Exhibit at Oriental Institute to show how ancient cultures commemorated the dead

All cultures throughout time have tried to honor and commemorate those they have lost. A new exhibit at the Oriental Institute Museum will show how the living cared for the dead, and how the ancients conceptualized the idea of the human soul in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and Israel/Palestine.

The exhibit, “In Remembrance of Me: Feasting with the Dead in the Ancient Middle East,” opens to the public April 8. The show is built around two themes: the regular offering of food and drink to nourish the dead in the afterlife, and the use of two- or three-dimensional effigies of the dead, often made of stone, to preserve their memory and provide a means of interaction between the living and the dead.

The Oriental Institute’s Neubauer Expedition to Zincirli, Turkey in 2008, during which an inscribed funerary monument was discovered, inspired the exhibit. The monument, which dates to about 735 B.C, is carved with an image of a man named Katumuwa seated before a table heaped with offerings and with a lengthy inscription in Aramaic—a language widely used in the ancient Middle East. The text proved to be the longest-known memorial inscription of its type.

Until the discovery of the stela, scholars did not know about the practice of enacting annual sacrifices for the soul of the deceased. The discovery also revealed that the people of Zincirli, located in the ancient Syro-Hittite region of southeastern Turkey, believed Katumuwa’s spirit resided in the monument.

“The text gave us a whole new understanding of the ancient belief system in eastern Turkey and northern Syria. Although Katumuwa knew that the realm of the dead could be a cruel and lonely place, the rituals he describes that his family would enact on his behalf would give him a happy afterlife,” said exhibit curator Virginia R. Herrmann, PhD’11. Herrmann, now a visiting professor at Dartmouth College, was part of the team that discovered the stela and co-curated “In Remembrance of Me.”

Before the discovery of the stela, it was not understood that, in eastern Turkey and northern Syria, such banquet scenes depicted on other monuments were special pleas to the viewer to make annual offerings of animal sacrifices and grapes or wine. Those offerings were directed not only to the deceased, but also to local gods. The biblical commandment to “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long” (Exodus 20:12), is rooted in the tradition expressed by the Katumuwa text.

The text also revealed that the rituals took place not just at the grave or in the home, but in a private mortuary chapel next door to a temple—exactly the setting where the Katumuwa stela was discovered. The stela itself is in the Gaziantep Museum in eastern Turkey, but a precise facsimile of its front has been produced for the exhibit.

The exhibit also features a video produced by video artist Travis Saul, MFA’12, in collaboration with Herrmann and her colleague and exhibit co-curator, Oriental Institute Associate Professor David Schloen. It provides background on the site of Zincirli, the discovery of the stela, a recreation of the rituals enacted to commemorate the soul of Katumuwa, and a recitation of the text in Aramaic and English.

rituals of remembrance

Other sections of the exhibit explore how commemoration and communication with the dead was enacted, the importance of banquet scenes, and how the concept of the soul differed in ancient Egypt, Iraq and Israel/Palestine.

Artifacts include a stone plaque from Mesopotamia that shows a banquet, an Egyptian wooden model of men preparing food that was thought to provide food eternally for the deceased, and stone schematic human figures that living relatives thought to have contained the soul of the dead. Loaned objects were provided by the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and include a stela of a woman of a type similar to that of Katumuwa.

Rituals of remembrance of lost loved ones—from memorial services to Day of the Dead celebrations in Latin America and even the “funeral selfie” phenomenon—continue to be an important aspect of many cultures. Understanding how the ancients considered and prepared for mortality and worked to preserve the memories of their family members raises questions about how contemporary society contends with these same issues. An epilogue to the exhibit features modern objects of commemoration from many nations, reminding the visitor that rituals that link the living and the dead remain a part of our lives.

Jack Green, chief curator of the Oriental Institute Museum, said, “In coordinating this exhibit, we found that although death can often be a taboo topic in Western society, there are plenty of examples today that commemorate the dead through festive and colorful celebrations—the Dia de Muertos being just one example.”   

For more information on the exhibition and a list of programs associated with it, visit https://oi.uchicago.edu.