From Art to Archaeology

Funerary statuettes from the tomb of Nykauinpu from Giza (ca. 2477 B.C.). Oriental Institute Museum.

Learning is lifelong, and the learning of archaeology for me as a person who comes from the arts is a monumental step not only in my career, but also the way I connect with my own cultural roots and greater human history. The past six months since I began my new role at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago as a museum educator has been an astonishing journey in exploring the ancient world and human’s unending creativity throughout history.

In recalling my first encounter of archaeology, it happened during my family trip to Xi’An in my high school years. I remember the visit to the Terra-Cotta Warrior Burial, a massive tomb with more than 8,000 life-size clay figures of armies and chariots that the first emperor of Chines built so lavishly for protection in his afterlife. It was a mind-blowing experience. There I learned that a discovery of fragments of a clay figure was made by a group of peasants in the 1970s as they were digging a well which led to one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of modern world history. The Museum of the Terracotta Army, a four-acre underground pit, has been opened around the discovery site since 1979 to the public.

The magnitude of the collection of the 2,000 year-ago artifacts in this Burial still stun me today even so many years after the trip. Each one was crafted with distinguished stylistic postural expression and unique features on its armors. Archaeology and the history unearthed through the artifacts open up a door for us to learn about the stories and myths of ancient life.

I have come to a place where I circled back to archaeology after a voyage in teaching. Six months into my new role at the Oriental Institute, I have the privilege to get much closer to the study of the ancient world. The Oriental Institute is an interdisciplinary research center and the museum exists to promote understanding of the development and functioning of the ancient civilizations of the Near East by conducting archaeological excavations, systematic stewardship of museum collections of artifacts, philological studies, historical research, and the development of dictionaries of ancient languages in the Near East.

Tracing the origins of objects excavated, discovering stories about life in the past, and making connections between then and now in the field of archaeology as well as having the opportunity of being in a place like the Oriental Institute grants me a completely new lens of looking at and deciphering ancient cultures. I have come to see the profound relationships between the artifacts and their contexts in forming our knowledge about the past are interwoven – across times, people, things they make, and the environments in which they live.