s” annual report to their “board of directors”—and it makes far better (more lively, clear, honest, insightful) reading than the hundreds of company reports I’ve read.
You should now understand what I’m presenting to you: a D-I-Y (Do-It-Yourself) sourcing of in-depth, professional archaeological reports of all kinds, data, and sourcing of artifacts. You can now look up each city on a map or list to find details you won’t find on Wikipedia (which should remain your first search). This capability bolsters my purpose to open your eyes and enable you to research any archaeological subject in the Middle East—and once comfortable with the milieu of 3,302 BC, to step into that world through my novels.
Thanks for visiting,
R. E. J. Burke