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Current Seminar Descriptions

Current Seminar Descriptions


To enroll in an ISAW seminar, you must first obtain the permission of the instructor. You may then forward the permission email to to get the registration access code.

Perspectives on the Ancient World in Medieval Islamic Histories
Robert Hoyland
Thursdays 9:00am – 12:00pm

ISAW-GA 3020

In this course we will read from the works of a number of Muslim historians in order to ascertain their attitude, and that of Islamic civilization at large, towards the ancient world.  The aim will be to explore how the Islamic world situated itself with respect to past civilizations, why it favoured some past peoples over others, and how the forces of Time, Fate and God's will played a part in the evanescence of the past.

Arabic and permission of the instructor required.

Wall Paintings in Central Asia
Sören Stark & Fiona Kidd
Mondays 5:00 – 8:00pm
ISAW-GA 3009

Wall paintings constitute, since the 1st millennium BCE, at least one of the major means employed to decorate architectural spaces of various sorts – religious (temples, monasteries), communal-palatial, private dwellings, tombs, etc. – throughout Central Asia. As such, murals constitute, in particular for the pre-Islamic period, one of the main categories of visual arts at our disposal. Yet wall paintings are not only significant for the study of art history in pre-Islamic Central Asia: in fact – and considering the near complete loss of other visual materials such as textile wall hangings and illuminated books, and the general scarcity of written sources – murals constitute a critical source for our understanding of the religious, social, economic and sometimes even political history of the area before the advent of Islam.

This class aims at a comprehensive overview of the most important sites and architectural ensembles with substantial wall painting remains in the area. Chronologically they range from the final centuries BCE to the 9th/10th century CE. Geographically we will focus on the regions of Choresmia, Sogdiana, Bactria-Tokhāristān and the Tarim basin. This will allow us to review difficult and still much-debated questions concerning the production of wall paintings in Central Asia. Those include questions regarding the significance of regional styles as evidence for regional schools and itinerant workshops, the social and economic background of artists and patrons, ways of transfer of artistic models, and regional variances regarding cultural preferences in elite representation.

Permission of the instructor required.


Literature and the Question of Genre in the Ancient Near East
Beate Pongratz-Leisten
Tuesdays 2:00pm – 5:00pm
ISAW-GA 3014

In the last decades the category of ‘literature’ in the Ancient Near East has come repeatedly under scrutiny. It included among other topics fierce discussions about how to define the literary corpus, orality and aurality, the notion of genre, the validity of historical references in literary works and the fluid boundaries between ‘literature’ and ‘historiography,’ where to locate literary production - school, temple, or palace, and how far the production process determined functional and pragmatic aspects of literary works.

To isolate literature from its historical context as l’art pour l’art aesthetics favoring formalistic features over pragmatic and historical concerns certainly does not do justice to ancient literary works. While formalistic features such as the use of literary dialects might operate as a way of categorization, recently, due to the nature of the texts, narratology as well as fictionality have been considered equally important. Literature rather should be defined as a particular medium alongside other media as part of the social and cultural discourse. Moreover, what makes an oeuvre historically significant, is not necessarily established by the qualities of the work or by the author but by its history of reception and its intertextuality and intermediality. The seminar investigates what constituted literary works, how literary works became part of the stream of tradition, were affected by and affected historical conditions, and entered intertextual and intermedial relations.

Knowledge of Akkadian and permission of the instructor required.


Dilmun, Magan, and Meluhha
Daniel T. Potts
**This is a condensed seminar. The class will meet twice a week from January 27 – March 18; Mondays 1-4pm and Tuesdays 9am-12pm**

ISAW-GA 3018

Third millennium cuneiform sources refer to three lands associated with the 'Lower Sea' (Persian Gulf): Dilmun, in the northern and central Gulf, centered on Bahrain, the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, and Failak (Kuwait); Magan, in the Oman peninsula; and Meluhha, conventionally identified with the Harappan civilization in the Indus Valley. In this seminar we will examine the archaeological and cuneiform sources from and about this region, paying particular attention to the period c. 6000 BC to the 1st century AD. The seminar will emphasize local developments in the region, including both funerary and settlement data, and evidence of inter-regional contact (ceramics, stone vessels, metals, semi-precious stones).

Permission of the instructor required.


Greco-Roman Astrology and Astronomy and the Antecedents
Alexander Jones
Mondays 2:00 – 5:00pm
ISAW-GA 3002

This seminar will be an introduction to the goals, methods, and practices of Greek mathematical astronomy during the period from the second century BCE through the second century CE (essentially from Hipparchus to Ptolemy) and to the Greco-Roman astrology that depended on this astronomy. Sources will include texts transmitted via medieval manuscripts (e.g. Ptolemy's works in Greek and Arabic), papyri, and presumed adaptations of Greek astronomy and astrology in other traditions such as those of India. Particular attention will be paid to the Greek reception and modification of elements of astronomy and astrology from Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Knowledge of Greek or other languages significant for these traditions and permission of the instructor required.


Landscapes and Territoriality in Western and Eastern Asia BCE
Lorenzo d’Alfonso and Roderick Campbell
Wednesdays 9:30am – 12:30pm ,
ISAW-GA 3012

How is place and landscape conceived in times and places before nation states, maps and national borders? What, if any, notions of territoriality were in operation in ancient polities like the Shang kingdom at Anyang or the Neo-Hittite polities of Anatolia? How are they linked to such concepts as community, town/city, and land? And on the other hand, how do modern scholars reconstruct landscapes and territoriality of ancient polities?

The course will approach these and similar questions dividing between classes on theory where some basic methodological contributions are discussed, and classes devoted to case studies, where specific aspects are dealt with in well-defined historical context.

At lease one foreign language and permission of the instructor required.


Early Chinese Epigraphy: Bones, Bronze, and Bamboo
Roderick Campbell and Adam Schwartz
Thursdays 2:00pm – 5:00pm,
ISAW-GA 3010

In this course students will acquire a foundation in epigraphic methodology and work through a selection of epigraphic texts from Shang through Warring States times. Fundamental epigraphic training will include an understanding of the basic principles of Chinese graph formation as well as the fundamentals of phonological, morphological and syntactic reconstruction. Consideration of writing media, context and register will also be addressed. Familiarity with corpus access (through compendium, on-line databases, etc.) and resources (dictionaries, concordances, etc.) will form part of the training on each corpus discussed. The main corpuses of excavated texts will be Shang oracle-bone inscriptions, Shang and Western Zhou bronze inscriptions, and Eastern Zhou bamboo slips. We will attempt to cover a wide range of genres with an eye to giving students as broad a paleographic base as possible.

Coursework will consist of weekly assignments – usually in the form of translations and preparation to read specific texts in common. The final course assignment will be the annotated translation of a text of reasonable size and complexity.

Ability to read classical Chinese and permission of instructors required.


Maps, Models, and Databases: Digital Tools for the Ancient World
Sebastian Heath
Wednesdays 2:00pm – 5:00pm
ISAW-GA 3013

Our goal in this course is to gain hands-on skills with the digital tools that are changing the nature of research and the publication of scholarship related to the Ancient World. The focus is material culture and throughout the term students will work with free tools that enable sharing of results. Students will not only learn how to make 3D models of objects in museum collections, but also how to choose open formats that let one publish those models on the Internet. Google Maps and Earth will play a prominent role, and students will also use the more capable web-based GIS CartoDB ( A goal will always be to explore how these tools can work together to make innovative presentations of scholarly research. Other topics include the role of open licenses in modern scholarship, database structures appropriate for capturing the heterogeneity of ancient material culture, network analysis, the geographic component of ancient primary sources, and the deployment of Linked Open Data. Throughout the term students will evaluate both cloud-based tools and downloadable software, while also reviewing websites and digital publications that provide access to important resources. Students will gain an ability to use current tools as well as the confidence to assess new tools as they become available in the future. This course will be of particular interest to students needing to incorporate digital manifestations of material culture into their dissertations or other scholarly work.




Public Health in the Ancient World
Roger Bagnall and Roderick Campbell
Mondays 2:00-5:00 p.m.;
ISAW-GA 3022

Revolutionary developments in the biological sciences, accompanied as well by discoveries in the physical sciences, have opened up possibilities for study of the human past unimaginable a generation ago. To long-established methods dependent on description and quantification have been added technologies that allow us to find out, for example, whether people buried at Rome were also born and raised there, or what kind of carbohydrates dwellers of an Egyptian oasis were eating. The routes of transmission of plant species can be seen as never before; modern demographic techniques like model life tables have given new life to ancient demography, once a laughingstock; scientific excavation of arid sites coupled with new technologies has produced information on morbidity and mortality unobtainable until now. We have now the opportunity to begin to put together a comprehensive sense of the factors of health over the vast span of human history we call antiquity, while at the same time study changing, collective human responses to disease, nutrition, risk and ultimately, mortality.

This course will have a symposium format with different specialists each week presenting on a range of topics from paleopathology to ancient demography. In addition to weekly response papers students will write a final paper relating one or more of the symposium’s topics to the overarching theme of public health in the ancient world.

Permission of the instructor required.

Iranian Archaeology in the 21st Century
Daniel T. Potts
Tuesdays 9:00am – 12:00pm
ISAW-GA 3018

The publication of recent excavations (post-2000) in journals like Iran, Iranica Antiqua and Archäologische Mitteilungen aus Iran und Turan, as well as in monographs and conference volumes (published inside and outside of Iran) has resulted in a significant addition to our knowledge of Iranian archaeology in all periods of the pre-Islamic past. Accessing that new data and integrating it with what was already known is not always easy, however. This seminar will involve close reading of the past 13 years of scholarship in Iranian archaeology with an emphasis on primary publications of excavations and museum collections (rather than secondary literature). The aim will be to evaluate this new material and assess how it fits in with what was already known about the relevant site, region and/or period; consider where it challenges previous beliefs; and discuss what new questions it raises.

Permission of the instructor required.


Hittite History, Language & Archaeology
Lorenzo d’Alfonso
Mondays, 9:00am – 12:00pm
ISAW-GA 3013

The Hittite empire had a profound impact on the history of Pre-classical Western Asia. After a period defined by the presence of local principalities, and a formative phase in the 17th century, a complex political machine developed in Central Anatolia. The creation of a system of large structures for containment of water and seeds allowed local societies to overcome for the first time the regional challenges resulting from the weather and landscape. These important structures are part of a comprehensive approach to complex social life, whose effects became concretely observable in the so-called Early Empire. In this period, for example, normative texts were produced, some defining the administrative function of the capital and peripheral districts, some –what we call rituals and feasts-, defining the cultic activity between the core to the periphery, and the syncretic pantheon. The tension between the “possible empire” emerging from these texts and the local developments produced by various actors can be understood through the lens of the historical context in which the empire operated for almost 500 years. The course aims at providing participants with basic information and updated research on the Hittites. Each class will be divided into two parts: one touching different themes of the history and archaeology of the Hittites; the other providing an introduction into the Hittite language and script.

Participation 30%; one presentation during course 40%; final written exam 30% (no final paper)

Requirements: one foreign language: either French, Italian or German

Permission of the instructor required.


Introduction to GIS & Spatial Analysis in Anthropology & Archaeology
Emily Hammer
Wednesdays 9:30am – 12:30pm
ISAW-GA 3012 – Class takes place at 24 Waverly Place, Rm. 668

This course aims to provide a basic understanding of how remote sensing data (satellite imagery and aerial photographs) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can be used to visualize, analyze, and integrate archaeological, anthropological, historical, environmental, and hydrological data.  It also aims to introduce students to the process of designing and carrying out a spatial research project.  Students will learn basic techniques for acquiring, manipulating, and creating geospatial data in several forms, including pixel-based satellite imagery and digital terrain models as well as point, line, and polygon representations of data.  Each week, these techniques will be applied to sample archaeological data and also to data from a region/topic chosen by the student.  In addition to lab-based work, students will learn basic field techniques of field survey, including how to navigate and record using a Global Positioning System (GPS) handheld receiver, how to integrate GPS data into a GIS database, and how to produce maps for fieldwork and publication.  The course will use ESRI's ArcGIS software.

Permission of the instructor required.


Time in Greco-Roman Antiquity: Texts and Material Culture
Alexander Jones
Thursdays 2:00 – 5:00pm
ISAW-GA 3002

In the ancient Greek and Roman world time was initially flexible, inexact, and tied to the natural environment. The risings and settings of the Sun, the phases of the Moon, and the cycle of the seasons supplied the basic framework of days, months, and years by which people organized daily life, commerce, religion, and government. However, astronomers, mathematicians, mechanicians, and scholars developed increasingly precise ways of measuring, organizing, and keeping track of time. This seminar will investigate the varied technologies and practices of time management known from textual sources and artifacts, and the interaction between the development of these technologies and practices and the awareness and representation of measured time in Greco-Roman society.

Permission of the instructor required.


Advanced Reading of Akkadian - Literary Texts in Ancient Mesopotamia
Beate Pongratz-Leisten
Tuesdays 2:00 – 5:00pm
ISAW-GA 3014

This course is intended to provide an insight into the corpus of literary texts of Mesopotamia. It includes a mix of poems, epics, and myths, the Agushaya Hymn, Tukulti-Ninurta Epic, the Erra Epic, Anzu Myth and Etana Myth, just to name a few. Most of these texts come in various versions from different periods thus allowing for investigating their transmission through time. They are written in the Hymnic-Epical Dialect or the Standard Babylonian dialect. Consequently, beyond acquiring knowledge of great Mesopotamian literary works, the students will train in reading these literary dialects. At least one year of Akkadian is required.

Permission of the instructor required.


Past Seminars