Tag Archives: Georgia Michael

Digital palaeography come of age? Not quite yet

We are now firmly into 2020 in my blog blacklog, and that was, as you presumably remember, so very different a year that I amassed rather fewer stubs than usual and might even move through it mercifully quickly. For now, however, we’re in mid-February of that year, when an old friend who likes to scour the Internet for medievalist news, or as in this case even older, picked up on a recent study of digital methods for dating ancient texts and posed me the reflection which forms the title above: was this digital palæography finally coming of age?1

Now, I am less concerned than some have reason to be about the possibility of my expertise and training being replaceable by automation, although with every attempt to automate marking or package teaching content in such a way that anyone can deliver it whether expert or not, we get a step closer.2 Still, the actual doing of historical analysis, whether I am paid for that or not, will probably remain a thing beyond computerised automation until we somehow go full-on Hari Seldon, and the database categories you’d need for such an analysis will probably take a few more civilisations to work out, so I think I’m safe. But at the fringes of the historical endeavour, if I was picking a discipline for highest vulnerability to digitsation and automation, it might well be palæography. That’s not just because almost no institution wants to pay for there to be palæographers, despite the near endless potential they have for research contributions; it’s also because at its absolute basic simplest, the discipline of palæography is based on the ability to recognise consistent graphical patterns, that is, letter-forms, and graphical pattern recognition (rather than social pattern recognition à la Seldon) is a thing computers are good at.

Screenshot of the Digipal database interface showing the letter "eth" as written at Worcester Cathedral

Screenshot of the Digipal database interface showing the letter "eth" as written at Worcester Cathedral, borrowed from their website, linked through

Accordingly, it’s not surprising that almost since computing and the humanities first tentatively shook hands, people have been trying to get computers to recognise and date ancient and medieval scripts. The earliest reference I have on this goes back to 1994 and relates to Egyptian papyri, and that was little more than an expression of hope, but by 2006, when I myself was briefly professionally interested in image recognition, people were getting closer.3 Back then the academic work was ahead of Google Image Search, but that didn’t last long, and before long technology like theirs was getting into humanities computing labs and I was seeing papers about it.4 Now those papers are coming out and people are clearly making great progress, especially it seems with South Asian scripts, so the fact that the one my friend had pointed me to existed was not surprising to me.5 But whether because she hadn’t been looking for this sort of stuff already or because I am just more cynical, I wasn’t expecting as much from this article as my friend suggested was in it.

There are, I guess, at least three ways a scientific study on something from my periods of interest can disappoint. The most annoying is when even I can see that it’s scientifically faulty, because of minuscule sample size, unconsidered error margins, lack of reproducibility or whatever.6 Nearly as annoying is when the science appears to be good but the historical context is more or less derived from the 1950s textbooks which apparently sourced either the lead researchers’ own undergraduate study or the Wikipedia page on which they based their questions; that’s annoying because they could just have asked (and then ideally credited) a historian, and I myself would love to be asked, so you know, come on.7 But much the most common and least reproachable, but still annoying for the non-scientific reader, is the study which is actually out to test or validate a method, not to find out something historical, and which therefore stops at ‘we have therefore shown that this could work’ without actual results.8 And this is one of those, a study of how we might digitally date the many undated fragments among the Dead Sea Scrolls which, nonetheless, does not actually date any of them, because what it is trying to do is make their systems match the dates humans have already assigned to such fragments.

Dead Sea Scroll of Genesis, Israel Museum 4Q7

Dead Sea Scroll of Genesis, Jerusalem, Israel Museum 4Q7, image by KetefHinnomFanown work, licensed as CC0 via Wikimedia Commons, cropped

You might then ask why, if they in fact had a viable method demonstrated, they didn’t at least go so far as to show it in action. It might have been because they were attempting to avoid the risk of showing their historical ignorance, like those behind a new pottery dating method back in the day; but actually, it’s worse; they didn’t yet have a viable method.9 Instead, their conclusions section is full of fixes which might be applied to make the method work better: a new date calculation method which didn’t ideally require even intervals (which they didn’t have, because the palaeographical datings they were trying to match worked in historic periods, not mathematical ones), or a specialised Hebrew character recognition tool, for example.10 Their error margins were reckoned to be about 23 years either side of the central year in any given dating period; that would be better than the few radio-carbon dates that have come off the Scrolls, if it were accurate, but when one of the periods into which they are trying to date is only thirty years long – less, we might note, than the lifespan of most of the people writing in the appropriate style – you can see how that wasn’t enough.11 It doesn’t quite end with ‘so, back to the drawing board’, but it’s very much, ‘don’t come in, we’re not ready yet’.

For me, however, this study does not fail because of the weakness of the computing techniques used. I’m quite prepared to believe that for the values they’ve set up, those techniques could be refined, and at least they eliminate several as being unhelpful for the endeavour. But the problem they don’t see is the human element, in two places: in the creation of their source matter and in the provision of their classifications. The latter of these, the fact that the datings they were trying to train their method to match were all subjective by-eye evaluations by human beings, be they never so learned, the authors at least wave at in the introduction, saying that one advantage of a digital palæographical method might be to reduce subjectivity before proposing one based entirely on subjectively derived datings.12 But the fact that humans, individual ones many of whose working lives probably overlapped their period boundaries, actually made the things they’re trying to date, almost eludes them. They do admit that scribes demonstrably change their writing styles over time, before saying that they are after a method which captures period-level shift in script instead; but they don’t seem to see that the former factor is a component of the latter.13 This is partly just the problem of database categorisation: something must fall one side of a line or the other, it can’t be ‘sort of both’.14 But it’s also humans in action, muddling along, trying something different, going back to the old ways disappointed, maybe trying again later. Every one of those decisions and choices could throw a close palæographical dating way out. A good palæographer knows all this and tries, subjectively, to account for it with context and background knowledge. Remove that subjectivity, and every palæographical judgement would need to come with huge error bars which would be labelled, if there were space, ‘unless this is a weird one’. Long ago, a then-lawyer friend of mine angrily told me in a pub, “the trouble with you historians, Jon, is you forget that people are weird!” Probably a fair complaint; but I’m not the only one guilty… So in the end perhaps the human palæographer has not yet got to fear robotic replacement: the computers will certainly end up better able to match patterns than we can, but the task of working out what the patterns mean is going to remain gloriously and resistantly fuzzy.15

1. Maruf A. Dhali, Camilo Nathan Jansen, Jan Willem de Wit & Lambert Schomaker, “Feature-extraction methods for historical manuscript dating based on writing style development”, edd. Francesca Fontanella, Francesco Colace, Mario Molinara, Alessandra Scotto di Freca & Filippo Stanco in Pattern Recognition Letters Vol. 131 (Amsterdam 2020), pp. 413–420, DOI: 10.1016/j.patrec.2020.01.027.

2. Cf. Innovating Pedagogy: Exploring new forms of teaching, learning and assessment, to guide educators and policy makers by Agnes Kukulska-Holme, Carina Bossu, Tim Coughlan, Rebecca Ferguson, Elizabeth FitzGerald, Mark Gaved, Christothea Herotodou, Bart Rientes, Julia Sargent, Eileen Scanlon, Jinlian Tang, Qi Wang, Denise Whitelock & Shuai Zhang, Open University Innovation Report 9 (London 2021), online here, or Wayne Holmes & Ilkka Tuomi, “State of the art and practice in AI in education” in European Journal of Education Vol. 57 (Oxford 2022), pp. 542–570, DOI: 10.1111/ejed.12533, which both think otherwise.

3. The 1994 paper is Janet Johnson, “Computers, Graphics and Papyrology” in Adam Bülow-Jacobsen (ed.), Proceedings of the 20th International Congress of Papyrologists, Copenhagen, 23-29 August, 1992 (Copenhagen 1994), pp. 618–620. By 2007 one could also count Ikram Moalla, Frank LeBourgeois, Hubert Emptoz and Adel M. Alimi, “Contribution to the Discrimination of the Medieval Manuscript Texts: Application in the Palaeography” in Horst Bunke and A. Lawrence Spitz (edd.), Document Analysis Systems VII: Proceedings, Lecture Notes in Computer Science 3872 (Berlin 2006), pp. 25–37, or M. Bulacu and L. Schomaker, “Automatic Handwriting Identification on Medieval Documents” in 14th International Conference on Image Analysis and Processing (ICIAP 2007) (New York City NY 2007), pp. 279–284, online here, one of the authors of which shows up again in the paper under discussion. I’m sure there was lots more. The team I was part of myself was concerned with coins (inevitably) and showed up with Martin Kampel, “Computer Aided Analysis of Ancient Coins” in Robert Sablatnig, James Hemsley, Paul Kammerer, Ernestine Zolda and Johann Stockinger (edd.), Digital Cultural Heritage – Essential for Tourism (Wien 2008), pp. 137–144, and eventually Jonathan Jarrett, Sebastian Zambanini, Reinhold Hüber-Mork and Achille Felicetti, “Coinage, Digitization and the World-Wide Web: numismatics and the COINS Project” in Brent Nelson and Melissa Terras (edd.), Digitizing Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture (Tempe AZ 2012), pp. 459–489.

4. For example, Arianna Ciula, “The Palaeographical Method under the Light of a Digital Approach”, presented at the International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 8 July 2008, and Peter Stokes, “Computing for Anglo-Saxon Paleography, Manuscript Studies and Diplomatic”, presented at the International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 13 July 2011, both mentioned here in their seasons.

5. Ciula’s did, at least, as Arianna Ciula, “The Palaeographical Method Under the Light of a Digital Approach” in Malte Rehbein, Patrick Sahle & Torsten Schaßan (edd.), Kodikologie und Paläographie im digitalen Zeitalter. Codicology and Palaeography in the Digital Age (Norderstedt 2009), pp. 219–235; Stokes’s I haven’t seen, but he did mastermind DigiPal, so it’s not like he left the game. One could also see Florian Kleber, Robert Sablatnig, Melanie Gau and Heinz Miklas, “Ruling Estimation for Degraded Ancient Documents based on Text Line Extraction” and Maria C. Vill, Melanie Gau, Heinz Miklas and Robert Sablatnig, “Static Stroke Decomposition of Glagolitic Characters”, both in Sablatnig, Hemsley, Kammerer, Zolda & Stockinger, Digital Cultural Heritage, pp. pp 79–86 & 95–102, or Jinna Smit, “The Death of the Palaeographer? Experiences with the Groningen Intelligent Writer Identification System (GIWIS)” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 57 (München 2011), pp. 413–425, as steps along the way, and Mike Kestemont, Vincent Christlein and Dominique Stutzmann, “Artificial Paleography: Computational Approaches to Identifying Script Types in Medieval Manuscripts” in Speculum Vol. 92 (Cambridge MA 2017), pp. S86–S109, for where we are now or were recently. Again, I could cite lots more. On South Asian scripts, see Shaveta Dargan and Munish Kumar, “Gender Classification and Writer Identification System based on Handwriting in Gurumukhi Script” in International Conference on Computing, Communication, and Intelligent Systems (ICCCIS 2021) (New York City NY 2021), Vol. I, pp. 388–393, online here, and S. Brindha and S. Bhuvaneswari, “Repossession and recognition system: transliteration of antique Tamil Brahmi typescript” in Current Science Vol. 120 (Bengaluru 2021), pp. 654–665.

6. Discussed here but harmless: Michael McCormick, Paul Edward Dutton and Paul A. Mayewski, “Volcanoes and the Climate Forcing of Carolingian Europe, A.D. 750-950” in Speculum Vol. 84 (Cambridge MA 2007), pp. 869–895. Nastier: Mario Slaus, Zeljko Tomicić, Ante Uglesić and Radomir Jurić, “Craniometric relationships among medieval Central European populations: implications for Croat migration and expansion” in Croatian Medical Journal Vol. 45 (Zagreb 2004), pp. 434–444, PMID: 15311416.

7. S. R. H. Jones, “Devaluation and the Balance of Payments in Eleventh-Century England: an exercise in Dark Age economics” in Economic History Review 2nd Series Vol. 44 (1994), pp. 594–607; for an example where they did ask a historian but then didn’t credit her, see Susan M. Adams, Elena Bosch, Patricia L. Balaresque, Stéphane J. Ballereau, Andrew C. Lee, Eduardo Arroyo, Ana M. López-Parra, Mercedes Aler, Marina S. Gisbert Grifo, Maria Brion, Angel Carracedo, João Lavinha, Begoña Martínez-Jarreta, Lluis Quintana-Murci, Antònia Picornell, Misericordia Ramon, Karl Skorecki, Doron M. Behar, Francesc Calafell and Mark A. Jobling, “The Genetic Legacy of Religious Diversity and Intolerance: Paternal Lineages of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula” in American Journal of Human Genetics Vol. 83 (Bethesda 2008), pp. 725-736, DOI: 10.1016/j.ajhg.2008.11.007, where Dolors Bramon is acknowledged p. 734.

8. For example Alice M. W. Hunt and Robert J. Speakman, “Portable XRF analysis of archaeological sediments and ceramics” in Journal of Archaeological Science Vol. 53 (Amsterdam 2015), pp. 626–638, which more or less says, ‘this is a silly thing to do but if you must, here’s how’; cf. Warren W. Esty, “Estimation of the Size of a Coinage: a Survey and Comparison of Methods” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 146 (London 1986), pp. 185–215, for another example from a different discipline.

9. My whipping boy this time is Moira A. Wilson, Margaret A. Carter, Christopher Hall, William D. Hoff, Ceren Ince, Shaun D. Savage, Bernard McKay & Ian M. Betts, “Dating fired-clay ceramics using long-term power law rehydroxylation kinetics” in Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences Vol. 465 (London 2009), pp. 2407–2415, DOI: 10.1098/rspa.2009.0117, on whose problems see my old Cliopatria post here.

10. Dhali & al., “Feature-extraction methods”, p. 419.

11. Ibid., p. 418 (error margins) & pp. 414-415 (periodization), with the problems it causes expressed p. 419.

12. Ibid., p. 413 and 413-414.

13. Ibid. p. 414. For more on the problem see Jesús Alturo and Tània Alaix, “Categories of Promoters and Categories of Writings: The Free Will of the Scribes, Cause of Formal Graphic Differences” in Barbara Shailor and Consuelo W. Dutschke (edd.), Scribes and the Presentation of Texts (from Antiquity to c. 1550), Bibliologia 65 (Turnhout 2021), pp. 123–149.

14. Cf. Jonathan A. Jarrett, “Poor tools to think with: the human space in digital diplomatics” in Antonella Ambrosio, Sébastien Barret and Georg Vogeler (edd.), Digital diplomatics: The computer as a tool for the diplomatist?, Beihefte der Archiv für Diplomatik 14, (Köln 2014), pp. 291–302.

15. It wasn’t deliberate, but it’s probably no coincidence that the position I thus finish with is similar to that in Smit, “Death of the Palaeographer?” and Arianna Ciula, “Digital palaeography: What is digital about it?” in Digital Scholarship in the Humanities Vol. 32 Supplement 2 (Oxford 2017), pp. ii89–ii105, DOI: 10.1093/llc/fqx042.


Busy-day links

Today is a day with no time in it, where the morning goes on training and the afternoon goes on meetings and in the evening I am celebrating someone’s viva, and there’a about half an hour all told to complete daily tasks such as updating the blog. Happily, I have a stash of links saved against just such an eventuality! Let me therefore distract you with things that others have put on the web, with headings!

Discoveries of stuff

Frescoes in underground church at Nevşehir, Turkey

Frescoes in underground church at Nevşehir, Turkey

You would think that Byzantine churches had little in common with London buses, but there is at least this, that as the saying goes, you wait ages for one then two come along at once, one in Turkey for which grand claims are being made (for which link a hat tip to Georgia Michael of the University of Birmingham) and one off Turkey which is just really cool to look at.
Submerged foundations of a Byzantine church in Lake Iznik, Turkey

Submerged foundations of a Byzantine church in Lake Iznik, Turkey

And then there’s an especially shiny hoard of Roman and non-Roman silver from Scotland which people are using to draw conclusions about the Picts in a period before all of us would be comfortable using the word, for which link I owe a tip of that same hat to the Crofter.1
Objects from the Gaulcross Hoard

Objects from the Gaulcross Hoard

Sad News

While writing the long-delayed post on the Bíblia de Danila, I noted briefly that to my sadness John Williams, a scholar of the art of the medieval Iberian peninsula whom I did not know but whose work has been very useful to me, had died; here’s a memorial of the sort he richly deserved.

Interesting Research

We have here a pedigree (as it were) of looking at work on genetics with a critical eye; this new study looks better than usual and I’ll have to give it its own post. The hat is here tipped to James Palmer at Merovingianworld.

Quality medievalism

If you’re going to try to relive the Middle Ages then your soundtrack needs to be right, amirite? Here’s an example of how to do it. Resuming my metaphorical hat, I now tip it to Z the Cold-Hearted Scientist for passing this my way.


A museum in Japan has some old maps. Perhaps not surprising, even if they have obligingly put them on the web? But medieval maps don’t usually work the way we expect, and it turns out that there are eighth-century maps of field systems in here which kind of do. Obviously this is Japan so links to what I do not at all except that here are people using the kind of tools we would use for the kind of jobs that our study population must too have had but for which they used… well, we don’t know. But it’s one in the eye for all those who suggest that representational cartography has to postdate some major Western intellectual development innit? Maybe you don’t care as much as I do about this but Rebecca Darley, who provided me with the link and to whom the hat is now tipped, probably does so I bet there are others too.

Map of the field at Ikarugi, Tonami district, Etchū Province

Map of the field at Ikarugi, Tonami district, Etchū Province

Then, fellow frontiers and charters enthusiast Igor Santos Salazar has let me know about this monumental task on which he has been engaged, a database of the judicial records from medieval Tuscany which is now online. Lavoro erculaneo, Igor!

And lastly in this section, they said it would never happen; several people died in the course of trying to do it; it has been complicated by two world wars, international tension and the Iron Curtain, to say nothing of funding and staffing troubles, but it is done: the charters of Emperor Louis the Pious (814-840) are published at last.2 Here not a tip of the hat but sincere congratulations to Herr Professor Theo Kölzer for making it to the end of such an inauspicious task!

This is cool

Lastly, much more in my regular line, firstly just a really cool Spanish church site, well written up and photographed, for which thanks to José Manuel Serrano Esperanza for introducing it to me, and now to you.

San Zoilo de Cáseda, Navarra

San Zoilo de Cáseda, Navarra

And then last of all, heard of only today, an exhibition opening on Monday at the Yorkshire Museum (in York), entitled Constantius: York’s Forgotten Emperor, curated by an old colleague of mine, Andy Woods, which exhibition has been brought about by the discovery of a huge hoard of Constantius I’s coins that the Museum hopes to acquire. Do have a look!

1. There’s an actual article behind this one, which a quick websearch reveals as Gordon Noble, Martin Goldberg, Alistair McPherson and Oskar Sveinbjarnarson, “(Re)Discovering the Gaulcross Hoard” in Antiquity Vol. 90 (Cambridge 2016), pp. 726-741.

2. On the troubles of the project up to 1990 see Peter Johanek, “Probleme einer zukünftigen Edition der Urkunden Ludwigs der Frommen” in Roger Collins & Peter Godman (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (Oxford 1990), pp. 409-424.


An array of interesting links

I tend to store up interesting links against a day when I have no content to post, but the backlog situation has meant that not only does that never occur any more but that the links themselves get very old. I thought it was about time to clear some out! I had so many that categories seem necessary, even. So let me humbly suggest that you may wish to click to learn more about the following:

    Things from out of the ground

    A Celtic disc brooch looted by Vikings and now in the British Museum

    A Celtic disc brooch looted by Vikings and now in the British Museum, see below

  1. In no particular order, a previously-undiscovered Viking fortress, at Vallø in Denmark, located in mid-2014 by laser imaging and ground-penetrating radar;
  2. I have been known, in my cynical past, to say that the best way to hide an archæological discovery you wish to keep secret is to give it to the British Museum, due to their cataloguing backlog, but I was not wholly serious obviously, whereas this is a bit ridiculous (but has that brooch in it);
  3. further stuff has also been found, as is now de rigeur for all credible archæology in the UK, under a car-park, in Haddenham in Cambridgeshire where they hit what seems to have been a small sixth-century Anglo-Saxon cemetery during development work in February 2014;
  4. some eighth- to -tenth-century bodies found stuffed in a well Entrains-sur-Nohain in Burgundy provoke the writer of that post to several equally hypothetical Carolingian-history explanations
  5. an Iron Age hillfort at Broxmouth in East Lothian, Scotaland (just), has revealed what seems to be evidence of fifth-century BC steel-making;
  6. and there has been an array of hoards discovered that need their own subsection:
    A silver lidded vessel of Carolingian date recovered in a hoard from Dumfries in 2014

    A silver lidded vessel of Carolingian date recovered in a hoard from Dumfries described below

    1. a hoard of Viking silver loot, including what was once a really nice Carolingian lidded ewer or similar, found near Dumfries in south-west Scotland in late 2014;
    2. “one of the largest Roman coin hoards ever discovered in Britain”, 22,000 or so third-century coins found in Devon in November 2013 but only breaking into the news in September last year; I think Georgia Michael told me about this one so hat tip to her;
    3. and although 5,000 coins suddenly seems like not so big a deal, nonetheless, for the Anglo-Saxon period it is; I’m pretty sure this find nearly doubles the amount of King Cnut’s coinage known to exist in the UK, for example, and this one I definitely do owe to Georgia so off that hat comes once again;
    4. Posed photograph of some gold dinars from a hoard found off the coast of Israal

      I would not let someone do this with a gold find even before it had been catalogued, myself, but I am not the Israel Antiquities Authority, in whose care this hoard of Fatimid gold dinars ended up (see left)

    5. and two thousand is hardly trying, but firstly these ones were gold and secondly they were off the coast of Israel, dating to the reigns of the tenth- and eleventh-century Fatimid caliphs Al-Ḥākim and Al-Ẓāhir, and possibly coming from a sunken tax shipment, which I bet has caused a lot more diving since the news came out and which news I owe, once more, to Georgia Michael, who must have got the idea that I like coins or something…

    Things afoot in the research world (including those parts of it that blog)

  7. A new(-ish) project running out of Oxford to map all the various hillforts of the British Isles, presumably including that of Broxmouth above…
  8. … out of which project came the following endeavours from my native land, with lots to read if hillforts are of interest to you;
  9. a thorough and useful set of suggestions about what was wrong with the UK’s Research Excellence Framework exercise, not including its terrible name but with many other good points, from the self-appointed but persuasive Council for the Defence of British Universities (and here I owe a tip of the hat to Professor Naomi Standen);
  10. more light-heartedly, here is a reason for scribal errors that I had never considered, and still rather wish I hadn’t given some of the suggested remedies;
  11. a suggestion from a doctoral researcher at Sheffield that the current male fashion for extreme facial hair has medieval precedents, and plenty of modern ones too (a tip of the hat here to one of the Australian Medievalists);
  12. Things from out of the archive

    Fragments of a mid-seventh-century manuscript of the Qu'ran in the Mingana Collection, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham

    Fragments of a mid-seventh-century manuscript of the Qu’ran in the Mingana Collection, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham, see below

  13. Some extra fragments of illustration from the Catalan comital cartulary known as the Liber Feudorum Maior have been rediscovered!
  14. Following our theme of materials for the study of Anglo-Saxon England feared forever lost to scholarship, you may not necessarily be aware that after much deliberation about what to do with it, Professors Stephen Baxter and John Hudson have published the unfinished second volume of Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law on the Early English Laws website as Patrick Wormald, Papers Preparatory to the Making of English Law, vol. II, for which many people may be very grateful;
  15. the Vatican Library’s digitisation project has a new website and a much more searchable catalogue, though it does admittedly appear to be broken just now;
  16. and, to end with something at least that is very new and exciting, we have a lot of people coming to the Barber Institute just now because they have not read far enough down this story to realise that the very very early Qu’ran manuscript it describes is not yet on display here, but it is still extremely exciting!

A Compensation Coin, then, Two Rooms of Budding Byzantinists

I have been neglecting this blog, I’m sorry. I can only assure you that this is not out of laziness; rare has been the day of 2015 so far in which I have not written a couple of thousand words, but much less of this has been in the kinds of document that will ever have a readership than I would like, and much of that which has been is a long way off getting to that state… In particular, I have about thirty thousand words of a book manuscript (enthusiastic first-draft words, but words), and at the other end of the scale of scale, about four thousand words of exhibition copy of various sorts which were really hard to keep short. The fruits of all of this will be announced in their due season, of course, but just for the moment let me make up for the long silence with a picture of a coin, and then a conference report.

Reverse of a gold solidus of Emperor John I Tzimiskes, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4953

Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4953 (reverse)

This is a gold solidus of Emperor John I Tzimiskes (969-976), and it’s connected to what I’ve been doing at work lately in several ways. In the first place, it is a little way down the slippery slope of decreasing fineness that Byzantine gold coinage descended in the tenth and eleventh centuries; it looks pretty shiny, but all that glitters is not gold… That’s not news exactly, but it’s one of the types we’ve been blasting with x-rays to find out what more its metal can tell us. Secondly, it’s one of the coins that’s going in the next exhibition on the Coin Gallery at the Barber Institute, which is why I happen to have an image of it handy, And, thirdly, because as you can see it shows the Virgin Mary, identified in Greek, ‘theotokos’, motherbearer of God, crowning Emperor John with some help from a Hand of God, it was among the coins that my first research enquiry at the Barber, some time ago now, involved me getting out to scrutinise because of being a depiction of divinity in Byzantium. And with that, you see, we connect to the conference report, because the person who asked me about this coin was also presenting at the conference against which the blog backlog now laps. So!

A woodcut depiction of Constantinople from Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

A woodcut depiction of Constantinople from Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Every year since 1999, the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham has held a postgraduate colloquium to showcase its research. In the last few years this has grown somewhat to become an international event; the fifteenth colloquium, on 24th May 2014, had thirty different speakers from fifteen different institutions in seven different countries, organised by necessity into two parallel strands, and I know because I was there. I usually don’t report on postgraduate presentations here, figuring that students are not necessarily fair game for such exposure, but there was such a lot of good stuff said here that I want to give some account at least, so I will give you the running order of the papers I saw and then offer some remarks about the ones I found most thought-provoking. The theme they’d chosen was “Language as Culture in the Eastern Mediterranean (330-2013)”, and you see below how that was reflected in the papers on offer.

    Keynote address

  • Maria Georgopolou, ‘Διγλωσσία: bilingualism as a cultural paradigm’
  • Session 01

  • Zuzana Cernáková, “Language of Fiction: representations of Byzantium in twelfth-century French literature”
  • Kirsty Stewart, “Beast Literature and the Vernacular in Byzantium, 1261-1453”
  • Jeff Brubaker, “The Language of Religious Union: the Greek-Latin Disputatio of 1234″
  • Theofili Kampianaki, “John Zonaras’ Treatment of the Roman Past in his Epitome of Histories
  • Session 03

  • Eileen Rubery, “Making and Meaning in the Frescoes in the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum (600-800 AD)”
  • Katherine Harrison, “From Ancient Lapidaries to Christian Allegories – Textual Sources on Stones and Their Impact upon Gemstone Icons in Byzantium”
  • Sandro Nikolaishvili, “Translation of Byzantine Symbols and Language of Power to Medieval Georgia”
  • Georgia Michael, “The Visual ‘Language of Death’: new interpretations of aspects of idolatry and worship of early Christian funerary art (3rd-4th centuries)”
  • Session 05

  • Panagiotis Sotiropoulos, “Visual Representation in the World of Late Antiquity: religious origins of a gaze attracted by new public and private sights”
  • Miranda Williams, “Language and Propaganda in 6th-Century Africa”
  • Daniel Kelly, “Hagiographic Evidence for Continued Language Diversity in Post-Crises Byzantine State”
  • Lilly Stammler, “One Spiritual Beneficial Tale from the Life of St Andrew the Fool in South Slavonic Translation”

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