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Wednesday, 23 December 2015

PhD Coursework Seminars with Professor Gil Stein

PhD Coursework Seminars with Professor Gil Stein
Dean Hallett

One concern of Classics and Archaeology postgraduates in the past has been the lack of discipline relevant coursework available for us to undertake toward completing our coursework component. This year we were tremendously fortunate to have two advanced archaeology intensive subjects taught by Professor Gil Stein, Director of the Chicago Oriental Institute. The two intensive subjects ran back to back over September. Admittedly, few of us needed to undertake the subjects for our course credit requirement, however with such a great opportunity, a group of us actively participated in the class readings, presentations and discussions.

The first of these two intensive subjects was called “Centralisation and Control in Antiquity” with a particular focus on early Mesopotamian city-states. The subject was about critically examining ancient states and the archaeological, textual and iconographical evidence for their claims to centralised power and authority. This involved a further analysis of states, models of state origins and organization and applying this to interpreting early urbanism, trade, bureaucracy and kingship. A main theme was investigating the inherent tensions between centripetal forces pulling a state to greater centralisation and the various centrifugal forces diverging and pushing against centralization. The result: a working, fluctuating compromise that is a state society. Some of these concepts were familiar ground for us, others new and intriguing. What Professor Stein did was teach in such a way that really illuminated such ideas, pulled them apart critically in light of his own fieldwork in Syria (including Raqqa) and Iraq and left us well equipped to make our own conclusions.

The second subject was called “Inter-Regional Interaction in Antiquity” within and between different regions or zones in the ancient Near East. Politically and economically when early states or empires encountered other less complex states or “chiefdoms”/“incipient complex societies” a range of interactions could take place. This subject explored the different kinds of interactions that could take place through a range of hierarchical and non-hierarchical models of cultural contact and their archaeological theory applications. These included world systems theory, colonialism, acculturation, hybridity, interaction spheres and trade diasporas. This subject built on the knowledge and skills that we had been developing in the first subject and took applying them to the next level, by examining the interactions between different kinds of societies and between different regions such as Mesopotamia, Anatolia, the Caucasus, the Central Asian Steppe and the Iranian Plateau. Professor Stein’s vast knowledge, experience of working in Iran and Afghanistan, and sense of humour helped us all to put these ideas in perspective and provided new approaches that we could all apply to our own research projects.

While he was at the University of Melbourne, Professor Stein also kindly gave a couple of other lectures. As part of our department’s popular Ancient World Seminar Series, he gave the lecture “Persian Personae: Material Culture, Ethnicity and Elite Identity in the Achaemenid Tombs from Hacinebi Turkey” to an interested audience of staff and students. He also gave a public lecture “Sweet Honey in the Rocks: Honey, Bees and Beekeeping in the Ancient Near East” as the 2015 Marion Adams Memorial Lecture. This really was a phenomenal lecture on the often overlooked, fascinating world of bees, ancient apiary, and honey in all its properties and applications. As an avid bee-keeper himself (even looking at a new Australian bee hive design while here), Professor Stein could share a lot of hands-on experience in addition to research and enthusiasm. The packed public theatre buzzed with excitement and applause afterward!

Scene from the Tomb of Rekhmire (18th Dynasty) showing the gathering of honey from ancient Egyptian beehives.

Our group also took Professor Stein, and his wife, on an expedition across the Carlton Gardens to have an Australian pub meal. This provided a lot of casual discussion where we were all able to discuss our interests, swap stories, share a laugh and attempt to explain some Australianisms.

We want to again thank Professor Stein and his wife for coming to our university and spending so much time with the postgraduate group. We hope they had an exceptional experience and enjoyed the gift made on behalf of the group, a bottle of mead (honey-wine). I believe we all learnt a lot over that month and we are grateful to have had this opportunity.

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