Andrew W. Mellon Sawyer Seminar: The Manuscript Across Premodern Eurasia

CulturalTextualExchange final 1.20.17 for youtubeThe UI Mellon Sawyer Seminar was a yearlong interdisciplinary collaboration dedicated to mapping cultural exchanges across Eurasia from roughly 400 CE ­ ca. 1450 CE, by focusing on the development, distribution, and sharing of manuscript technologies. 

Funded by a major grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, with support from the Obermann Center, the seminar, Cultural and Textual Exchanges: The Manuscript Across Pre-Modern Eurasia, was led by Timothy Barrett (Center for the Book, Graduate College), Paul Dilley (Classics and Religious Studies, CLAS), Katherine Tachau (History, CLAS), and our Mellon-funded Obermann Postdoctoral Fellow, Melissa Moreton. From October through May, 25 internationally distinguished scholars and conservators visited campus to share their expertise in the various manuscript cultures of pre­modern Eurasia.

Unique Combination of Intellectual and Hands-on Experiences

The seminar was unique in that in addition to a yearlong series of public lectures (which can be viewed here), visiting experts also gave hands-on workshops. “We worked hard to make sure that hands-on manuscript-making workshop-style sessions were an integral part of the seminar,” said Barrett, who leads the UI’s Center for the Book in addition to being a master craftsman and paper historian. “We also invited book arts practitioners with expertise in papermaking, calligraphy, and bookbinding to become fully engaged with visiting scholars and manuscript conservation specialists. The result was an intriguing exchange of ideas and a lot more energized, I am convinced, than a purely academic conversation. At the UI Center for the Book, we’re continuing to find that this combination of specialists and the integration of hands-on exercises with scholarly discussion fosters an uncommon level of new learning for all concerned.”

One participant concurred. Noting a highlight for him, William Johnson, Professor of Classical Studies at Duke University, said, “The papyrus manufacturing session run by Myriam Krutzsch finally made Hendricks’s theory on papyrus manufacture make sense to me, and taught me lots else besides.”

Across Disciplines and Geographies

Bringing scholars together from disparate fields and geographic loci was also significant. Zoroastrian, medieval Afro-Eurasian, Pali, and Yemeni Zaydi manuscripts were among the many lecture topics.

One participant, Brent Nongbri,Visiting Associate Professor at Aarhus University, said, “The interdisciplinary approach of the seminar was definitely eye-opening for me. I’ve spent the last few years undertaking the challenging task of trying to get a handle on the unwieldy corpus of Greek, Latin, and Coptic books from the third to seventh centuries. Coming to the seminar and learning about later Arabic and Zaydi codices, seeing the similar sorts of codicological problems one encounters (construction, provenance, etc.), broadened my horizons in ways that I was not even aware I needed.”

The Seminar group was comprised of University of Iowa and Grinnell College faculty and graduate students from Religious Studies, Classics, Center for the Book, Library & Information Science, and History. The group convened approximately 15 times over the course of the 2016–17 academic year. Five of the seminar meetings included workshops in which participants reproduced historically significant book structures with their associated materials under the guidance of book conservators and book binders.

In 2017–18, Moreton and Dilley will work on a digital mapping project to represent and share the findings from the seminar.


  • Mark Barnard, formerly head of Paper Conservation at the British Library
  • T.H. Barrett, formerly Professor of East Asian History in SOAS, University of London
  • Jim Canary, Head of Conservation at the Lilly Library, Indiana University; adjunct faculty, Henry Hope School of Fine Arts; founding member, Paper Road Tibet
  • François Déroche, Professor, École Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris
  • Michael Friedrich, Professor of Chinese Language and Culture, Universität Hamburg; Director, Research Group on the Manuscript Cultures of Asia, Africa, and Europe, Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures
  • Gary Frost, Conservator Emeritus, University of Iowa Libraries; Adjunct Assistant Professor, Center for the Book, University of Iowa; co-founder, Paper and Book Intensive (PBI)
  • Zsuzsanna Gulácsi, Professor of Asian Religious Art, Northern Arizona University
  • Cheryl Jacobsen, artist/ calligrapher; Adjunct Assistant Professor, Center for the Book, University of Iowa
  • William A. Johnson, Professor of Classical Studies, Duke University
  • Yasmeen Khan, Senior Book Conservator, Library of Congress
  • Myriam Krutzsch, papyrus conservator, Papyrus Collection of the Egyptian Museum at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
  • Erik Kwakkel, Professor, Leiden University
  • AnneMarie Luijendijk, Professor of Religion, Princeton University
  • Justin McDaniel, Chair of Religious Studies, University of Pennsylvania
  • Julia Miller, senior book conservator, University of Michigan Library
  • Vito Mocella, Researcher at the Institute for Microelectronics and Microsystems, Italian National Research Council, Rome
  • Brent Nongbri, Visiting Associate Professor, Aarhus University
  • Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, Senior Research Associate, Division for Byzantine Research at the Institute for Medieval Research in the Austrian Academy of Sciences; Lecturer, Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Vienna
  • Lynn Ransom, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Schoenburg Institute for Manuscript Studies, University of Pennsylvania; Director of the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts (SDBM); founding editor of Manuscript Studies: A Journal of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies
  • Marina Rustow, Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East and Professor of History, Princeton University; Director of the Princeton Geniza Lab
  • Richard Salomon, William P. and Ruth Gerberding Professor of Asian Languages and Literatures, University of Washington;  Director, University of Washington’s Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project
  • Sabine Schmidtke, Professor of Islamic Intellectual History in the School of Historical Studies, Princeton University
  • Brent Seales, Professor and Chair of Computer Science and Director of the Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments (Vis Center), University of  Kentucky.
  • Shai Secunda, Jacob Neusner Associate Professor in the History and Theology of Judaism, Bard College; Founder and Co-editor, Talmud Blog
  • Daniel Lord SmailFrank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of History, Harvard University
  • Kevin van Bladel, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Near East Languages and Cultures, Ohio State University
  • Susan Whitfield, Curator of Central Asian manuscripts; Co-founder and head of the International Dunhuang Project (IDP), British Library
  • Abdurishid Yakup, Changjiang Scholar and Distinguished Professor of Ministry of Education of China; Dean of the School of Languages and Literature of Chinese Ethnic Minorities, Minzu University of China, Beijing; Research Fellow at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Germany

About Obermann Center

The University of Iowa’s Obermann Center for Advanced Studies in Iowa City, Iowa.