During the 1920s and '30s, the frontier of discovery was found in the dusty fields and dug pits of archaeological expeditions.
In 1922, Howard Carter's find of Tutankhamen's tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings gripped the public, and archaeologists soon became media darlings. Contemporary news reports provided vivid pictures of life on excavations and fantastic glimpses of the culture, history and lives of ancient peoples.
The same year that Carter made headlines with his discovery, Philadelphia's own University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the British Museum embarked upon a joint expedition to the ancient site of Ur in present day southern Iraq.
Led by British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley, this expedition astonished the world by uncovering a 4,500-year-old royal cemetery with more than 2,000 burials that detailed a remarkable ancient Mesopotamian civilization at the height of its glory.
Using the best known practices of his time, and drawing upon the accepted knowledge of biblical theorists, Woolley connected the dots, as he saw them, between the physical evidence found in the tombs he uncovered and the biblical narrative. He concluded that he had found the site of the flood of Genesis and tangible proof of the veracity of the story of the binding of Isaac.
Clumps of "flood mud" from Ur are still stored in the museum basement. Today, while many of Woolley's conclusions are discredited, his accomplishment in respectfully and professionally unearthing one of the world's treasures of the ancient world is unquestioned.
The artifacts of the Ur expedition were divided among the Penn Museum, the British Museum and Iraq. Recently the University of Pennsylvania Museum opened a long-term exhibition that presents a reinstallation of its collection: "Iraq's Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur's Royal Cemetery."
Included are field notes, photographs and archival documents, and more than 220 extraordinary ancient artifacts.
Among the grouping are five outstanding and acclaimed objects: the "Ram-Caught-in-the-Thicket"; the "Great Lyre"; Queen Puabi's jewelry and headdress; an electrum drinking tumbler; and a gold ostrich egg.
These items, along with other selected Ur treasures, traveled to several important museums while the Penn museum constructed the collection's new permanent exhibition gallery. I saw the traveling exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York. It sparkled and drew "oohs" and "aahs" and media acclaim, similar to its initial reception in Philadelphia almost 80 years ago.
Unfortunately, when I walked into the new third-floor Penn gallery I was immediately taken aback. My immediate reaction was "trade show": Beautiful objects have been shoe-horned into an unattractive small space and overwhelmed with didactic wall panels that "suffocate" them.
The Great Lyre resides against a wall in very dim light. Most of the showcases can only be seen from one side. Some are pushed together into corners and are even less visually accessible. Hanging signage banners in certain places partially obscure text panels.
The installation is truly unfortunate because the stories told here are, indeed, fascinating. In an example of many, Woolley's supposed "Ram in the Thicket" is carefully explained as a goat reaching into a tree for food, typical imagery of the time as the new installation makes clear, not proof of the story of Abraham and Isaac as Woolley opined.
However, the "Ram" and its accompanying photographs and text are crowded against a wall that more accurately defines a walkway than an exhibition display space.
Visitors to "Iraq's Ancient Past" will still be rewarded. While Woolley had to dig through massive quantities of dirt to uncover treasure, today's visitors have only to sort through visual confusion.