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Interview with Visiting Scholar Katharina Schreiber

Katharina Schreiber, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was a Dumbarton Oaks Visiting Scholar in Pre-Columbian Studies in April and May. While at Dumbarton Oaks, Professor Schreiber presented her research and theories on the Wari collapse; and gave an interview to Colin McEwan, Director of Pre-Columbian Studies.

Colin McEwan: You recently presented a tertulia focused on theorizing the Wari collapse and this seemed to strike a chord not only with the Andeanists but also with Fellows from other area studies. What unexpected and helpful feedback did you receive?

Katharina Schreiber: Well, the collapse of any ancient society strikes a note with scholars from other areas because, if you think about it, all ancient societies collapsed. So it is an issue with broad appeal, even if the reasons for collapse are quite different from region to region. It is also the case that the reasons for collapse are so complex that few collapses can be explained to the satisfaction of all, so new ideas from one region naturally stir the creative juices in scholars of other regions. In my case, it was useful to discuss the role of maize in the political economy of the Maya, for example, and how their collapse might have paralleled that of the Wari in some ways. And it was entirely unexpected to find that among the audience there were bits of esoteric knowledge (e.g., the timing of the peopling of the Pacific islands) that in turn helped clarify various factors I was considering.

You are here at Dumbarton Oaks for a month as a senior visiting scholar but this isn't your first visit -- when did you first come in earlier years and in what capacity?

I first came to DO about 25 years ago to participate in a round-table discussion of the Wari Empire, organized by two fellows at that time: Gordon McEwan and Bill Isbell. About a dozen scholars, myself included, made presentations of their current research and discussed developing ideas about the nature of Wari. At that time it was unclear whether Wari was an empire, a religious movement, or a trading enterprise, so the roundtable was a seminal event in reaching a consensus that Wari was an expansive political entity. The papers resulting from the roundtable were published by DO in 1991, a volume that remains one of the primary sources on Wari.

You came with certain goals in mind and your month's visit has certainly flown by. Did your research take any fresh turns as a result of the insights gained in the course of your work here?

Yes, the month certainly flew by. I brought with me three different projects to work on, knowing that once I arrived one of them would evolve into the best “fit” for the circumstances. And this is precisely what happened. I worked on a book manuscript that I had begun several years ago, but put aside until after completing more field research. My time here gave me opportunity to think through and reorganize much of the presentation of the material, giving it a fresh new approach. I was able to completely rewrite four chapters, write two anew, and tackle yet another. The new chapters required quite a bit of comparative data and research, so I was able to take advantage of the unparalleled library resources. Nowhere else could I have written them so quickly!

What was the most rewarding aspect of your stay and what would you recommend to others who are thinking of applying for a fellowship?

The most rewarding aspect of my stay was of course the professional and personal relationships made during my stay. Dumbarton Oaks is organized in such a way as to maximize one’s professional experience, and in ways that transcend just doing research. I was able to reconnect with fellows and scholars in the Dumbarton Oaks area whom I already knew, meet other Andeanists—especially the younger generation—that I had not, and get to know scholars from other areas as well. And despite its brevity, several research collaborations have resulted from my time here. If I had to give advice to other visiting scholars who were coming for a short stay like mine, I would make two recommendations. First, come with a research plan and a schedule, and stick to it because time is short and the opportunity here is so precious. But second, take advantage of the social context, and get to know the people at Dumbarton Oaks. They are an equally valuable resource.

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