Christopher Donnan was also interviewed by the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) on May 29, 2015. For more information, see ICFA Oral History Initiative: Christopher Donnan.
JP: Good morning. This is Joanne Pillsbury, Director of Pre-Columbian studies at Dumbarton Oaks. It is Monday, April 20, 2009, and I am interviewing Christopher Donnan, a Visiting Scholar here at Dumbarton Oaks this spring. And the interview is being videotaped by Joe Mills. Chris, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about how you first came to know of Dumbarton Oaks?
CD: I really became aware of Dumbarton Oaks when I was beginning graduate work. I don’t think I knew much about it as an undergraduate, but as a graduate student it was very much an institution that I was curious about, would hear about. I was reading the publications that had come out of Dumbarton Oaks in my own field and also in Mesoamerican research and I always thought it was some magical place. I was in California. I’d never visited it in Washington. In fact, I don’t think I had been to Washington, D.C. yet at that time. And so it was kind of a – seemed like Valhalla for a Viking warrior. If you went to Dumbarton Oaks, that was extraordinary. And Dumbarton Oaks always had such an extraordinary roster of scholars.
JP: What prompted your first visit to Dumbarton Oaks?
CD: That occurred in I believe 1974, and I was invited to give a talk here on Friday evening before the conference that year. The conference that year I believe was on the cult of the sea, and my talk was not at all related to that. In those days it seldom was. It might be related but it could be just a scholar who is giving a Friday evening talk in advance of the actual conference beginning on Saturday. And I was actually driving – I was on sabbatical leave – and I was driving from Los Angeles to what turned out to be Brazil and back, 32,000 miles. And I had come across the United States. Somehow I had been invited to give a talk at the University of Wisconsin and I did that. I stayed with Don Thompson and then kept coming out here to the east coast and came to Dumbarton Oaks and presented this talk. The talk was essentially the presentation theme in Moche iconography, which I had been working on, but I really premiered it here at Dumbarton Oaks. I thought it would work as a talk, but it was very well received. So, that was really my first experience with Dumbarton Oaks.
JP: Were you asked to publish it in the series? There was a –
CD: That was mentioned, but I had already committed it to the Journal of Latin American Lore at UCLA, to Johannes Wilbert who was a colleague, wonderful friend, who was director of the Latin American Center there. And he had asked me if they could publish that in the first volume, the first issue of this new journal that he wanted to create. So, it was already committed. It would have been interesting had that been published at Dumbarton Oaks.
JP: And then you were asked to serve on the advisory committee at Dumbarton Oaks. Do you have any idea how you came to the attention of Dumbarton Oaks for that? Was it on the strength of this talk or –?
CD: I don’t know. My guess is that that talk was key. I don’t know, because they would not have known of me except from some of my publications, but I think coming here and giving that talk really helped. The talk, to my great relief and pleasure, was extremely well received. Terry Grieder was here, I remember, and he came up afterward and said, “Would you consider – ?” He says, “I understand you’re on your way driving to Peru, would you swing through Austin, Texas and give this same talk exactly the way you just did it?” And he said, “We could even pay you an honorarium of 200 dollars.” And I thought, “Wow! That sounds great.” So, we arranged to do that. But I think that talk probably was the factor of – the key to my being considered to be appointed on the Senior Fellows committee. I had no idea of that at the time and I didn’t really know about the Senior Fellows.
JP: And then later you did publish the burial theme with Dumbarton Oaks, is that right?
JP: Now, Gordon Willey was the chair of the Senior Fellows for most of the time you were on the advisory committee. Could you tell us a bit about working with him?
CD: Yeah. He was very interested in what the committee was doing and wanted to be as supportive as he could possibly be about any decisions that we made. He really didn’t challenge what we were deciding on. He attended the meetings regularly, and he would bring issues to us that were of concern to Dumbarton Oaks, and they were always presented to us as issues that he really would appreciate our input on, things that he had to decide on. So, it was very much an ideal relationship between the Senior Fellows committee and Giles Constable. There was a time – I think Dumbarton Oaks was having some funding issues, I don’t recall that we knew what they were, but he made it clear that they were looking for ways of obtaining revenue that could support Dumbarton Oaks. And he had an idea of collaborating with the Organization of American States and allowing them to exhibit the collections of Dumbarton Oaks and even, as I recall, put them on loan to countries on occasion. And in exchange the Organization of American States was going to provide some funding. This was just in a preliminary state of discussion at the time. It wasn’t anything that anyone was really committed to, but both Dumbarton Oaks and the Organization of American States were talking about this possibility. My sense was that Giles Constable was keenly interested in seeing that go forward. In the end it didn’t go forward. I was somewhat outspoken, and I wondered at the time whether I should be as outspoken as I was, but I remember I had taken over the directorship of the museum at UCLA and someone had told me that the only things that are worthwhile in academia are space, money, and fulltime employee positions, and if you ever trade any one of those for something that is not one of those, you’ve lost. And I think I brought that up at the meeting, and my concern was just that the collections not leave Dumbarton Oaks or be obliged to leave because of some arrangement that we had entered into. I thought that should always just be an ad hoc decision and, by and large, very rarely leave the premises. But I tended to be quite outspoken, because I really felt that being on the committee was a tremendous honor and it should be approached very seriously, that we all needed to speak our mind. And I think – and I’m not sure, that might’ve not been what Giles Constable really wanted in that situation – but I think it was what Gordon Willey liked about my involvement, was that I really took every issue very seriously.
JP: Could you tell us a little bit about some of the other Senior Fellows with whom you served, and what was it like working with them as a committee?
CD: Oh, it was wonderful. The committee was a delightful group of people. I came on at the same time that Henry Nicholson joined the committee, so both of us came out from Los Angeles for the first time for a fall meeting. And the following year we had another Los Angeles representative in Hasso von Winning, and the three of us would come out here. And I don’t get involved – just enjoy Dumbarton Oaks, the whole aura of it. I remember Hasso being so natty in his dress, so precise. I don’t know if you knew Hasso von Winning, but he was a, in his own way, a very elegant man and he would always be so proper. In fact, he wouldn’t click his heels, but he had this kind of Bavarian manner that I always thought was so wonderful about him. He was a very good friend – I got to know him well in Los Angeles. And I always admired Henry Nicholson. He was on the faculty with me at UCLA. It was great. We had a very good committee.
JP: Can you tell us a bit about what it was like, what a typical meeting was like, where would you stay, how long did they last, and the related activities, that sort of thing?
CD: As I recall – this is harkening back 32 years from the time I came on the committee, 25 years since I left the committee – but as I recall, we always stayed here and we called it the Fellows Building at that time. It’s now the Guest House. And we went into various rooms upstairs. And the meetings were in the library in the Main House, I think you call it the library. It’s where we had the symposium.
JP: Oh, the study. Or, in the Founders’ – ? That’s the study. That’s called –
CD: Is that called the study?
JP: Yes, it has been called the library in the past.
CD: I think it was called the library way back then, and we would meet in there. And throughout the time that I was on the committee, Gordon Willey was the chair of the committee. And Gordon was also very elegant in his manner. I don’t recall ever attending a meeting when Gordon wasn’t dressed in a three piece suit. I’m sure he always had a three piece suit. But he also had this gold chain, a watch fob, that went through a buttonhole in his vest. And in his vest he had this very large gold watch. I think that on the other end of the watch fob, or somewhere along it, was a medal that he had won in track that was about the size of a silver dollar as I recall – a very impressive medal. And we would gather around that wonderful table and Gordon would sit at the end of the table and then he would kind of clear his throat and start taking this chain out. I remember the first time I saw that I thought, “This is wonderful. What’s he doing?” And what he was doing was getting this chain out through his vest and then out came this gold watch and he would set the gold watch down in front of him and press on the winder and this gold lid would pop up. And then he would say, “I now call this meeting to order.” And we were ready. It was so regal and wonderful that I think it just set the mood for the meeting. And as the meeting wound down, it was a time to break or time for lunch or whatever, Gordon would close the lid on this and then start putting it all back together, and we would leave. It was just – I think if that had not happened I would have missed it dearly. It was just all part of the Dumbarton Oaks experience.
JP: Where would you have lunch and dinner?
CD: As I recall, we were served lunch in the Main House. Dinner was, as I recall, always here in the Fellows Building. I remember after dinner we would break – actually before dinner we would be here, and I think there was sherry or something served. And then we would have dinner, which was not buffet style it was actually a sit-down dinner. And then we would come out here, and there would be coffee served on a large silver platter, and we would sit around this room and engage in conversation. It was wonderful.
JP: Did the Fellows attend the dinner? Was there much interaction with the Fellows and residents?
CD: I believe the Fellows did attend the dinners. I know we had interaction with them here in the Fellows Building because as I recall most of them were staying here. Rather than – I think most of them now are off-campus, what we’d call off-campus. But I can remember coming down and having extensive conversations with some of the Fellows. You know, we did. It was a good social time, with Dumbarton Oaks style.
JP: One of your responsibilities as a Senior Fellow was to review the applications of fellowships and appoint the Fellows, make recommendations for the appointment of Fellows. Could you tell us a bit about what the application process was like and what some of the challenges were for reviewing applications?
CD: I suspect that the process is very much the way it still is today. I get fliers on the fellowship program and they look very similar to what used to be mailed out to universities. And then there was an application procedure, which I think is very similar to what it is today. People would have several pages to explain the nature of their project, and then there would be letters of recommendation that would be submitted as well, and then that would create one applicant’s packet. This was reproduced and distributed, sent out to each of us before the meeting when we were going to be evaluating these. And I remember we would come to the meetings, and everyone had really done their homework. They’d gone through these; they had concerns about some aspects of a proposal or they would have comments about how much they thought this was a worthy proposal because of this particular orientation of the student, or the student’s background, or letters of recommendation or so on. So, everyone was well prepared. That I recall with great fondness. This isn’t always the case with committees as we know. And everyone had a pretty good idea of how we would rank these. Here again there was a remarkable consensus among the members of the committee. I don’t remember any time that there was any real quarreling between members of the committee about whether somebody should be selected as a Fellow or not. We all seemed to agree. There may be slight discussions, but we would agree. And then when it was done there was this feeling we’d done our work, that we were all pleased with who had been chosen. And one time I remember there was a very extensive discussion about one applicant because the applicant was so unusual. And that was David Stuart. We’d all been sent his application and then when we met we really didn’t know what to do with it. David Stuart had just graduated from high school. He had not done any college credit work and we really didn’t – he clearly was qualified, but he was so young and no other applicant to my knowledge had ever applied just out of high school or even applied without at least a bachelor’s degree from a university. So, that took a lot of time to deliberate. Here was somebody who was imminently qualified, top of the list except for this situation of his youth. And we finally resolved that we would give him a fellowship on the condition that he live at home. We thought he really was too young to live here in the Fellows Building and be without parental supervision. This was an issue. I don’t know that it would be today, but at that time it was – and we knew George Stuart and his wife and we just knew that if he stayed there rather than here, this would work out beautifully. He was to eat lunch here in the Fellows Building with all the other Fellows and participate in all of the activities of Dumbarton Oaks, but he couldn’t stay here. And when we figured out this solution, again, everybody was just, “Yes, that’s what we should do.” And we’re very proud of it. I’m sure if the committee could meet again today, we would all – if we could’ve come up with that solution, we’d all say, “Yes.”
JP: I think it was during that year that he was awarded a MacArthur Prize.
JP: So you were all –
CD: We were right on.
JP: Good judgment was certainly –
JP: Did you ever discuss appointments outside of the fellowship program? – appointments rather than viewing applications?
CD: The only one I can recall – I don’t recall any other appointments here at Dumbarton Oaks except the person who was to replace Betty Benson. That we discussed at great length, we reviewed the applicants, as I recall we even discussed how this position should be advertised, we received applications, we deliberated at great length about who we thought would be the best person to follow Betty Benson, and we selected Elizabeth Boone. I think if the committee could meet today we would all congratulate ourselves on the wisdom of our choice. She did such an extraordinary job. And the transition between Betty Benson and Elizabeth Boone appeared to be seamless. The two just got along wonderfully and there was no faltering in the transition, which can occur and can take its toll with an institution. But this was great.
JP: What were some of the major issues you discussed as a committee over the years?
CD: Oh, I would say that other than the Fellows it’s really the three I just alluded to: replacing Betty Benson, the issue of merging with the Organization of American States, and David Stuart, what to do with David Stuart. Other than that it really was very much routine. And I don’t know if – I suspect it still is, I don’t know if it still is – but it seemed to be so well organized and the committee took it so seriously that it went very smoothly.
JP: Was there a sense of responding to broader currents in the field of anthropology or art history in general as a committee in terms of choosing symposia or indeed choosing Fellows? Was that something that you discussed at length?
CD: I don’t recall discussions about the new development, well, new trends in anthropology or archaeology being something that we should get on board with. For example, New Archaeology was not seen as something that we really needed to have here. It was more about, is this individual scholar and their research something that is worthy of Dumbarton Oaks’ support? And this post-processual issue: I don’t think even today people here are being swayed by that one way or the other. There are scholars in each of these new developing trends that are doing good work, and I suspect they would be just as competitive for fellowships today as the people who were involved in it then. But others who are not are just as competitive, so that really didn’t affect it. I didn’t see that there was anything that trumped good scholars, promising young scholars, very significant senior scholars and bringing them here. I’ve recently read a bit more than I knew then about the Bliss – Mr. and Mrs. Bliss and what they wanted to develop here. I was impressed that one of the things that came out was they really weren’t interested in having a quantity of people here. It was all about the quality of people that would come to Dumbarton Oaks. And as I said, I read this recently and I thought, “That’s what we were doing back then.”
JP: How would you characterize the field of pre-Columbian studies in general at the time, particularly compared to now?
CD: I would say it’s more the same than different, but there are some new aspects to it. There appear to be a lot more people involved in it today than there were then. A lot more students are getting their Ph.D.s in this field than there used to be. I think that there is a great deal more interest in host countries, in having participation in the archaeology of their country, and at last real collaboration with foreign scholars. In those days, at least in my own experience working in Peru, you simply applied for an excavation permit, you received the permit, you went out and you – and there was someone who was kind of supervising, but it wasn’t really formal. And that’s changed, in part because I think there are a lot more highly qualified archaeologists in Peru and probably in Chile and Ecuador than there were at that time. And they’re able to do this work very, very well, but if they just had the resources, and they’re getting more and more of the resources. So, I think that’s one transition. Another thing that is different is that we didn’t have anywhere near the funding that projects have today, nor did we believe that we deserved the funding. Most of my career I was excavating on what would seem a shoestring. I mean, a three month field season seldom cost twenty thousand dollars. And we didn’t receive a salary. If you were in the field, if you could get the funding to do the work and live – I remember thinking, “Gee, but I’m living free because I have per diem, my meals and all are paid,” but there was no thought of, “Well, my academic salary is this and so I should get per month what I earn when I’m teaching.” That’s new. Another thing that has come up and is quite new is field schools. I don’t recall in my time, and early on, starting working in Peru in 1963, there were no field schools, that you would go off to Peru and earn college credit and pay a certain amount which helps support the cost of the project. And that seems to have really come in just in the last ten years, and in the last five years it’s fluoresced. Every year there are more field schools. And there are so many students who are getting college credit, paying a substantial fee to get college credit to go out and learn how to dig in Peru, that I’m amazed. This wasn’t even on the horizon years ago. And I understand that it’s that way in parts of Central America. Someone was saying the other day that in Belize there are – you just find a site and run a field school. We were doing this more on the cheap without having a lot of students down there, and then you simply joined a project that was down there and if you could get your way paid and get subsistence, you just felt very, very fortunate. What the future of these trends will be I don’t know. I’m a little concerned about field schools, but we’ll see.
JP: It’s nice to have a real robust interest in archaeology, at least. Could you characterize some of the significant changes in Andean studies in particular since the time you first joined the Senior Fellows?
CD: Well, I’m more familiar with what is happening on the north coast of Peru than I am in most other areas of Peru, but in general for Peru I would say we’re light years ahead of where we were in understanding the civilizations of ancient Peru when I was a Senior Fellow. And in almost all areas the chronology for the south coast is much more refined and there are people wondering about what it means, or what alternative explanations could be. The same is true for the north coast. When I was a Senior Fellow here we had no idea there was a northern and southern Moche region. We also had no idea – I was working on Moche and I remember when there was a conference here that Tom Dillehay organized on, what was it called, tombs of the living, and I was asked to present a talk on Moche funerary practice. I’m not sure he specified what it was, but that’s what I ended up presenting. And I was quite interested in doing this because there was a large corpus of Moche burials that had been excavated and published adequately so that we could work out what the patterns were of Moche funerary practice. And I had this thing worked out really well, to my way of thinking. I compiled all of the Moche burials from each of the valleys, looked for how to divide them into the simplest Moche burials to the most complex ones. “Oh,” I thought, “this is wonderful. I’m really looking forward to presenting this at Dumbarton Oaks,” because it made sense to me, it accounted for everything we knew. And then Walter Alva, just before this conference, hit the first of the royal tombs at Sipan. And I was stunned. No one doing Moche research ever imagined that any Moche individual was ever that rich, was ever that – ever would have had that kind of wealth in their tomb. And I think it probably shocked me that it had – it would have shocked anyone, in part because I had been working on Moche, really focused on Moche, and I had just prepared this account that said it all. And I look back now and I think, you know, that’s like trying to reconstruct ancient Egypt and not having any idea there were pharaohs with the kind of wealth that went into their tombs. So, our whole idea of Moche went to a pinnacle that was so low and in the end it became so high so suddenly that I quickly revised my talk for that conference. I’ve often thought how lucky I was that Walter Alva found that tomb when he did. If he had found it two years later that publication would have looked ridiculous. But these things have happened over the years and they’re wonderful. That’s the nature of this field and I think it’s what keeps a lot of us going, you know, just the almost rude awakenings that occur when new evidence is uncovered.
JP: You organized what has been hailed as one of the most successful symposia we’ve ever had at Dumbarton Oaks in Pre-Columbian studies, on what I think I probably years ago would’ve thought an unlikely topic: early ceremonial architecture in the Andes. And it gives me great pleasure that we’re still asked to reprint that volume. It’s still very much in demand. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how that meeting came about?
CD: Yes, actually I had been on the Senior Fellows committee for several years and during that time almost every conference was on a Mesoamerican topic. And there had not been a conference specifically focused on an Andean topic in that time. And I came back here for a meeting and during the meeting this was brought up that there had not been a conference focused on an Andean topic, and everyone kind of said, “Well Chris, you’ve got to organize one, we’ve got to have one, and you’re the one to do it.” And I thought, well – this had never occurred to me. I had noticed there wasn’t an Andean conference, but suddenly I was charged with making one happen. And I remember at the meeting thinking, well, yeah, this is great and I will do that, it seems like we should be doing it. So, I accepted this and then went back to UCLA after that meeting trying to think, well, what should it be on? And I decided that I would canvass my colleagues and just see. And I called a lot of people and I said, basically, you know we have this wonderful opportunity to have a conference at Dumbarton Oaks on an Andean topic, and I’m just asking around. What do you think would be the best idea for a topic that’s really current, that really is necessary? I mean, an opportunity as Dumbarton Oaks provides for scholars to come together and present their material and get into discussion and hammer out some of these issues, you know, this is a golden opportunity for us, let’s – and overwhelmingly my colleagues said monumental architecture. There’s been so many revelations in this, so many new discoveries, so much new thought on it, but we haven’t had a chance to get together and present it and discuss it. This was clearly something that was on a lot of people’s minds. Mine as well, although I had no – I wasn’t doing anything really related to this. So, that was going to be the topic. Then I checked around and I said, well, who should we invite? And there was quite a consensus in that as well. So, the list of people who were invited to participate was quite easy to put together. I wish we had had the opportunity of having a few more people. One of my regrets about the conference is that we did not have Tom and Sheila Pozorski. I should’ve invited them, and I’m not sure why I didn’t because I’d been friends with them for quite some time and I knew about their research. But there were other people too that – Robert Feldman was not invited, and he was a major figure in this at the time. But as you know with all these conferences you can’t invite everyone who should be there presenting, although all of these people were invited to attend. And one person who was controversial and some people said, “Chris, don’t do this because this might not work out,” was Don Lathrop who they said, “Don – it might work out but it could be a disaster, and don’t – ” But Don had some ideas that everyone thought should be presented here and so I figured, well, we’re going to invite Don Lathrop – an amazing person, a real character. And he came the night before the conference and was really bristly and out of sorts and I thought, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to work, I’ve cooked the conference.’ But the next day when he was to get up and present his talk he did it beautifully, and we had a dinner here that evening and he was such a gentleman. In fact, I haven’t thought about this in years, but Don got up at the dinner, stood up and made a toast to me. I think what he was saying was, you know, “I’m still worth getting engaged in this. I know I have kind of a checkered reputation here, but I really appreciate Chris doing this and I am worthy.” And he was worthy. I really was delighted with his talk and we were very good friends for years after that. In many respects I miss him and I think a lot of us do, but that was risky. Another thing I remember about the conference was that Junius Bird was in very poor health, and yet we were all confident that he could come to the conference. And then just before the conference he passed away. And we invited Peggy Bird, his wife, to come to the conference. And I had decided we were going to dedicate the volume to Junius, and I contacted her and I told her that I personally would be so pleased if she could attend, and she did. I don’t know if you ever met Peggy Bird – a wonderful, wonderful lady. And when the conference began I made some introductory remarks and I said to all of us who were gathered there that the conference was dedicated to Junius Bird, and that this decision had been made long before, and that we were honored to have Peggy Bird with us at the conference. And I said, “Would you stand up?” And she stood up and she was so sweet. And people got on their feet and it was just a standing ovation to her and to Junius. And I didn’t calculate this, but you know how some things just work and it kind of set the mood for the conference. It worked.
JP: And the conference itself, you mentioned the people who were invited and other people who were invited to attend, at that time did you have to receive an invitation to be able to come to the conference or was it announced more broadly as well?
CD: I think, as I recall, you had to receive an invitation. That was always the way it was handled in the past and I never even knew who was invited or who wasn’t invited, except I wanted to make sure that all of the scholars who could participate in this and be involved were there. But other than that I didn’t know. But a curious thing occurred. Dumbarton Oaks sent out these invitations and years later, probably ten years later – I had enjoyed knowing Bob Sonnen, who is quite a character in his own right, but I was very fond of Bob and we had this shared interest in technology: ceramic technology, metallurgical technology, Moche, everything. So, I had just cherished that over the years, and I gave a talk in New York and Bob attended and afterward I went over to talk with Bob, and he wouldn’t talk with me. And for several years after that he was a just absolutely – and I thought – and finally I cornered him and I said, “Bob, did I do something to offend you because I – ” And he said, “Yes, and you know what it was.” And I said, “I really don’t. What was it?” And he said, “You didn’t invite me to the conference at Dumbarton Oaks, and you were chair of that and you didn’t.” And I said, “Bob, I didn’t even have anything to do with the invitations. If you had just picked up the phone and said, ‘Could you get me into the conference at Dumbarton Oaks?’ you would’ve been in. I would’ve insisted.” And then we became friends, and we still are. But for that period of years it was just over. So, that’s the only thing I know about invitations to conferences.
JP: And the book itself, as I alluded to earlier, has had a great afterlife. Do you have any recollections about the publication itself, the editing process, or its later history?
CD: I do. Yeah, I had – there was a lady at UCLA who was very interested in working with me as a volunteer, and I knew she had some editing skills and so as the manuscripts came in I asked her, “Would you like to work on this? I’ve got to edit this volume.” And her name was Geraldine Clift. Later it became Geraldine Ford. But she was wonderful, she was very well organized and a good editor, and between what she as doing – she was a copy editor type she really didn’t know that much about archaeology, but she was terrific. The papers came in. One of the scholars sent me something that was just impossible, like I really couldn’t do anything with it. And I was shocked by it, and I sent it back. And I thought he must have sent me the first draft and not something that had been – but he sent it back with notes and he just said, “I know it doesn’t have a bibliography but you can figure that out from my other publication, and I know it doesn’t have illustrations but you can get them.” That one I didn’t include, which I’m not sure has a precedent or any other example in the history of Dumbarton Oaks. And I wasn’t angry; I just figured I’m not going to do that. The other ones came in and I really wanted them in right away. Having served on the committee here and also read the publications of Dumbarton Oaks I had become absolutely convinced that getting these out in a timely fashion was – it wasn’t everything but it was practically everything. And if these volumes that come out of the conferences came out long after the conference then they would not have anywhere near the impact. And I think we had just a wonderful set of articles on a hot topic. But it came out, I think the conference was in ’82 and the book came out in ’85, and when it came out it was the source for this information. And I think the reason that it’s cited so often was that it just became the source. And it also had the aura of being the word on this in each area, and the scholars didn’t republish this a lot. It really – it came out fast enough so they were satisfied. Everyone looked to Dumbarton Oaks and to that publication and they started citing it so regularly, and, as you know, over the years things that are cited get recited, people look up and – so I think it was just a combination of wonderful circumstances. We had great papers that came in on time. I was able to get them edited. And my own sense of this is that, I don’t know what the half-life – almost like radiocarbon. I think with a conference volume maybe there’s a half-life of three years. In the first three years it’s a hundred percent valuable, after that its fifty percent and after that its twenty-five percent and it just keeps diminishing so that if they come out with too much elapsed time, people will buy them but they think, “Oh, I’ve seen that,” or, “The field has gone beyond that.” It wasn’t the case with this one, but we just had a wonderful group of people. I think there’s a certain luck in this too. It wasn’t my doing so much as it was just circumstances and good people.
JP: Did you ever consider organizing another conference or were you involved in other symposia?
CD: I was involved in – I don’t know if it was before that or after – I was involved in one on falsifications and mis-reconstructions. I don’t remember relative to my conference whether that was earlier or later, and then the one that Dillehay put together, and the one on northern dynasties that Mike Mosley and Maria Rostworowski put together. I never gave it another thought to doing another conference. It wasn’t something that – I mean, this one came up as kind of a, ‘Chris, you do it,’ and I don’t know – I never had thought, well, I could write Dumbarton Oaks if I had an idea about a conference. But I was also very busy. I was director of the Fowler Museum at UCLA, teaching two-thirds time – that was a one-third time appointment, I had a field project every summer, and I don’t think I could have done another one.
JP: I want to turn now to some sort of broader considerations of Dumbarton Oaks and pre-Columbian studies and your time as a Senior Fellow here. What do you consider to be Dumbarton Oaks’ most important contributions to the field at that time?
CD: Oh, unquestionably the scholarship, just the quality of the research. And in terms of what it achieved, it achieved it because we were able to select really top quality people almost invariably. Not invariably, some people didn’t complete the research that we thought that they would in the time they were here or some of them drifted off afterward, but very rarely. I mean, the people who are here – and you can look at the people – I was the other evening looking at the roster of even Junior Fellows that we selected, and these people are the stars in this field today. One wonders whether that is because Dumbarton Oaks gave them the opportunity to kind of fluoresce at that stage in their career, to what extent that’s why they became stars, or if it is just this kind of aura that they were a Dumbarton Oaks Fellow. That carries a good deal of weight when you look at somebody who’s applying for a job, coming up for tenure, whatever. So, just having been involved here is wonderful for someone’s career. But the idea that you can come here, have this kind of library and archive resource at your disposal – and then I found, even this month being back here, the conversations that go on around lunch or that you might go into somebody’s office and ask them about – and then you get into some other aspects of the research. This is magic and it works its magic on all of us who come here. So, that I think that was achieved in the time I was on the Senior Fellows committee, and I don’t see that there is any lessening of that. If anything this new library facility just accelerates the ability to do that. I think the mission as it was conceptualized by Mr. and Mrs. Bliss, at least in terms of pre-Columbian studies, is being realized in a wonderful way.
JP: You’ve been a big hit with the Mesoamericanists here as well as the Andeanists, and our current Mayanist in residence, Andrew Scherer, was so impressed with your tale of doing almost a perfect one-day excavation as well as a publication from it, that he thinks it’s a challenge for all the Fellows in residence this year to try and do the same.
CD: I – You should never have brought that up at lunch, and then brought it up at the end of this talk. I’ve thought, how did I ever decide to tell that tale? Actually we had dinner with some friends, two of whom were at the lecture, and they’re all members of the Pre-Columbian Society, and they insisted that I retell that story at dinner the following evening. And I thought, goodness, this thing is – but at any rate it’s a good story. And it’s also the case that that archaeological site is no longer. The beach has eroded that and it would be gone if we hadn’t gone out there and done our work in one day.
JP: And this was published in American Antiquity in the section I was delighted to see entitled “Facts and Commentary.”
CD: Yeah. Absolutely, but actually, again in retrospect, you look back like I do on what we achieved as Senior Fellows and I think Mike and I would both say it was the best thing we could’ve done with that day of our life. Not just in terms of our seeing if we could do it, but even in terms of recording something. I haven’t read the publication in years, but I doubt that I would look at it now and think, “Oh, this is an embarrassment.” It’s just a brief little piece of work, but a one-day piece of work.
JP: What are some of the changes between your time as a Senior Fellow here twenty-five years ago and your stay here as a Visiting Scholar? What are some of the most marked changes?
CD: I think, it’s for me – I see it more in the facilities than in the way the program is run. The library is magnificent. That was needed here desperately and it bodes well for generations of scholars who will come here and be able to access the material more readily. So, that I think is wonderful. When I was here as a Senior Fellow, the director of the center lived in his own house where our Refectory is now. That’s a change. And I remember going over, particularly when Giles Constable was director, we were always invited over there for either dinner or for some social gathering, sherry or something, and that was quite wonderful. I was delighted to see that it has that same ability to be wonderful in those kind of intimate gatherings today. This building has become much more modern. When I was here in those days with Hasso von Winning and Nicholson, this had books and it was darker. I don’t know if they’ve painted the shelving here, and the room, it’s much lighter and it’s lovely, but it’s different. It had an aura. I don’t know. Were you here before – I guess you were – before it was changed, it had an aura of – it was just more of a kind of a really special room, very memorable. You came in here in the evening. I remember when we here in January for our meeting and there’d be a fire going in the fireplace, and this was where you gathered, this was where conversation took place, often very interesting conversation, often hilarious conversations, but it was a very important meeting place and I don’t know that that’s the case now, the way it was then. I have another memory thinking of January meetings. This is off from your questions, but Mike Mosley came onto the Senior Fellows committee near the time that I was going to be cycling off. I think he and I were back here two or at most three years. But one of those there was snow on the ground, it was in January, and Mike and I were asked if we would like to go to dinner with Gordon Willey, and we were delighted and so off we went. I don’t know what Senior Fellows wear today, if it’s become casual. I would never have imagined in those days I’d be sitting here in just a shirt, but we always had ties on and coats and so on. But we went off to dinner to some place in Georgetown and the snow was still falling, and we came back we were kind of crunching through the snow. We came into the building and we went up. Mike and I were sharing one room up here and in the adjacent room they had put Gordon Willey. And we were dusting off our overcoats and going up the stairs. We got to the end of the hallway and Gordon says, “Gentlemen, I wonder if you would like to join me for a night cap.” I think that’s what he called it. Mike and I, “But of course!” So we went into Gordon’s room, which I think had twin beds, and Gordon out of his suit pulls out this absolutely beautiful silver flask and he pours three drinks of superb scotch. And we sat there on the twin beds, Mike and I on one and he on the other, and I thought, “This is wonderful,” you know. And I’m sure most people who come here have experiences like that, but I thought, to be sitting here on a winter night, snow outside, I’m having a night cap with Gordon Willey for gosh sakes. I mean, he was so senior at that time and he was so accessible, wanting to be accessible and yet having this wonderful manner. So, we had pleasant conversation, and then Mike and I went to our room and that was that. But it’s one of my fondest memories at Dumbarton Oaks.
JP: Exchange of ideas over libations.
JP: Well I think that’s a wonderful image to remember and to take away. Is there anything else you wanted to add to the interview?
CD: Nope, just that if – I suppose if – deep down my feeling is if I have been good for Dumbarton Oaks I am very pleased because Dumbarton Oaks has been very good for Chris Donnan. My career has been enhanced, my credibility because I was involved here, the publications of mine that have come out of here I’ve always been so proud of, and then all of the friendships with people I would never have known, or never have known in that context, the magic of Dumbarton Oaks. And to have had that in my life, it’s been splendid.
JP: Well, we’ve been thrilled to have your participation over the years and were really thrilled to have you here now.
CD: Thank you.
JP: Thank you very much.