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Theories of Ritual

Pre-Columbian Studies Junior Fellow Jessica MacLellan on Maya Stone Platforms and the Organization of Community

Posted on Oct 23, 2016 12:35 PM by Lain Wilson |
Theories of Ritual

Jessica MacLellan, a junior fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–2017, is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Arizona. In her research report, entitled “Households, Ritual, and the Origins of Social Complexity,” MacLellan provided a brief summa of Mayan archaeology—its past, aims, and current state—before segueing into a description of her fieldwork with the Karinel Group, a suite of settlements in Ceibal, Guatemala.

At the Karinel Group, MacLellan has helped to unearth evidence of stone platforms, carved from the bedrock of the region, that seem to have served a number of purposes. While some evidently formed the floors of homes, others appear to have been used as stages for the enactment of rituals. MacLellan intends to use these platforms, along with other archaeological evidence from the site, including pottery caches, to answer a number of questions about the links between domesticity, ritual, and ancestor worship.

A Brief Q&A with Jessica MacLellan

When you were laying out the theoretical basis of your research, you said that ritual, specifically the way you’re looking at it, can be both inclusive and exclusive. Could you elaborate on that?

Sure. So one of the main traditional focuses in anthropology, archaeology, history, is studying ritual as a means to bring people together—I think Durkheim is the main theorist on that, and then there’s this idea of “communitas,” which is Victor Turner—but basically, a lot of people see ritual as bringing communities together. And yet, at the same time, whenever you have these formal ritualized practices, there have to be individuals with specialized knowledge of the rules and special responsibilities. So the idea is that, even from the beginning, in very simple egalitarian societies, there are people who are ritual specialists, and as societies become more complex, there’s a potential for those people to move up in the hierarchy, so that eventually you end up with things like divine kingship, which the Maya have, which is kingship based on ties to the gods and the ability to communicate with the gods, with commoners supposedly lacking that direct link.


In your talk, you focused on the connection between permanent settlements and ritual. What explains that connection?

Well, the way that I look at ritual, it’s not really tied to simpler or mobile societies versus settlements—you can actually see ritual even today in our modern societies—and the main theorist that I use are usually sociologists, so they’re actually looking at the much more recent past. Ritual can mean a lot of different things, and it’s kind of an intentionally vague term, but it’s appropriate when we don’t want to use the word “religion.” This is useful during the time period I’m working with: I don’t have any texts, and I don’t want to impose beliefs or meanings on the people because I don’t know what they were thinking, obviously, we just have little bits of their trash and their architecture. But by focusing on the physical actions they took, on their interaction with the material world, on rituals—well, it’s a little bit easier than focusing on meaning, on symbols, and I think we can avoid putting our own western perceptions on people by focusing more on their actions. So I don’t think that ritual is necessarily tied to this idea of sedentary groups, or not sedentary groups, but you definitely expect changes in ritual when you have changes in social structure.


I’m curious about how the carving of the stone platforms occurred. What tools were being used? What processes?

That’s a good question. We haven’t actually been able to see this happen ethnographically, but it does seem to have happened at a lot of archeological sites in the Maya area, and we do know that they didn’t have any metal, so obviously they wouldn’t have metal shovels or hoes or rakes. They would have probably been using wooden tools made out of the trees around them, or possibly stone tools. It must have required a large group of people, so again we have this idea of bringing the community together, of creating a community through work. And something like creating a plaza could be a very ritualized act, and they also created house platforms that way, so it probably required somebody organizing them. This again gives you the idea that there’s somebody who’s maybe gaining a higher position in this society, because they can bring together these groups of people and start this process. But why they wanted to do it? I still don’t know.

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Contextualizing Robert

Garden and Landscape Studies 2016 Colloquium on Hubert Robert and French Garden Culture

Posted on Oct 18, 2016 07:09 AM by Lain Wilson |
Contextualizing Robert

On Tuesday, September 27, the Garden and Landscape Studies program at Dumbarton Oaks, in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art, held its annual fall colloquium. Entitled “Hubert Robert and French Garden Culture,” the colloquium, which featured six speakers, sought to examine the artistic and cultural contexts of the French painter and landscape designer’s work. The colloquium was held in conjunction with the exhibition Hubert Robert, 1733–1808, on view at the National Gallery from June 26 to October 2. (Dumbarton Oaks has a set of four pendant paintings by Robert.)

After brief welcoming remarks from John Beardsley, director of Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, Therese O’Malley, associate dean of the National Gallery of Art’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, spoke of the long history of collaboration between the National Gallery and Dumbarton Oaks, and cited the current colloquium as a welcome effort to revivify relations between the institutions.

Sarah Catalla, a PhD candidate in art history at the Université Lille III and a Mellon Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, began the day’s presentations by examining a lesser-known aspect of Robert’s work. Her talk, “Hubert Robert and the Amateurs: From ‘Educating the Eye’ to Composing the Landscape,” sought to foreground Robert’s time as an instructor of drawing to aristocratic amateurs.

In the course of her talk, she suggested not only that this endeavor helped, in a professional sense, to secure Robert connections with wealthy patrons, but also that it molded his understanding of the potentialities of the picturesque style and helped to shape his latter-day style.

Drawing on a rich corpus of sketches and drawings, Catalla discussed how the practices of teaching, touring, and sketching were linked with the evolution of Robert’s garden interventions.  She limned the amateur milieu prevailing at the time—in which the work of women amateurs was granted equal value—and raised settings and themes that would recur throughout the day, including the Tour de Guy at La Roche-Guyon, an important site in Robert’s career as landscape designer.

Dovetailing with the theme of an amateur milieu, Gabriel Wick’s presentation, “Between Artifact and Artifice: Hubert Robert and the Mise-en-Scène of History in the Aristocratic Garden,” charted Robert’s development during a period in which he helped to compose a series of landscape gardens for aristocratic amateurs.

At the outset of his presentation, Wick, a PhD candidate in history and cultural geography at University of London, Queen Mary, attempted to parse the precise nature of Robert’s involvement in the design of several landmark sites: Ermenonville, La Roche-Guyon, Betz, and La Chapelle-Godefroy. This is a difficult task, as Robert rarely worked alone, but often undertook his interventions with others, including, in one instance, a team of antiquarians and theorists.

Engaging in his own theoretical discussion, Wick went underground in an effort to explore Robert’s construction of false historical palimpsests. Highlighting the underground passageway, implemented by Robert, that connected the Tour de Guy with the main estate at La Roche-Guyon, Wick suggested that the motif of underground passageways was a significant one for Robert. Like the passageway at La Roche-Guyon, the series of grotto chambers implemented at Méréville implied a historical narrative of great age in the grounds.

Describing Robert as a “specialist in distressing and displacing,” Wick explained that in constructing simulacra of age for aristocrats, Robert helped them to reinforce their historical lineage, putting the landscape garden to sociopolitical use.  

A theme that quickly emerged from the day’s proceedings was the difficulty of classifying Robert’s work as a landscape designer, a thread taken up by Joseph Disponzio in his presentation, “Neither Painter nor Gardener Be: Hubert Robert and Eighteenth-Century French Picturesque Garden Theory.”

After a brief sketch of perceptions of Robert’s work throughout the years, leading all the way up to the twentieth century, Disponzio, a preservation landscape architect with New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation, segued into an analysis of Robert’s anomalous position with regard to French picturesque garden theory. 

Despite the majority of his design work taking place after an explosion of theoretical texts in the 1770s, Robert’s efforts were nevertheless at odds with the dominant theories expounded by these tracts, which posited that landscape design and landscape painting were not, in fact, twinned arts, but were instead deeply at odds with one another.

Analyzing Robert’s design work through the lens of its conflict with theory, Disponzio’s talk presented a picture of a well-admired designer who nevertheless stood apart from many picturesque trends. Though it is often easy to classify his work as falling within the French picturesque, Disponzio contended that he was an artist whose approach to garden design was always, first and foremost, through the canvas.

If, during his lifetime, Robert often seemed misplaced in his theories and vocations, it was a theme that carried through to the appointments he received, as Susan Taylor-Leduc, dean of Parsons Paris, the European campus of the New School, explained in her talk, “Designing in Rock: Hubert Robert and the Politics of the French Picturesque.”

When, in 1778, Robert accepted the title of Dessinateur des Jardins du Roi from the French monarchy, he filled a vacancy left by the famed formalist Le Nôtre in 1700—a designer with views nearly antipodal to his own.

Setting out to elucidate the subtle political messages encoded in Robert’s work for the French monarchy—that is, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette—Taylor-Leduc’s talk primarily traced Robert’s work with stone. Though the Baths of Apollo, situated at Versailles, were considered a failure by contemporary critics, Taylor-Leduc identifies the display as a node of political allegory, in which the transmutability of stone, embodied in the contrast between natural rock and statuary, played an important role.

Elizabeth Hyde, an associate professor and assistant chair in the department of history at Kean University, went on to develop similar themes in her presentation, “‘Such Things as Would Enrich France,’ or Planting the Eighteenth-Century French Garden.” Focusing on Robert’s use of foliage in his designs, Hyde emphasized early on that though Robert demonstrated little knowledge of plant life itself—his depictions in his paintings often lack any botanical precision—plantations were nevertheless key to the political messages his work evinced.

Commissioned to record in painting the replanting of the gardens of Versailles, Robert’s depictions of the felling of barren and frequently lopsided trees corresponded to his use of overgrown vegetation in his famous capricci. For Hyde, these depictions display a political consciousness to Robert’s work; as she suggested, the decaying foliage Robert painted seemed to embody a starkly linear conception of time that contrasted sharply with the cyclical time—or rather timelessness—redolent of the age of the Sun King.

The French picturesque, as Hyde suggested, sought to evince the twinned concepts of renewal and timelessness, and, in order to do this, gardeners had to reach beyond the borders of their own state. Hyde detailed the far-flung botanizing missions undertaken by royal gardeners in this period, an expeditionary effort perhaps epitomized by the botanist André Michaux, who established botanical gardens in what are now New Jersey and South Carolina.

In concluding the colloquium, John Pinto, emeritus professor in the history of architecture at Princeton University, returned to the heart of Robert’s fame in a presentation aptly titled “Robert des Ruines: Landscape and Antiquity.” Echoing Catalla’s presentation, Pinto emphasized Robert’s time in Italy (1754–65) and the sketchbooks he completed there—which Robert referred to as promenades—in the development of Robert’s later aesthetic.

Presenting the painter’s Italian years as an apprenticeship of sorts, when Robert interacted with contemporaries like Gian Paolo Panini and Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Pinto compared Robert’s work to that of his contemporaries. Piranesi’s depictions were darker, of course, though Robert’s interest in “the tenebrous interiors of imaginary ruins” and his belief in the expressive nature of ruins could be traced to the Italian artist’s influence.

Though Robert’s painting is inventive and oftentimes fantastical in its blending of settings and transposing of monuments, Pinto made a point of emphasizing, through a series of anecdotes, Robert’s physical engagement with his subjects. Robert, accompanied by a coterie of fellow painters, was said to have once thrown an apple over a barren arch and, charging through the connecting ruins, to have caught it on the tip of a penknife.

In his spry youth, he was also known to climb the fading monuments he encountered, shimmying up columns and resting at perilous heights—an experience curiously echoed by his painting L’Accident. On the canvas a yearning suitor, having gathered a bouquet from atop a decayed temple, falls through the air, betrayed by a crumbling capital—and the somber ache of ruins is made tragically manifest.

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Building after Stone

Meredith Miller on Confronting Climate Change through Design

Building after Stone

On Wednesday, October 5, Meredith Miller, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Michigan, delivered the first of the year’s Mellon Midday Dialogues. The series, which serves to highlight urban aspects of landscape studies, will continue throughout the academic year.

Miller’s talk, “Making Post Rock: Material Research through Design,” reflected her longstanding interest in the intersections of architecture and ecology. Recently, Miller has undertaken a series of projects aimed at confronting global climate change through the lens of its representation.

How can one effectively represent such a largescale phenomenon? Is it possible to make the crisis, which can seem both temporally and spatially abstract, more concrete, more urgent, and thereby more tractable? In attempting to answer these questions, Miller has focused her research and design efforts on a modern oddity: plastiglomerates.

The crude, amorphous lumps—“perhaps the first material of the Anthropocene age,” as Miller puts it—most often form when natural materials (sand, stone, wood) and bits of man-made waste accrete around a base of molten plastic. Constituting an entirely new class of material, plastiglomerates are highly variable in structure: some are formed by beach campfires, while others are produced in the middle of the ocean in large floating landfills, where the crushing pressure of tidal currents combines with UV radiation to slowly glue together detritus.

As a result, a plastiglomerate may simply consist of three detergent bottles warped together, though the masses can also appear subtler and eerily natural, like a dirtied clump of pumice or a volcanic stone. Because plastiglomerates have such a curious provenance and appearance, they offer unique design opportunities. 

As Miller asserted in her talk, plastiglomerates have the potential, when used in construction, to tether the idea of climate change more solidly to the resulting structure. Because plastiglomerates are neither wholly man-made nor entirely natural—because they embody, in a strictly physical way, the often nebulous interactions between humans and the environment—Miller believes they are a promising starting point for representing climate change through architecture.

Working with a team of designers, Miller has experimented with creating her own plastiglomerates, which, by and large, are more photogenic than the “naturally” occurring specimens. Miller’s creations, which she calls “post rock,” are typically of a uniform color, their surfaces smooth and often gleaming, though familiar shapes (bottles, cups, furniture) are still discernible beneath the gloss.

In closing her presentation, Miller dwelt on the models that she and her teammates recently designed for a proposed installation at the abandoned Packard Plant in Detroit, Michigan. Not quite sculptures and not quite buildings, the models strike a middling note: like the material out of which they are made, they are at once attractive and unsettling. Some—earth-toned, pitted and rough, with geometric portals and windows—seem to suggest caves, and the distant origins of the human race. And yet others—white, cloudlike, almost lunar—gesture forward, into the perilous future and outside the world that made them.

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“The World Upside Down”

Byzantine Studies Fellow Eleni Kefala on Byzantium and America before and after the Age of Reason

Posted on Oct 12, 2016 12:01 PM by Lain Wilson |
“The World Upside Down”

Eleni Kefala, a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–2017, is associate professor in the School of Modern Languages at the University of St Andrews. Though her previous research has centered on Spanish American literature and the visual arts, her work at Dumbarton Oaks will attempt to bridge, for the first time, Pre-Columbian and Byzantine studies in the context of her new interdisciplinary project “Byzantium and America before and after the Age of Reason,” which itself builds on her latest monograph, Five and One Theses on Modernity.

In her research report, titled “The Vanquished: Byzantium and America before and after the Age of Reason,” Kefala first established a complex and guiding theoretical framework. Citing a long list of writers, philosophers, and cultural theorists that included Immanuel Kant, Fredric Jameson, Enrique Dussel, and Edward Said, Kefala provided a cultural critique of concepts like modernity, progress, and enlightenment, and of discursive constructions of Byzantium and Pre-Columbian America in order to explain the rationale of her project.

A Brief Q&A with Eleni Kefala

In your presentation you displayed a complex theoretical apparatus. Now that you’re at Dumbarton Oaks, how do you come down from that apparatus and start digging around in the particulars?

The idea of a comparative study of Byzantium and America came as I was writing two theoretical chapters on “modernity” and its “others” for the purposes of a monograph I’ve just finished, Five and One Theses on Modernity. What I presented at Dumbarton Oaks was a rough summary of the most relevant findings of the first part of the book, which I call “Excursus on Modernity.” So what I was aiming at, and basically what I’m interested in, is what the moderns, while trying to define their own “modernity,” had to say about Amerindians, on the one hand, and Byzantium on the other. The ultimate end of this investigation is to explore the discursive mechanisms whereby these civilizations were epistemically and culturally subalternized, especially (but not only) during the Enlightenment, and seeing to what extent these mechanisms are actually with us today. What I will be doing here at Dumbarton Oaks is something slightly different, which is going to be, hopefully, the first chapter of a monograph on Byzantium and America before and after the Enlightenment. Although the book will be about how the west discursively constructed those “premoderns” from the Renaissance on, the first chapter will actually look at the point of view of the Byzantines and the Amerindians—that is, the point of view of the defeated, how they saw the conquest. For instance, the Aymara in what is today Bolivia and Peru referred to the so-called “discovery” of the Americas as Pachacuti, meaning “the world upside down.” So I want to look at the perspectives of the people who were conquered in both cases.


You talked about trauma theory and memory studies, a lot of which seems to develop in the twentieth century. So how do you adapt these studies to the fifteenth century, to very foreign cultures?

You always have to be very careful. If we go back to the term theory, what does it mean? Theōria—from theōreō, meaning to consider, to observe, to theorize—gives you the opportunity to look at something in a more comprehensive way. Theory, as Deleuze once said, is a box of tools. So I would like to look at particular instances of “postmemory”—Hirsch’s idea, which she’s using with reference to the Holocaust to explain how cultural trauma or memory can be transmitted from generation to generation through texts, images, and behaviors, but which I think could be a useful tool when it comes to looking at poems written by scholars or anonymous people after these conquests. For instance, I’d like to look at issues of cultural trauma, memory, and postmemory in the thrēnoi, or laments, for the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and in the Cantares mexicanos, especially the icnocuicatl, the “songs of sorrow,” which were composed by Mexica poets soon after the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521. The same applies to theories of hybridity and cultural translation.

We should use these terms with caution, but we can use them, because the mechanisms of cultural production—whether this is now or during the Roman Empire, or the Byzantine Empire, or the Ottoman Empire, etc.—the way that culture is produced, has not changed much. Culture can be the product of dialogue, or clash, but it’s definitely the product of the encounter between different cultural systems, which produces something new. This “new” is then essentialized, its identity becomes identifiable, and then it meets and clashes with something else to produce some other newness, etc., etc. Of course, each case comes with its own specificities, both in terms of time and space, but this is how culture moves, how culture changes, let’s say. So yes: caution. But I don’t think that we should be terrorized by the idea that one could use contemporary theorizations to shed light on previous periods, in the same way that we are not terrorized by the idea that theories of the past can still be useful and relevant to us today. For example, during the discussion I borrowed Borges’s theorization of “thinking” as selection and abstraction. I could see that many colleagues in the audience immediately appreciated the reference. Borges talks about this in a story called “Funes the Memorious,” which was published in 1942. Is what he says less useful or relevant to us today just because he said it in 1942?


There was a lot of focus in your presentation on scientific advances, medical advancements, and the idea of progress. Where did that emphasis come from?

If you are interested in the concept of “modernity,” as I was when writing the “excursus,” you eventually have to look at what comes before it, and what comes before it, in time, is the middle ages. In terms of space, it’s the non-European cultures—in this case, obviously, the Amerindian civilizations, since I agree with scholars like Dussel that modernity begins in 1492 with the conquest of America. Now the idea of progress is fully fleshed out during the Enlightenment, with thinkers like Kant and Fontenelle, who eventually breaks with the cyclical notion of history, and progress is seen in the future, not in the past. And then you start looking at the real notion of progress—what did they mean by progress? Even a strong supporter of the idea of progress like Fontenelle says that he doesn’t believe in the idea of moral progress—who can ever argue that we’re morally more advanced than people that lived in previous times? And then the notion of artistic or aesthetic progress also is very difficult to grasp—who can say that our aesthetic tastes today are more advanced than, for instance, the abstraction of Byzantine art? So once you try to disentangle this whole literature about progress, then you can only end up with the notion of technological and scientific progress. And then you have to problematize the moderns’ view that the idea of scientific and technological progress, or sometimes even the thing itself, was absent from premodern or non-modern cultures, as was supposedly the case of Byzantium.

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Good Ink

Dumbarton Oaks in the News, October 2016

Posted on Oct 06, 2016 09:28 AM by Lain Wilson |

Watch the London Review of Books’ video feature on Letters of a Dead Man with reviewer Nicholas Penny, former director of the National Gallery in London. Penny also published a review of the book in the pages of the LRB in June. In a separate review of the same volume, Gillian Mawrey writes in the July issue of the Historic Garden Review: “This splendid modern edition has scholarly appendages which fill in the background without slowing the racy tone.”
Former junior fellow Andrew Hamilton, currently in the Society of Fellows at Princeton University, gave this talk at Yale University Art Gallery on the royal Inca tunic in the Dumbarton Oaks collection, in conjunction with the gallery’s exhibit Weaving and the Social World: 3,000 Years of Ancient Andean Textiles. Thanks to the Art Gallery, you can now watch it on YouTube.
DCist raves about our gardens: “The real magic . . . is getting lost in the labyrinth of gardens. Romantics, (non-commercial) photographers, and anyone still pining after The Secret Garden won’t be disappointed by the idyllic grounds.”

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“The Lord of Vilcabamba”

Pre-Columbian Studies Fellow Brian Bauer on the Wari Empire

Posted on Sep 28, 2016 04:58 PM by Lain Wilson |
“The Lord of Vilcabamba”

Brian Bauer, a fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–2017, is a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an adjunct curator at the Field Museum in Chicago. Over nearly three decades, as an anthropological archaeologist with a particular love of archaeological surveys, he has published and worked extensively on the Inca, with special attention to the city of Cuzco, the capital of the Inca Empire. At Dumbarton Oaks, however, he is turning his attention to the Wari, an imperial state that flourished in the Andean highlands from roughly 600 to 1000 AD—four centuries before the rise of the Inca.

In his research report, titled “The Lord of Vilcabamba,” which was the first at Dumbarton Oaks this academic year, Bauer described the work he plans to undertake, sketching a portrait of Wari scholarship’s rapid and ongoing evolution: the Wari were only identified as an empire in the 1950s, and archaeological work was interrupted for more than a decade by the operations of the Shining Path in Peru. From a heavily walled capital in Ayacucho, the Wari projected power through administrative centers in Viracochapampa and Pikillacta—sites remarkable for their rectilinear planning.

Vilcabamba, long known as the last holdout of the Incas after the arrival of the Spaniards, has been more recently revealed (by Javier Fonseca) to be a Wari site as well. Located downriver from Machu Picchu, Vilcabamba is badly looted, but has the most elaborate Wari tomb ever found, probably belonging to a provincial ruler who was interred with a large pectoral, death mask, cinnabar, and other high-status objects. Bauer will be reevaluating the Wari and their empire through the finds at Vilcabamba and will also work on a history of the Wari’s D-shaped temples with Dr. Maeve Skidmore, a former junior fellow at Dumbarton Oaks.

A Brief Q&A with Brian Bauer

Do we have a sense of what the origins of the Wari were?

It’s getting clearer, now that archaeologists are digging at the site of Wari itself. There seems to be an even earlier civilization in the valley—unfortunately, we don’t have many carbon-14 dates. But it seems that the Wari are from the Ayacucho area, and they’re the end product of five or six hundred years of cultural development. It looks like, around 200 AD, a critical mass of people accumulates in the area and begins to develop what we now call Wari culture.


You’re generally very interested in state formation and consolidation of state power. What’s your sense of why political organization coalesced when and how it did for the Wari?

I’m a strong believer in population levels, and that as societies become bigger and bigger, it becomes advantageous to organize those populations in different ways. As populations increase, some things get more and more scarce, so a lot of rules begin to kick in, and a few people end up controlling access to power, prestige, and wealth. So I see population level as the critical variable.


On a different note, you brought in so many wonderful artifacts, many of which were metal, that I found myself wondering: what characterizes Wari metallurgy?

I’m very new to this! I’d be curious to see how much copper production predates the Wari. Because I think, at least in the highlands, we probably have just a scattering of some copper tools before the Wari. And I think that under the Wari, you can really begin to talk about large-scale metal production. There are very few articles (I was chasing down a few today) on Wari production of metals. So far, most people dig a site and add an appendix that says, “By the way, we found twelve pins and three things we’re not sure about.” So I think the site of Vilcabamba will be interesting because it has a large collection of Wari metal. And it’s different from other sites, since it also contains a lot of very impressive silver items. The Wari silver is just gorgeous—the artistry is fantastic. And while there’s good Wari metalwork in various museums, the fact that we are getting these items from clear Wari contexts is important.

Wari plaque, PC.B.473
Gold and silver Wari plaque, 650–800. Pre-Columbian Collection, PC.B.473, Dumbarton Oaks Museum.

Explore other Wari objects in the Dumbarton Oaks Museum.

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Introducing Elena Boeck

Dumbarton Oaks’ New Director of Byzantine Studies

Posted on Sep 28, 2016 11:25 AM by Lain Wilson |
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Introducing Elena Boeck

“Strange images find me,” says Elena Boeck. She pauses briefly before continuing: “I think I have a natural affinity for outlying images.”

“Strange” and “outlying,” “liminal” and “borderline”—these words crop up frequently when Boeck, who recently began her five-year tenure as director of Byzantine Studies, speaks of her work. Perhaps because her research centers on the odd, out-of-place, and oftentimes mysterious visual clue, her way of speaking is staunchly investigative; her sentences advance steadily and logically, extended every now and then by a favorite phrase: “This is why . . .”

Professor Boeck comes to Dumbarton Oaks from DePaul University, where she holds a professorship in art history. She received her BA in that subject in 1996 at Boston University, followed by an MA and PhD at Yale. After completing her PhD in 2003, Boeck quickly settled at DePaul, where she has taught in various capacities since 2004. In addition to her scholarly work, Boeck brings strong administrative experience to her directorship at Dumbarton Oaks; she served as principal organizer of the 2011 Byzantine Studies Conference, and as a member of the governing board of the Byzantine Studies Association of North America between 2008 and 2012. (Having reassumed this position in 2015, she will now serve until 2019.)

Boeck, who hails from Riga, Latvia, originally intended to study physics before coming to the United States to pursue her undergraduate studies. But once she arrived, a natural inclination to the study of images drove her to major in art history. (Her conversion to Byzantine art history came later, during a trip to Istanbul).

Despite what might seem a jarring shift, she insists there are strong parallels between the fields: “In physics, one studies laws which have been made manifest in physical form . . . and the same thing applies to art history. Objects have a created reality, but there are laws and rules and there are structures—the creator’s intellectual processes—which bring them into existence.”

Boeck’s fascination with the hidden origins of images, and her belief that precise ideological structures often stand behind the art that surrounds us, are perhaps not so surprising, given the environment of her youth. “The other side of the story,” Boeck says, matter-of-factly, when explaining her proclivity to art history, “is that I grew up in the Soviet Union; I’ve seen images and the way images are used for political purposes—and one understands how to read these kinds of narratives, and what to do with them.”

Boeck’s approach to the visual is undergirded by a healthy skepticism, a natural corollary to recent trends in Byzantine studies. Although Byzantine culture has long been recognized as a “distorting mirror,” Boeck writes in her 2015 study Imagining the Byzantine Past that “only recently have that mirror’s characteristics started to fascinate as much as its distortions.” Though the positivist fact-mining that dominated manuscript studies in the first half of the twentieth century can still yield useful historical information, Boeck’s work arises from the more subjective sphere of rhetorical nuances and narrative strategies.

As a result, her work can be both precise and expansive, detail-oriented and theoretically minded. In her own words: “I’m an art historian, but I think about myself as doing intellectual history.” In line with this self-assessment, Imagining the Byzantine Past showcases her method of working backward and outward from discrete visual curios to develop a convincing revision of historiographical approaches to Byzantium.

“Byzantinists love the Skylitzes manuscript so much that they don’t want to look at it critically,” she says of one of the central object-studies in Imagining the Byzantine Past. “Because it is so vivid and so rich, it has to be the reality.” And yet Boeck concludes that the Skylitzes manuscript, commissioned by Roger II of Sicily in the mid-twelfth century, is in fact a purposive construct, designed in opposition to the Byzantine cultural model.

Setting the Skylitzes manuscript against another, more laudatory manuscript—an adaptation of the Manasses chronicle, produced for Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria in the mid-fourteenth century—Imagining the Byzantine Past attempts to display the deliberate and exploitative nature of both works. One is valedictory, one denunciative; one aims to condemn, the other to incorporate—and yet, as Boeck insists, both are suffused with a creative energy, both fundamentally aware of the power to be gained in co-opting history: “They take the foundation—the texts—and they completely transform them.”

Disjunction—between image and text, between truth and narrative, between cultural centers and their peripheries—orders much of Boeck’s scholarship. At the most particular level, this disjunction is evident in the befuddling images that offer glimpses of obscured ideologies: a saint who should know better raises his robes and exposes himself; an iconoclast, denounced by the accompanying text, appears, improperly haloed; a Virgin figure, holding her child, sprouts, for no obvious reason, a third hand.

But more broadly speaking, these visual oddities offer a portal on conflicting historical frameworks that Boeck has worked tirelessly to unearth and interrogate. “As scholars, we all operate with a sense or set of assumptions . . . we create our own versions of Byzantium, and our own interests drive us,” she says. “When we come across images or objects which defy these cultural assumptions—that’s when people have to articulate what they expect from images.”

Boeck is open about her own expectations, as well as the sympathy for peripheral things that often structures her work. (Imagining the Byzantine Past acknowledges its genesis is owed, in part, to its author’s youthful experiences “on the fringes of a collapsing empire.”) Her theoretical background shines through in her choice of words; the language of obliquity—“decenter,” “othered,” and, of course, “periphery”—reigns when she muses on narratives of Byzantium.

And while, couched in these terms, Boeck’s concerns may seem intimidating, they translate easily into her coming work at Dumbarton Oaks. As Boeck sees it, Byzantine studies today is frequently interested in cross-cultural discussions that in turn reevaluate the very meaning of “Byzantium.” Though Boeck can cede that Byzantium has been consistently “othered” in the past and left out of “standard narratives of history,” it is an observation that is quickly tailed by further questions: “What do we call the center? And how do we define the margins, or the borderlands of Byzantium?”

“A simple example: there are modern-day countries which claim Byzantium as part of their national heritage, so in these countries Byzantium is in some ways written into history—it becomes part of standard textbooks. And people who come to it when it’s not part of their tradition, of course, will focus on other aspects of Byzantium—and so, we get different versions of Byzantium.”

One of the most valuable aspects of Dumbarton Oaks, Boeck acknowledges, is its ability “to get different people with different views of Byzantium together, to get them talking more.” In many ways Boeck’s work can be seen as an effort at disentangling—but in order to disentangle, one first has to recognize there’s a tangle at all. At Dumbarton Oaks, Boeck hopes to continue the healthy confluence of different constructs, narratives, and “assumptions” that abets scholarship of all types. In addition, she’ll aim to maintain the institution’s current spate of programming and fellowships—initiatives that Boeck herself can be thankful for.

Boeck previously spent time at Dumbarton Oaks as a junior fellow in the 2001–2002 academic year, an interval she remembers fondly: “It was such a good environment. You put books all around yourself, and you know Hector provided lunches—so it’s life completely worry-free, and you just write.”

More than a decade later, her office space has increased, though she is still surrounded by books, folders, files. Right now, in between her manifold duties—editing the Dumbarton Oaks Papers, working on budgets, coordinating programming—Boeck is composing a cultural biography of the Column of Justinian, which stood in Constantinople from the sixth to the fifteenth century. She’ll be attempting to prove that the column was the “greatest” monument of Constantinople throughout its long existence.

In the midst of describing this study, she pauses for a brief aside that seems telling: “Byzantinists,” she allows—with an air that seems to add, so it goes—“will not necessarily be happy with it.”

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The Dumbarton Oaks Gardens in Vivid Black and White

Posted on Sep 28, 2016 10:22 AM by James N. Carder |
The Dumbarton Oaks Gardens in Vivid Black and White
James N. Carder (October 2016)

Even after the availability of color photography and, later, the advent of the digital image, a number of artist-photographers have continued to work with black-and-white film stock. They also continue to develop their art in darkrooms, usually employing either the silver gelatin process or the more matte platinum/palladium process. These artists use these media in many cases so that they can better manipulate the image in a printmaking-like manner and create rich tonal effects that range from bright white to velvet black.

Over the years, the archives and House Collection have received black-and-white images that were photographed in the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens. Recently, for example, Julia Cart, a photographer based in Charleston, South Carolina, sent the archives files of garden images that she took in 2002 with a vintage Rolleiflex camera. Ms. Cart works exclusively in film, using antique, large-format cameras. She has said that she is, “above all, a respectful student of natural light.”

Julia Cart, Dumbarton Oaks, Path [Ellipse], 2002
Julia Cart, Dumbarton Oaks, Path [Ellipse], 2002

In 1999, the artist Tanya Marcuse also photographed in the gardens using black-and-white film. Although she often works in color and in a large-scale format, her Dumbarton Oaks images were created in small scale (approximately 10 by 12 centimeters) using the platinum/palladium process and involving closely cropped and detail imagery. She generously gave prints to the House Collection.

Tanya Marcuse, Lovers Lane Pool, Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, 1999, HC.PH.2000.01
Tanya Marcuse, Lovers Lane Pool, Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, 1999, HC.PH.2000.01

Tanya Marcuse, Boy, Mexican Pebble Garden, Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, 1999, HC.PH.2000.02
Tanya Marcuse, Boy, Mexican Pebble Garden, Dumbarton Oaks Gardens, 1999, HC.PH.2000.02

Dumbarton Oaks’ staff photographer, Joe Mills, is also a photography artist who often uses black-and-white photography to create photomontages and collages in a surrealist style. In 1979, he took haunting images in the gardens, and, in 1995, he offered prints of this series to the House Collection.

Joe Mills, Untitled [Trees with Shadows], 1979, HC.PH.1995.07
Joe Mills, Untitled [Trees with Shadows], 1979, HC.PH.1995.07

Joe Mills, Untitled [Horizontal Tree Branch on South Lawn], 1979, HC.PH.1995.11
Joe Mills, Untitled [Horizontal Tree Branch on South Lawn], 1979, HC.PH.1995.11

Others who have photographed the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens in black and white include Carol Betsch and Mel Curtis.

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Rhetoric and Rewriting

New Titles in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library Series

Posted on Sep 28, 2016 09:55 AM by Lain Wilson |
Rhetoric and Rewriting

In October, the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library will add two new volumes to its catalog of historic texts, both of which are concerned, either directly or obliquely, with the power of rhetoric and the act of rewriting.

The Rhetorical Exercises of Nikephoros Basilakes, written sometime in the twelfth century by the eponymous Byzantine aristocrat and pedagogue, encapsulates a new trend in education that arose in the medieval period. Short and rhetorically dense, the exercises were meant to replace the intensive study of complete ancient texts that had dominated aristocratic education for more than a thousand years.

The exercises, or progymnasmata, are presented in seven categories of distinct rhetorical styles: fables, narrations, maxims, refutations, confirmations, encomia, and ethopoeiae. By far the largest portion of the book is taken up by the ethopoeiae, speeches delivered by historical or mythological figures in which the personalities respond to a challenging situation, and in the process reveal a sliver of their character, a glimpse of their emotional state, or both.

Though ostensibly didactic, the exercises, crisply translated by Jeffrey Beneker and Craig A. Gibson, are also consistently entertaining and offbeat. In their idiosyncrasy, they aid the impression, established by the volume’s introduction, that Basilakes was a shameless self-aggrandizer. “According to his own testimony,” Beneker and Gibson write, “Basilakes was a very successful teacher, whose popularity attracted the envy of the patriarch.”

Besides elaborating the field of schedography (the method of studying short texts), Basilakes is notable for the “artistic blending of pagan and Christian sources and worldviews” that informs his compendium; a Biblical story is just as likely as the tale of Phaëton to prove the author’s point.

Reading the Rhetorical Exercises, one quickly senses that Basilakes was a clever man. His exercises blur thematic and tonal boundaries, as if he wants to assure readers that complexity can arise even in his truncated, prefabricated texts. The ethopoeiae in particular touch on themes as diverse as art and nature, chastity and desire, and the theatrical grounding of day-to-day existence.

There is, too, a wry bluntness, most prevalent in his fables, that can seem off-putting if one expects to find an Aesopic neatness and refinement in the exercises. For instance, Basilakes writes of a lion who becomes enchanted by a beautiful girl and asks for her hand in marriage. At first the story seems a fairy tale, until reality sets in, and the lion wonders if the girl’s father will consent to being called the “father-in-law of a lion.”

Practical, humdrum matters, absurd as they may seem, take over. The arc of the fable is wholly unpredictable, and the eventual moral of the lovelorn lion’s tale—“Do not trust your enemies too readily”—is so broad that the tale that precedes begins to seem more of a gymnastic experiment, as though Basilakes were flexing his creative powers, attempting to see how strange he can make the elaboration of a commonplace.

In a similar vein, The Old English History of the World, edited and translated by Malcolm R. Godden, exhibits another author confident in his refashioning of ancient tales.

Orosius, a scholar and cleric, wrote his Seven Books of History against the Pagans in the early fifth century. Similar to Augustine’s City of God, the Seven Books sought to rebut claims that Rome’s decline had been caused by the abandonment of traditional paganism.

Nearly five hundred years later, the chronicle was translated into Old English by an anonymous author (or authors)—though “translated” is a generous term. Readers who pause over the table of contents may note, for instance, that Orosius’s famous Seven Books have been whittled down to a less imposing six. When the anonymous Anglo-Saxon—whom Godden, in his introduction, dubs “Osric”—produced his work in the tenth century, he didn’t so much translate Orosius as revise, excise, and thoroughly transmute the text.

Assuming in his readership a familiarity with Roman history and ancient matters, Osric retained a basic description of events from the Seven Books, while cutting liberally from Orosius’s commentary. At other points, he embellished, inserting dramatic speeches on a whim. All in all, Osric’s alterations are best summarized by the phrase “imaginative dramatization,” as Godden contends. Motives, outcomes, and explanations are added for color and detail.

Among Osric’s evident fascinations were military strategy and the customs of other cultures. And yet, while he delights in describing the ploys and plots of various wily generals, he also makes a point of bemoaning the terrors and tragedies of war. At one point in his history, in a fitting flight of fancy, the city of Babylon plaintively describes its own fall.

Osric revels in these peculiarities. While his narrative strategies may be lively and imaginative, the details he chooses to highlight—strange goings-on that are nevertheless dealt with objectively—form the backbone of the text. In writing of the burial practices of the Ests, a Baltic-region tribe often associated (whether accurately or not) with the modern-day region of Estonia, he describes, simply and with light wonder, what might be magic, or simply misunderstanding:

It is the practice among the Ests that everyone, whatever their country, must be cremated. If a single bone is found unburned, a heavy penalty is exacted. Among the Ests there is a community that can make things cold. The dead bodies lie uncremated for so long without rotting because these people create a chill in them. If you put out two vessels full of ale or water, they make one of them freeze solid, whether it is summer or winter.

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Announcing the Dumbarton Oaks Humanities Fellowships

Three Young Humanists from Harvard Arrive for a Year of Practical Learning and Career Preparation

Posted on Sep 22, 2016 04:47 PM by Lain Wilson |

Dumbarton Oaks is launching a new fellowship program this academic year designed to bridge the gap between college and career for three talented young humanists. The Dumbarton Oaks Humanities Fellowships will place each of three recent graduates from Harvard College at a partnering cultural institution in Washington, D.C., for the fall term, where they will acquire skills relating to their long-term interests. In the spring term, they will return to Dumbarton Oaks to collaborate on a project that applies those skills for the remainder of the year.

“We felt that the humanities needed special support and attention” among the postgraduate opportunities already available at Harvard, says Jan Ziolkowski, director of Dumbarton Oaks. “One of the distinctive opportunities that we can afford is the chance to learn through working. There are many undergraduates who crave to know what goes on behind the curtains in a number of extremely attractive fields, like publications, museums, and archives—and we’re uniquely positioned to assemble a group of people to learn from mentors at a variety of career stages.”

In this inaugural year, Dumbarton Oaks’ partners include the National Gallery of Art, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum. Fellows live at Dumbarton Oaks and participate in weekly research reports as well as the other events for the institute’s fellowship community. In addition, the institute will host a series of six talks throughout the year where notable humanists—including documentarians, archivists, writers, and scholars—will speak about their own career paths and the state of the humanities now.

Rebecca Rosen

The first cohort of Dumbarton Oaks Humanities Fellows’ interests range widely. Rebecca Rosen, who will begin the year at the George Washington University and the Textile Museums, is interested in conservation and curation, as well as questions of gender and the distinction between art and craft as they pertain to textiles and the decorative arts. She majored in neurobiology in college, but by her senior year found herself wanting more and more to work with culture. She grew up sewing with her mother, and in her junior year took a course on quilts and quilt-making that helped her see textiles and craft works as objects for serious inquiry: “It was very accessible, but we were also doing real intellectual work.” By her senior spring, she was considering leaving science to work with culture instead. “I read an article about how conservators repaired a Monet painting that someone had punched a hole in, and I knew, ‘This is it! This is what I want to do!’” she recalls. “I love fine detail work and working on one square inch of something for hours and hours, as well as being able to bring art to an audience.” Rosen comes into the fellowship after spending a year after graduation working in jobs that included furniture repair and ephemera acquisitions for a vintage art company. She adds, “I’m really looking forward to looking at how museums work and learning what I can be a part of, as well as bringing to light art and stories that might otherwise go unseen and untold.” At Dumbarton Oaks, Rosen will be working with museum director Gudrun Bühl.

Priyanka Menon

Priyanka Menon, who will be embedded at the Folger Shakespeare Library this fall, is equally at home in the worlds of mathematics, social thought, and intellectual history. She wrote a thesis in math on ultrafilters—a concept important to the subfields of logic and topology that she describes as “a structured way to capture all the elements in a set.” Menon worked on a theorem about voting on ranked preferences called Arrow’s impossibility theorem, which uses ultrafilters in its proof—varying it to apply to contrasting kinds of sets, such as finite vs. infinite sets. Although the math is very abstract, the implications affect major questions in social and political thought, like whether the decisions of the living can or should bind the not-yet-born. “What I like about that thesis is that you’re working on very technical math at the foundations of logic, set theory, math itself,” Menon notes, “but you somehow still end up having knowledge that relates to ethical and normative questions directly or indirectly.” Menon also studied with historians Samuel Moyn and Sunil Amrith, and has done extensive work on twentieth-century Indian intellectual history, particularly on the concept of nature in the writings of both Gandhi and his critics. She is interested in the possibility of future work in history, political thought, and the legal academy. “I like math because it’s so abstract and the ideas are so pure,” she says, “and that blends so easily with intellectual history. I hesitate to say that I’m moving from the sciences to the humanities, or moving away from any field permanently. I’m interested in the middle ground, what I call the ‘fruitful cross-pollination’—finding unexpected connections and applications.” During her fellowship, Menon will work on Dumbarton Oaks’ ongoing project on mapping the history of cultural philanthropy and its effects on the city of Washington, D.C., with archivist James Carder.

John Wang

John Wang, who grew up in Hong Kong, says that after taking mainly math, science, and language classes in high school, the first real humanities class that he took in his freshman year at Harvard transformed him: a class on American art and modernity taught by art historian Jennifer Roberts. “That was the first time that I saw art as not just about taste, but also society, culture, history, economics; I think the whole idea of ‘modernity’ first came to me through that class, too.” Though his strong interest and extensive coursework in social theory and intellectual history at first led him to declare a major in social studies, in the end he settled on art history, where he pursued the specialized track in architecture studies, taking architecture classes at the Graduate School of Design along the way. For Wang, who will be working at the National Gallery of Art in the first half of the year, both scholarship and artistic practice are entwined with questions of ethics and society—as are museums and the role they play in communities. “In the Renaissance or Imperial China, humanistic questions were thought to be part and parcel of how society should be—not a scientific or administrative question, but rather issues of how and what we should think,” he explains. “I see museum-going as more than just a recreational activity. I think there’s a strong civic dimension to it that fosters better citizenship and helps us be better people.” A practicing architectural designer in his own right, Wang’s design for a garden installation on the grounds of the Radcliffe Institute was recently selected from more than forty submissions. It uses granite blocks and wooden benches to echo the footprint of houses that Radcliffe College once used as classrooms—“an attempt to approach design practice with a more historical and humanistic bent,” he says. Wang also volunteered with Habitat for Humanity at Harvard, as well as the Phillips Brooks House Association’s Chinatown afterschool program. At Dumbarton Oaks, Wang will work with John Beardsley, director of Garden and Landscape Studies.

Ziolkowski says that Dumbarton Oaks wants the fellowship to open up opportunities of all kinds, but impart a lifelong love of the humanities in particular. “If we get people to go into the humanities, that’s great. If they go into something else, but carry away good experiences, have learned from it, and can advocate for a liberal arts education who have an impact on other people, that’s great as well. We want to do everything Dumbarton Oaks can to help present the case for the arts and humanities, which is best presented by fostering people who love them, are willing to commit to parts of their lives to them, and speak about them.”

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Roxanne Radpour Joins Byzantine Studies as a Predoctoral Resident

Posted on Sep 20, 2016 11:05 AM by Lain Wilson |
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Roxanne Radpour Joins Byzantine Studies as a Predoctoral Resident

We are pleased to welcome Roxanne Radpour, who joins Byzantine Studies as a short-term predoctoral resident until the end of September. Roxanne is a doctoral candidate in the materials science and engineering department at the University of California, Los Angeles.

She works in the Archaeomaterials Group at UCLA with Professor Ioanna Kakoulli studying archaeological and cultural heritage materials using analytical imaging and spectroscopy techniques. Her PhD research is focused on the application of advanced imaging technologies to characterize the surfaces and subsurfaces of objects in order to understand their materials, provenance, and condition. In October 2016, with the support of a Fulbright Fellowship and the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute, Roxanne will be embarking on a research project in Cyprus to conduct an extensive analytical study of ancient rock-cut tomb wall paintings from the Hellenistic and Byzantine time periods.

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Danilo Valentino Joins Byzantine Studies as a Predoctoral Resident

Posted on Sep 20, 2016 11:02 AM by Lain Wilson |
Danilo Valentino Joins Byzantine Studies as a Predoctoral Resident

We are pleased to welcome Danilo Valentino, who joins Byzantine Studies as a short-term predoctoral resident until the end of September. Danilo is a PhD candidate in Greek studies at the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) at the University of Hamburg.

Before beginning his doctorate in 2015, he held a DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) scholarship for a research stay at the Institute for Byzantine Studies at Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich, where he began to study under Albrecht Berger, who, along with Christian Brockmann, is his doctoral supervisor. Danilo completed a BA in humanities and an MA in classics at the University of Turin, Italy.

His interest in late Byzantine society and the history of medicine influenced his choice to focus his research topic on iatrosophia, i.e., collections of Greek medical recipes, the use of which was widespread from the fifteenth century. His first monograph, Das Iatrosophion des Cod. Taur. B.VII.18will appear in the new series Münchner Arbeiten zur Byzantinistik (Munich: Ars Una) and offers for the first time a critical edition with a translation into a modern language of a sample of this kind of Byzantine “practical-use literature,” which has rarely been the object of thorough investigation.


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The Oregon Trail Reimagined

Karen Lewis on the Trail’s Evolving Identity

Posted on Sep 15, 2016 04:20 PM by Lain Wilson |
The Oregon Trail Reimagined

Familiar as a musty myth of struggle and American perseverance, taught for just a week or two in middle school, the Oregon Trail can sometimes be difficult to imagine in anything less than the broadest strokes. And yet, Karen Lewis, an associate professor of architecture at Ohio State University and a one-month research awardee at Dumbarton Oaks in September, is attempting to do just that.

At a lunchtime talk on September 14, Lewis summarized her research on the trail, which attempts to move beyond a standard cultural interpretation of the space that she humorously diagnoses as “enthusiastic literalism.” On this reading, the trail is seen primarily as a tourist attraction, its length dotted with outsize bits of Americana: overscale wagon wheels, buildings fashioned as Conestoga wagons, giant statues of straining oxen.

Lewis has worked with extensive geospatial data, gathered from archival materials and contemporary maps and surveys, in order to revisualize the Oregon Trail as an infrastructural system. Looking beyond its boom period as a center of physical migration, she has focused on the trail’s evolving identity as an infrastructural core for other industries—from the mail services and railroads of the late nineteenth century to the oil, gas, and internet conduits of today.

Lewis, whose prior research has explored issues of architectural representation through graphic systems, displayed several digital maps and timelines of her own design during her presentation. The images—breaking down, scattering, and reinterpreting the trail, which appeared sometimes in the semblance of a bar graph, sometimes as a black braid against a white map—dispelled historical visions of the western trail, breathing new complexity into an old story.

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Byzantine Seals Milestone

Online catalog reaches 6,000 entries

Posted on Sep 13, 2016 03:51 PM by Lain Wilson |
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Byzantine Seals Milestone

In the basement of Dumbarton Oaks, the most extensive collection of Byzantine seals in the world rests in a nondescript metal cabinet, a little more than three feet high. Though the complete collection—totaling roughly seventeen thousand seals, each of which is sheathed in a white paper envelope—fits comfortably in the cabinet, efforts have been underway for the past several years to transfer the seals, bit by bit, to another home: the web.

Since 2011, a rotating team of catalogers has digitized thousands of the seals, which range in size from the dime-like to slightly larger than a half-dollar. Recently, at the end of August, they reached a milestone, having uploaded information on six thousand discrete seals—a little more than one-third of the collection—to the online catalog of Byzantine seals.

“Six thousand was quite an important number for us,” says Jonathan Shea, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in Byzantine history at George Washington University who has worked with the seals project since its inception. “For a long time, we had been laboring at this mostly for internal goals, and this is the first goal we’ve reached that really has external importance.”

While the number of seals available online has been steadily increasing for years, users will now have access to a truly representative sample of the physical collection for the first time. Or, more simply, in Shea’s words: “We’ve tried to put a bit of everything up there—and a lot of everything up there, in some cases.”

Because the identification and study of seals involves an intensely comparative approach, the online catalog radically simplifies working with the collection. Whereas comparing similar traits between seals previously relied in large part on the memories of individual researchers working with card catalogs, now a quick online search can reveal connections between seals that might have gone unnoticed before.

The aim of the project has always been to make the seals, a relatively untapped resource, easier to use and more accessible to researchers around the world. With the online catalog now boasting such a large spread of the collection, a great variety of research questions can now be pursued more quickly and more thoroughly.

And of course, the online catalog continues to grow, day by day.

Find out more about Byzantine seals and the collection at Dumbarton Oaks in the video below.

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Karen Lewis Joins Garden and Landscape Studies as a One-Month Research Awardee

Posted on Sep 01, 2016 09:55 AM by Lain Wilson |
Karen Lewis Joins Garden and Landscape Studies as a One-Month Research Awardee

Dumbarton Oaks is pleased to welcome Karen Lewis, who joins Garden and Landscape Studies as a one-month research awardee from September 1 to 30.

Karen Lewis is an associate professor of architecture at The Ohio State University whose research interests explore the intersection of graphic and infrastructural systems. Her recent book, Graphic Design for Architects (New York, 2015), explores issues of architectural representation through the lens of information design and visual communication. Recent published design projects include “Light Industrial Landscape,” a proposal that explores the programmatic overlap of transportation and recreational systems in New York, and Restoration Network, a living, landscape memorial in Connecticut that connects underused parks and recreational spaces with contemplative zones for reflection.

While at Dumbarton Oaks, Professor Lewis will continue her ongoing archival research on the Oregon Trail, a landscape of transportation and communication technology. Since its identity as a route for westward expansion, the Oregon Trail has continued to evolve as a space for infrastructural interchange. From the U.S. Mail Service, the Union Pacific Railroad, highways and its current use as a conduit for oil, gas, and internet infrastructure, the Oregon Trail is an ever-evolving landscape of network of connectivity.

Karen Lewis is a graduate of Harvard University Graduate School of Design and Wellesley College.

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The Dumbarton Connection

Posted on Aug 31, 2016 11:52 AM by James N. Carder |
The Dumbarton Connection
James N. Carder (September 2016)

According to Paul Neeson, chairman of the Dumbarton Castle Society in Scotland, there are over two hundred entities worldwide with the name Dumbarton. Mr. Neeson and his wife recently visited Dumbarton Oaks and presented the Archives with the coat-of-arms plaque of West Dunbartonshire, Scotland, whose capital, the city of Dumbarton, is the site of Dumbarton Rock and Dumbarton Castle. The alternate spellings of Dunbarton and Dumbarton both derive from the medieval Scottish Gaelic Dùn Breatainn, “fortress of the Britons,” where the n in Dùn was pronounced as an m.

Dumbarton Rock and Dumbarton Castle
Dumbarton Rock and Dumbarton Castle

The name Dumbarton Oaks also has a Scottish connection. The name comes, in part, from the name that the Scotsman Colonel Ninian Beall gave to a land grant he received from Lord Baltimore in 1702. As Grace Dunlop Ecker speculated in her 1938 book, A Portrait of Old Georgetown:

About 1703, Ninian Beall, a Scotsman, who had received several grants of land in Maryland along the Potomac from Saint Mary’s up, wishing to offer his sword to Lord Baltimore, came sailing up the magnificent river, and as he neared the creek flowing into it on the Maryland side his eyes rested on the high promontory which rose above the water, and into his mind came the great rock of Dumbarton standing above the Firth on the Clyde near Glasgow, and so he gave to his new grant of 795 acres the name reminiscent of home.

Beall named his tract “Rock of Dunbarton,” a spelling that persisted in documents until approximately 1780, when “Dumbarton” became the preferred spelling.

Knowledge of this history prompted Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss in 1933 to name their estate Dumbarton Oaks, combining the grant name, Dumbarton, with the nineteenth-century name of the property, The Oaks.

Map of West Dunbartonshire with the City of Dumbarton
Map of West Dunbartonshire with the City of Dumbarton

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Guy Sechrist Joins Garden and Landscape Studies as a Predoctoral Resident

Posted on Aug 30, 2016 09:05 AM by Lain Wilson |
Guy Sechrist Joins Garden and Landscape Studies as a Predoctoral Resident

We are pleased to welcome Guy Sechrist who joins Garden and Landscape Studies as a predoctoral resident from August 29 to September 9.

Guy is a recent graduate from Villanova University, where he received an MA in history. During his time at Villanova, Guy worked with a number of institutions including the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mutter Museum, and served as a research contractor for the Chemical Heritage Foundation. He served as the chief editor in history for the graduate journal Concept, and has just recently published his work “Nicholas Culpeper’s Directory: Legitimizing the Profession of Midwives in Seventeenth Century England.” In the fall, Guy will be attending the University of Cambridge, where he will be working under Dr. Lauren Kassell in the History and Philosophy of Science Department.

At Dumbarton Oaks, Guy will research early modern botanical exchanges between England, America, and the Caribbean, and examine the role botanicals played in the New World to highlight a new form of exchange regarding plants and naturalia. His goal is to ascertain the various ways in which print material, collecting, gardens, and curiosity cabinets influenced botanist-physicians like Sir Hans Sloane, who voyaged to the New World in hopes of prospecting new plants for reasons other than collecting and learning.

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Dumbarton Oaks at the Rio Olympics

Margaret Mee’s Painting Included in the Opening Ceremony

Posted on Aug 04, 2016 03:45 PM by Lain Wilson |
Dumbarton Oaks at the Rio Olympics

If you look carefully at the stage set at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, you’ll see a suite of eighty brightly colored collages of plants in the background. Among the illustrations of plants, which come from a number of sources, is one delicately shaded and photorealistic example from the Rare Book Collection at Dumbarton Oaks.

The artist Margaret Mee created strikingly accurate gouache paintings of rare Brazilian plants during her lifetime, twenty-one of which were acquired by Mildred Bliss for the Garden Library at Dumbarton Oaks. Graphic designer Olivia Ferreira has incorporated one of these paintings into several panels of her backdrop for the Olympics: Mee’s depiction of the Nematanthus fluminensis, a red-leaved gesneriad native to Brazil. The original, unaltered image will also be printed in the program for the ceremony.

Mee worked extensively in the Amazon rainforest over the course of her life, participating in fifteen major expeditions. She moved to São Paulo in 1951 and made her first trip into the forest in 1955, earning praise for her illustrations first from local botanical experts, and soon from artists and botanists throughout the world. Mildred Bliss began her and Dumbarton Oaks’ relationship with Mee in 1967, when Bliss purchased three paintings from the artist’s recent expedition and invited her to Dumbarton Oaks to exhibit her work and lecture on her experiences in the field. She continued to buy Mee's paintings, and purchased the Nematanthus in 1969.

In 2013, Dumbarton Oaks made available high-resolution images of the twenty-one paintings in the collection, accompanied by information about Mee and her relationship to the institute. Dumbarton Oaks also holds a number of books relating to Mee’s work, ranging from catalogues raisonnés to a volume of poems inspired by her paintings.

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Helping Save Syriac for the Future

Dumbarton Oaks Welcomes Syriac Summer School

Posted on Aug 03, 2016 09:15 AM by Lain Wilson |
Helping Save Syriac for the Future

The ten students who comprise the inaugural session of the Syriac Summer School descended on Dumbarton Oaks from July 21 to 24 for a long weekend exploring the scholarly resources of the institution as well as the city of Washington, D.C. The program, sponsored and funded by Dumbarton Oaks, is hosted at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML), located on the campus of Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. At Dumbarton Oaks, students explored the Byzantine collections and the gardens, attended sessions on coins, seals, and bibliographic resources, learned about the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, and met with staff and scholars.

“We had a very difficult time choosing from among the applicants to the summer school,” admits Scott Johnson, professor of classics at the University of Oklahoma, who teaches Syriac at the summer school. “The two primary criteria we used were that the students chosen could not get Syriac at their home institutions, and that they were starting from scratch. We wanted to offer Syriac to students hungry for it who would not be able to add it to their repertoire otherwise.”

The Syriac Summer School began when Jan Ziolkowski, director of Dumbarton Oaks, contacted Father Columba Stewart, director of HMML, to propose an intensive summer course on Syriac modeled on Dumbarton Oaks’ Byzantine Greek Summer School. The new program includes instruction in the Syriac language, taught by Johnson, as well as Syriac paleography and manuscript study, taught by Adam McCollum, formerly HMML’s lead cataloger of manuscripts. The summer school’s visit to Dumbarton Oaks highlights important connections between Syriac and Byzantine Greek and their respective literatures. “Greek and Syriac have a close historical relationship through late antiquity,” explains Johnson. “Many Greek texts were translated into Syriac, and Syriac texts were likewise sought out by Greek speakers. Syriac scholars were responsible for preserving and translating ancient Greek texts.”

The students’ backgrounds range from classics and medieval studies to liturgical studies and classical Arabic. In the past, Syriac was often housed apart from Greek—the former grouped with Middle Eastern languages, the latter in classics departments. Yet the insights that Syriac affords into late antique, Byzantine, and Islamic research have become increasingly apparent to specialists in those areas in recent years. Consequently, the Dumbarton Oaks Library has been actively acquiring Syriac resources so that scholars of Syriac and other eastern Christian cultures have more opportunities to conduct research at Dumbarton Oaks. “I think the motivation for bringing the students to Dumbarton Oaks is to show them the resources Dumbarton Oaks can offer Syriacists,” says Johnson. “I hope that their visit will broaden the horizons of late antique, Byzantine, and medieval studies and further contribute to the exciting conversation about where these fields are going.”

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The Renovation of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum

Posted on Aug 03, 2016 09:15 AM by Lain Wilson |
The Renovation of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum

The Dumbarton Oaks Museum is currently closed for renovation through the end of 2016—but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on. In this month’s video feature, take a look behind the scenes to see what the museum looks like during the deinstallation process, and learn about why the renovation is happening and what to expect when the museum reopens next year. You can also watch more of our videos online on our YouTube channel.

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