Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Graduate School News and Events

New Initiative Takes an Interdisciplinary
Approach to Studying Antiquity

Members of the Yale community with a shared interest in antiquity have come together to form one of the largest groups of scholars in the world focused on premodern civilizations.

Faculty and students in the humanities and social sciences have joined with those from Yale Divinity School, Yale Law School, the collections, and the libraries to create this collaboration, called “the Yale Initiative for the Study of Antiquity and the Premodern world” (YISAP).

VISAP banner

The YISAP banner includes images from many ancient cultures.

By including the whole of the premodern world from East to West, and by involving literary scholars and archaeologists, art historians and cuneiformists, legal historians and anthropologists, papyrologists, conservators, and numismatists, YISAP is stimulating unprecedented research agendas. Students early in their careers are exposed to a wide intellectual world and encouraged to incorporate methodology from the social sciences as well as the humanities into their course work and dissertations.

“Antiquity” is loosely considered to span the years from 3000 BCE to 1400 CE, but some premodern societies existed into the 18th century, says Christina S. Kraus, the Thomas A. Thacher Professor of Latin, chair of YISAP’s steering committee. Kraus created the program with Hindy Najman, professor of Religious Studies and Classics; and Joseph Manning, the William K. and Marilyn Milton Simpson Professor of History, Classics, & Law.

“We have deliberately been as open as possible, in order to accommodate students and scholars who work on medieval, renaissance, and pre-colonial societies,” Kraus says. “The program includes as many ancient civilizations as want to participate. We began with a core of Mediterranean scholars, but we already have enthusiastic participation from East Asian Languages & Literatures and hope to grow more widely.”

Graduate students who participate in YISAP will be able to earn a formal “qualification.” In addition to fulfilling the requirements of their home department, they will participate in YISAP’s Ancient Societies Workshop, which meets once a month and concentrates on a different theme each year. The workshop, which has been running for five years, is paired with a new one-semester, multidisciplinary seminar held during the spring semester. The seminar allows students to explore the year’s theme more deeply and develop their own projects around it, in close consultation with their own DGS and the YISAP graduate coordinators. Students who complete the requirements will receive an official letter of qualification.

This year, the first in which the qualification is offered, the theme was “Exchange: Cultural and Economic.” Scholars from as far away as Oxford and as close as 451 College Street, from emeritus professors to graduate students, presented and discussed work on various aspects of exchange — legal, linguistic, cultural, and economic.

Zachary Smith (Religious Studies) especially appreciated the interdisciplinarity of the Ancient Societies Workshop. One paper focused on the etiology of negative reciprocity and considered the concept of vengeance in the Greek poet Hesiod and the historian Herodotus; another dealt with Aramaic as a medium of scribal cultural exchange in the first millennium BCE; a third analyzed the birth legends of the Akkadian emperor Sargon and the biblical figure of Moses as a point of exchange for ideas about empire.

“The reason this workshop is so effective is that work on these texts and cultures tends to happen within an insular discourse in a given field,” Zachary says. “In part there is a language barrier isolating the various disciplines. But the workshop discussions and talks were presented to a diverse audience: from classics to NELC to religious studies to ancient history, and a few others.” Despite their different specialities, “everyone in the room was concerned with cultural, religious, economic, and social exchange in their own materials, so the discussion was able to move forward, both by particular reference to definite corpora of literature (with which not everyone was familiar), and in a more universal way by comparing how we conceptualize major problems in our own fields with how it’s done in other fields. It makes for a rich discussion, and it changes the way you think about work in your own field.”

Noreen Sit

Andy Hogan (History) and Noreen Sit (Classics) in the YISAP seminar.

Alongside the continuing workshop, in the spring, a small group enrolled in the core seminar, led by Milette Gaifman, professor of the History of Art and Classics, and Manning. Participants questioned the nature of human interaction in ancient societies, analyzing both the theory of exchange and specific case studies. They addressed questions such as: how did individuals and groups exchange commodities, ideas, beliefs, and images? Did ancient societies feel a moral imperative to reciprocate within their own group? What are the economic, moral, and religious implications of exchange? Which elements of exchange are universal and which are based on local traditions and values?

Noreen Sit (Classics) says, “Every person came with his or her own perspective. We looked at canonical theories on exchange that could be applied to our individual areas of interest. For me, the works by Peter Blau and Pierre Bourdieu on social exchange and social capital offered new ways to think about the ancient Roman patron-client relationship, while those by Maurice Godelier and Walter Burkert deepened my understanding of ancient Greek religion as an exchange between humans and gods. Professors Manning and Gaifman asked us challenging questions, sometimes leading us out of our comfort zone so that we’d have to reconfigure what we thought we knew about certain concepts in light of the new material. The class was simultaneously a forum for the exchange of ideas and a seminar about exchange as an integral part of human civilization.”

Next year’s seminar and workshop on “Commentary” will be co-taught by Kraus and Najman. Speakers from Yale will include Edward Kamens, the Sumitomo Professor of Japanese Studies; Emily Greenwood, professor of Classics; and Eckart Frahm, professor of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations. Others will be Tony Grafton, professor of History at Princeton; Rina Talgam, professor of the History of Art at Hebrew University; and the editors of Glossator, an online journal on commentary that is housed at CUNY. In the Fall term, a seminar on “The Year 1000,” led by Valerie Hansen, professor of History; Mary Miller, the Sterling Professor of the History of Art; and Anders Winroth, the Forst Family Professor of History, will also count toward the qualification requirement.

Participating departments and schools currently include Classics, East Asian Languages & Literatures, History, History of Art, Judaic Studies, Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, Religious Studies, and the Divinity School. The graduate qualification is open to all Yale graduate students, regardless of their department.

For more information about the initiative or the qualification, contact the graduate co-coordinators, Christina Kraus and Hindy Najman, or visit the YISAP website.