Michael D. Coe
CW: We are Anna Bonnell-Freiden and Clem Wood. Today is August 13, 2008. And we have the pleasure of interviewing Professor Michael Coe here at his home in New Haven, Connecticut, about his relationship with Dumbarton Oaks over the years. Our first question is – I guess the obvious one – how did you begin at Dumbarton Oaks in your capacity as an adviser, around the time of the installation of the Pre-Columbian Collection?
MC: Well let’s go back. Let’s go back to when I first met Robert Woods Bliss, which was considerably earlier, when I was a Harvard undergraduate. This was in the – I graduated in 1950, so it was in the academic year of 1949-50. And I had been to Yucatán already and had seen a really important collection of pre-Columbian Maya figurines, which I told people about and were then owned by the Regil family – R-E-G-I-L – in Merida. And I had also seen a terrible faker of pre-Columbian stuff, who sold to various people some incredibly elaborate pre-Columbian Maya fakes. Crystal figures, figures made out of amethyst – and so I had seen that they were all fake. And Mr. Bliss must have heard about this, that I knew about this. So, he came to Harvard once at the invitation of the Peabody Museum. And his old friend – I think a Harvard classmate – Alfred Tozzer, was the dean of Maya Studies, actually a wonderful man, was there. And various big wigs of the museum had invited him. They were going to take him to lunch at the Faculty Club. Mr. Bliss insisted that I come along – a mere undergraduate. I mean, this was unheard of. “Who is this guy?” You know, they were horrified. “No,” he said, “I want him there.” Because he wanted to pick my brains about this stuff. And we got to the Faculty Club. Mr. Bliss was a man of immense distinction, a really great-looking guy, dressed to the nines and a former diplomat and whatnot. And he insisted that I sit right next to him, which really infuriated the big high poobahs at the Peabody. We had a marvelous conversation. I warned him about all these fakes coming up and told him about this other collection. I don’t know if he ever got anything out of it or not, but he was a wonderful man, so I knew that he was a collector and he was really into pre-Columbian things, more than the Byzantine stuff that his wife, Mrs. Bliss, loved so much. He told me some wonderful stuff about how he’d gone to Tikal and camped out on the top of the highest pyramid and things like that. I was really fascinated. He was really a wonderful guy. So, I had very good feelings about the Blisses long before I ever came into this. Then of course I knew in the National Gallery over these years – the best of his collection was in the National Gallery, long before the Pre-Columbian section of Dumbarton Oaks came along. And Betty Benson had become the sort of unofficial or official curator of that collection, which was wonderful, basically on the ground floor – not in any of the galleries or anything like that – beautiful, beautiful stuff. It developed of course – they really wanted to do something with the pre-Columbian at Dumbarton Oaks. I’ll tell you another piece of ancient history, too. I can’t put exact dates on it, but initially Mr. Bliss wanted to donate that collection to the nation, which would have been the Smithsonian. And there was an old curator that had been there for God knows how long. He was the head of the Department of Anthropology in the Smithsonian, named Herbert W. Krieger. And Krieger had one bête noire, and that was patent medicines, which he claimed had poisoned everyone in the United States. So, Mr. Bliss made an appointment to see this man, and Mr. Bliss always wore a hard hat, a derby hat, and he was really something to look at. So, he goes into old man Krieger’s office and Krieger was an old paranoid and whatnot. I suppose nobody warned Mr. Bliss about this. I could have warned him but I wasn’t asked. So, he walks into Krieger’s office, and Krieger says, “Bliss, hey. Your wife is Mildred Barnes Bliss. Barnes, that’s patent medicines, isn’t it?” And he blew up at Mr. Bliss over patent medicine – it’s killing all these people. So, Mr. Bliss just turned around and walked out. And that’s when he decided it’s going to Harvard, not to the Smithsonian. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that story––
MC: But it’s a true one. Nobody could advertise that the Blisses lived in Washington. The Barnes Patent Medicines, which I think included Fletcher’s Castoria, laxatives, things like that, they couldn’t put those billboards within 50 miles of downtown Washington. But that’s where the money came from, actually. It was Mrs. Bliss’s money. Mildred Barnes. So, Betty I think was involved with the transfer. She’s probably told you all about that. Then of course the idea was to build a new wing. They hired Philip Johnson. The then head of Dumbarton Oaks, the Director, was Jack Thacher – John Thacher. A wonderful, wonderful man. An old, old friend of the Blisses. Harvard graduate in art history, and just a super guy. By this time Mr. Bliss had died, and this was basically Mrs. Bliss’s baby from now on, although pre-Columbian art was not – she was much more into the Byzantine. So, they wanted to have a curator with academic credentials, and by this time I had my Ph.D. I had written on art. I knew a lot about pre-Columbian art at this point. And of course I was a professional archaeologist. So, I was contacted by Harvard to see if I would be a curator of this whole thing, I guess with Betty. I don’t know how this was going to work out, but at this point I had just come to Yale. You know, I was an instructor; I didn’t have tenure and so forth. Actually I think I was an assistant professor. I was getting approached by Columbia who actually did come through with a tenure offer, and with Chicago, and I didn’t know what to do about this offer from Dumbarton Oaks. I didn’t want to go, really, unless there was a teaching position there, because I called up Gordon Willey, my professor at Harvard, and said, “What am I going to do?” And he said, “There’s probably no chance of working this thing into a half-time teaching thing at Harvard, but don’t ever take a job that doesn’t involve teaching.” He said he’d been to the Smithsonian, and he said the Smithsonian – Krieger actually offered me a job. Krieger, the guy who insulted Mr. Bliss. And he said, “Don’t ever take that job; it’s a bone yard down there.” But he said that Dumbarton Oaks, unless there was a teaching thing, don’t do it. So, I didn’t, but then they hired me as an adviser. I think that was 1963. And then I did get tenure here at Yale on the strength – at least in part – of the Columbia offer. This is academia, the way it works. So, I worked very closely with Betty. We really were a partnership down there, with Jack Thacher. But before I was hired as an adviser, before it was finalized, I’d never met Mrs. Bliss. So, I had to really pass muster with Mildred Bliss. So, at this point, she had moved out of Dumbarton Oaks and was living several blocks away – very nice house that she had. Jack Thacher took me over for tea with Mrs. Bliss, and I had no descriptions of Mrs. Bliss. I didn’t know what she looked like or anything like that, and I was scared to death that I’d do something wrong at some point. So, this red-headed woman comes down the stairs – young-looking red-headed woman and whatnot – and I assumed that was Mrs. Bliss’s secretary. It wasn’t – it was Mrs. Bliss! You know, she was something like 75 or 80 years old, but she just didn’t look the part at all. And she was terribly nice. I liked her immediately, right away. She approved of me. I think I spilled my tea on the chair. But that’s how it all got started.
ABF: Had Mr. Bliss passed away at that point?
MC: Mr. Bliss had passed away, yeah. Right. That’s why she moved into this house. It was something like a dollar house and whatnot. But a very active woman, really a sharp person, and she had an incredibly good eye for stuff. Because obviously the different dealers that dealt with Mr. Bliss were now coming to her. And she was very, very sharp. My interest was not just in dirt archaeology but in art, so I thought this was a wonderful opportunity to get some pre-Columbian scholarship going along these lines – art and archaeology together. So, those early years were wonderful, they really were. A committee was formed. At one point, when the wing was finally finished and whatnot, I had dinner with Jack Thacher and Philip Johnson one night – very enjoyable stuff. There were two things that needed to be done. One was of course the installation of the show. Betty was superb about that. The other thing was to get a real scholarly program going in pre-Columbian studies. It would be the equivalent of what had been going on in Byzantine studies. Actually, as you know, there were three parts to Dumbarton Oaks. There was the Byzantine Studies, there’s Pre-Columbian, and there’s a garden part. Actually, the garden part was Mrs. Bliss’s real love. I mean, that was really her thing, because of her relationship with Beatrix Farrand and the Dumbarton Oaks grounds and all the rest of it. And she knew a lot about the subject. But anyway, Pre-Columbian needed to get going, and Betty and I and Jack Thacher really put the program together. We wanted to have a publication series, and I wrote the first number in that series. Actually it’s a wonderful pectoral that was at Dumbarton Oaks. On one side, it’s Olmec, and on the other side, some early, early Maya king had it incised with an extremely early Maya text – I mean, one of the earliest ones we know. It describes his – we now know – more or less his coronation, taking power, with this guy seated there. So, I was already interested in very early writing, especially Maya. The grand panjandrum of Maya studies had – and I told the Blisses or somebody that it was me – but it wasn’t. But it was absolutely wonderful. That was Eric Thompson that scared everybody. So, that was the first number. Then we wanted to do – at the same time – get a conference series going. And we started those and published those. Betty was the editor and really designer of all those early things when we got it going. And then of course we had to have a committee. And as part of the deal, the Peabody at Harvard had to be part of this. Now, there’s a long history about tension between Cambridge and Harvard and what the Blisses wanted in Washington, as you know, and I’m sure you’ve heard about this from different things. Everybody in Washington knew that Harvard smelled out all of this money, that the Blisses had had big hunks of dough. They couldn’t keep their hands off of that, and they were always after it. There were rumors that they were going to grab all the money that was in the garden library, because they couldn’t see that as a scholarly subject, etc., etc., serious, you know, for serious scholarship, which is bologna. That didn’t happen because there were newspaper campaigns in Washington about this, you know, exposing Harvard’s hand that had been little nefarious doings. The question was what is the relationship going to be of the Peabody Museum of Harvard to here? And it was built in that on the committee – I don’t know whether ex officio or whatnot – there would always be the director of the Peabody Museum, who at that point was John Otis Brew, Joe Brew, who had been one of my professors at Harvard and was a very nice guy. And in those early years we also had on that committee – Betty will have told you who these people were – but we had Junius Bird from the Museum of Natural History. Absolutely wonderful scholar, and a guy who knew not just dirt archaeology – he was one of the best who ever lived – but knew about Pre-Columbian art, Peruvian art especially. And Gordon Eckholm, who really spent most of his time looking at Pre-Columbian art. He was with the museum of Natural History. And I’ve forgotten who else was on that, but in those early years for a while everything was really fun. We had our first conference. I think it was the Olmec one, which was a big success. This was when Olmec archaeology was just taking off.
CW: And you had been working at San Lorenzo?
MC: Yeah, I’d been digging at San Lorenzo, and the California people had been at La Venta, so, you know, things were just beginning to get going about the Olmec. And those were wonderful conferences, those early conferences. We decided to publish not only the papers but also the discussions and everything else. At the same time, of course, we had the exhibits installed. And it wasn’t easy, I can tell you, because the building really isn’t amenable to standard type museum displays, which need flat walls and whatnot. There are no flat walls in there. I don’t know who thought up the idea of doing these kind of loose side cases. I think it was Mrs. Bliss, if I’m not mistaken. And those were designed at great expense. They turned out to be a success. It was the only way you could have it, sort of like a boutique. The fact that there was criticism about it – like a jewelry boutique – well, what the heck, these things are jewels! So, the collection was always part of the thing. And the library, of course, we built the library up at the same time, as you know, a first-class library, which at that time was underground, of course, underneath the wing. At the same time, Mrs. Bliss was still buying. And she wanted to keep that going because this was art and archaeology, in which the art was just as important as the archaeology. So, obviously the only place to buy these things was on the market, the international antiquities market. We got to know some of the major dealers in this field, actually all charming people, a lot nicer than some of the dirt archaeologists I know. So, you know, Betty and I were able to advise Mrs. Bliss, “Don’t get that, but get that. Get that. Here are things that we don’t have in the collection.” The Blisses had very set ideas about what kinds of things they wanted. They didn’t like pottery. Mr. Bliss didn’t care for pottery at all, so there are pottery figures and things. He liked fine stones and things of that nature. So, this is the collection that we got into Dumbarton Oaks, then Mrs. Bliss kept buying them. I tried to get them interested in Olmec ceramics. There were some amazing ones that were coming up at this point, but I couldn’t swing it. Well, as I said, things were fine. But Jack Thacher died. Did he retire before he died? I don’t think he did. I think he died in office.
MC: About ’69?
ABF: I think so.
MC: And Bill Tyler, William Tyler, became the new director, and he was wonderful too. He was an old friend of the Blisses – knew exactly what they wanted, and Jack Thacher didn’t, what their intentions were. He was also famously Edith Wharton’s heir to her estate. So, he spent part of his time in France at Edith Wharton’s house and whatnot, and a person of enormous culture, I mean, really. Basically he could have been handpicked by Jack Thacher as his successor, I mean he was really a nice guy. However, at this point, up at the Peabody there had been a palace revolution. They had eased Joe Brew out of the directorship. Really, they treated him like dirt. It was really disgraceful. They just sent him to the outer darkness. And Joe – very blustery guy, very good archaeologist – but he was somebody that you could deal with. We had a new director come in at this point. It was Steve Williams. And I don’t know how much Betty has told you. I don’t know whether I’m going to say anything actionable, but that was when things started to go downhill as far as we were concerned. The relationship we had with Harvard, the relationship we had with the – another director came in after Bill Tyler retired and went to France to live in Mrs. Wharton’s place. We got Giles Constable in, and he had no sympathy whatsoever for any of the stuff we had done there. And I think between him and Steve Williams, very little sympathy with what Mr. and Mrs. Bliss had wanted for this place. So, things began – as far as Betty and I were concerned – by the late ’70s, things had really skidded. We had annual meetings of the board, and the Harvard people came down – my teacher, Gordon Willey, and Steve Williams came down there – and I just used to dread those meetings. I used to look forward to them. They were really fun, talking to people like Junius Bird and reminiscing, you know. We had wonderful talks going. And it just started – I thought, “What am I doing here?” But I felt I’ve got to stay on just to defend Betty, who put so much of her life into this place, and she loved it. And the Blisses loved her too, I mean really, very much so. She was really part of it. We got the feeling that – well, in the first place, they really disapproved of Mrs. Bliss collecting or buying, or us buying anything, for the collection on the market.
ABF: Did this have to do with UNESCO?
MC: That really hadn’t come up. I think it had less to do with UNESCO than with the idea that Dumbarton Oaks, i.e. Harvard, which owned it, kept on buying things on the pre-Columbian market. The Peabody people weren’t going to get excavation permits. This had come up with Harvard decades before, nothing to do with Dumbarton Oaks, but at Chichen Itza, one site you must know, which is the largest site in northern Yucatán, dug for years and years and years by the Carnegie Institution of Washington. But before them dug by Edward H. Thompson, the Bostonian who had bought the entire site and who learned how to dive in the Sacred Cenote, you know, the well of sacrifice – brought up all kinds of incredible stuff, including gold and all sorts of goodies. All of that material was smuggled out to Harvard by one way or another, using tourists or God knows what. And this became, during the 1930s, a cause célèbre between Harvard University and Mexico. And at that point, they said that nobody from Harvard is ever going to have an excavation permit in Mexico again. Alfred Tozzer never could do it. He was a professor there. I mean, he was considered to be the guilty one. The Mexicans at this point – this is 1936 – they expropriated the oil fields, the American and British oil fields there that became Pemex. It was a big international case, and they used the stuff that went to Harvard, put a huge evaluation on it, on the reparations that had to be paid when they negotiated this thing. They subtracted that amount from what they were supposed to have been paying the United States oil companies. So, it was really something. So, Harvard was really sensitive about this thing, as you can imagine, with that history. So, that obviously was part of the deal when that came up. I think that was more important than the UNESCO convention. I’ve forgotten when in the 70s that thing came out. Alright, so we don’t get any more. That wasn’t what really bothered me. What bothered me and what bothered Betty, I think, at the time was that the board reconstituted itself. It became different. Mrs. Bliss wasn’t around, or Mr. Bliss, to protest, but it became much less oriented towards history of art and studying pre-Columbian art – which had been an important half of what it was – and much more pure dirt archaeology. The Blisses gave that money really for the study of pre-Columbian art. Period. What it became eventually was – and turned into – it was supporting archaeological projects many or most of which had nothing to do with pre-Columbian art, such as studying obsidian chipping, things of this sort, or ecology, ecological subjects, which are fine and should be supported, but not necessarily by the Blisses’ money. Betty and I really had problems with the director. We got the feeling – and other people in Washington had the same idea – that he had been programmed to basically wrap the whole thing up and move it up to Harvard to the Peabody. And there wasn’t much we could do about it. Gordon Willey and Steve Williams were together on this darn thing. And at this point Gordon Willey wrote a letter to the president of Harvard, who I believe was Bok at that point, saying that it was – but this guy was my teacher; I think it was scholar-less of him – he said that basically the Pre-Columbian program at Dumbarton Oaks, the way it had been set up, had no intellectual underpinnings, that it basically was irrelevant to the study of pre-Columbian peoples, and it was really a vicious letter. Whether Williams wrote it or Willey wrote it, I don’t know. We had people on the board, several people, who tried to fight for us against that trend, one of whom was Gillett Griffin. Have you interviewed Gillett?
ABF: We’ve been in touch with him. I think he might be on vacation.
MC: He’s up right now at his farm in Massachusetts. He’s ten miles from where I have my farm up there. So, that’s exactly where he is. I had dinner with him the other night. You should interview Gillett.
ABF: Yeah, well apparently he told somebody else that we know that he would like to be interviewed, but he hasn’t been back in touch.
MC: Well Gillett you should talk to because he knows this from a board member’s point of view. He was right in the middle of it with us. It just became something that it was quite clear we were going to lose. At one point, Giles Constable got the idea that the entire collection that the Blisses had built up over all those decades should be donated by Harvard and Dumbarton Oaks to the Organization of American States. I don’t know where he got this idea, totally naïve idea. What would the Organization of American States do with that collection? It’s a collection of politicians there. They’re all sovereign states of Latin America plus the United States, I suppose, and Canada. What are they going to do with a collection of pre-Columbian art? And it was stupid. I thought that was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard. Well, he got all excited. He came up here and wanted to talk. I said, “Okay, come for lunch.” I had him out on the porch, and he had in his pocket a copy of both wills, of Mr. Bliss and Mrs. Bliss. I said, “I know what they both – you don’t have to show me their wills. I know what all of this is about. You’re making a huge, big mistake, and it’s not fair to the memory of these two people, you know, who donated this thing to Harvard, to do a thing like that.” They wanted to see that as a study center that would stay in Washington with this academic connection to Harvard – give and take back and forth – but not to be taken over by Harvard or by anybody else. As I say, I knew Mr. Bliss just by that one meeting, but I knew her through many meetings, what she wanted. I just said it’s something that they wouldn’t have wanted. But it didn’t happen, thank God. It’s still there, but that was a close call. I gave him hell. I just said, “You’re making a huge, bad mistake,” and whatnot there.
ABF: This was also the time when there was also some talk of moving the Center for Byzantine Studies to Harvard.
MC: That’s right. Oh, Harvard’s been after that for decades and decades and decades. They started out trying to take all the money for the Garden Studies Library, which was so dear to Mrs. Bliss’s heart, and just grabbing the money and moving that up to Cambridge and using it God knows for what – to pay for janitors, light bulbs, who knows what. That idea of grabbing the Byzantine Studies – again that’s totally against the Blisses. If you accept this from somebody, let’s say Yale accepts from an outside donor money for a professorship, you shouldn’t take that money and stick it into general appropriations and forget about the professorship. You have an obligation to the donor if you have accepted it. And they didn’t see it that way. So, that’s what really happened. Then it became quite clear that the handwriting was on the wall. They would love to get rid of Betty and to get rid of me. We often talked about this. So, as not to give them that pleasure, we both resigned. So, that was that. And after that, I’ve had almost no contact whatsoever with Dumbarton Oaks. I think they’re coming back now to a more sane point of view that’s a little bit more in line with what the Blisses would have wanted. But I tried to stay true first to Betty and then secondly to the Blisses, because it was an important part of my life. I loved it when I was working with them. It was a pleasure to go down there and get these things going. So, that’s basically the outline of what happened and why I resigned, and you certainly know by this time why Betty resigned. But Betty still loves the place. She really does. She’s always going over there. I just couldn’t bring myself to go there.
CW: Do you remember – back to an earlier time – I think Betty was telling stories of what sounded like very informal gatherings of you and other scholars, kind of lying on the floor.
MC: I don’t know if you’ve seen the – did you see the NOVA?
CW: No I haven’t. We’ve heard about it.
MC: I have the complete two-hour version of that, and there’s a whole section in there with Betty and her mini-conference. That arose out of entirely different set of circumstances. This was down at Palenque – the great Maya site of Palenque – the first Mesa Rendonda, first Round Table, at Palenque, which our friend who’s now 95-years-old, Merle Greene Robertson, got together down there. She was living at Palenque at least part time. Met at her house, and it was the best of all conferences that have ever been held. I mean, it was really something. This was what really got the great decipherment going. It had already been cracked in part by Knorosov, this Russian, but this is where people now really took off. It had to do with the art, it had to do with the archaeology, it had to do with the architecture. We got the first dynastic history, and Betty invited the people who had done this early dynastic history of Palenque up to Washington for a mini-conference. I wrote that up in my book, Breaking the Maya Code. I have a whole section in there what went on at that. That’s what this NOVA film was based on, was that book of mine. Betty got these people down on the floor with all this stuff spread out. It was really something. It was incredible. Betty could get people together like that. She had an eye and an ear for these things. And she got kindred souls together. That was wonderful, but that kind of thing didn’t last forever, unfortunately. Too bad, because I used to love that place. That’s why when Joanne invited me down, I thought, “OK, I’ll go. Maybe things have changed for the better.”
CW: And the talk is this fall?
MC: This fall, yeah. I haven’t written it, but I know what I’m going to say. This is about Knorosov, basically – the Russian, who I knew very well – and why he cracked the Maya code, and all the people who were in the free world with access to the sites, to the ruins, to the libraries and whatnot, why they didn’t do it but he did it in total isolation under terrible circumstances. So, that’s what’s going on.
CW: Did you – we’re jumping around a little, I guess – but do you remember any of the talk about the provenance of the birth goddess?
MC: About what?
CW: The birth goddess piece in the collection? Or it’s often called––
MC: Oh, how Bliss got his first piece? That was a – that’s been written up. I wrote up, as a matter of fact, one of the conferences that Betty and I did. I’m sure that people at Harvard, the dirt archaeologists, thought it was terrible. But we did a conference on collecting and collectors. And I wrote up the early history of dealing in this, because I knew some of these early, early – how did this whole idea of Pre-Columbian art, how did it get to be art? Because there was a long period of time when all they did was write museum numbers across magnificent works of art and throw them into drawers. When did this all start and who was doing this? And Mr. Bliss bought his first piece during the First World War. He was stationed as a diplomat in Paris and he bought this wonderful standing Olmec piece. Beautiful thing of jade, from an artist named Joseph Brummer – B-R-U-M-M-E-R – who was a friend of the painter Douanier Rousseau, had his portrait painted, knew everybody in the art field, and was the first dealer in pre-Columbian art. And Mr. Bliss bought that piece from him. That began his collecting. So, we know about that; that’s documented. But I had fun writing that article because I was able to get into the Bliss archives––
CW: At Harvard?
MC: Elizabeth Boone was at Dumbarton Oaks, and she let me into the Bliss archives – but she was very nice, very cooperative – into Mr. Bliss’s collection, all of the stuff about how he collected, all his letters and whatnot. I’ve still got copies of all that stuff. I Xeroxed the whole thing. It’s fascinating, the world of these early collectors, they were really something. Because he went down to Peru, he went to all sorts of places. She was collecting Byzantine, usually.
ABF: Can you describe Mr. Bliss’s role in the formation of the collection as you see it?
MC: Whose role?
ABF: Mr. Bliss.
MC: Mr. Bliss. Well, of course he died before I became adviser. Betty was the one who knew him best. Betty was very close friends with Mr. Bliss. She could describe this much, much better. But when he was alive he was the one who decided he liked this, he liked that. The dealers would come to him, and sometimes he wouldn’t see them, or he’d be shown a piece and say, “Take it away.” He had very firm ideas of what he wanted. He reminded me a lot in his collecting of another guy who collected at that point – but antiquities from the rest of the world – Gulbenkian, and his collection of Classical and Egyptian stuff, which is also on view in the National Gallery in the same area. Gulbenkian was Mr. Five Percent. He was an Armenian who got into when they were dividing the Middle East up, the powers, to get the oil. He got five percent of every deal. So he’s known as Mr. Five Percent, you know. When Iraq was made and the rest of them drawn on the map, he got five percent. He lived in Portugal, and he was an incredibly astute collector – beautiful little things, Egyptian especially. That’s all now in the Gulbenkian Foundation. I looked on these two similar collectors, people with immense knowledge and immense taste doing this kind of thing. Today collecting is a dirty word. These people are considered to be holy devils, but I still respect them because, you know, I think to some extent they saved a lot of stuff as long as, I suppose, indirectly destroying it. But they knew what they were doing. They did this not because of the archaeological importance or anything like that, but because these things were beautiful. They were Renaissance types, really, like some of the great princes of the Renaissance – Medici, people of that sort – who began to collect Roman antiquities and Greek antiquities because that stuff spoke to them directly. They’re humanists, is what they were. They didn’t pretend to be scientists or anything like that. But they respected archaeologists, the Blisses did. They really did. And they supported them.
ABF: So, would you say that that ethos that you’re describing was one that Betty Benson shared?
MC: Betty Benson definitely shared that. She’s got a huge background in art history, but she’s also got immense taste. This is something you don’t hear about – connoisseurship is what it’s called. Again, that’s a dirty word now, the fact that people could be connoisseurs of these things. She really had a feeling for this stuff. I think the patrons, the Mayas, who ordered their artists to make these things were the same types of people. They knew what was good. If you’re seeing some great Maya art or been to a site like Palenque, these people were like people of the Renaissance. They were great patrons. They were willing to pay and support these people to turn out these beautiful things. That’s different than archaeology, than science. It’s connoisseurship.
ABF: I wonder if you would describe, then, the conflict that arose during Giles Constable’s directorship, if you would attribute this conflict to this kind of generational divide, this rift that was developing at that point between this kind of camp that believed in the value of these pieces on the basis of their aesthetic value versus this more kind of anthropological, ethnographic and archaeological approach.
MC: Yes, very good question. I never saw a way you couldn’t do both of them at the same time in a place like Dumbarton Oaks. You know, it’s not all or nothing. But the way Harvard archaeology developed – actually, you know, Gordon Willey used to have a little collection of his own when I knew him as his student. He didn’t like to talk about it. There was a lot of hypocrisy. Alfred Tozzer had a wonderful collection, actually, up at Harvard, the first Bowditch Professor up there. Willey was his successor. They never have gone along those lines, actually. You can do them both, but they didn’t see it that way. I think they were more worried about their excavation permits, you know, getting along with these donor countries with archaeological riches. I think that was their number one thing. Science and the whole field of excavation archaeology were really not number one. Number one was getting those permits which they had been denied for decades by Mexico in particular. Guatemala, they were okay because the Guatemalans didn’t care what was taken out of Chichen Itza. They didn’t own it. So, they could work in Guatemala but they could never work in Mexico. And I think that was a big part of it. It was political, basically.
ABF: So how would you have handled it better? Because clearly it sounds like you and Betty Benson were treated in a way that––
MC: Well, let’s divide two things up now. One is Dumbarton Oaks collecting. That need not have gone on forever; that was a subsidiary thing. The other thing was Dumbarton Oaks as a place to study – not only archaeology, but art too – in terms of what the Blisses wanted. And suddenly the art side became no good. That was not what they wanted. It was a political thing, really, more than a scholarly one, because you can’t study a civilization like the Maya without considering their art. So, art historians got more and more shoved off to one side, as opposed to dirt archaeology. I don’t study them, but if you saw the lists of who got the fellowships and things like that, more and more people who had nothing whatsoever to do with art, even studying broken pottery or campfires or something like this, fine, that’s good, but it need not be what goes on at Dumbarton Oaks. Dumbarton Oaks was unique in that it brought these two things together: art history and anthropological archaeology. The art history side just got bumped onto one side. This isn’t the way I saw it. Plus you had that absolutely negative, poisonous thing about Harvard wanting all that money. That’s a lot of money in that! By now the Blisses endowment is an enormous chunk of money. The famous bean counters up there in Cambridge keep looking at that. They’ve always done this. They’ve always done it. They got their fingers burned over the garden program and garden library. You know, I knew the guy who started the newspaper campaign against that in Washington. It was Joseph Alsop, a good friend of mine. He was a famous correspondent. He and his brother Stewart were big in the newspaper world. He made a front-page thing about that move to take the garden library away and pack all the money up to Cambridge.
CW: It really doesn’t make sense to take the garden part away from Dumbarton Oaks.
MC: I know! Now it’s a perfectly good scholarly subject, too. Garden history is now even in archaeology. There are garden archaeologists now.
ABF: Yeah. Of course.
MC: So that’s as much as I really recollect, but I won’t tell you about some of the unpleasant things that went on at board meetings under Steve Williams and whatnot in the bad old days, but ask Gillett. He could give you some wonderful stuff on that. [laughing] On our side there were always Gordon Eckholm from the Museum of Natural History and Junius Bird from the Museum of Natural History. They were people that could understand that these two things went together at a place like Dumbarton Oaks, that is the art and the archaeology. But we didn’t win out, and of course they retired, and they’re dead now, so that’s that. So, let’s hope it gets back together.
CW: Do you remember anything about talk of this piece in the collection, the so-called birth goddess piece?
MC: Oh yes, yes I do. Yeah, right. That of course was bought by Mr. Bliss from – who did he get that from? From Verver? I can’t remember who he actually bought that from. And of course it’s considered one of the iconic pieces of Aztec civilization. I’ve always admired it and whatnot. Gordon Eckholm used to – up in his offices in the Museum of Natural History in New York – he claimed once he came out and said, “Ah!” He says, “You know, that might be a fake.” And the reason was that he saw signs that circular wheels, some kind of circular mechanism that relied on circular motion had been used. I couldn’t accept that. Betty never did either. Something was wrong there. And when I had that once, I took it out and looked at it with a binocular microscope all over the darn thing, and I couldn’t see that this was anything but Aztec. Much, much later, I told Eckholm, I said, “I’m sorry, I think that piece is good.” But of course everybody said, “Oh, they’ve got this famous thing. That’s the piece of the Pre-Columbian Collection. It’s a fake.” Eckholm said, “Well, the Aztecs never made pieces of that size.” Which is not true. At Stuttgart there’s a famous jade figure, a wonderful one that’s been published for years, known for two hundred years, that’s exactly the same height as that piece. So, the idea that this was made in the nineteenth century, the birth god, nobody in the nineteenth century could even conceive of such a thing. An act of giving birth maiden style and so forth. There are examples of the use of lathe-like machinery that can produce circular motion and marks like that. For instance, Aztec ear spools made out of obsidian. These are paper-thin. The Tarascans used to do this too; very, very late I’d say, in the fourteenth, fifteenth century. These ear spools are paper-thin. You can hold them up to the light and they’re translucent. I mean, absolutely paper-thin. They go in your ear. And they are perfect circles. The only way you could make these was on a lathe. There was no other way to do this. You could not make these. Obsidian is glass, and there’s no way you can absolutely do that without machinery that could do that. Finally before he died, Gordon Eckholm was convinced. He retracted his – but it’s too late now, you know. There’s still an art historian, Esther Pasztory in New York, who claims that that’s a fake. She says everything is a fake. But it’s not; it’s real. I don’t care what anybody says. And I think most Aztec experts believe that’s real now. Thank God. It’s a wonderful piece.
CW: You said you haven’t had much contact with Dumbarton Oaks since around 1980.
MC: Well, they never asked me. I haven’t been asked to give a talk until just now. It takes two to tango. I’m not going down unless they ask me.
CW: But from afar – or not that far – how have you seen its role in pre-Columbian studies overall? That’s a big question, but you were there in a very exciting time for Dumbarton Oaks and the field in the early ’60s.
MC: I mean, and obviously I’m prejudiced, I don’t think this compares to what was going on in the early days. The Olmec Conference for instance, some of the ones that Betty called were unique. She thought of a conference on the sea once in Pre-Columbian thought and art and archaeology, things like that. They’ve gone more and more into the kinds of things that you would get at a national meeting of the American Anthropological Association or Society for American Archaeology, even more like that. Of course, the new archaeology so called of the ’60s and ’70s had a lot to do with what people think should be done in archaeology. It became very mathematical. You went out with your table of random number to see where your trenches are going to be and whatnot. You might miss King Tut’s tomb doing that, but that didn’t matter. The emphasis was on kinds of archaeology that weren’t all that interesting for me. They may have been to other people. But in the meantime, however, no, they had some good conferences actually. I think Peru, the stuff that went on, that’s thanks to Jeffrey Quilter. Some of this stuff that’s been going on in Peru on the earliest time levels and of these enormous sites with ceremonial architecture that are six thousand years old, nobody dreamed about this. I think Jeffrey Quilter really got a lot going along those lines. There have obviously been some good conferences. For a long time there wasn’t anything really going on that I considered interesting.
ABF: So on the subject of conferences, going back to the old days, can you tell us a bit about the first Pre-Columbian conference at Dumbarton Oaks on the Olmec?
MC: Yeah, I think Betty and I were both interested in early civilizations, Betty being an Andeanist in Peru, but of course she knows Mesoamerica really well too. That would have been Chavín at that conference that did happen after that. But we thought this would be a great time to have the Olmec conference. One of the really early discoverers of the Olmec civilization was still alive and well and kicking in Washington, Matthew Stirling, who had been so many years with the Smithsonian and with the National Geographic. He was really the effective discoverer of the Olmec civilization. So, to have him there – he was right there, you know. They lived in Washington, he and his wife Marion Stirling. And that was just too good to miss, to have him talk about how he had decided there was an early civilization, that it existed, what got him going. And then, as I say, I had been in San Lorenzo where I was convinced I had the oldest Olmec city – which I now know I did have it – we were just getting the first radiocarbon dates to come in on that. And with Bob Heizer from California and his team that had been at La Venta and previously they had come up with the very first radiocarbon dates on anything Olmec, which showed that all these Maya buffs who claimed that it was Post-Classic were completely wrong by a couple thousand years. And there were a lot of people really interested, and it had this magnificent art style. That’s what got Mr. Bliss going in the first place in Pre-Columbian art: it was an Olmec piece. The greatest sculpture in the New World is either Olmec, or it’s Maya, or it’s Chavín in Peru. These were the three best. So, we had really a tremendous body of magnificent sculpture that we could say something about. And of course the collection at Dumbarton Oaks had some spectacular Olmec pieces. We decided to publish not only the papers but also the commentary at the end of it, so it was a good conference, there was no doubt about it. And I think things came out of it. For instance there was this Olmec site in the highlands called Chalcatzingo and nobody had ever seriously excavated that site, where these Olmec rock carvings are up on this enormous cliff and this huge rock that comes out of the plain in the state of Morelos. And I think that’s what got David Grove excited enough to go and start a Chalcatzingo project, which he ran for a number of years. So, this was in its own way a watershed, when you bring for the first time art historians together with archaeologists under the same roof. It was an awfully good one. It wasn’t the best of all conferences because that one in Palenque was the best. I mean that really was something.
CW: And that was a D.O.-organized conference?
MC: No, no. D.O. had nothing to do with that one. Basically everybody who went there paid their way out of their own pocket and all went down to Palenque. You’ll see that in that NOVA program because there’s some footage still left over from that. Everybody that was in that says that was the great moment of all time. That was really it. It was the mother of all conferences, somebody says. But the Dumbarton Oaks early conferences, they were good. They really were. There were always screwballs that would show up at these things. But that’s alright. Then they go to all conferences.
CW: And so were there any – we’ve talked a lot about the collection – but were there any repatriation claims on Dumbarton Oaks objects?
MC: No. Actually, when I was offered that job at Dumbarton Oaks to be curator, I was in Mexico working on my San Lorenzo material one summer, and the director of the institute there in Mexico – INAH, the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia – was Ignacio Bernal, who actually used to be a collector himself and a wonderful man, super-sophisticated, spoke eight languages perfectly and whatnot. I was in Mexico City at the time, and I went to see him, and I said, “If I accept this job as curator at Dumbarton Oaks will this prejudice me in any way in getting excavation permits?” And he said, “No.” He said, “We know what Dumbarton Oaks is about, too.” He said, “We know all about Gordon Eckholm, who was on your committee there and whatnot, from the Museum of Natural History. This is enough for everybody, don’t worry.” That’s what he told me. And of course, he was unusual. But there were never any repatriation problems then. The only time that ever came up was when Giles Constable got that jackass idea of giving it all to the Organization of American States. Certainly in our day no repatriation thing was ever raised. Ever. Nothing. And Bernal used to come to Dumbarton Oaks conferences and whatnot, so he knew all about it. I mean there was nothing disguised. Absolutely not. I got him up here to talk to Yale too and our students. He was a wonderful man. Unfortunately, it didn’t stay that way in Mexico. Under the Echeverría government it became very, very anti-gringo. That was a horrible period in Mexico, really bad. INAH really changed completely. For instance, everybody had to more or less sign a loyalty oath to Marxism, Leninism, all this kind of stuff. They had Marxist pep sessions every morning when they entered the museum, everybody who worked in it. Incredible. It really went [swooshing noise] like that. Bernal was pushed aside, told he was irrelevant, capitalist, imperialist. It was a horrible period. It’s just kind of getting over that now. But nothing ever happened when Betty and I were there with Dumbarton Oaks, not a word about repatriation. Nothing. We had not bought anything except for really small pieces. The last big pieces were bought before I came on to Dumbarton Oaks. Mrs. Bliss bought a piece, a great big relief from the Palenque area. But they never asked for that back, far as I know.
CW: And so Mrs. Bliss really had, in the years before she died, she really had the final say on – would you bring objects to her and she would okay them?
MC: Yeah. Because the money came out of her pocket. Absolutely. And you know, I think I was able to keep her from buying a couple of fakes, too. But she had a lot of taste, though, she really did. Basically she’d go along with Betty and I. Or Betty and I said, “Well, here’s your chance to get something really good.” At that time, the really great Maya pottery was appearing. I mean, really, really great pieces. I said, “You’ve got to have them. I mean, it’s art.” And so she went along with that. But nobody ever raised hell about it, except up there in Cambridge. That was the worry, not Mexico. [laughing]
ABF: So, you served as a Senior Fellow, right?
MC: No, I wasn’t a Senior Fellow. I was an adviser.
ABF: An adviser.
MC: Adviser. I was never – I don’t think I ever had a title of Senior Fellow. I was adviser to Dumbarton Oaks to the Robert Woods and Mildred Bliss Collection. That’s what the official name would have been. And I was salaried. At one point, one year, I was on the payroll of Harvard, Yale and Princeton. I was of course here at Yale, and I was of course getting a salary out of Harvard because of adviser. You know I put a lot of time into this thing. Then I was moonlighting down at Princeton. I taught the first Pre-Columbian art course at Princeton one year, but I used to have to drive down, spend the night there and drive back the next day, once a week, to do that. So, I was on all three payrolls. Yale never found out about the Princeton thing. I told them about Harvard, but they didn’t know about Princeton. I wasn’t going to tell them. I don’t think they would have cared. I don’t see how I did all three of those things at the same time, I’m not going to lie. I couldn’t do it now.
ABF: So, can you tell us about the experience of being on that board and what your standout impressions were?
MC: Of the board? Well, as I told you, in the early years, it was a meeting basically of friends and colleagues, you know, people who were really involved in this in a big way. Except of course Joe Brew was a Southwestern archaeologist. He knew nothing about the pre-Columbian world or anything south of the border. But I liked him; he was a good guy. He was a very helpful person. Blustering at times, but I got along wonderfully with him, going back to when I was writing my dissertation. He was the only person at Harvard who gave me any real help on it. He did. I always had a soft spot in my heart for Joe Brew. I think he was treated shamefully by Harvard. But at any rate, when Williams became director, he didn’t know anything about the pre-Columbian world at all, but he was hostile to what we were doing, and especially to Betty and myself. And that was extremely unpleasant. I can assure you. The board meetings got to be poisonous. And I just kept looking at my watch and thinking, “God, I’ve got to get out of this place – go back to New Haven.” Those were not good years, they really were not. Again, ask Gillett. He was right there. He’ll back me up on that. And I’m sure you heard from Betty about this. So, that’s basically all I can say. I mean, basically the board as originally constituted, they were very open to what kinds of conferences we should have, and who should be invited, and what we should be doing. I’m not so sure we had any Fellows at that time. I can’t remember when that started in our day. There must have been, but I don’t remember. But it was a meeting of people that were all compatible with each other. Especially Junius Bird was wonderful. This guy was one in a million. He was really one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known, a true kind of adventurer. He had no degrees of any sort at all. He drifted into archaeology as a high school drop out. He served as a deck hand on a sailing trip up the Labrador Coast into the Arctic with a famous old explorer and he discovered that there were archaeological sites up there in Labrador and began digging them on his own. That’s what got him into archaeology. And he turned out to be one of the best archaeologists who’s ever lived, this guy. Just amazing adventures all the time; dug in Tierra del Fuego and all sorts of places people don’t get to. He was a lot of fun and had established the whole stage in Andean culture, the pre-ceramic. He dug the first pre-ceramic site. He knew objects too. He’d look at a bead, and he knew exactly how it was made and who made it and what it was used for. Just absolutely great guy. So, to have people like that on the board, that was really fun.
CW: Without knowing any of our questions, you covered all of them very well. [All laugh]
MC: Okay, why don’t we end it there?
ABF: If there’s anything you’d like to say that we haven’t asked or brought up––
MC: I think I’ve shot my mouth off enough. I don’t want to say anything actionable and have that on the tape, and I don’t think I have. I could. Easily. [All laugh]
MC: The Secret History. Did you ever read the Byzantine, The Secret History of Procopius? About the Byzantine Empire?
ABF: We’ve heard a lot about Procopius.
CW: Someone yesterday, a Byzantinist we interviewed at Harvard, said Dumbarton Oaks needs a Procopius. [Phone rings]
CW: I’ll stop the tape.