Research Progress Notes: Week of January 7th

Did you know it’s hard to do research and also take care of two babies?

This week required a lot of childcare maneuvering. My dad stepped in a lot, giving me a few extra hours a day while he entertained and fed my kids. Balancing childcare and work is especially difficult right now – my boys eat every 3 hours, they don’t tend to nap more than an hour at a time (if that), they get bored easily, and they can’t sit up on their own. So taking care of them is really a constant job, and as delightful as it is – really, these kids are just sunshine incarnate – I have other stuff to do. I was supposed to have a babysitter on Wednesday, but she got sick and the agency couldn’t find a replacement in time. So Thursday and Friday I was just incredibly productive and on top of the schedule. I woke up before the boys did and worked every second I wasn’t taking care of them (or feeding myself). But this was only workable because I discovered that I didn’t need to go into the archive this week and was mostly doing prep work and readings that I could access online. So in that sense it would have been better just to be at home.

I spent most of my work time making sense of my current set of sources: the Cairo Geniza. The Cairo Geniza is a collection of personal documents from a Jewish community of merchants based in Cairo in the Middle Ages. They were literate and conducted most of their business by mail, so they wrote a lot of things down, and they got into the habit of saving most documents because of a belief that the name of God couldn’t be destroyed, so anything that might say God on it – e.g. “thank God my shipment wasn’t destroyed in that fire) – was placed in a storeroom in the synagogue and “buried” rather than being thrown out. Since a lot of these merchants did business with Sicily or had family there, I’m looking at these documents to learn the details of Sicilian trade in the raw materials used in scientific practice, such as copper (the working of which was based in principles of alchemy), and medicinal herbs.

This week I was mostly figuring out how to find documents in this collection. There are thousands, and many of them have nothing to do with what I’m talking about. A lot of people study only the Geniza, so there are three different online databases that catalog the materials, plus several massive books written about major sub-topics. I have been compiling references to individual Geniza documents as I came across them for the last 4 years, so I started with that list. But my aims changed as I was collecting those, and they were barely a representative sample. I also didn’t know how to actually read the documents based on just having the identifying number. So this week I did a lot of playing around to make sense of the databases, and I eventually developed a system for finding references through one and then using the number to figure out where I could access the document through another. I eventually discovered that a lot of the ones I wanted to look at had already been translated by one scholar, named Shlomo Simonsohn. Because the Geniza is a fairly small portion of my overall research, and because it involves a specialized vocabulary in a language (Judaeo-Arabic) that I don’t read well, I feel very comfortable using someone else’s translation. In fact, I think Simonsohn’s translations are likely to be much better than mine, since most of the documents I’m looking at are lists of cargo, which are not complex in meaning but do include a specialized technical vocabulary that won’t necessarily appear in a dictionary. In addition to Simonsohn’s work, I found a few other books and articles that pointed me to further Geniza documents and their available translations. I expect to read along for several of them, just to familiarize myself with the vocabulary.

In my readings, I may have figured out where Sicily was getting its copper. This has been a big question for me since I first started writing about copper objects in Sicily, because they were making a ton of things out of copper (massive bronze doors, small denomination coins), but the main European source of copper (in Germany) hadn’t been discovered yet. And since medieval archaeology is a comparatively small field, and medieval Sicilian archaeology is basically nonexistent, no one has really looked into the supply of metals in the medieval Mediterranean. This is an important question because it can show connections we wouldn’t expect. If the only place supplying copper to the medieval Mediterranean was, for instance, what is now Afghanistan, that outlines a trade route from Afghanistan to Sicily that we don’t currently know or think about. I didn’t find a document that explicitly listed the sale of copper from a copper-producing region to Sicily, but I did discover that Egypt was getting its copper from Spain, that Egypt wasn’t exporting copper to Sicily, and that Sicily was exporting its copper to North Africa. So I believe that Sicily was probably also getting its copper from Spain. But I have to find a way to confirm this.

Next week: I’m on to New York to read some of the things I found this week (including Simonsohn’s book) and pursue a few other scattered manuscripts while I’m in the area. Also, a full-time babysitter!