Think of the ancient Middle East as the first data point in understanding the story of humans, together.

This is the beginning of us.

What are the ideals and ambitions, the rules and tools, the material and conceptual breakthroughs necessary to forge a collective identity and life? How does “me” become “us”—and how fragile or resilient is that sense of unity? We live in a time when these questions have fresh urgency. But at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, we know these are the very same questions that humans confronted thousands of years ago, when they first built lives together in the ancient Middle East, giving rise to the world’s first villages, cities, and empires. Understanding how these people interacted with and depended on each other then, offers us new ways to understand who we are now—and who we can be.


Our purpose involves us in the task of recovering a great group of lost civilizations.

James H. Breasted, OI Founder
James H. Breasted at his desk in Haskell Hall
James H. Breasted at his desk in Haskell Hall

In 1919, James Henry Breasted founded the OI at the University of Chicago with a radical idea. He insisted that who we are—how we live as humans together—began not in Greece or Rome, but rather in the complex civilizations that emerged in an area of the ancient Middle East that he vividly named “The Fertile Crescent.” Breasted was appointed as faculty in 1894 by William R. Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago, and received financial support and encouragement from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., for the founding of the OI.

The OI has led a century of excavations and research projects throughout the Middle East, many of which continue today in countries including Egypt, Iraq, Turkey, and Afghanistan. The comprehensive and rigorous work of OI scholars deciphers ancient languages; reconstructs histories, literatures, and religions of long-lost civilizations; and creates transformative dictionaries that serve as cultural encyclopedias essential to our understanding of the ancient world.

100 years of research
10,000 years of history