Penn Museum unveils a new look at the ancient Mediterranean world

A sign reads Eastern Mediterranean Gallery in a large, open room.

Penn Museum's revamped Eastern Mediterranean Gallery contains nearly 400 artifacts and new interactive features. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

It all starts with the A-B-C’s.

Some of the artifacts featured in the freshly renovated and reimagined Eastern Mediterranean Gallery at the Penn Museum of Archeology and Anthropology include small ceramic objects from an Egyptian mine circa 1200 BCE, made by Canaanite miners to honor the goddess Hathor.

The miners wrote dedications to the deity, spelling out words with letters rather than using hieroglyph symbols. Those laborers may have developed the first alphabet.

An image of a goddess is visible against an orange background.
The goddess Hathor is depicted on a blue faience amulet from 1200-1075 BCE, discovered in Beth Shean, Israel. An early alphabet was used by miners to write dedications to Hathor, giving rise to a theory that the first alphabets were invented by slaves and laborers. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“There is a big debate about who actually invented the alphabet,” said co-curator Virginia Herrmann. “There’s some people who think it would have been humble miners who were looking to make their dedications to the goddess. Other people think, no, they must have been scribes — they’re coming out of an elite stratum of scribal culture. So we don’t have a smoking gun for that yet.”

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The curator stands next to a screen in front of an exhibit behind glass.
Curator Dr. Virginia Hermann demonstrates an interactive screen that allows visitors to explore in depth the migration and transformation of the Phoenician alphabet. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The new, permanent exhibition has nearly 400 objects ranging from about 2000 BCE to the more recent Ottoman Empire of the 1800s. They describe the general Eastern Mediterranean region, including what is now Egypt, Turkey, Isreal, Syria, and Iran, as a vital cross-cultural terrain that gave rise to pillars of modern civilization, including the alphabet and monotheistic religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

“The Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East are very much part of our contemporary worldview but in a very limited way, identified with conflict and with little nuance or depth,” said Museum Director Christopher Woods. “This was an incredibly important crossroads in antiquity, a crucible for innovation and new ideas.”

Woods said the exhibition also represents a crossroads of the museum, itself. The Eastern Mediterranean gallery ties together several areas of research into a single room.

A funerary bust is visible in a museum exhibition.
A funerary bust of a wealthy Palmyrene woman shows the influence of distant cultures in the Eastern Mediterranean. She wears a headdress depicting a palm tree that was inspired by Chinese silk techniques. An interactive component shows how the Palmyrene busts appeared before time stripped them of their colors. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“It includes material from our Mediterranean section, from our Egyptian section, from the Babylonian section, from the Asian section,” Woods said. “It really is a type of fulcrum for the entire museum because it, by its very nature, pulls together all of this material.”

The new exhibition is brighter than its predecessor, with new lighting and some of the windows that had been built over that are now revealed, bringing in more natural light.

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Two curators stand in the middle of an exhibition.
Penn Museum curators Dr. Virginia Herrmann (left) and Dr. Joanna Smith, stand in the reimagined Eastern Mediteranean Gallery, which focuses on the region’s importance as a crossroads of trade and culture. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The historic building on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania is undergoing a major interior transformation that will take years to complete. The unveiling of the Eastern Mediterranean gallery represents a mid-point of the multi-phase project.

The exhibition presents that region of the world as a mashup of intersecting cultures that were constantly overlapping. A portion of a boat, loosely based on a 1300 BCE trading ship discovered off the coast of Turkey in the 1980s, has been reconstructed in the gallery. Its hull is filled with artifacts found far and wide across the Eastern Mediterranean region that likely would have been traded by water.

An exhibition is visible.
An ancient trading ship is the centerpiece of the new Eastern Mediterranean Gallery at the Penn Museum. Based on a shipwreck from the late 1300s BCE near Uluburun, Turkey, it displays items like those that were found at the site. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“What we’re really talking about here is the development of much larger-scale shipping, with a ship that measures as much as 50 feet in length, able to travel over much vaster distances in the Eastern Mediterranean on a more regular basis,” said co-curator Joanna Smith. “So it’s really a vast increase economically.”

A person sits inside of a structure in a museum exhibition.
Penn Museum curator Dr. Joanna Smith sits inside a reproduction of a large storage jar called a pithos. Smith’s research allowed her to determine the size and shape of the 2000-year-old vessel using fragments, shown at right. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The exhibition also spends time explaining how these objects came to be at the Penn Museum.

Most ancient objects were acquired through the University of Pennsylvania’s own archeological excavations, beginning in 1889, often in partnership with the British Museum. Many digging projects would have been done during periods of colonialism.

A section of the gallery includes file folders containing reproductions of documents and photos from three areas of excavation in the Eastern Mediterranean: Gibeon and Beth Shean in what is now Israel, and Kourion in Greece.

The British military could sometimes block archaeological work. Inside the manila folders is a reproduction of a 1919 telegram from a British administrator in Jerusalem, described as “occupied enemy territory.” It’s addressed to Penn archaeologist Clarence Stanley Fisher explaining that he could not excavate in Beth Shean until “the future Government of the country is defined.”

A book is open with a black-and-white photo visible.
A section of the Eastern Mediterranean Gallery brings visitors to the Penn Museum archives where they can learn about the museum’s Mediterranean expeditions. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The folders include spicy details of the business of running an excavation. In 1956 archeologist Richard Pritchard frantically telegrammed the Penn Museum when the local bank in Jerusalem had not received a line of credit that would pay for the Gibeon dig: “Kindly raise hell with Philadelphia bank.”

The papers also reveal who did the actual work at dig sites. Lead archeologists would not only hire laborers locally, but key professions like illustrators, registrars, and surveyors.

A doorway is visible in a museum.
Penn Museum’s new Eastern Mediterranean Gallery reconstructs the entrance to an Egyptian command post, part of a military garrison in Beth Shean. Egyptians ruled the region for 300 years in the mid-1500s BCE. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Herrmann points to one notable Palestinian woman of Russian background who assisted Pritchard at Gibeon. Asia Halaby managed the packing of antiquities and shipping them to Philadelphia to the satisfaction of the Jerusalem Antiquities Department.

In her 1961 letter on view, Halaby explained that she personally nailed together wooden crates and screwed protective iron corners on them. It took 448 screws to secure the crates. Halaby asked Pritchard if he had anyone in Philadelphia to help him unscrew them all.

The letter was typed on letterhead from the Arab Refugee Handworks Centre in Jerusalem, an organization Halaby founded.

A black-and-white photo of a woman in front of a table full of artifacts.
Palestinian aid worker Asia Halaby volunteered at Penn Museum’s excavation at Gibeon. Her role and the roles of other local workers is recognized in a portion of the Eastern Mediterranean Gallery dedicated to the field of archaeology. (Provided by Penn Museum)

“Archaeology was just one part of her story,” said Herrmann. “She was an officer in the Arab Legion, one of the only women to hold that role. She ran a refugee handworks center where she trained Palestinian woman to make traditional embroidery to help support themselves. She was a remarkable person.”

The Eastern Mediterranean gallery opens to the public on Saturday November 19, with a weekend of activities planned.

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