1. A footprint found on an ancient mud brick more than 4000 years old.

From Ur to eternity

The Penn Museum, founded in 1887, was the first to send a US archaeological expedition to the Near East – to the ancient Mesopotamian site of Nippur in what was then the Ottoman Empire, and now in modern-day Iraq. More than 130 years and hundreds of international expeditions later, the museum remains a world leader in Near Eastern archaeology, with a collection of more than 100,000 artefacts; a leading collection of cuneiform tablets bearing early literary, historical and economic texts; strong Islamic-period literary and ethnographic collections; and a rich archive of historic documents, photographs and field notes (as well as ongoing research projects in the region).

The Penn Museum has just opened its new Middle East Galleries that take the visitor on a remarkable 10,000-year human journey, from life in the earliest villages and towns to increasingly complex cities. More than 1200 objects from the museum's own collections, including such world-renowned treasures as the jewellery of a Sumerian queen, from 4500 years ago, are on show. Large-scale video projections, made-to-scale models, illustrated scenes from the reconstructed past, smaller interactive stations and touchable reproductions provide different ways of exploring the collections. The new galleries display treasures from the Penn Museum's own collections – from the broad region between the Mediterranean Sea and the highlands of Afghanistan, from the Black Sea to the Arabian Peninsula, emphasising the diverse settlement sites now found in Iraq and Iran. Beginning with a more than 4000-year-old human footprint found on an ancient mud brick used in construction at the royal city of Ur, the displays follows the human journey through millennia – from village life in early settlements, to larger towns, to complex cities, emerging empires, and trade regions around the world.

2. Exquisite Bull-Headed lyre – one of the earliest musical instruments in the world

The key themes include: how landscape and environment affect settlement; trade and exchange; organisation and diversification; technologies; and shared systems of religion and belief.

The Penn Museum/British Museum joint excavations to the Mesopotamian city of Ur, led by Leonard Woolley from 1922 to 1934, unearthed spectacular royal graves – including the tomb of Queen Puabi, circa 2450 BC. By the Third Dynasty of Ur 350 years later, kings were building the first monumental ziggurats. Bustling with more than 20,000 inhabitants, Ur had all the features of a city – a central administration, legal codes, monumental buildings, districts, suburbs, industry, a global trade network, art and music – and literature. Visitors will be able to 'meet' some of Ur's citizens – including a merchant, a priest and a stone-cutter – at an interactive station.

The dramatic tomb excavations at Ur form the visual centrepiece of the Middle East Galleries. On display from the tomb of Queen Puabi is an elaborate headdress and cape made of gold, silver, carnelian and lapis lazuli, as well as silver and gold bowls, cups and jars. Other star finds from the excavation include the exquisite Bull-Headed lyre – one of the earliest musical instruments in the world and the 'Ram-in-the-Thicket' sculpture, once part of a piece of royal furniture.

Lindsay Fulcher