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Learning to Read

Posted On August 13, 2015 | 10:19 am | by meredithb | Permalink
Byzantine Coins and Seals Summer Program

This summer, eight students attended the Byzantine Coins and Seals Summer Program, from July 6 to 31. The program was helmed by Consultant for Byzantine Sigillography Eric McGeer; Professor Vasiliki (Vasso) Penna of the University of the Peloponnese, in Greece; and Post-Doctoral Teaching Fellow Jonathan Shea. The participants were Sergio Basso of the University of California, Berkeley; Stefanos Dimitriadis of Koç University; Polina Ivanova of Harvard University; Rózsa Márton of Eötvös Loránd University; Nikolaos Mastrochristos of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens; Brian Salas of the University of Chicago; Panagiotis Theodoropoulos of King’s College; and Rossana Valente of the University of Edinburgh.

Informal courses at Dumbarton Oaks go back to the late 1970s, when sigillography advisor Nicolas Oikonomides ran summer student workshops on how to read seals. The courses were suspended following Oikonomides’ passing, in 2000, but in 2005 John Nesbitt revived the program, formalized the curriculum, and added coins instruction. Since then, the Coins and Seals Summer Program, which alternates annually with the Byzantine Greek Summer School, has been an integral part of the summer offerings at Dumbarton Oaks.

Students apply with project proposals that utilize coins and seals, and receive four weeks of instruction in reading, dating, photographing, and cataloging. The focus on material culture was a highlight for this summer’s participants, who pointed to the scarcity of courses on coins and seals at their home universities. As Ivanova explained, “It’s very difficult to take a class on numismatics, and specifically on Byzantine numismatics. I think this course is extremely valuable because it’s so condensed and because it offers so much hands-on experience. We’re able to handle Byzantine coins here, to actually feel them and try to identify them.” Ivanova is working with coins to explore the shifting economic role of the Pontus region, which was at the periphery of the Byzantine Empire but grew in importance after its conquest by the Seljuks in the eleventh century.

Students also emphasized the advantage of studying the material within a community of experts, rather than simply learning from books or journals. “Learning things together, staying with other people, and being inspired by a chance remark—that’s why I’m looking for people, not for articles. Especially someone like Vasso Penna, who is able to teach us how to let coins speak,” said Basso, whose project proposed the use of coins to date artifacts found at Crecchio, an archaeological site in Italy.

For Shea and McGeer, one of the joys of teaching the course is the elasticity of the curriculum for a small number of students with focused research projects. “Part of the enjoyment is the serendipity. Students often do their best work when they trip over something and find it worth pursuing,” McGeer observed.

The main goal of the course is to provide young scholars with a new tool to examine history, whether they make coins and seals the focus of future work or use them as ancillary sources. In either case, Shea said, the program is designed to ensure that students leave with confidence in their ability to work with objects that can be very difficult to read. He added, “I hope that, when presented with a seal or coin—when someone sends them a photograph or when one turns up in a dig—they’ll know what to do with it.”

Shea and McGeer also pointed to the course as an opportunity for the students themselves to pass on knowledge in the classrooms, museum halls, and archaeological sites in which they work. “They can use the course to round out their teaching repertoire in addition to applying it to their own work,” McGeer said. “We hope that it ripples outward.”