15 East 84th St.
New York, NY 10028
Home > Graduate Program > Current Seminar Descriptions

Current Seminar Descriptions

Current Seminar Descriptions

Fall Seminars 2014

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.


The Exact Sciences in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages
Alexander Jones
Mondays, 2:00pm – 5:00pm

ISAW-GA 3002

In this seminar we will examine episodes in the circulation of scientific knowledge and practices in the Mediterranean world (broadly conceived) from the third century CE to the end of the first millennium. The approach will be primarily through study of original texts, some of which will be chosen according to the specific interests and expertise of participants.

Knowledge of one or more of the relevant ancient languages (Greek in particular, Latin, Arabic, ...) is required. Permission of the instructor required.

Late Antique Documents
Roger Bagnall
Mondays, 9:00am – 12:00pm
ISAW-GA 3007

The seminar will examine a series of papyrus archives from late antique Egypt and Palestine, mostly in Greek but with some documents partly or entirely in Latin, Coptic, and Arabic. The archives will range from villages to cities, private to public, and secular to monastic. Readings will be mostly of primary documents but also some modern discussions of the archives. The central focuses will be on the formation of what we call archives, their potential for historical study, and their limitations.

A reading knowledge of Greek and either French or German is required. Permission of the instructor required.

Art, Archaeology and Material Culture
Lillian Tseng
Wednesdays, 2:00pm – 5:00pm

ISAW-GA 3010

This seminar explores various approaches that help us understand and elaborate the unearthed objects of extraordinary craftsmanship, a large corpus of fascinating material that has not yet been fully studied by archaeologists or art historians. The seminar seeks to strike a balance between methodological reflections and case studies. Theories and examples to be investigated are not limited to any specific cultural area.

Permission of the instructor required.


Early Chinese Literary Manuscripts
Adam Schwartz
Fridays, 1:00 – 4:00pm
ISAW-GA 3012

This text-reading course will introduce the major corpora of newly discovered Early Chinese literary manuscripts and the philological methods fundamental to work with them.  Readings will be from the Zhou through the Han, with focus on Warring States genre and popular readership, provincial scripts and stationery.

Permission of the instructor required.

Greek and Roman Portraiture

Hallie Franks
Mondays, 2:00pm – 5:00pm

ISAW-GA 3013

This course will engage with critical issues that surround the study of ancient portraiture traditions in the Greek and Roman worlds. Some of the questions we will address over the course of the semester include: How do modern assumptions about the function and genre of portraiture, and its relationship to the subject, impact approaches to ancient material? How do we develop a vocabulary for the different potential relationships between subject and visual product? How do we think about intent, and what kinds of material provide context for interpretation? How do portraits serve in public or private roles in different ways? How can we use traditions of portraiture to think about ancient concepts of and expressions of various identities? This course deals primarily with classical material, but it also involves critical engagement with and analysis of the visual and the processes of contextualization.

Permission of the instructor required.

Advanced Reading of Akkadian: The Political and Cultural Relations between Assur and Babylon

Beate Pongratz-Leisten
Tuesdays, 2:00pm – 5:00pm

ISAW-GA 3014-001

In addition to consolidating the knowledge of Akkadian grammar the Advanced Reading of Akkadian Class is designed to introduce into various dialects of Akkadian from a diversity of regions and periods and to familiarize the student with a diversity of paleographies as well as text categories. The text corpus to be studied will include royal inscriptions, letters, letters from gods to the king, and chronicles.

At least one year of Akkadian is required. Permission of the instructor required.

Advanced Reading of Akkadian: Incantations, Prayers, and Rituals

Beate Pongratz-Leisten
Thursdays 11:00am – 1:00pm

ISAW-GA 3014-002

In addition to consolidating the knowledge of Akkadian grammar the Advanced Reading of Akkadian Class is designed to introduce into various dialects of Akkadian from a diversity of regions and periods and to familiarize the student with a diversity of paleographies as well as text categories. The text corpus to be studied will include incantations, prayers, and rituals from Ebla, Kanesh, Emar in Northern Syria as well as Assyrian and Babylonian cities.

At least one year of Akkadian. Permission of the instructor required.

Peoples and Lands of the Zagros: From Gutium to Ellipi

Daniel T. Potts
Tuesdays, 9:00am – 12:00pm

ISAW-GA 3018

This seminar will examine the native peoples and regions of the Zagros mountain regions (Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Luristan) from their first appearance in cuneiform sources of the third millennium BC to the end of the Assyrian/Neo-Elamite period. Principle groups and regions that will be considered include Gutium, Simurrum, Lullubum, the Turukkaeans, Mannaea and Ellipi. The role of Ur III, Kassite, Assyrian and Urartian territorial ambitions in the region will be investigated as well as the nature of the landscape and the groups that inhabited it through time.

No formal requirements, but good reading knowledge of German and French would be helpful. Permission of the instructor required.

The Transition from Late Antiquity to Early Islam

Robert Hoyland
Tuesdays, 9:00am – 12:00pm

ISAW-GA 3020-001

This course focuses on the question of what changed and what did not change in Near Eastern society in the course of the fifth to ninth centuries AD.  Consideration will be given to both the micro level (individual objects, themes, groups etc) and the macro level (was Pirenne right about the disruptive nature of the Arab conquests, is Becker's characterization of Islam as the culmination of late antique culture apt, etc). and to literary and archaeological themes and sources.

Permission of the instructor required.

The Body in the Ancient World
Claire Bubb
Wednesdays, 9:00am – 12:00pm

ISAW-GA 3020-002

This seminar will consider ancient understanding of and attitudes towards the human body. Our primary goal will be to trace the shifting conceptions of human physiology from Egyptian medical papyri to the Arabic tradition, with a heavy focus on the Greeks and Romans. How did cultures with strong taboos around the body form theories about the organs hidden within it? How did the ancients grapple with the brain, the nervous system, and the interrelationship of the soul and the body? How did the concept of the humors develop and what were the rival theories? How close did the Greeks come to understanding blood and the circulatory system and why did they miss its circular nature? Why did Galen’s physiology come to dominate Western thought for centuries after his death, and how did the Arabic authors responsible for much of its transmission receive and respond to his theories? In order to understand the cultural context behind the development and evolution of these theories, we will also briefly consider religious, literary, and artistic treatment of the body, including burial customs, the centrality of the body to early Christianity, and the fascination with the body revealed across literary genres, particularly rhetoric and the novels.

Permission of the instructor required.




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.




Past Seminars