Once every semester, Sabine Panzram can be found amongst the weathered graves at the Christianskirche cemetery in Hamburg-Altona. This is where she tells her students about the traditional technique of squeezing by which the inscriptions can be transferred to paper. In one hand the professor of ancient history at the University of Hamburg holds a large roll of special absorbent paper, in the other a brush with an elmwood handle and black bristles. “That is a special brush for squeezing. We use it at regular intervals to tap on the moistened, absorbent paper lying on the inscription. When it dries, the letters on it are visible in three dimensions. Although there are now digital ways of doing it, I still think this one is the best because it is very easy to do, and you get the result straight away. I can immediately return to my desk and start deciphering.”
Internationalising the team
For almost three decades, the scholar of ancient history has been working on literary legacy, inscriptions and archaeological evidence. She investigates the social history of power in the western Mediterranean region in the Imperial period and late antiquity, focusing especially on urban history. She shares her enthusiasm and knowledge with the students and members of her research group, for which she is currently scouting for young academic talents under the Henriette Herz Scouting Programme. She has already found two.
Back in 2022, the postdoctoral historian Jorge Élices Ocón from the Autonomous University of Madrid joined her team. Panzram had scouted him for a Humboldt Research Fellowship from São Paulo where he was a postdoc and brought him to Hamburg. He was working on “Reuse in Post-Roman Societies: Christian and Islamic Attitudes Towards Ruins and spolia”. Panzram comments, “His work and mine complemented each another ideally. My research ends in the eighth century, his begins exactly then.” When his Humboldt Fellowship came to an end, the next career step awaited Élices Ocón: He has now embarked on a tenure track position with the prospect of a tenured professorship at the Spanish National Research Council, the largest public research institution in Spain. “I believe the Humboldt Fellowship was crucial in helping him establish himself at such an early stage in his career,” says Panzram.
As of December, the second Humboldt Fellow in her team will be the epigraphist, Noelia Cases Mora, from the University of Alicante. A postdoc, she studies the inscriptions from the Republic and Imperial periods and works on the veneration for the Emperor Augustus in the Hispanic and North African regions. In her dissertation she identified the vocabulary with which Augustus was venerated in the public sphere and analysed the types of monuments and the context in which they were erected. On the basis of this, Cases Mora will focus on the North African findings in order to discover similarities and differences in the municipal and provincial Imperial cults. Her aim is to achieve a new understanding of the practice of the Imperial cult in the Imperial era.
Engagement for junior researchers
Panzram says, “I am particularly keen to promote women researchers, on the one hand through generous, family-friendly, unbureaucratic fellowships like the Henriette Herz Programme; on the other through mentoring. I myself only experienced that far too late and only very rarely in my academic career.” It is all the more important to her to support female junior researchers with her experience and pass on knowledge to help them in their careers. And something else is dear to her heart. “I often meet young researchers who perform well above average and still question their achievements. We have to thwart this kind of self-doubt as early as possible and present them with role models. This is the only way diversity in science will cease to be an issue one day and become the norm.”
Noelia Cases Mora, too, attracted attention through her professional performance. She sparked Panzram’s interest in her at a lecture she gave at a conference. The two of them stayed in contact and exchanged ideas. The professor is convinced that the Henriette Herz Programme is a good opportunity to recruit international scientific talent for her team quickly and unbureaucratically. “The Humboldt Foundation’s programme helps to maintain Germany’s attractiveness as a science location. Apart from allowances for family members accompanying fellows, the short processing period of three months is especially helpful in planning their academic careers.”
The criterion of wonder
Panzram is yet to award the third fellowship position she can fill as a scout. “I am on the lookout. I think it’s important to have different scientific cultures in my team. The next person could come from Morocco, for instance, or Tunesia.” Her selection criteria are: “Healthy curiosity and the willingness to completely immerse oneself in German scientific culture. For me, this is just as relevant as academic excellence.” With a nod to Aristotle, she believes wonder about the things of this world are the lynchpin of scientific work. “I very soon notice whether a person shares this intellectual attitude, in the way they deal with a text or interpret a statue.”
Wonder accompanies her to this day: in teaching her students, in her research and in her interdisciplinary cooperation in her international projects “Atlas” and “RomanIslam” and especially in “Toletum”, the network founded in 2011 to explore the Iberian Peninsula in ancient times. Initially, Panzram wanted to be a history teacher, then a journalist. Up until her dissertation, she also wrote for a local paper and for a German-Spanish cultural magazine. “But while I was doing my doctorate, I realised how important academic work was to me. In journalism I could touch on diverse topics but had to quickly drop them again. In research I was able to go into a topic in depth and investigate every single aspect of it. My path into academia wasn’t a conscious decision but one that grew out of dealing intensively with the material.” One that she is still enthusiastic about to this day.
Author: Esther Sambale