Institute of Historical Studies
Institute of Historical Studies

“Reclaiming the Pre-Modern Past” Series Highlights New Research on Ancient Histories

Thu, February 7, 2019
“Reclaiming the Pre-Modern Past” Series Highlights New Research on Ancient Histories

Story by Kazushi Minami Ph.D Candidate, History, UT Austin

The Institute
continues its yearlong, five-part series titled “Reclaiming the Pre-Modern Past this spring, hosting scholarly talks and a panel discussion to examine how new approaches and methodologies are enriching our understanding of pre-modern cultures.

“In recent decades, scholars have dramatically illuminated areas of human history that have long been hidden from view,” says Dr. Miriam Bodian, IHS Director and Professor of History, who developed the idea for “Reclaiming the Pre-Modern Past in collaboration with fellow early modern historians in the History Department. “The series aims to highlight some of the ways in which our understanding of the pre-modern past is being invigorated through the exploration of new questions and the application of new technologies.”

Dr. Daniel Lord Smail, Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of History at Harvard University, presented the first talk in the series last October, titled "Debt: A Natural History. “Debt is a human constant,” Dr. Smail wrote.The social implications of systems of credit and debt, however, are not; they can vary significantly over time and space. Traveling freely across the human past, this paper explores the paradoxical nature of the borrowing and lending and provides signposts for writing the natural history of debt.

Dr. Smail’s lecture was followed in November by Dr. Jonathan Kaplan, Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. His talk, “Digital Imaging and the Dead Sea Scrolls, introduced various techniques, including Photoshop, to produce images and digital reconstructions of the Dead Sea Scrolls. He discussed the application of these techniques to his research on an ancient Judaic work known as 4QMMT (Miqtsat Ma'aseh HaTorah or Some Works of the Law).

Participating in this series provided me with an important opportunity to share my work with a broader scholarly audience interested in learning about new methods for uncovering new aspects of ancient materials,” commented Dr. Kaplan.

The series continued last month with a presentation on “Using Ancient DNA to Understand the Past: Examples from the Americas” by Dr. Jennifer Raff, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Kansas. Dr. Raff discussed how paleogenomics complements archaeological and historical methods. While showing the potential of ancient DNA research for the history of the Americas, she emphasized that scholars should heed the cultural sensitivities of Native American communities, particularly when their research may reveal the histories of ancestralmigration in the Americas.

“Environmental History and the Legacy of Alfred W. Crosby” commemorated the historian who pioneered the field of environmental history with his book The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (1972). Dr. Crosby, who passed away last March, was a faculty member at the University of Texas for 22 years. The panel opened with reminiscences of Dr. Crosby before moving to an examination of his contributions to a field that continues to inspire new studies on pre-modern societies. Presenters included Robert H. Abzug, Audre and Bernard Rapoport Regents Chair of Jewish Studies, Virginia Garrard, Professor of History and Director of LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections, and Megan Raby, Assistant Professor of History. The panel was moderated by Michael B. Stoff, Associate Professor of History.

The series concludes on Feb. 28 with a talk by Dr. Timothy Beach, the C.B. Smith Sr. Centennial Chair in United States-Mexico Relations at the Department of Geography and the Environment. Dr. Beach will speak on “Climate and Soil: An Environmental History of the Maya, illuminating the Early Anthropocene through his research on the Late Holocene history of the ancient Maya. He uses climate and soil records to examine how the Maya civilization caused environmental changes such as sea level rise and climate drying comparable to those occurring in the contemporary world. This is an ongoing project using lidar imagery that is providing a much better footprint of the impacts and infrastructure of the ancient Maya on their tropical forest.

Several of the talks will be recorded and posted on the IHS Media page in the coming weeks. View a full line-up of the Spring program at the Institute for Historical Studies on the calendar page and follow IHS on Twitter and Facebook to learn more about the “Reclaiming the Pre-Modern Past” series and other events.

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