Saudi Aramco World: January/February 2014 - page 5

January/February 2014
Shown with:
The basalt “Chicago Stone” from the Early Dynastic period, ca. 2600
, Iraq. (25 x 32 x 5.5 cm / 9¾ x 12½ x 2
) Written
in the Sumerian language, this rectangular stone slab is called the “Chicago Stone” because of its current home. It is one of the oldest
known display documents relating to real-estate transfers in Mesopotamia. The nine columns of text written on each of its two sides
record the sale of a number of fields, probably to a single buyer, who is unnamed. Land-sale records of the period usually record
acquisition of property by single buyers from several sellers, collections of individual and separate transactions. In the Chicago Stone,
the buyer makes a grand account of many distinct purchases. Purchases were paid in silver as well as oil, wool, bread and sheep fat.
The signs on the stone represent early cuneiform (“wedge-shaped”) writing that still resembles pictographic signs (picture-writing).
Typical of early texts, the signs are organized into “cases” (ruled boxes) that include personal names and quantities of items. This text
was read vertically from top to bottom, beginning with the leftmost column on its front (flat side).
Margie Smigel has been a broker for residential and
investment real estate for nearly three decades. She
is owner of the Margie Smigel Group,
brokerage in Chicago. She is also a graphic designer,
photographer, filmmaker, poet and writer.
“I know that [the stone] has something to do with
a real-estate contract, and when I saw it, I thought,
‘This must be what they mean by “it hasn’t been writ-
ten in stone,”’ because this
written in stone! Today,
everybody gets a survey at closing, so they actually
have a pictorial representation of what they’re buy-
ing. It all probably comes from this. They just keep
changing the required documentation over the years.
But the survey is something that hasn’t essentially
changed. Everything is still on paper at closing….
But this is so much more elegant than all those pa-
pers—this is so beautiful. It would be nice if at least
your deed were in stone. Wouldn’t it be lovely to
carry home the tablet of your deed from your clos-
ing? The irony is that I just started a new real-estate
business, and my goal is to make it completely paper-
less…. What artifacts will remain of our present-day
transactions thousands of years from now?”
Most documents from
Mesopotamia in the Early Dynastic period (ca. 2700–
) concerning land and property relate to the
temple and palace, including agricultural estates and houses in the city owned by these institutions. The “Chicago Stone,” described below, is
probably a rare example of a declaration of property acquired by an unnamed elite individual in this period.
represents a considerable change from the
typical exhibit presented at the Oriental Institute, which usu-
ally focuses on presenting scholarly research from the Institute’s
archeological expeditions or on specific researcher-led projects.
This is the first exhibit to present the commissioned work of a
fine-arts photographer, and one of the first that permits non-
specialists to take the lead in the exhibit by recording their
thoughts and ideas, in contrast to the usual didactic, top-down,
curator-led approach. In this sense, although co-curated by us,
the “Our Work” exhibit has really been curated and developed
by the portrait subjects themselves. By giving the non-specialist
both voice and image, we hope that our collections may become
more accessible to our visitors—that some new ways of viewing
and learning about the objects have been created.
Objects do not get into museum displays by themselves—
curators, preparators, registrars and conservators interact with
objects every day. Objects can take on a life of their own through
research and publication, which play such an important role in
the Oriental Institute Museum; however, objects mean nothing
without visitors, and they come to life only through their inter-
pretation and study by living people. Objects have life stories or
biographies, just like people.
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