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2024 Teaching Day at Dumbarton Oaks: Trade, Treasures, Turmoil, and the End of Late Antiquity

Posted On March 29, 2024 | 14:04 pm | by panox-leache01 | Permalink
A group of students attentively listening to a woman talking about a wall hanging in a museum.
Curator of the Byzantine Collection Elizabeth Dospěl Williams gives a tour of her newest exhibit, "Rich in Blessings: Women, Wealth, and the Late Antique Household."

Dumbarton Oaks held its twelfth annual Teaching Day, Trade, Treasures and Turmoil at the End of Late Antiquity, on Saturday, February 24. Teaching Day is an opportunity for local area undergraduates to visit Dumbarton Oaks and peek behind the scenes at the work and research conducted by our staff, fellows, and colleagues. The experience, framed by a different theme each year, gives students insight into what goes into creating the articles and books they read for class and the exhibitions they visit. This year Dumbarton Oaks welcomed students and faculty from Catholic University, Georgetown University, George Washington University, Hood College, and Northern Virginia Community College.

A group of students attentively listening to a man talking about religious artifacts in a museum.
Director of Byzantine Studies Nikos Kontogiannis gives a tour of the Byzantine Gallery.

Held in conjunction with the Dumbarton Oaks special exhibition Rich in Blessings: Women, Wealth, and the Late Antique Household, Teaching Day focused on wealth, luxury, and transition in the Late Antique Mediterranean (fourth through seventh centuries). After breakfast and a welcome from Director Tom Cummins, the students participated in three activities in the museum galleries and object storage. Elizabeth Dospěl Williams, Curator, Byzantine Collection, toured the students through her exhibition Rich in Blessings. She introduced the students to the exhibition’s themes and explained the process for creating the show, from selection of objects and content creation to the design choices that brought it all to life. In the Byzantine Gallery, Nikos Kontogiannis, Director of Byzantine Studies, asked students to explore and choose objects for group discussion around the themes of women, opulence, Africa, and late antiquity. Students engaged in lively deliberations over amulets, reliquaries, and church treasures. In object storage, Jonathan Shea, Curator, Coins and Seals Collection, conducted a handling session of East Roman and Axumite coins. Here the students discussed the economic and iconographic relationship between the two currencies and how we can use both to trace connections between the worlds of the Mediterranean, Red Sea, and Indian Ocean.

A group of people posing for a photo.
Participants in the Byzantine Studies Teaching Day on Saturday, February 24, 2024.

After lunch, four speakers presented their papers on trade, treasures, and turmoil in late antiquity, focusing on particular questions, sources, and means of understanding and presenting the past:

  • Michelle Al-Ferzly, Research Associate in the Department of Medieval Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, presented pieces of the exhibition Africa and Byzantium in her paper “Gateway to Paradise: Africa, Byzantium, and the Early Islamic World at the Met.” Students were introduced to a wide range of material from North Africa dating to the last decades of Byzantine rule and the early years after the Islamic conquest and were invited to consider this period of transition as well as the movement of luxury goods across the region.
  • Gregor Kalas, Dumbarton Oaks Fellow and Associate Professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, considered turmoil with his paper “Sticking it to the Rich in Late Antiquity: Riots and Urban Unrest." Urban riots were placed in the context of developments of late antique social structures that saw the rich often caring for the poor as well as rising tensions over income inequalities in the cities of the later Roman empire.
  • Cosimo Paravano, Dumbarton Oaks Fellow and doctoral candidate in Byzantine Studies at the Universität Wien, asked how ordinary people would react to elite objects displaying classical stories in his paper “Were Greek myths just for the rich? Ordinary Christians and pagan myth in Late Antiquity.” Using a wide variety of sources, including a comb and a playbill, Cosimo presented a picture of a theater culture keeping the pagan myths alive for ordinary Romans often at loggerheads with the Church.
  • A man presenting on gold coins to a group of students
    Curator of Coins and Seals Jonathan Shea leads a session on Byzantine coins.
    In the final paper of the day, “From Rome to Byzantium with the Science of the Human Past,” Michael McCormick, Francis Goelet Professor of Medieval History and Chair of the Initiative for the Science of the Human Past at Harvard University, spoke about the exciting future of historical research on Byzantium being realized through the barely tapped evidence of ice cores, ancient DNA, and environmental sciences. Students learned about the growing evidence of volcanic eruptions and rapid cooling responsible for the Late Antique Little Ice Age, finding evidence for and tracing the evolution of yersinia pestis, the cause of the Justinianic Plague, and what new DNA research has revealed about migrations in eastern Europe in late antiquity.

Jonathan Shea is the Curator of Coins and Seals.