The Oaks News
Ryan Clasby Revisits the Andean-Amazonian Divide at Huayurco
Ryan Clasby, who has worked as an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, Saint Louis University, and Webster University, is a fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. His recent research has focused on Huayurco, a site in the province of Jaén in Peru, where he has worked to unearth evidence of long-distance interregional trade between Andean and Amazonian cultures during the Formative Period (roughly 1800–200 BC).
A Brief Q&A with Ryan Clasby
What is the state of scholarship on the Andean-Amazonian divide? Has there been a recent reevaluation of interactions between the two regions? Is the understanding more fluid now, or more rigid?
A little bit of both, I think. In the forties and fifties, people were treating them as very separate cultural areas that didn’t have a lot of interregional movement or exchange going on. But in modern times, the archaeological data really overturns all those prior assumptions. You can’t just rely on these rigid cultural areas anymore. You have to actually look at the data that’s coming out, and the amount of exchange that was going on. At the same time, though, you still have archaeologists who aren’t consciously or actively excluding the Amazon—but it’s not quite on their radar in terms of importance. Ideally, the new research will shed light on why we need to study this particular area.
In your talk you discussed Pedro Rojas, who did interesting excavation work in 1961, but then there was a lull. Why was there no follow-up to his work?
So, Pedro Rojas wasn’t principally a field archeologist. He was the person that did all of the drawings for Julio Tello, who’s considered the father of Peruvian archaeology. Early on, Tello had spent a lot of his time working on the Chavín culture, but his theory was that Chavín had its origins in the eastern slopes. When Tello died in the late forties, Rojas wanted to keep working with this hypothesis; in particular, he’d found examples of stone bowls in local museums that he was very interested in. So Rojas did a three-year expedition, but after that you only see a small amount of very ephemeral projects that were not in any way sustained.
Why is that the case? I think the Rojas findings weren’t exactly well published, and when they were, they were just given a brief mention in certain books. You do have archaeologists (particularly those who were students of Donald Lathrap) who continued to do work in the Amazon, but they tended to focus on other areas.
There was also another major factor: For a long time, Peru and Ecuador were involved in a border war, and they couldn’t decide where the boundaries were, and this created a sort of no-man’s-land that deterred investigation. Certainly, it made it more difficult for both Peruvians and foreigners to conduct research within the region.
How does your work relate to this history?
The fact is, since Rojas excavated, these stone bowls do seem to have been ignored in the literature. And you really do see them a lot during this particular period—in fact, Dumbarton Oaks has one from the North Coast of Peru in its collection. So one of the things I wanted to do was explore this idea, which Tello, Rojas, Donald Lathrap, and Richard Burger proposed, that Huayurco is producing all these items as a way of participating in these long-distance exchange networks. Because most of what has been suspected of coming from the Amazon is highly perishable material that’s not going to be preserved at all, this was one of those few chances to really explore what was going on.
When I started to do original surveying, going into this area and going to the local museum collection, I realized that what Rojas found wasn’t a novelty—they were producing these stone bowls on a large scale. I think I said there are over 250 examples in the local museum. Not only were they producing these bowls, but the production seems to have been particularly unique and precocious for this specific area. Even in other places where you do see stone bowls, they don’t seem to be producing them to quite the same degree as they are at Huayurco.
We are pleased to welcome Patricia J. Yu who joins Garden and Landscape Studies as a predoctoral resident from March 20 to April 13.
Yu is a PhD candidate in the History of Art department at the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation project addresses the ruins of the Yuanming Yuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness) and its multiple reproductions in modern and contemporary China. Since these acts of reproduction are neither exact copies nor located on the original site in Beijing, she considers them acts of translation in the landscape. By examining the various reproductions of the Yuanming Yuan from the space of the nation to the space of the gallery, from theme park landscape to the virtual space of digital reconstruction, her project also asks how reproducing the Yuanming Yuan serves to reproduce national identities, heritage practices, and even global justice.
Before coming to Berkeley, Yu worked as the collections data specialist at the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery of Scripps College. She received a bachelor's degree in history from Pomona College, where she wrote an undergraduate thesis on the role of clothing in the creation of imperial subjects, republican citizens, and communist comrades. She attributes her current research interest in theme park landscapes to growing up in southern California and absorbing the twin influences of Disneyland and Hollywood.
We are pleased to welcome Udo Weilacher who joins Garden and Landscape Studies as the 2017 Mellon Practitioner Resident. He will be in residence from March 19 to April 16.
Weilacher is professor of Landscape Architecture at the Technical University of Munich (TUM). He was professionally trained as a gardener and studied landscape architecture in Munich and at the California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. He graduated from TUM and holds a PhD from the ETH Zurich. He is the author of numerous books on contemporary art and design, including Between Landscape Architecture and Land Art (second edition, 1999), Visionary Gardens: The Modern Landscapes of Ernst Cramer (2001), In Gardens: Profiles of Contemporary European Landscape Architecture (2005), and Syntax of Landscape: The Landscape Architecture of Peter Latz and Partners (2008), which was awarded the John Brinckerhoff Jackson Book Prize 2011 by the Foundation of Landscape Studies.
Weilacher has taught at universities in Karlsruhe, Hannover, Munich, and Zurich, and has lectured worldwide and organized international symposia and exhibitions on environmental art and landscape architecture. Since 2007, he has been a member of the International Doctoral College “Spatial Research Lab,” an interdisciplinary initiative involving five European universities, and, since 2009, has been a member of the advisory board of the Centre of Garden Art and Landscape Architecture (CGL) at Leibniz University in Hannover. In 2013, he joined the advisory board of the European Land and Art Network (ELAN), an initiative that brings together organizations, artists, academics, experts, and students from several European countries.
Weilacher served as the dean of the Department of Architecture and Landscape Sciences at Leibniz University in Hannover from 2006 to 2008 before joining TUM in 2009. At TUM, he coorganized exhibitions on "Self-Construction" (2013), which examined the development of sustainable design strategies in the 1980s, and “60 Years of Landscape Architecture at TU Munich” (2016), celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Planning.
We are pleased to welcome Melissa A. McEuen, who joins Garden and Landscape Studies as a one-month research award recipient from March 16 to April 16, 2017.
Melissa A. McEuen is professor of history and a Bingham Fellow at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. She studies and writes about women and gender in the United States. Her books include Seeing America: Women Photographers Between the Wars (2000), which received the Emily Toth Award, and Making War, Making Women: Femininity and Duty on the American Home Front, 1941–1945 (2011). She coedited Kentucky Women: Their Lives and Times (2015), a volume in the University of Georgia Press’s Southern Women series.
McEuen’s current research examines the politics of garden writing and design by Progressive Era women; she is particularly interested in the ways garden discourse shaped notions of female independence in the first half of the twentieth century.
McEuen is a historical consultant for the Kentucky Humanities Council, and she serves on the boards of the Mary Todd Lincoln House Museum and the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. She is an avid traveler, a devoted walker, and a Janeite.
We are delighted to announce that Racha Kirakosian will be at Dumbarton Oaks as a Director’s Visiting Scholar for the period of March 15 to April 12, 2017.
Kirakosian holds a joint appointment in the Germanic Languages and Literatures Department and the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard, serving also on the Committee on Medieval Studies. She studied German Philology and History in Göttingen (MA) and History of Art and Digital Humanities at the École nationale des Chartes in Paris (MA). She received her DPhil from the University of Oxford, where she was a Marie Curie Research Fellow from 2010 to 2013.
Before coming to Harvard, Kirakosian worked as a Lecturer at the Medieval and Modern Languages Faculty, Oxford, and held a position as Lecturer at Somerville College, Oxford. She also covered for the Director of Studies for German at Oriel College, Oxford. She enjoyed scholarships from, among others, the European Commission, the Conseil régional d’Île-de-France, the Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes, and the German History Society.
Her publications include studies on medieval German mysticism, female sanctity, and medieval law. Her forthcoming book deals with the biography of a thirteenth-century Premonstratensian nun. The next book project explores material culture and mysticism.
We are pleased to welcome Micha Lazarus, who joins Byzantine Studies as a one-month research award recipient this March. Lazarus is a Research Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, working on the influence of classical poetics on Renaissance English literature.
Lazarus received degrees from Oxford (BA Hons), the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the University of California, Berkeley (MA), before returning to Oxford for a DPhil on the reception of Aristotle’s Poetics in Renaissance England, several decades before it is usually thought to have become available. Since then he has taught Renaissance literature at both Oxford and Cambridge, and is expanding his thesis into a monograph for Oxford University Press. His work at Dumbarton Oaks will explore Greek imperial and Byzantine rhetoric as the dominant disciplinary context through which the Poetics circulated in Renaissance Europe for the first fifty years of its life in print.
Micha has published several articles on Renaissance literature and criticism, new manuscript discoveries, and the classical tradition, focusing in particular on the influence of Greek in sixteenth-century England. In 2012, he was awarded the Gordon Duff Prize in book history, and, in 2016, held a research fellowship at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, for work on Aldus Manutius. He is coinvestigator on English Renaissance Poetics Online, a digital project mapping the influence of classical and Renaissance poetics in English writing from 1500 to 1700, and this year is convening “Poetics before Modernity,” a seminar series exploring new work on Western literary theory from its ancient beginnings to 1700.
Lane Baker on a Century-Old Social Media Obsession
While vacationing in Europe during the spring of 1900, the English journalist George Sims decided to scale Mt. Rigi. At nearly six thousand feet, the massif offers a stunning view of the surrounding Swiss Alps. A railroad track, added in the nineteenth century, allowed foreign bon vivants like Mr. Sims to ascend the peak and enjoy the mountain scenery with minimal exertion. Sims boarded the train and went up with “a large party” of vacationing Europeans. Regrettably, the splendor of the vista seemed entirely lost on Sims’s traveling companions. He recounted the scene with annoyance in The Referee, an English newspaper: “Directly we arrived at the summit, everybody made a rush for the hotel and fought for the postcards. Five minutes afterwards, everybody was writing for dear life. I believe that the entire party had come up, not for the sake of experience or the scenery, but to write postcards and post them on summit.” The frenzy atop Mt. Rigi was hardly unusual. Unfortunately for the loftier-minded Sims, this was the nature of travel during Europe’s “postcard craze.”
In 1900, George Sims joined a growing chorus of writers perplexed and alarmed by the continent-wide mania for postcards. Reading their accounts today, one cannot help but experience déjà vu in chronological reverse: swap postcards with Facebook or Instagram, and the past begins to sound eerily like the present. Sims sneered at tourists for mobbing the postcard stall and neglecting the natural beauty around them; modern critics chastise travelers for viewing the world through a perpetually raised (usually smartphone-mounted) camera lens. Just as Sims held aloft the value of the “experience,” one does not lack for recent articles—often written by repentant social media fanatics themselves—that extol the virtues of unplugging, disconnecting, and “living in the moment.”
The picture postcard, although hardly an object of obsession today, once occupied a niche filled more recently by Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. There is an obvious similarity in function: to borrow terminology from the tech world, postcards allowed users to share experiences with long-distance connections through their innovative image- and text-based platform. There are deeper similarities too, in the ways that both can hijack our minds and shape our culture. Many of the same obsessions and anxieties triggered by the postcard craze have resurfaced with the rise of digital social media. If we wish to understand our own personal and troubled relationships with social media, we might gain some much-needed perspective from a look at the postcard craze. It was after all, the moment when Westerners first became addicted to the simple but ensnaring pleasure of “posting pictures.”
As an episode in popular history, the postcard craze has largely been forgotten. The picture postcard of today offers few hints of its erstwhile glory. In the first decade of the twentieth century, however, postcards were an inescapable feature of daily life. “[The postcard] takes possession of everyone, penetrates everywhere,” wrote Charles Simond in France. “The palaces of kings are as open to it as the humble cottage; it has loyalists in the city and in the village; all resistance is in vain.” This was in 1903, the same year that Germany broke all records and sent over one billion postcards through the mail. The numbers and ubiquity of cards only grew with time. George Sims, who decried the postcard stall atop Mt. Rigi, found no respite elsewhere: “Wherever you go, picture postcards stare you in the face. They are sold at cigar shops, libraries, chemists, and fruit stalls; they are arranged on stalls and every table at the restaurants; they are in the halls of hotels; they are in railway stations.”
The most popular cards, then as now, featured photographs of tourist destinations. The postcard that may be credited with starting the craze debuted at the Paris Exhibition of 1889, celebrating the recent completion of the Eiffel Tower. The newspaper Le Figaro began selling and posting souvenir postcards from the top of the tower, a winning combination that granted tourists excitement, novelty, and no small amount of bragging rights over their more earth-bound friends. Other tourist destinations soon followed suit, reproducing famous monuments and views. However, turn-of-the-century postcards boasted more versatility than their modern-day descendants: people sent cards featuring actors and actresses, works of art, jokes, insults, professions of love. Those who happened to own cameras could even print and send their own personalized cards. Senders often included short, telegraphic messages to their recipients: “Hugs and kisses”; “Am ‘OK’”; “Sending love,” occasionally giving more detailed updates to their status.
Postcards were among the most convenient ways to keep in touch at the turn of the century. People communicated over vast distances via postcard, bypassing the formalities of letter writing and the hassle of telegrams and phone calls. Travelers could share snippets of their experiences as they happened—thus evincing cultured and adventurous lives. Postcards did not always offer an accurate reflection of foreign locales (many featured photos colorized with garish and inaccurate hues, not entirely unlike Instagram’s popular filters), but this fact caused little to no alarm. Even if one’s postcard captured only a glimmer of the lived experience, it was enough to send a picture and say with confidence, “I have been here.” In many cases, postcards served simply as a convenient way to exchange greetings and plans. “Baby's arrival, his first tooth, his first trousers, his first bicycle, his first girl and his first baby, all go to the family circle by souvenir postal,” wrote one commentator. “Thanks to it, we know more than we once did about our relatives and friends, as well as about Burn’s house and the catacombs of Rome.”
As the postcard industry spread its tendrils into daily life, a now-familiar barrage of criticisms followed. Nowhere do the similarities between postcards and modern social media appear more sharply than in these anxious analyses. In his extended criticism of the postcard craze, George Sims lamented the deleterious effect postcards had on social interactions. “You enter a railway station,” he wrote, “and everybody on the platform has a pencil in one hand and a postcard in the other. In the train it is the same thing. Your fellow travelers never speak. They have little piles of picture postcards on the seat behind them, and they write continuously.” Another commentator sneered at the typical German traveler, whose “first care on reaching some place of note is to lay in a stock [of postcards] and alternate the sipping of beer with the writing of postcards. Sometimes he may be seen conscientiously devoting to this task the hours of a railway journey.” One writer freely admitted to this practice, describing himself with a heap of amusing postcards on the train, “muttering over them as if I were an incipient madman.” As with modern complaints against cell phones and social media, such critiques rested on an assumed bygone era of gregarious strangers and lively train-ride conversations, all of it spoiled by the siren song of handheld images.
Many commentators feared that the postcard’s popularity spelled doom for written communication as well, echoing modern worries over text-speak and Twitter’s character limits. A 1910 article in American Magazine made this grave claim in its title: “Upon the Threatened Extinction of the Art of Letter Writing.” Its prognosis was grim: “In another generation the hand-made letter will be as extinct as hand-made music. It will be used only at one age—the time when life to the young man or the young woman consists merely of a series of long and uninteresting hiatuses between the daily mail deliveries.” Such fears were not entirely unfounded, as seen in the writings of a young girl in 1903: “[I have] a friend who is so foolish that he writes letters. Did you ever heard about anything so ridiculous? As if I care for a good-for-nothing letter.” George Sims complained about this development: “For the purpose of correspondence, they are practically useless. There is so much view, that there is barely room for you to write your name. . . . They are utterly destructive of style, and give absolutely no play to the emotions.” When postcards did convey emotion, they often conveyed too much for the tastes of those raised in the Victorian era. Because postcards traveled without envelopes, they were theoretically open to prying eyes. This sometimes led to serious scandals, as occurred in France when a postal worker intercepted and shared an inappropriate postcard sent to a woman by her local priest. To people who grew up with the social mores of the nineteenth century, this dissolution of privacy and decorum was cause for distress. The art of well-written letters, with their fine-tuned verbal etiquette, seemed doomed for extinction on account of the crass and abbreviated postcard. What was to be done?
Of course, nothing was done. With each passing year, the number of postcards increased, extending their coverage to ever more obscure locales and attractions. “Every pimple on the earth’s skin has been photographed,” wrote James Douglas in 1907, “and wherever the human eye roves or roams it detects the self-conscious air of the reproduced.” In this description of the photographed and commodified world, Douglas perceived the seeds of the postcard craze’s natural decline: “The aspect of novelty has been filched from the visible world. The earth is eye-worn. It is impossible to find anything that has not been frayed to a frazzle by photographers.” Postcard mania eventually subsided. One might cite any number of causes to explain the decline: a loss of novelty, the rise of the personal camera, two World Wars (to say nothing of the financial crash between them). It is unclear if any single development led to the end of the mania. What is clear is that the critics did not win. People may have stopped sending cards out of boredom and fatigue, but they did not stop out of worry for “the experience” of travel, the quality of their train-ride conversations, or the decline of their letter-writing etiquette.
Digital social media can be frightening in its novelty. Developments of the last decade have forced a rapid cultural redefinition of privacy, etiquette, and friendship, and at times the leaps in technology appear to be outstripping our culture’s ability to adapt in a healthy fashion. One might thus forgive the more pessimistic commentators among us for their anxious hang-wringing over social media addiction. The story of the postcard craze, now over a century in the past, should serve to allay our more hysterical fears. At the turn of the twentieth century, ordinary people grappled with the arrival of a new and exciting form of visual communication. Many were addicted; a few were bemused and even disgusted by their compatriots’ passion. As we sail further into the uncharted territory of digital social media, it is important to recognize that our technological obsessions and anxieties—alarming as they may be—are not a complete aberration. Europe emerged from the postcard craze with its social and cognitive functions largely unscathed; the joys of travel, conversation, and a well-written letter did not perish.
One should be careful to not stretch the analogy between postcards and digital social media too far. Indeed they differ in some important ways. Postcards never became tools of official communication; modern social media has turned into an instrument of mass political influence, evolving into something quite different from the image and status-sharing platform as it was originally conceived. A single postcard has one recipient; a single Instagram post may have thousands. Facebook and Twitter allow for instantaneous long-distance communication; postcards, quick and convenient as they may have once appeared, still rely on the slow crawl of the postal system. Postcards offer travelers premade images; modern social media assumes that its users will double as photographers. This final aspect of modern social media allows one to share perspectives that were typically unavailable to the average traveler at the height of the postcard craze: selfies, videos, food photography, pictures taken with monuments rather than photographs of monuments. In a world increasingly saturated with photographs, a picture of the unobstructed Eiffel Tower is hardly cause for a thrill anymore. Modern social media has become more self-centered—alternatively, more intimate and personalized—than postcards could ever allow. But this is a difference of medium, not of generational virtue; armed with a smartphone and Instagram followers, a traveler in 1900 would probably fall into the same habits as any modern traveler. Behind the differences in form lies an uncanny similarity in human nature.
It is sometimes lamented that future historians will shoulder the burden of sifting through the inane and trivial records of our social media lives. Yet few participants in the postcard craze would have expected their cards to hold value to scholars one century after their time. It is often the most ephemeral artifacts—postcards then, social media now—that forge the most relatable links across eras. Postcards are, after all, rather intimate objects: they were not written and addressed to society at large; they were never intended for posterity. As such, their senders were pleased to dwell on the mundane and personal: the weather, travel annoyances, good food, growing babies. Such matters are of little concern for the histories of politics, economics, and ideas, but they offer beautiful glimpses of the past as it was lived and experienced on a daily basis. Some postcards close the gap of a century with just a few words, offering to us a touching snapshot of an ordinary life. Some of them are, with their simplicity and lack of pretension, nothing short of beautiful. George Sims may have dismissed his travel companions as negligent of the beauty surrounding Mt. Rigi, but another mountaintop postcard from 1912, this one from Chamonix, paints as fine and delicate a picture as any landscape painting in just three short sentences: “Ethel and I have not climbed anything quite as steep as this, but we have seen such things as we never saw before. We are right up among the clouds, which are very tame here. They come nosing around just like kittens.”
Ari Caramanica Searches for Agricultural Traces in the Pampa de Mocan
Ari Caramanica, a PhD student in anthropology at Harvard University, is a Tyler fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks. Caramanica’s research uses remote sensing techniques and paleobotanical analysis to reconstruct agricultural landscapes in coastal Peru. Since 2013, she has worked in the Pampa de Mocan, a desert area located on the north coast of Peru whose arid conditions conceal a rich history of agricultural activity in pre-Hispanic Peru.
Brief Q&A with Ari Caramanica
You talked a lot about temporales, essentially temporary fields that spring up for a short period of time and are intensely cultivated. Could you describe temporales a little more, in the sense of when they spring up, and how they come into existence?
So there’s some history to the phenomenon—it’s been observed in the ethnographic record. The idea, basically, is to take advantage of a florescence of water during periodic episodes of El Niño, at a time when the inner valley infrastructure has probably been breached by major floods. Essentially, people go out into the desert margins and take advantage of this newly available resource of water. Because the soils out there are so loose, it doesn’t cause the same type of effect in terms of massive floods and mudslides.
You also talked about “fossil fields.” Would you mind explaining their significance?
This is another phenomenon that is pretty unique to the north coast of Peru. Because of the arid environment there, you end up with these extremely delicate but extremely legible markings on the landscape that represent ancient furrows, ancient canals—ancient agriculture. But they’re also very easily disturbed and destroyed; a lot of them are undergoing destruction as we speak, as modern urban centers continue to expand into the desert, and industrial agricultural companies and corporations are actively trying to cultivate the desert again with the help of modern water pumps.
How did these get discovered? In your talk you discussed aerial photography—did that aid the discovery of the fossil fields?
Aerial photography on the north coast really gets going during the Second World War, but it’s not terribly sophisticated technology—it’s a guy in a plane with a camera going along at about ten thousand meters or so. The resolution of these photos doesn’t give us the fields, but it does give us the bigger canals. So there have actually been people who looked at those pictures, saw the canals, and said, “Isn’t this amazing? Too bad it was never brought to its full fruition.” Because you can’t see the fields themselves in those photos. Some of the photos I showed during my talk were actually drone photos that we took, and you could see the fields. That’s a drone that’s being flown at a max of two hundred meters, but really more like fifty meters. But you’re absolutely right, when you’re on the ground and trying to discern what’s around you, it’s actually kind of difficult to see, if you don’t know what the patterns are.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Michail Kappas Visualizes and Preserves the Greek Village of Kastania
Michail Kappas is a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. Since 2005, he has worked as an archaeologist in the Ephorate of Antiquities of Messenia, Peloponnese, in Greece, where he currently holds the position of the Director of the Department of Byzantine Monuments. He has supervised an extensive restoration program of more than forty churches, monasteries, and castles in the region. His recent research report detailed his restoration work, and the academic research supporting it, at the village of Kastania.
A Brief Q&A with Michail Kappas
How did you get attracted to Kastania? Why did you choose to work with it, and how did you start?
Kastania has an amazing concentration of Byzantine monuments, and yet it’s still a nice village—because it’s quite isolated, it hasn’t been changed by tourism, so the village identity is still preserved there. I think it’s important to study the secret core of the Byzantine economy—that is, the village’s role in agricultural production—and to see how this primary level of economic activity affects the artistic environment of the village. It’s interesting to consider how everyday life, in terms of economic and production cycles, affected a village’s worship, its rituals, and so on. To that end, Kastania is a nice case study, because it combines religious sites, private houses, and agricultural facilities.
As far as how I started working with Kastania: I was responsible for the restoration of the monuments in this village, and there were a few of great importance that were in a very bad state of preservation, so I had to make several visits to document the monumental environment and find sources to start researching the restoration projects. That whole process—getting our hands on permissions and studies, finding funding and laborers, developing a plan—took something like six or seven years.
In your talk you mentioned some confrontations with the villagers and having to convince some members of the community to send of the town’s objects for restoration. Could you talk more about that?
That was a difficult process. At the beginning, when we started getting objects from the village in order to conserve them, all the old ladies thought we were going to grab the objects from the village and put them in a museum. So, initially, they were hostile. They locked the churches, they had all the men form a defensive wall to prevent us from getting at some of the objects—the police actually had to help us do our job, they had to escort us. We were acting on behalf of the state, we were state employees: the preservation of cultural heritage is our main duty. When the villagers realized that our purpose was to conserve the objects, after they saw that we actually were returning the objects and putting them back in the churches, and they could continue their worship, their attitude changed. They realized we were only trying to keep the cultural heritage of the village in the village.
But there were other conflicts, too. Apart from restoring the monuments, our duty is to control the building activity within the village, which means enforcing rules about where and what the villagers can build. As you might imagine, this policy provokes a lot of conflict. So we try to keep a balance—we had to show the villagers that we weren’t there to control them, but to preserve their cultural heritage.
I’m really interested in the process of doing architectural restoration and basing it off of textual sources—how do you go about this? How do you determine what a building should look like from a text?
There is no connection between textual sources and buildings. It’s very rare to find specific descriptions in Byzantine sources that give details about a building precise enough to allow you to visualize it. So the study of buildings is based on the study of Byzantine architecture, a discipline that goes back almost a century and a half; it’s probably the best-studied aspect of Byzantine civilization. We have books on the subject from the 1850s up to recent times, which really help to define the evolution of Byzantine architecture from the twelfth to the fourteenth century. They break down the buildings into morphology, typologies—specific layers of analysis that help us to determine what the authentic structure is.
You have to study the building, and document it through excavation and through precise drawings. It’s very important to understand that the building carries many, many levels of information, because it’s been used for so many centuries. Once you’ve identified the repairs to the structure, and once you’ve found the different phases of the building, you then have a narrative of its history—and of course, the building echoes the people who built it, the people that used it. By trying to understand the history of a building in its village context, you actually come to an understanding—if it’s a church, for example—of the flock that used it.
In most cases, we do have the churches. As you can imagine, houses were much less sturdily built. The houses that exist now in the village generally date from the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, but when we do excavations, we often find traces of previous houses—Byzantine houses that actually had a similar design. But when you’re studying a building, whether secular or ecclesiastical, you have to define its use through the centuries, and then make a decision as far as restoration is concerned—what specific phase is important? What do you have to sacrifice? There are interventions that have added up over the years that actually cause, I would say, less authenticity in the monument. But of course, once you start working on a monument, you inevitably lose part of its authenticity—even the fact that the building looks old, well, after the restoration, it doesn’t look old anymore.
But we do have to restore, we have to stabilize this history—because otherwise it might collapse. We might lose it.
Dumbarton Oaks is pleased to welcome Margot Lystra, who joins Garden and Landscape Studies as a short-term predoctoral resident from February 27 to March 15.
Margot is a PhD candidate in the history of architecture and urban development at Cornell University, and holds a master of landscape architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a bachelor of arts in biology from Swarthmore College. Her dissertation, “Envisioning Environments: Designs for Urban US Freeways, 1956–1968,” articulates designers’ efforts to reveal the environmental effects of freeway infrastructures, drawing on Science and Technology Studies frameworks to analyze the political and disciplinary ramifications of design methods and techniques.
Margot has taught landscape architectural design, representation, and theory at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and the University of Detroit Mercy. Her work has been published in Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes, Journal of Design History, and The Next American City. As a designer, she has worked for CMG Landscape Architecture, the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, and various San Francisco-based landscape architecture firms.
Sara Carr Discusses the Topography of Wellness in American Urban Landscapes
Ten thousand is the number of steps we’re told to walk each day if we want to stay active and healthy. For many, this means wearing a Fitbit and checking it regularly. But for city planners attempting to design a healthier city, the implication is far more than personal: it means finding ways to make walkability an essential feature of our cities.
Yet, according to Sara Carr, a recent Mellon Fellow in Urban Landscape Studies, who delivered the second Mellon Midday Dialogue of the semester, this trend toward walkability is only the most recent episode in a much longer (and occasionally fraught) relationship between public health and urban landscape.
Despite public health researchers’ nascent interest in studying wellness in relation to the built environment—between 2003 and 2013, more than six hundred related articles have been published, compared to fewer than forty in the preceding decade—city planners have been borrowing insights from physicians for a much longer period of time.
Carr explained that planners have often imagined cities in anthropomorphic terms. Just as physicians diagnose, and surgeons operate on, the human body, so too have planners prescribed different fixes for the world of brick and mortar.
In a way, Carr is uniquely positioned to tell this history. She currently holds a one-of-a-kind joint appointment between the school of architecture and the office of public health studies at the University of Hawaii. This position has allowed Carr to bring together students from both schools who, despite the intertwined history of their disciplines, are rarely encouraged to interact in the classroom.
Carr began her presentation with a discussion of the nineteenth century, when physicians still thought of miasma—literally, “bad air”—as the cause of diseases ranging from cholera to obesity. To contain this ethereal threat, planners paved over exposed bodies of waters and moved sewage systems underground. (Both were believed to emanate miasma.)
The eventual replacement of miasma theory with germ theory did not prevent planners from identifying new ills within the design of the city. This time around, however, it was the urban density associated with tenement buildings and slums that they took issue with. As an antidote, they prescribed large, open spaces, giving rise to landmarks of urban design like Central Park, whose chief architect, Fredrick Law Olmsted Jr., had also served on the Sanitary Commission.
In recent decades, as the focus of public health debates has shifted from infectious to chronic diseases, planners have reversed many of these earlier views. Urban waters that were previously paved over have been reexposed to inject a dose of nature into the concrete jungle. Instead of decrying density, planners now herald close-knit urban centers as a requisite for walkability, which helps to counter ailments, like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, that are often associated with America’s overreliance on cars.
But despite the evident benefits of walkable cities, Carr is weary of making sweeping claims about their superiority. As the principal investigator of a walkability study group in Hawaii, she sees much of the current rhetoric surrounding walkability as built upon a monolithic model that overlooks the preferences of diverse local demographics, for whom walking can sometimes be either unfeasible or outright dangerous. Context, for Carr—as it is for walking—remains paramount.
Teaching Fellows’ Day Invites Undergraduates to Consider Byzantium Anew
For a Saturday morning, the Oak Room was surprisingly chockablock. Seats, set in rows that stretched the full length of the space, bore a crowd of nearly one hundred people. The attendees hailed from a variety of D.C. institutions.
On February 25, Dumbarton Oaks held its seventh annual Teaching Fellows’ Day. The event, which is organized by Dumbarton Oaks’ postdoctoral teaching fellows in Byzantine studies, invites students from D.C.-area universities to introduce them to research and resources at Dumbarton Oaks through scholarly presentations and gallery tours.
This year, the day took as its theme the nature of capital cities and their place at the center of the artistic, political, and administrative life of empires. “At the Center of Empire” examined these matters through the lens of Constantinople, while at the same time foregrounding Dumbarton Oaks’ own resources, collections, and contributions to the field of Byzantine studies.
In his opening remarks, Director Jan Ziolkowski contrasted the “huffing and puffing of empty manipulation” that frequently characterized the Byzantine bureaucracy with the abundance of “real people with real passion and talent” working at Dumbarton Oaks, and in the field at large. Elena Boeck, director of Byzantine Studies, followed suit in her remarks, adjuring “potential future Byzantinists” in the audience “to come to the good side.”
The morning was given over to a series of three talks that focused on the relationship between the capital city of Constantinople and the rest of the Byzantine Empire. In “Reflections of a Capital City,” Elizabeth Dospel Williams, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in Byzantine art history at Dumbarton Oaks and George Washington University, began the scholarly proceedings by attempting to provide a “vivid vision of early Constantinople—its monuments, its arts, and its culture.”
The difficulty in reconstructing the past in a convincing, even realistic manner, as Williams asserted, is that we can only access the past through its fragments. “And the thing is, very few artifacts can be linked with absolute certainty to production in Constantinople,” she explained. “Almost all our objects and evidence have been found outside” of the capital. She went on to examine commercial interactions between Byzantium and Europe through the lens of silks and their production, in the process utilizing objects from the Dumbarton Oaks Collection.
In his paper, Jonathan Shea, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in Byzantine history at George Washington University and Dumbarton Oaks, analyzed the Byzantine bureaucracy and conflicts between the urban and provincial parts of the empire. Shea described the eleventh and twelfth centuries as “a little odd,” a time when “the first grumblings of the system of government being broken began to emerge.”
Shea described a reckless granting of titles that eventually snowballed out of control. As more and more titles, each with their attendant payment of gold, were granted, the government was forced to devalue its money, at which point people began to demand newer, grander titles (with grander payments of gold). Throughout his talk, though especially in his discussion of titles, Shea utilized the collection of Byzantine seals at Dumbarton Oaks, tracking the appearance of new titles and descriptions in the seals to determine large-scale shifts in administrative power.
Nathanael Aschenbrenner, a Tyler Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks and PhD candidate in the history department at Harvard, delivered the final talk of the morning, “From Imperial City to Urban Empire.” He brought the day’s theme to a very literal conclusion, examining how, in the fifteenth century, Constantinople slowly morphed from the capital of the Byzantine Empire to the empire itself. As the empire lost large swaths of territory and saw its political influence in the region shrink accordingly, it was forced to redefine what “empire” meant, not only in the political sense, but also ideologically and metaphysically.
The event itself attracted a variety of students at different stages in their academic careers, each of them seeking to get something different out of the day. Marcellino Velasquez, for instance, a freshman at George Washington University, was excited to engage with those resources and aspects of the institution that might typically be more difficult to access: “It’s a unique opportunity—I knew we’d be able to see things we wouldn’t usually be able to see.”
Though he hasn’t decided on a major yet, Velasquez is confident he’ll be choosing between history and architecture, or some combination of the two. To that end, the day offered a chance to engage with a subject that—with its emphasis on basilicas, monumental painting, and the built environment of late antiquity—often straddles the two fields.
“I think Byzantine history is really interesting,” Velasquez said, pinpointing the morning lectures as particularly piquant. “I never knew the dynamics of their politics, how these emperors each came to power and overhauled the system of government, changing it to their own tastes, to work for them, obviously.”
For others, the day was an opportunity to explore established interests. Luke Garoufalis, a sophomore at George Washington currently enrolled in two of Jonathan Shea’s classes, traces his interest in Byzantium to his Greek heritage: “I remember my family always talking a lot about it (they still do), and then I learned about it in church school—so I’ve really always had an interest in Byzantium.”
Several of the talks, seeking a relevance to current political events, drew comparisons between the Byzantine past and the current political climate in America; it was an effort that Garoufalis found intriguing. “To learn about this exclusionary system set up in Byzantium, a system that’s very focused on the capital, and then this feeling of revolt against that setup—I think there are definitely connections there, and perspectives to be gained.”
Erin Haas, a freshman at George Washington, is planning to double major in history and art history. She wants to concentrate her studies on the Middle East, pursuing an interest that she developed in high school. Though Haas had never heard of Dumbarton Oaks before, she was excited to learn about the institution and its own specialties.
The afternoon was given over to a series of gallery tours and informal lectures on various projects currently ongoing at Dumbarton Oaks. Students explored museum storage, visited the special collections, listened to curators, and learned about publication initiatives and educational programming—and, ideally, learned a little bit more about the inner workings of an institution that, though not nearly as complex as the empires it studies, combines a diverse bevy of projects and approaches in the service of scholarship.
The Dumbarton Oaks Archives Launches Online Ephemera Collection
One often stumbles upon ephemera—those items, like pamphlets and postcards, designed only to last a short while—in the recesses of secondhand bookstores or at flea markets, stacked up wildly in crates and hardly cared for at all. Now they’ll be available in a new location, where, hopefully, they’ll be easier to peruse: online.
Dumbarton Oaks is pleased to announce the launch of its online Ephemera Archive, a tool that makes available to a wide audience the institution’s extensive and growing ephemera holdings. The Ephemera Collection comprises postcards, magazine pages, pamphlets, trade cards, and other materials related to Dumbarton Oaks’ three programs of study: Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape studies.
The catalog’s launch culminates two years of work on the ephemera project, an initiative started in 2015 to collect, catalog, preserve, and display institutionally relevant ephemera. Materials in the Dumbarton Oaks collection are typically taken from a fairly narrow time period—approximately 1890 to 1920—that coincides with a boom in printed ephemera production.
Lain Wilson, Dumbarton Oaks’ digital content manager, believes the catalog will open up a number of research possibilities: “It’s really going to serve students, scholars, and interested amateurs who want to look at these subject areas from the particular angle of their reception during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.”
For Wilson, who helped to develop the catalog’s interface, the value of ephemera lies in their ability to communicate subjective worldviews. “Ephemera reveal how people—some people—a hundred years ago viewed and valued monuments, places, and practices, many of which are still present, studied, and visited today.”
Behind the catalog lies meticulous research and labor. After images are carefully scanned and uploaded, they must be described with metadata (that is, data that describes other data, rendering it usable and searchable), an arduous process that can involve transcribing captions or translating the handwritten notes on postcards. And even after all of this information has been obtained and logged, ambiguities and unknowns often remain.
“One big challenge is that with a lot of our items, especially the postcards, we don’t have a lot of data to begin with,” says Lane Baker, a postgraduate research fellow in ephemera. “Though the items might be in great condition when we acquire them, with plenty of clues that suggest they’re from this or that period, it’s sometimes difficult to track down their provenance in a way that would be ideal for researchers.”
Even if the printer or photographer responsible for a particular postcard can be identified, there’s often little more information to be found. “Sometimes, these postcards were literally just the result of an amateur photographer snapping a picture and dropping it off with a friend who ran a local print shop, who’d then print them, just for that shop, and sell them to tourists,” Baker explains. “That sort of thing really doesn’t leave much of a paper trail to research.”
Regardless, the image remains, and perhaps even gains from the utter obscurity of its origins. Examining a postcard of the ruins of Tiahuanaco in Bolivia—a set of capsized stones half-sunk in a broad field—it’s difficult not to consider the combination of circumstances that brought it into existence. As an activity, however, this wondering quickly flounders. Though we know the name of the publishing house that produced the card (Arnó Hermanos Editores), the rest—the identity of the man posed on the stones or the individual behind the camera, the date the image was taken—is mystery.
Ultimately, the academic purposes to which the catalog can be put shouldn’t obscure the more fundamental pleasures of ephemera-gazing. Without exception, the ephemera collected by Dumbarton Oaks present some sort of joy to the eye, whether that means a beautiful tableau or a strange one, an accurate depiction of the past or a skewed one. A brightly colored image of the Tuileries Gardens, sparsely walked by soberly dressed strollers, adorns one card, while the Dome of the Rock dominates another, surmounted by a garish holiday message in flowing red script.
For now, the online catalog displays a selection of Dumbarton Oaks’ ephemera holdings, though items will continue to be added as they’re acquired and logged. “The nice thing is, not only does the catalog introduce people to ephemera,” Baker explains, “but it might also help us expand the collection by attracting the attention of dealers or people with collections of their own.”
As far as the health of the collection is concerned, Dumbarton Oaks finds itself in a good position. The diversity of research fields at Dumbarton Oaks allows for both focused and wide-ranging collecting. “Of course, we’re trying to remain focused on our institutional interests,” says Baker, “but we want to do that while also being expansive in the types of ephemera we search for, acquire, and use.”
The Ephemera Collection Expands in an Upcoming Exhibit
It was “the supreme spectacle of the age,” according to one effusive advertisement. In 1922, the Astor Theater in New York screened Theodora, an Italian silent film about the scandalous life of the eponymous sixth-century Byzantine empress. The film featured live lions, a cast of twenty-five thousand people, and reconstructed Byzantine architecture, sculpture, and mosaics. Most important, however, was the “love-mad woman” at the heart of it all.
This film, like several others of its day, was born from a larger western fascination with the empress Theodora. In the early 1880s, average people in Europe and North America became increasingly interested in the aesthetics and style of Byzantium. The French playwright Victorien Sardou propelled the empire into the mainstream with his sensational 1884 play Théodora, which starred the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt as the empress and boasted extravagant sets and costumes. The following decades saw Theodora transformed from an obscure historical figure to an icon of fashion, theater, and film. Her face appeared on postcards, newspapers, magazines, and advertisements. Many westerners received their first exposure to the Byzantine world through these imaginative renderings of Theodora.
The Dumbarton Oaks Archives is excited to announce the arrival of a new exhibit focusing on this cultural phenomenon. Imagining the Empress: Theodora in Popular Culture, 1882–1922, was curated by Lane Baker, postgraduate fellow in ephemera, in conjunction with the Dumbarton Oaks Archives’ Ephemera Collection, a new and growing assemblage of historical ephemera related to the institution’s three programs of study. The exhibit aims to expose viewers to the ways in which a single historical figure infiltrated popular culture and helped bring an awareness of Byzantium—albeit a skewed one—to the general populace.
Though Dumbarton Oaks began acquiring ephemera in 2015 and has continued at a steady pace since then, the collection’s focus on Theodora is a new phenomenon. In fact, many of the objects on display, which range from buttons to postcards to theater programs, are new acquisitions. “Part of the idea behind the exhibit was to assess the collection as a whole,” Baker explains. “We wanted to find interesting themes in what we already had, and then pursue more focused acquisitions from there.”
Of course, ephemera present their own unique curatorial challenges. “When you’re working with these disparate types of materials—buttons, postcards, newspaper advertisements—it’s difficult to tie them together in a compelling way,” Baker says. In the early stages of planning, Baker researched methods of displaying ephemera and other exhibitions that had effectively utilized the fleeting materials. Ultimately, he decided that an exhibit that relied solely on one type of object (like postcards) would be difficult to pull off.
Instead, Baker opted for a chronological approach, capable of encompassing a wide array of materials. “Essentially, the exhibit moves from the foundations of the Theodora craze, in Sardou’s play, all the way to the conclusion of the craze, with film posters from the 1920s,” he explains.
This broadened purview means the exhibit can include anything, from a set of cameo-bearing buttons—designed as party-going accessories that were meant to be affixed to a sash—to an elegant 1902 play program for Sardou’s Théodora, designed by the famed jeweler and artist René Lalique.
The program, as Baker explains, is a curio. “In a lot of ways, it’s really different from what we’d expect from a program—it has concept sketches, costume models, set designs, small bits of sheet music, some of Sardou’s notes. It’s sort of a behind-the-scenes view of the play.” The program’s assortment of background trivia that gesture at the mechanics of Sardou’s spectacle emphasizes that the play, like the larger Theodora phenomenon, was about the larger world of Byzantium as well.
“I think Theodora, as an idea and a cultural phenomenon, really captures a good idea of what ephemera can be, and what they can express,” Baker says. Not only did the empress-craze find its way into the manifold crannies of consumer culture—it also found there, in each postcard and button, a unique, and often beautiful, expression.
Imagining the Empress: Theodora in Popular Culture, 1882–1922 will be on display at Dumbarton Oaks in the Orientation Gallery when the museum reopens in spring 2017. In the meantime, interested readers can browse selections from the ephemera collection.
James N. Carder (March 2017)
The Dumbarton Oaks Archives is building a collection of ephemera that relates to the institution’s three programs of study. A recent acquisition for this collection is an illustrated souvenir booklet printed for the 1902 revival of Victorien Sardou’s play, Théodora, which in 1884 had helped rebuild the fame and fortune of its star, Sarah Bernhardt. Théodora soon traveled the world, including America, bringing to its enthusiastic audiences a theatrical Byzantium complete with Oriental mystery, lavishly decorated spaces, and, especially, luxurious clothing and jewelry made from gold and colorful gems. For this reason, the booklet offers us an important chronicle of the turn-of-the-century popular culture perception of the Byzantine world.
The booklet is more a theater souvenir than a program—there is no cast list or enumeration of the play’s eight scenes, for example. But the ten pages of illustrations offer an interesting glimpse into the props, costumes, stage sets, and even the music of this widely popular play.
The cover has an image of Bernhardt as Theodora painted in 1894 by the French jewelry and glass designer, René Lalique (1860–1945). Theodora, her head backed by a cruciform halo, wears an imaginative crown ringed by imperial eagles, which, more menacingly, are also seen on the pendilia that hang across the empress’s ears. Included in the booklet are sketches by Georges Clairin (1843–1919), a French painter and illustrator and Bernhardt’s reputed lover, who designed the poster for the play’s 1902 revival.
Also found are prop designs by René Foy, a French jewelry designer, and examples of the costumes of Théophile Thomas (1846?–1916), originally designed for the 1884 production. Among the set designs are those of Alfred Lemeunier, Marcel Jambon (1848–1908), Alexandre Bailly, and Amable (Dauphin-Amable Petit) (1846–1916). Several bars of the incidental music that Jules Massenet (1842–1912) composed for the 1884 premier are also included in the booklet.
Several pages from the booklet are on display in the exhibition, Imagining the Empress: Selections from the Dumbarton Oaks Ephemera Collection, which opens in late April.
Sergey Ivanov Reconsiders the Unorthodox Saints’ Lives of the Tenth Century
Sergey Ivanov, a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in spring 2017, is a professor at the National Research University in Moscow. His recent research has focused on Byzantine hagiography, specifically the lives of two Constantinopolitan saints, Basil the Younger and Niphon. At Dumbarton Oaks, Ivanov will be working on a critical edition of the life of St. Niphon, a narrative he believes is a long-neglected masterpiece of Byzantine literature.
Brief Q&A with Sergey Ivanov
In your talk, you discussed a ban that was placed on the creation of new saints because there had been a sudden proliferation of narratives. I was hoping you could talk more about why and how this ban was enacted.
This is a multifaceted problem, because it derives both from the function of literature and the function of religion, and, generally speaking, the function of society. So really, we should first ask ourselves, why should a society need saints to begin with? There was a time when there were Christians but no saints, so sainthood as a concept is a relatively late phenomenon. Gradually, there emerged a vague feeling within the Christian community that sanctity exists, somehow, in the air, that it’s unleashed suddenly on an individual, sometimes even a person who doesn’t seem to deserve it. But regardless, he is endowed with sanctity.
For example, there is a very important early Byzantine legend about a robber who tries to rob a nunnery. To get inside, he pretends that he’s a wandering beggar so that the nuns will open the gates for him. And meanwhile his fellow robbers are waiting outside—he has to settle inside and open the gates for them. Anyway, when the nuns see the robber, they say, “Oh, a great saint has visited us,” and they prostrate themselves before him. He’s of course disconcerted, protests that they must be mistaken, but they insist—“We can’t make a mistake, you are a great saint!” Eventually he becomes so fed up that he admits he is a robber, to which they reply something along the lines of, “Such humiliation is only proper to great saints—they always take upon themselves the sins of others.” And they proceed to wash his feet, at which point a blind nun who has touched the water suddenly begins to see. Afterwards, the robber recognizes that something bigger than himself is demanding a different life from him, so he promises to become a monk and organize a monastery side by side with the nunnery—and all of his gang, still waiting outside, become his fellow monks.
What does this story tell us? Sanctity is not a decision—it is something unleashed from above. In my opinion, hagiography as literature is secondary to this intimation of culture, which really comes from a deep abyss of unconscious, that is, the societal imagination, where the idea has its roots. For example, we have the story of St. Isidora, a nun who pretended to be insane at a monastery in Tabennisi, in Egypt, and her story looks very much like Cinderella’s. Which comes first, Cinderella or Isidora? It’s difficult to say, because both of these stories were born in the subliterary folk consciousness. Over time this consciousness begins to take the shape of a text, of literature, and then becomes an independent genre with its own rules. But it’s still relying heavily on the same “anticipation of sanctity,” this feeling that somewhere, though we don’t know where, someone, though we don’t know who, is a saint.
And then, for unknown reasons, this hagiographic habit, this anticipation, begins to wane—it wanes as unexpectedly as it emerged, and we feel in the texts a certain half-heartedness. More and more hagiographers resort to the earlier examples, to the saints of old, to martyrs, to hermits, and they even begin to write in certain lives that the saint, our hero, had read the lives of previous saints and decided to conduct himself in a comparable way. So saints are becoming saints because they read the lives of saints—it’s a self-reproducing system. And this is detrimental for hagiography because the narratives become more and more dry; there is no vivid spirit in it anymore.
Eventually the writers—people who otherwise write with inspiration—begin looking for means to circumvent this lack of inner feeling, so some of them start to write psychological prose under the name of vita. Now they write just as though they’re writing novels—the first one, in my opinion, was Niphon, who was an absolutely literary character. Another means of avoiding this lack of inner feeling would be versification, because it’s easier to say nothing in verse than in prose. A third way was compiling huge anthologies, so the saints then come in scores. In my opinion, these processes, which are taking place in the tenth and eleventh centuries, are all interrelated.
The narrative of Niphon’s life, as you described it, is quite strange when compared to the status quo. He wasn’t born a saint, or it didn’t suddenly come upon him, and he goes through these classic trials of concupiscence and so on. You also mentioned that you consider it a masterpiece of Byzantine literature, so I’m wondering what scholarly opinion you would like to see emerge from a reevaluation of Niphon’s life.
Well, Niphon is not alone. He’s a representative of a group of at least four saints—a group that includes Andrew the Fool and Gregentios—who, though they’re not quite as impressive, are still very unorthodox saints. One of them was published on extensively ten years ago, another was published on about twenty years ago, but the remaining two, Basil the Younger and Niphon, still deserve critical publication. I plan to work on commentaries for the forthcoming editions of Niphon’s life, and I think I’ll also contribute to the new publication of the oldest Greek version of the vita of Basil the Younger.
As a final outcome, I hope this work will add to our understanding of the relations between the ordinary hagiography of the tenth century, which is numerous, and this shocking, outstanding group of vitae. I seriously doubt they are a piece of truly vernacular literature; I think those who wrote these texts were very learned people, intentionally writing in lower style. It’s still an open question, of course, but I think someday we’ll be able to answer it.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Dumbarton Oaks Gardens Closed to the Public from July 10, 2017, to March 15, 2018
At Dumbarton Oaks, we are committed to preserving and maintaining our historic gardens and collections to the highest standards, while incorporating technological improvements that will ensure their good repair and longevity. We are just finishing a yearlong renovation of the museum, which will reopen in late April.
The time has now come to undertake large-scale improvements to the gardens’ water-supply network, which dates to the gardens’ original creation in the 1920s. We are therefore obliged to close the gardens to the public from July 10, 2017, to March 15, 2018. We will take this opportunity to enhance storm-water management throughout the property, in keeping with our commitment to sustainability and the environment. We invite you to enjoy the gardens before their temporary closure on July 10; you can purchase a reduced season pass here. (Admission is free until the beginning of our regular season on March 15.)
These are the prorated rates for unlimited reduced season access with a Season Pass:
- $40 Single Season Pass
- $50 Double Season Pass
- $60 Family Pass
For further inquiries, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org. We would be happy to put local media in touch with garden staff who can speak about the upcoming work in the gardens in greater detail.
We invite you to use any images from our online press kit, with credit to “Dumbarton Oaks.”
Ximena Chávez Balderas Reinterprets Sacrificial Remains at Tenochtitlan
Ximena Chávez Balderas, a PhD candidate in anthropology at Tulane University, is a Junior Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. Her research has focused on funeral rites, the afterlife, and ritual sacrifice in Mesoamerica. Her recent research report, “The Offering of Life: Human and Animal Sacrifice at the West Plaza of the Sacred Precinct, Tenochtitlan,” discussed her fieldwork at the site and her attempts to analyze, via a complex system of classification, general trends in Mesoamerican sacrifice.
Brief Q&A with Ximena Chávez Balderas
What is the significance of the West Plaza as a site? Why is it unique?
The West Plaza was the main plaza of the Sacred Precinct, which means it was at the foot of the Great Temple, or the Templo Mayor, but it also housed several important small religious buildings, like the skull rack and the ballgame. Citizens on the West Plaza were able to view the rituals taking place on top of the Great Temple, so it was an important area in terms of rituals, performances, and public events.
The plaza is connected with sacrifice in a couple of ways. In addition to the skull rack and the ballgame, which is also connected to sacrifice, I suspect that the bodies intended for sacrifice were prepared somewhere near the skull rack. And besides that, all the bones and fragmentary materials were utilized to consecrate sacred spaces in the plaza—essentially, they were putting the energy contained in the bones into the buildings.
Your work utilizes a data-driven approach to studying sacrifice, attempting to find larger trends in the practice. Is this type of approach new?
Well, the Templo Mayor was excavated in 1978. Since then, we’ve seen the creation of the Urban Archaeology Program in 1991, but only in the past ten years have excavations of the main plaza really started up in a very systematized way. Some excavations were conducted there in the sixties, but they were more of a salvage operation—they were working very fast—so we don’t really have a lot of material or information on their work. Now we have a team led by Raúl Barrera, of the Urban Archaeology Program, that’s been working in different areas, but following a systematized methodology.
On the other hand, the Templo Mayor Project is a large, interdisciplinary team, with biologists, conservators, physical anthropologists, archaeologists, architects, and so on. So that’s the difference, really—when you’re working with these big datasets, you really need to be working with a team.
Overall, it’s a very exciting period in terms of archaeological discoveries, but of course it’s a challenge as well. I can remember my first day working with a particular offering that was composed of nine thousand animal bones, and I thought, “I don’t know what to do.” But I knew I had to organize my ideas, I knew I needed to design a methodology, and I knew that would take time. So it was a challenge, but I was happy I was the one doing it—right? Because it’s not only a challenge, it’s our heritage. It’s an enormous responsibility.
At your talk, there were a few questions about blood sacrifice, its significance, and the difficulty of studying it. I was wondering if you could talk about that.
In sacrificial practices, blood had a central role. It was a precious liquid, the essence of the body, and so it was used in a number of specific rituals—the nourishing of crops, for example. But of course, analyzing blood in an archaeological context is not only a challenge, it’s almost impossible. Normally, what we would expect is to have blood on the flint knives used in sacrifices, on the sacrificial stones, in the receptacles that held the blood and hearts after their removal, but it’s actually very hard to find. Part of that is because the site is below the water table, but part of it, too, is because of past archaeological practices. When the Templo Mayor was excavated in the seventies, a lot of the techniques we use today weren’t developed yet, so they weren’t looking for the things we look for, they weren’t treating the objects the way we would treat them. So, for instance, they would often end up cleaning the stones they found.
Right now, we have two sculptures of the god of the underworld that were found in 1994 by the archaeologist Leonardo López Luján, and when he found them he noted a thick layer of brownish soil covering them. He decided to send it for electrophoresis and chemical testing, and eventually they were able to determine that it was blood. That was something that couldn’t have happened during the initial excavation. Now, of course, you need to take samples of everything—not only to use with the techniques that are available at this moment, but thinking about the techniques that might be available in the future. So now we’re much more careful; we save part of the samples we collect for the future.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
James N. Carder (February 2017)
In 2016, the Dumbarton Oaks swimming pool, bathhouse loggia, and the surrounding pavements and walls were completely renovated. As part of this project, the 1935 “Azalea Inscription” on the northwest enclosure wall was reproduced to replicate the original. Because the stucco background of the inscription was badly cracked and spalled, the inscription could not be restored but had to be replaced. To insure an accurate replacement, photographs and measurements were taken and drawings made. Also, the original 1935 Beatrix Farrand workshop drawing for the inscription was consulted to insure that the lettering would not have a mechanical, typographical appearance.
Fragments of the original inscription were salvaged and are now housed in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives.
The inscription was located next to a white azalea in the pool area:
Like the flash of a wing
I came upon
The loveliest thing
As a wounded king
As a dying swan
The verse is the fourth stanza of the poem Reprieve by Joseph Auslander (1897–1965). Auslander, a graduate of Harvard College, was a good friend of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss and would become the first Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress between 1937 and 1941.
Dumbarton Oaks Acquires Seventeenth-Century Monument Guide
When we think of the Grand Tour, it is the English rather than the Dutch who first come to mind. Yet, seventeenth-century Holland (or, more correctly, the United Provinces) was a rich mercantile empire with trading outposts as far the island of Kyushu in Japan and colonial settlements and plantations, such as Surinam, in South America, India, and Africa. A community of enterprising travelers and cartographers, the Dutch engaged in the exploration of the New World just as they were rediscovering the legacy of classical antiquity. They were thus the principal audience for the Theatrum Civitatum et Admirandorum Italiae, whose first three volumes, originally published in 1663, have recently been acquired by Dumbarton Oaks. Usually translated as the “Town Book of Italy,” this project was a brainchild of the leading Amsterdam mapmaker Johannes Blaeu (1599–1673), who ran one of the city’s largest printing establishments. Published in Latin, which was still the lingua franca at the time, it was intended as a cultural and historical guide as well as a cartographic atlas for the educated elite, curious about the past and present of one of the heartlands of European civilization.
Blaeu’s original idea was an ambitious publication that would have comprised a total of ten volumes, five of which were supposed to deal with the monuments of ancient Rome, organized into specific types, and another five with the main attractions of various states of seventeenth-century Italy. Nine years after the appearance of the three initial volumes, however, his main workshop was destroyed by fire, with much of the material ready for publication irredeemably lost. Blaeu’s heirs continued his work, adding in 1683 two more volumes on Piedmont and Savoy, but were unable to complete the full series. Yet, even in this incomplete form, the “Town Book of Italy” was a success, as attested by subsequent editions produced by other Amsterdam publishers well into the eighteenth century.
The three luxurious volumes at Dumbarton Oaks, bound in the original Dutch vellum with gilt borders, feature over a hundred engraved plates (mostly maps and views), some of which are hand-colored. The first volume, dealing with the cities of the Papal States, is a rich visual and textual introduction to their main monuments and landmarks, beginning with a brief outline of the pivotal historical events, the leading local families, and other important characters, followed by the survey of the principal buildings. Some illustrations also represent major gardens, such as those of Frascati and Tivoli, as well as sacred and devotional sites located in the immediate vicinity.
The second volume, on the monuments of ancient Rome, includes sections on circuses, theaters, and amphitheaters; its important focus, however, is on Egyptian obelisks with meticulously recorded hieroglyphic inscriptions, a source of scholarly fascination throughout the seventeenth century. A special highlight is an account of the moving of the Vatican Obelisk in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the greatest engineering feats of the sixteenth century, carried out in 1586 by the papal architect Domenico Fontana. For Blaeu and his readers, the glory of the ancient Rome, therefore, was always interlaced with the achievements of the modern city.
Finally, the third volume, which deals with Naples and Sicily, pays much attention to the natural attractions of these regions, especially the unique geology and vegetation in the areas of volcanic activity, such as Mount Vesuvius and the Phlegraean Fields.
For Dumbarton Oaks, the acquisition of these three fascinating volumes coincides with the increasing focus of its Garden and Landscape Studies program on urban landscape studies, supported by a generous grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. By putting this rare and incredibly rich resource at the service of scholarship, we hope to promote a deeper understanding of the intricate and dynamic relationships that exist between the natural environment and urban form, putting them in a broad historical perspective.