Founded in 1919, the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute (OI) has long conducted salvage and survey expeditions and excavations throughout the Middle East and North Africa, primarily in Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran, but also in Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Kuwait, and the Sudan. The aims of its first Director, James Henry Breasted, have been pursued in turn by Directors Carl H. Kraeling, John A. Wilson, Robert M. Adams, and George R. Hughes, who sought to map the progress of civilization in the Near East from prehistory to the modern day.

Funding for the Institute originally came from John D. Rockefeller but was later supplemented by grants from the National Science Foundation, individual member subscriptions, and, occasionally from 1968 onwards, the Ford Foundation. The OI also benefitted from partnerships and co-sponsored projects with the Smithsonian Institution, Oxford University, and other foreign institutions.

This article draws extensively on a cache of archives of archaeological newsletters published by the OI from October 15th, 1950, to March 11th, 1973. These newsletters were written by OI Directors, field directors, archaeologists, and visiting scholars who reported on their work abroad to the OI’s membership community across the United States. Often closing their letters with an appeal for financial support, the letters were as propagandistic as they were educational. The authors of the letters had a clear sense of their dual function of bringing the Near East within reach of Americans while also promoting American values abroad.

Carl Kraeling, Director of the OI from February 1st, 1950, until June 30th, 1960, had a particular appreciation for archaeology’s role in diplomacy, and especially the role of the archaeologist in representing one’s country abroad. Writing in March 1951, he commented “there is no small element of “empire building”, an empire of scholarly and scientific achievement, involved in the overseas operations of the Oriental Institute”1. Perhaps more than any other Director (or at least, more explicitly), Kraeling saw himself as a bridge between the United States and the Near East, negotiating the interests and values of each.

In 1959, the U.S. State Department invited Kraeling “to serve as one member of a four-man delegation to represent the United States at the celebration of the first anniversary of the Republic of Iraq”2. From July 14th to 17th, 1959, Iraq hosted representatives from countries around the world as they celebrated the anniversary of the assumption of power by Brigadier General Abd al-Karim Qasim.

In the subsequent newsletter, Kraeling described Qasim’s impassioned speech on the first night of the celebrations, in which he asserted Iraq’s independence from foreign influence. However, Kraeling wrote, he did express a desire to develop stronger ties with the USSR – an opportunity also for the U.S. to aid Iraq which it should not pass up3.

Three years later, Kraeling was invited again to Iraq to represent the OI at the 1000th anniversary celebration of the city of Baghdad, in December 1962. As the United States did not have a national delegation to the celebration, Kraeling spoke on behalf of the OI and his country, thanking Qasim for the opportunity and wishing Iraq a bright future. Qasim, in turn, responded to Kraeling’s speech “with a salute and a smile”4.

Archaeologists from the Oriental Institute also went to parties held by the various oil companies of Iraq and Iran, including the British-owned Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), which leased the OI materials to build their excavation house in the north5.

The OI had a close working relationship with the IPC, which would occasionally loan bulldozers and other machinery for the archaeologists to clear sand from their excavations6. Improvements were regularly made to excavation houses and general infrastructure as part of the economic “progress being made all over Iraq with the increased oil revenues of recent years”7.

Socially, Braidwood and the other archaeologists were especially well taken care of in Kermanshah, Iran, attending parties at the Oil Club “of the big refinery” and “at the Point Four rest house”8, and staying as guests of the National Iranian Oil Company9. British and Iraqi staff of the IPC even attended a lecture by Braidwood in December 1950, “on the general subject of why strange Americans come all the way to a country so archaeologically rich as Iraq and are happy on a site which yields no gold!”10

Certainly, the OI directors and archaeologists saw themselves not just as scholars abroad, researching patterns of settlement and land-use in the Near East, but also as mediators between America and the major oil companies of the region. They were also active participants in cultural diplomacy – the use of soft power (through philanthropy, cultural programming, the arts, etc.) to achieve mutual understanding through cultural exchange.

The importance of cultural diplomacy has not wavered since the 1950s and 1960s, though we often see the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) play a larger role in cultural mediation and exchange today. Burdened by new social and political pressures (outside of which the earlier OI archaeologists could operate freely), only time will tell how successful their efforts will be.


1 Newsletter from Carl Kraeling, 20 March 1951, The Oriental Institute Archaeological Newsletters (Oct 15, 1950 – Mar 11, 1973), University of Chicago, United States (“OI Newsletters”), 21-22.
2 Newsletter from Carl Kraeling, 14-17 July 1959, OI Newsletters, 327.
3 Ibid., 331-332.
4 Newsletter from Carl Kraeling, 8 December 1962, OI Newsletters, 435-437.
5 Newsletter from Robert Braidwood, 20 November 1950, OI Newsletters, 12.
6 Newsletter from Robert Braidwood, 7 May 1951, OI Newsletters, 28.
7 Newsletter from Donald McCown, 19 November 1953, OI Newsletters, 114.
8 Newsletter from Robert Braidwood, 2 October 1959, OI Newsletters, 338.
9 Frank A. Hole, “Summary Report on the Activities of the Joint Rice University-Oriental Institute Iranian Prehistoric Survey 1961”, 25 December 1961, OI Newsletters, 407.
10 Newsletter from Robert Braidwood, 6 January 1951, OI Newsletters, 14.