William K. and Marilyn M. Simpson Professor
of History & Classics
Professor, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
Senior Research Scholar, Yale Law School
Department of History
McClellan Hall (on Old Campus)
1037 Chapel Street
P.O. Box 208324
New Haven, CT 06520-8324 USA
Photo by Reno Venturi, Venturi Photography Studio
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio.
I am an ancient Historian at Yale University, with appointments in the Departments of History and Classics. I am also a Senior Research Scholar at Yale Law School, and have a secondary appointment in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
Before coming to Yale, I taught for 12 years at Stanford University and two years at Princeton University with a one-year stop as a Solmsen Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I have appointments in both the Classics and the History Departments at Yale, am a Professor in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (by Courtesy), and am also a Senior Research Scholar at Yale Law School. I am a collaborative member of Yale’s Program in Economic History, and co-coordinator of Yale's Archaia program.
I received my B.A. from Ohio State, and an A.M. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. I do a lot of cycling, and am obsessed with mountaineering and great Burgundy wine.
My primary research has been focused on the legal and economic history of the Ptolemaic period in Egypt. That means thinking hard about Greek and demotic Egyptian Papyrology. For a short documentary film about Papyrology, filmed in 1971, follow this link. It's old school but fun. The technological change between then and now is quite astonishing. For the fabulously fun Papyrology project I was involved in along with colleagues at Johns Hopkins, the University of Michigan, The Egyptian Museum in Berlin and Tokai University in Japan, follow this link.
I have published four monographs: The Hauswaldt Papyri. A Family Archive from Edfu in the Ptolemaic Period. Demotische Studien, Vol. 12. Würzburg, 1997, Land and power in Ptolemaic Egypt. The structure of land tenure 332-30 BCE. Cambridge University Press, 2003, and The last pharaohs. Egypt under the Ptolemies, 305 – 30 BC. Princeton University Press, 2009. My new book, The Open Sea. The Economic Life of the Ancient Mediterranean World from the Iron Age to the Rise of Rome, appeared with Princeton University Press in 2018. I am in the process of completing a monograph on Hellenistic History for the University of Edinburgh Press, and am beginning a major new synthesis of Ancient History and climatic change.
I have also edited (with Ian Morris, Stanford University) a volume on economic history: The Ancient Economy: Evidence and Models. Stanford University Press, 2005, and Law and society in Egypt from Alexander to the Arab Conquest (330 BC-640 AD. Co-edited with J.G. Keenan & Uri Yiftach. Cambridge University Press. With R.J. Jasnow, The Demotic and Hieratic Papyri in the Suzuki Collection of Tokai University, Japan appeared in 2016. The edited volume in honor of Pierre Briant, Writing History in Time of War. Michael Rostovtzeff, Elias Bickerman and the "Hellenization of Asia" appeared in 2015 with Franz Steiner Verlag.
Over the last the last four years I have begun a new research agenda that is dedicated to understanding how to integrate human and natural archives to tell a richer and more dynamic story of the past. This has taken me into the very exciting area of Paleoclimatology. My focus, with a great team of scientists and other historians, has been on ice core records and the volcanic forcing of the hydroclimate of east Africa, the source of the vital annual flood of the Nile. From this starting point we are building a new picture of the pre-industrial world by linking ice core records, other paleoclimate proxy records and historical data on environmental conditions and climatic change to establish the range of societal responses. I am especially focused on ice core Geochemistry, both because of the nature of data generated and because ice core drilling and processing intersects with my interest in glaciers and in climbing. A very happy coincidence of research and hobby. I am the Principal Investigator of a US National Science Foundation-funded major project assessing volcanic impacts on Nile river hydroclimate and ancient Egyptian civilization. As part of the project our team is more broadly examining all relevant paleoclimate proxy records and all relevant historical data from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods in Egypt, the Nile river basin, and western Asia. We are also planning on using climate model reconstructions and new statistical techniques to tie in climate proxy data, qualitative Nile river flow data, historical events, and societal responses.
The Yale Nile Initiative Project update January 2020
We are well into our second year of our four year grant from the US National Science Foundation (Award # 1824770, https://nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=1824770). Time really does fly when you are having fun! For the Yale team (we'll have updates from other team members working more broadly on historical sources, climate modeling, hydrology, and statistical analysis soon) the bulk of our time has been dedicated to two agendas: (1) tracking down all relevant climate proxy records that we think may be of help in our understanding of Nile river flooding anomalies in the last four centuries BCE, and (2) coding historical information derived from papyri and inscriptions, primarily, that help us understand Nile flood conditions. Here we follow the lead of the great work of Danielle Bonneau, Le Fisc et le Nil (1971), but we have added many new texts, including Egyptian language sources, and several other data about the source. In addition to attempting to code the quality of the flood year by year, we add Geocoding, an uncertainty index, and pertinent information from each source.
One of the nice local events we did last Spring was to take the Yale team into the Beinecke Rare Books library, having one of the largest collections of papyri in North America, in order to show everyone the nature of some of our sources for the Ptolemaic period. Just like our visit to the Desert Research Institute last year to show some of our graduate students what an ice core Geochemistry lab looked like and what was involved in deriving climate data from ice cores, so too it was rewarding and informative to show our science colleagues how historians work with their material, what kinds of information ancient texts preserved, and what the problems and uncertainties are with these sources.
Sifting through the large corpus of Greek and Egyptian language documentary sources to find, for each year, some information about Nile flooding can be arduous. But it also pays dividends. Take for example leases of agricultural land. It has been known for some time that there were no known demotic Egyptian language land leases dated to the third century BCE. Accident of preservation, or revealing of some shift in the legal regime whereby demotic written leases became normative (we have many Greek language leases)? It was anyone’s guess. But working through recent publications of Egyptian documents, we came across an article by CJ Martin in a volume dedicated to Professor Mark of Smith at Oxford (Illuminating Osiris. Egyptological Studies in Honor of Mark Smith, Ed. R. Jasnow & G.Widmer, Lockwood Press, 2017), who has just recently retired. Often such volumes dedicated to senior scholars publish new texts. The title of the article immediately caught my eye: “A third-century demotic land lease (P. BM EA 10858).” Wow- there went the theory that written demotic leases were not made! Here was a lease of land to produce fodder from the middle of the third century BCE. But it was a bit unusual. The lessee was a man named Pasis, but the lessor was an Alexandrian citizen, and the land holder was a Persian. It is quite rare to find an Alexandrian involved in a very small (less than one acre) lease of land in the Nile valley, and also fairly unusual to find a Persian in the Ptolemaic period as a land holder. More on this at a later date. For our current work, we code such leases as an indication that, for the area in which the lease was made, it represents a “normal” agricultural year (although there is some uncertainty with this text, the month is not preserved in the dating formula so we cannot be sure the lease was drawn up in the light of the flood conditions that year). Water had sufficiently flooded to write a lease contract and produce crops. That was great information to have for the year 251 BCE. But in the process of entering the information in our database, we noticed that the entry came next to a Greek language letter from the famous Zenon archive, the largest archive of the Ptolemaic period, dated to the same year. The text, P.Cair.Zen. 2 59279, is a letter written by Pasis to the famous estate manager Zenon about the latter’s order for fodder! Could this be the same person, and indeed the same transaction (responding to an order for fodder and the leasing of land to produce the fodder crop?). It’s something worth pursuing.
So we’ve managed to add a datum point for 251 BCE in our historical coding of Nile conditions, and we may have made an interesting connection between a Greek letter and an Egyptian land lease. That was one afternoon of stimulating work in coding our historical sources for Nile conditions. Stay tuned!
You can follow the project on Twitter @NileHistory
The project website is at: www.yalenileinitiative.org.
Our NSF Project in the news here.
A recent documentary focused on our project appeared on the Smithsonian Channel in the States, BBC in Great Britain and Europe.