Manicurist Gloria Margarita Tovar with a relief of an elite Egyptian manicurist from 2430 BC; images of men giving manicures and pedicures appear in many tombs. (Photography by Jason Reblando)
Working over time
An exhibit at the Oriental Institute Museum pairs modern workers with the ancient tools of their trades.
In one photograph, a crisply uniformed Chicago police officer, brass buttons gleaming, gazes from under the brim of his cap as he stands beside a 3,000-year-old figurine of a police chief from western Thebes, whose own official robes are folded carefully over his granite knees. In another photo, a clockmaker in a grimy work apron and optic visor poses with an ancient Egyptian water clock. A cowboy with his lariat and hat leans up next to a 2,500-year-old horse bit from the ancient Iranian city of Persepolis. A makeup artist sits with her canisters of brushes and a Nubian cosmetic palette that was used 5,000 years ago to grind malachite into green eye shadow. A poet with a tablet from the Epic of Gilgamesh, a farmer with a clay sickle from southern Mesopotamia, a funeral director with an ossuary—a “bone box”—from the West Bank.  In all, there are 24 of these images, pairing contemporary professionals with the ancient tools of their trades, in the Oriental Institute’s current exhibit Our Work: Modern Jobs—Ancient Origins. Standing amid them in the museum’s front gallery, it’s hard not to feel moved. The past persists in such small and ordinary ways; a simple workday spent baking bread or driving a cab can contain eons of human history. “One thread through this is the dignity of work,” says OI Egyptologist Emily Teeter, PhD’90, who co-organized the exhibit with OI chief curator Jack Green. “These jobs have been around forever.” Many date almost to the beginning of civilization, an idea that’s accentuated by the exhibit’s use of tintype photography. “So for somebody like Mario Silva, who’s a baker at the Medici,” Teeter says, “for him to think about the fact that he’s part of thousands and thousands of years of people doing that same job—that’s really something.”
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"1090","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"532","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"460"}}]] OI founder James Henry Breasted shows off artifacts in 1934’s The Human Adventure. Without “commonplaces” inherited from the ancients, he had mused earlier, “modern life could not go on for a single hour.” (Photo courtesy the Oriental Institute)
Teeter and Green compiled a list of jobs whose ancient roots could be concretely illustrated with an artifact from the museum’s collection. Then they recruited professionals—most from around Chicago, with the exception of Patrick Conway, AM’78, co-owner of Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing Company—to come in and sit for a photograph and talk a bit about the connection they felt to the artifact beside them. For many, it was the first time they’d thought about the historical scope of their livelihoods; for others, that perspective was already familiar. “There is a constancy here,” Illinois appellate court justice John B. Simon told OI interviewer Matthew Cunningham as he stood, arms crossed in his black robes, beside a towering cast of the law code of Hammurabi, “a linkage of past and present through the immutable, tangible expression graven in this stele.” Perhaps the most affecting photograph is one whose subject isn’t immediately clear. It shows Kenneth Clarke, president and CEO of the Pritzker Military Library, which collects books, artifacts, letters, diaries, and logbooks from soldiers. In the photo, he stands beside the Sennacherib Prism from ancient Iraq, a six-sided clay artifact from 689 BC, documenting, in tightly scripted cuneiform, the military campaigns of Assyrian king Sennacherib. In his hands, Clarke holds a logbook from 2007 that belonged to US soldiers fighting al-Qaeda insurgents in Iraq. The book is a moment-by-moment record of everything the soldiers did and saw: orders and actions, battles and casualties. Over the years, Clarke said in his OI interview, he has returned to the museum many times to visit the Sennacherib Prism, one of the earliest histories of its kind. “You are dealing with one of the first times when human beings were documenting their exploits and battles, so to speak, or what happened.” Two millennia later, that’s the work Clarke does every day.
 
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"1087","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"450","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"460"}}]] Kenneth Clarke, president of the Pritzker Military Library, holds a 2007 logbook kept by US soldiers in Iraq. Beside him is the Sennacherib Prism, detailing the wars of an Assyrian king in ancient Iraq. (Photography by Jason Reblando)
 
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"1088","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"576","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"460"}}]] Real estate broker Margie Smigel, owner of Margie Smigel Group, stands with the “Chicago Stone,” one of the oldest known land-sale records from Mesopotamia. Written in 2600 BC, it records the sale of several fields to a single buyer. (Photography by Jason Reblando)
 
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"1089","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"532","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"460"}}]] "They had so many raw materials,” says Patrick Conway, AM’78, co-owner of Great Lakes Brewing Company, imagining the fruits and honey that might have flavored the beer in a 5,000-year-old Egyptian jar, whose age coincides with a rise in large-scale brewing. (Photography by Jason Reblando)
 
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"1091","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"422","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"460"}}]] University president—and mathematics professor—Robert J. Zimmer sits with a Babylonian clay cylinder from 2000–1600 BC inscribed with multiplication tables. (Photography by Jason Reblando)
 
[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"1092","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"396","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"460"}}]] Kofi Nii, a native of Ghana and a former merchant seaman, has been a taxi driver in Chicago since 1989. These spoked wheels, made from iron and bronze and dating from 705 BC, were found in Khorsabad, in ancient Iraq, and probably came from a ceremonial cart or wheeled stand that did not survive. (Photography by Jason Reblando)
 
Our Work runs through February 23. Some artifacts are on display with the photographs; a map leads visitors to the others, in galleries throughout the museum.

Video

Photographer Jason Reblando discusses the process of creating tintypes for Our Work: Modern Jobs—Ancient Origins.

WATCH THE VIDEO AT YOUTUBE