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No New Saints

Sergey Ivanov Reconsiders the Unorthodox Saints’ Lives of the Tenth Century

Posted on Feb 21, 2017 02:20 PM by Bailey Trela |
No New Saints

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.

 

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Blood on the Stones

Ximena Chávez Balderas Reinterprets Sacrificial Remains at Tenochtitlan

Posted on Feb 09, 2017 10:55 AM by Bailey Trela |
Blood on the Stones

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.

 

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The Gardens Gide Saw

Verena Conley on Exoticism, Europe, and the Jardin d’Essai

Posted on Feb 07, 2017 01:55 PM by Bailey Trela |
The Gardens Gide Saw

Verena Conley teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature and Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University, and is a fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. She is currently at work on a project entitled “From Colony to Ecology: Theory and Practice of the Jardin d’Essai,” a celebrated colonial garden in Algiers, and another on “The Care of the Possible: Ecology, Technology, Sensation, Worlds.”

Brief Q&A with Verena Conley

In your talk you mentioned literary perspectives on the garden, specifically the writer André Gide, who I know has a curious little book, The Fruits of the Earth, that talks about gardens. What is his experience with the Jardin d’Essai?

Well it’s a very brief moment—I think it’s in book three, when he travels to North Africa—and he mentions this garden, just in passing, really, and he says he has never tasted fruit, dates, like this before. And the dates that he tastes are probably not indigenous; the trees would have been imported. Gide is one of the first who doesn’t simply say, “Oh, wow, here’s this magnificent tableau.” He actually describes how he moves through the North African landscape, how he experiences it through his senses and how it affects him—what the smells are, the sights, the tastes. Gide’s sensuous text made a big impression on young Jacques Derrida, who says in interviews later on that when he was growing up The Fruits of the Earth was a formative book for him; he said he knew it almost by heart.

And I don’t know if you’ve read Gide’s The Immoralist? There, too, the protagonist goes to North Africa. In the book, the narrator relates how he went south, first to Italy and then to Algeria. He tells his interlocutor how, in the course of his journey, he completely lost himself and sacrificed everything to the senses. And it’s dicey—he has these encounters with young boys—but in The Fruits of the Earth, it’s just a discovery of the landscape, especially gardens, through the senses.

 

Is the visiting of these gardens a sort of cultural phenomenon? How does Gide relate to that?

There’s this whole obsession in Europe with going south. The north is always seen as a very repressed place; the place of books and culture. As the exotic counterpart, the south is the realm of the body and the senses. In many ways, southern Italy is the same as North Africa—I don’t think Gide necessarily distinguished between the two. But in The Immoralist, you have a married couple, and they go down to a place in Algeria called Biskra. He is sick, but recovers with the help of his wife and the place. But when his wife becomes sick, he loses interest in her; instead he becomes obsessed with a young boy.

 

In your talk you mentioned the conscious exoticizing of gardens—how is the Jardin d’Essai connected to cultural understandings of the exotic over time?

Colonial gardens—and especially the Jardin d’Essai—are really a way of showcasing empire, of exhibiting what a country possessed from all the different parts of the world. The empire is always global; it’s expansionist, and then it tries to show you, to display, how it possesses all these lands, and how it can take from them and acclimate its new possessions. The creation of the Jardin d’Essai in 1832, that is, two years after the French conquer Algiers, is a clear gesture to mark the territory, to appropriate the land. The Jardin was a farm, a test garden, before it became a garden of acclimation and also a public garden.

The theory of acclimation, as it’s embodied by the garden, will be really important. You know, there was a whole craze in Europe around this theory, which led to the infamous attempts at anthropological and zoological acclimatization that culminated with the exhibits in Paris in the 1930s, where you construct entire street scenes from the colonies to showcase people and animals; and the French and other Europeans walk by and just gaze at them.

To come back to the Jardin d’Essai: it still exists today. A very popular public and botanical garden, it reopened in 2009 after several years of extensive work. It’s also a garden that is popular with artists and intellectuals. Many philosophers, writers, and filmmakers have written about the Jardin (Hélène Cixous, Assia Djébar, Jacques Derrida, and others). It’s now more of an ecological garden where children learn about water conservation, indigenous plants, and the ecological importance of Algeria and the Mediterranean basin.

 

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The Monks at the Theater

Agnieszka Szymańska Discusses the Unlikely Design of the Red Monastery

Posted on Feb 07, 2017 01:55 PM by Bailey Trela |
The Monks at the Theater

Agnieszka Szymańska, a PhD candidate in art history at Temple University, is a junior fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. Her research report, “Divine Spectacle: The Early Byzantine Triconch at the Red Monastery in Egypt,” focused on the titular monastery and its extensive and well-preserved wall paintings. While many early Byzantine religious authorities condemned theatrical performances, as Szymańska argued, the Red Monastery actually emulates the decorative facades of open-air theaters. Attempting to determine why a monastic environment would contain such theatrical structural elements, her talk analyzed the church sanctuary as a vivid backdrop for a spiritual performance known, in literary sources, as divine contemplation.

Brief Q&A with Agnieszka Szymańska

How did you get into studying this particular subject matter? How did you narrow your focus both to the Red Monastery as a site, and then to theatricality as an approach?

Well, I was studying Byzantine art history when I went to Egypt and started doing fieldwork. Egypt didn’t feature prominently in my studies, so I actually wasn’t thinking of it in terms of Byzantium before I went there. My first visit involved archaeological fieldwork, which I had no prior experience with, and that’s when I realized there are actually so many archaeological records for the early Byzantine period that have survived in good condition in Egypt. So it hit me at that moment, there in the desert, that I’d been partially blind to this art-historical paradise!

In Egypt, I was working a lot with ceramics and painted plaster fragments, and the process of reconstructing images with these fragments—handling them, being surrounded by trays filled with hundreds of fragments—really drew my attention to the materiality of wall paintings. And of course, it then made me look at wall paintings in situ from a completely different perspective. I began to look for details that I hadn’t even thought of looking for before.

Eventually I went to the Red Monastery for a visit. I’d heard about this monument before I went, but nothing can prepare you for an in-person visit. So I got there, I saw this building that looks like an ancient Egyptian temple on the outside, and then I entered the sanctuary and—it just blew my mind, the richness of color. And it’s hard to see at first what’s underneath the paint, because it really is astounding. You think, as an art historian, “This is a fifth-century monument, the paintings are sixth century, and they’re virtually intact,” and you just can’t get past that realization for many visits. After a while I became interested in the architectural sculpture underneath the paint, and I began to pay attention to the three-dimensionality of the space. One day I was reading a fourth-century monastic text and I started to ask myself why the monks would have wanted that space to look this particular way. And, for me, the idea of theater—of theatricality and performance—was the way to resolve that question.

 

Another fellow here, Hendrik Dey, recently gave a research report that mentioned the influence of theatrical structures on the Via Triumphalis in Rome. I’m wondering if this theatrical approach is new in the field?

I think so. Especially for the early Byzantine period, when you don’t have a lot of surviving architectural interiors in which you can immerse yourself and see the intended visual impact of the space and experience it. It’s hard to think about theatricality when you interact with a museum object, or with a painting that’s been removed from its site. But when you find yourself actually inside this unique specimen, this site that looks like a theater covered with paintings that represent theatrical elements, it makes you reevaluate your approach.

For the early Byzantine period, people weren’t looking for this for the simple reason that there was no place to look, not enough had survived. But, generally speaking, I think it’s an exciting line of inquiry that’s garnered more attention in recent years because the larger question is how images functioned within visual culture. In the past, a lot of the academic emphasis has been on visuality, that is, the historical construction of sight. That was focused on the way we see, and the way we’re conditioned to see. But that’s only part of the story. The idea of theatricality and performance includes and encompasses visuality, but it’s also about the body moving in and through the space, about the rituals being performed there, and about the sounds, which we can’t hear now, that were part of the experience. So I think it’s a more comprehensive reconstruction that reintegrates the images with the experiences they intended to create.

 

Dumbarton Oaks recently held a colloquium on Byzantine monumental painting that touched on many of the same issues as your talk. Did you have any thoughts on the colloquium?

It was very interesting. The first two talks I think were very relevant to my work. I recall that Robert Ousterhout talked about how, with a lot of Byzantine monumental painting, the artists worked separately from the architects. And not only that, but he could also find painters painting over the architecturally sculpted details inside these churches; in fact, they sometimes concealed carved surfaces by smoothing them over with paintings. But with my work, in the Red Monastery triconch, painters actually enhanced the architectural sculpture by outlining it with red bands. And this richly painted sculpture is so vivid that it sometimes overwhelms other aspects of the design. For example, with any of the niches inside the Red Monastery, there’s a figure, a portrait, painted in the back of them, that disappears, partly because they’re surrounded by an explosion of colors and shapes and partly because, from the back of the niche to the colonnade in front of it, there’s a significant distance.

 

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Remaking Marrakech

Abbey Stockstill Probes the Hidden History of Urban Development

Posted on Feb 07, 2017 01:55 PM by Bailey Trela |
Remaking Marrakech

Abbey Stockstill is a sixth-year PhD candidate in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University. She received her BA in 2011 from the University of Pennsylvania in Near Eastern languages and civilizations, and is currently a Tyler fellow here at Dumbarton Oaks.

Stockstill’s research report, “Crafting an Imperial Berber Identity: The Almohads and the Urban Landscape of Marrakech,” outlined the interactions between two successive dynasties, the Almoravids and the Almohads, on the urban development of Marrakech. Her work focuses on the repurposing of existing architectural structures—buildings, walls, fountains—and the underlying thought processes that determined the use, and reuse, of these elements in the formative years of urban development in Marrakech.

A Brief Q&A with Abbey Stockstill

How did you shift your research focus from urbanism and architecture to ecology and landscape?

Well, I’m trained as an architectural historian, so I didn’t really consider urbanism and landscape to be a key component of this material until I did a landscape workshop here in November 2015. John Beardsley and Anatole Tchikine had put together a workshop for graduate students, both in art history and landscape studies, to come and talk about how the two fields come together. One of the takeaways from that project was that architectural historians are always looking at this material as an object, while landscape historians think in a completely different way. After that I kept thinking about how better to integrate this material and to think about urban landscape more holistically, rather than as a compendium of different sites. I’m still working on that integration, and for this material in particular it’s just not very well served by that traditional way we look at architectural history.

 

Your talk touched upon the ways in which cities can be structured by ceremony—the qibla, for instance, has to be incorporated into the design of the city. What is the mediation between practical and ritual concerns? And was there anyone in charge of mediation, of keeping track of that?

To start, I’ve been really influenced by Paula Sanders’s work on Fatimid Cairo. She’s written how the Fatimid caliphs employed ceremony in very public ways, both as imperial propaganda and as religious performance, so there are a lot of resonances in my own work with the theory and way she addressed ceremony.

In the particular case of Marrakech, I haven’t seen anything in the records specifically talking about individuals organizing these ceremonies, but there must have been, and that’s something I’m still working on as part of the dissertation. But I think the key to a lot of this is that it’s not entirely religious, and it’s not entirely political, either—the two were very much integrated, political legitimacy and religious authority were very much tied together within the dynastic conception of the Almohad. That’s true specifically of the Almohad, but it’s also true in general in this period and region.  

 

I find the repurposing of hallowed spaces fascinating. But are there problems that arise from this? How do you balance holding onto these traditional structures while also allowing the city to expand naturally?

One of the things that’s so unique about Marrakech is that by the time the Almohads arrive there, it’s still a relatively new city—it had only been founded about a hundred and twenty years earlier. So there aren’t a lot of urban remains to contend with, and they really do have the room to make their own mark on the city. Now, that said, they sort of follow a precedent of systematic removal of architectural reminders of the dynasty that came before. This happens again and again and again with successive dynasties. They come in and destroy, for instance, the palaces built by the previous dynasty. But destroying mosques is a contentious topic, with worries about sacred space, and in Marrakech this is exactly how they approach the Almoravid reminders. It’s actually unclear in the primary sources whether they completely destroy the Almoravid mosque or merely close it and let it fall into disrepair—a sort of passive destruction, if you will.

But with the palace they take very specific reminders and employ them in their own architecture. The palace itself was destroyed, but one wall remained that was the original qibla wall in the first mosque. There’s also a system of cisterns and fountains from the previous palace that they end up using for their mosque fountains, rather than trying to completely destroy those. They’re very smart about the reuse of materials. It’s a very conscious adoption of previous dynastic architectural reminders. And then, later, one of the things that I find so fascinating is that it never has this moment of being completely destroyed. The first one falls into disrepair, but we know that it exists—and the Almohad palace is destroyed but that whole area is continually rebuilt. So there’s something in the topography, or there’s something in the urban relationship between royal and public, that makes that space and that part of the city retain a connotation of sanctity and empire.

 

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Refinding the Way

Hendrik Dey Investigates the Via Triumphalis in Medieval Rome

Posted on Feb 07, 2017 01:55 PM by Bailey Trela |
Refinding the Way

Hendrik Dey, a professor of art history at Hunter College, is a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. His research focuses on architecture and urbanism in the Latin West in late antiquity, with particular emphasis on the reshaping of Roman urban paradigms by the ideological and practical considerations of late antiquity. Dey’s recent research report, “Walking in the Footsteps of Giants: The Triumphal Way in Byzantine Rome,” analyzed the repurposing of the famous parade route during the period of Byzantine rule at Rome from the sixth to the eighth century. At a time when most of the city was depopulated and decrepit, Dey argued, the church and Byzantine administration sought to preserve and embellish the Via Triumphalis to serve their own purposes.

Brief Q&A with Hendrik Dey

In your talk you mentioned the work of Richard Krautheimer. For the uninitiated, myself among them, who was Krautheimer? What was the significance of his work, and how do you relate to it?

Richard Krautheimer was a German Jew who immigrated to the United States in the thirties, when he was already a distinguished scholar. He taught at various places in America, eventually ending up at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He’s famous for being the lead author of the five-volume Corpus Basilicarum Christianarum Romae, the compendium of all medieval churches in the city of Rome, which was written in Latin. He was the undisputed expert on churches in the city of Rome, and when he was eighty-three, in 1980, he published a shorter, more accessible book, Rome: Profile of a City, 312–1308, which is his kind of synthesis, in some way, of a thousand years of medieval Roman topography and history of art and architecture. Then he went on to live until he was ninety-seven years old, and taught three generations of students—Krautheimer students, and their students, are everywhere around the world.

So he wrote this great book about medieval Rome, and people are still reading it today. But he wrote it in the seventies, which was just before people started doing serious medieval archaeology in Rome, so he could really only talk about the extant remains of the middle ages, in particular churches and monasteries. But forty years of medieval archaeology have told us all kinds of things—the shape of the city, where most people were living, how they were living—that Krautheimer had no idea about. He didn’t know where people were living in medieval Rome; he thought that most people were living on a tiny bend of the Tiber River in the sixth century. They weren’t; they were scattered all over the place. He didn’t know what people’s houses looked like in the early middle ages, because no early medieval houses had been found.

So I don’t want to say anything about churches. Krautheimer forgot more about churches than I’ll ever know. I’d like this to be a complement to Krautheimer. I’d like to do the rest of life in medieval Rome, daily secular civic life: how and where people were living and fighting and working and producing and eating and interacting with each other, outside of the church.

 

In broad terms, what was the purpose of revitalizing the Triumphal Way?

I think the purpose was to use what you already have in Rome, and what you have is a particularly beautiful, monumental, and architecturally distinguished parade street. In the early middle ages, you don’t have anything like the resources to maintain or even populate most of the city, so the people in charge—the civic administration, the representatives of the Byzantine administration—focus their efforts on the areas where they think that they can derive particular benefit from repairing and reusing. So if you want it to look as though Rome is still glorious, as though the city you minister is still directly tied to the majesty of what it was when it was ancient Rome, then the best place to do that is the Triumphal Way.

So the Byzantine administrators appropriate that space, and when they move the organs of civic government—the prisons, the places for judicial assemblies, the places where judges are, where ceremonial implements are kept—they put them in close proximity to that particular road, so that on the days when you have both civic and religious processions, the spectacle of the ancient city is as close to undiminished as it could possibly be. But if you go behind those colonnades, it’s a different story, and this is why colonnades are so useful; they’re the perfect screen for all the squalor and degradation and depopulation which is happening behind them. But within the monumental contours of the parade route things look like they’re just about as great as ever.

 

I’m interested in elements of the city that have been forgotten over time. In your talk, you discussed structures and locations—the Tarentum, the Porticus Crinorum—that seem to be symbolic points along the Triumphal Way, but you go about their meaning through etymological routes. How much of the uncertainty as to their true meaning and significance is modern, and how much was present back in late antiquity?

Well, we have to define our periods here. In the fourth century, which is still basically ancient Rome, people still understood the original significance of everything, and in the sixth and seventh and eight centuries, there was certainly more of a direct connection to ancient Rome. But names like the Porticus Crinorum only show up in the twelfth century. Now, that’s not to say they didn’t exist in the eighth century. I think that they probably did. One of the points I was trying to make in my talk is that, by the twelfth century, memories of the ancient city and ancient topography and ancient institutions are sometimes wildly fanciful. Sometimes they’re not, sometimes people remember what these things originally were. But very often they don’t.

We actually have good sources for this. There are guidebooks or compendia of the sights of Rome that are compiled starting in the twelfth century in which you get long accounts of all of these ancient buildings, some of which are identified correctly, and some of which are completely fantastic things. For instance, here was a dining room made entirely out of glass and crystal that spun to mirror the course of the stars through the sky; here there used to be a dragon, and so on. So I have to use a lot of twelfth-century sources because the sources for the tenth and eleventh centuries are basically nonexistent. To get at the seventh and eighth centuries, I need to look at both what was there before and, in some ways more importantly, what was there after, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and see if there are reasons for imagining that the kind of stories and institutions that are described then can plausibly be put further back in time. So you have to put together these chains of conjecture, and some of them will be plausible, and some of them won’t be.

 

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Revisiting the Codex

Lori Diel Parses the Images and Enigmas of the Codex Mexicanus

Posted on Jan 09, 2017 09:20 AM by Bailey Trela |
Revisiting the Codex

Lori Diel, a fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17, is an associate professor in art history at Texas Christian University, where she has taught a variety of courses on Mesoamerican, South American, and Mexican art from preconquest times to the present. She has also written articles on the representation of women in Aztec art.

Much of Diel’s recent research has centered around the Codex Mexicanus, an early colonial Mexican pictorial manuscript currently held in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. Richly illustrated and ripe for interpretation, the codex lends itself to a variety of studies, as Diel demonstrated in her recent research report, “An Aztec History Painting in the Codex Mexicanus.”

Brief Q&A with Lori Diel

You were a summer fellow at Dumbarton Oaks in 2012, and you were working with the Codex Mexicanus then as well. How has your work with the codex changed over time? How have your perceptions of it altered?

Well, I had just started working with it in 2011, so when I was here in 2012 I was still trying to figure out what was important. Usually you have to have a theory when you start working with an object, and at the time I had a lot of assumptions about the codex.

For one, I thought it had been made in Tlatelolco, but the more time I spent with it the more I realized that Tlatelolco was the wrong city—there were more signs telling me it had been made in Tenochtitlan.

You just have to spend so much time with the object, there’s so much to learn, especially in a codex of this size, and after you’ve spent a while with it you begin to notice certain things. Early on I was focusing more on the Christian elements of the codex, but now I work more with the Aztec parts, and I’d say broadly speaking, since 2012, I’ve become more interested in the historical aspects of the codex and the context of early colonial Mexico.

 

The Codex Mexicanus contains a royal genealogy that is exclusive—it makes a claim about an ancient and exclusive tradition. But the Christian images the codex contains seem to suggest an element of inclusion, of cultural synthesis. What’s the dynamic at work here?

Well, the creators of the codex were Christians, and I think they were fully converted, in that they wanted to embrace this tradition and incorporate it into their culture. At the same time, they didn’t want to forget their own tradition, so there was an effort to maintain it.

What’s interesting is that at the time the codex was made the native nobles had really lost control of the government, so emphasizing this royal genealogy was an attempt to build up that tradition and restore it. And of course, they were comparing the Aztec past to Spain, which had the Habsburg line—in a sense, they were exalting their own sphere of power.

 

How was the codex produced? Was it a workshop-type environment, with strong organization, or something more diffuse?

Well, that’s the big mystery. We don’t really know the logistics of its creation.

I suspect it was produced in a workshop, but the interesting thing is, it’s clearly been updated over time. There’s one section, the zodiac section, that appears to have been added in, and the community knew that whoever was in charge of the codex could consult it and run the charts if someone were sick or if any information was needed. So really it was a living document.

We don’t really know its whereabouts for many years, until about 1820 to 1840, when a French collector is traveling through Mexico and picks it up and eventually sells it in France—and then of course it ends up at Bibliothèque Nationale.

 

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The Networks of Paradise

Jan Haenraets Discusses the History and Preservation of Mughal Gardens

Posted on Jan 05, 2017 04:50 PM by Bailey Trela |
The Networks of Paradise

Jan Haenraets, a fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in fall 2016, is a landscape architect and preservation specialist. In addition to serving as Head of Gardens and Designed Landscapes of the National Trust for Scotland, he was recently appointed as a professor at the Preservation Studies Program at Boston University. Previously he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT.

Much of Haenraets’s academic research has focused on the Mughal gardens in Kashmir. At Dumbarton Oaks, he has been examining the wider context and significance of the valley-wide network of the gardens, a substructure that, he contends, has largely been ignored in past studies. Haenraet’s research has often abetted his work advising conservation and preservation projects.

Brief Q&A with Jan Haenraets

In your talk you described a “network” that has been lost and forgotten, which goes against traditional conceptions of the Mughal gardens. What are some other common conceptions about the gardens that you’ve encountered in your work?

So, with the idea of the network, I’m basically trying to correct history, because a lot of scholars have strong preconceptions about gardens as single, or singular, things. People think they stand on their own, and though a city might have a lot of gardens, we don’t know how they’re connected to each other. In some cases we might have an idea, but in Kashmir, where a lot of my work is focused, we don’t really know. That’s why I’m fascinated by the bigger picture; there’s almost a need to rewrite the history of the Mughal gardens in the whole subcontinent.

That was the focus of my lecture, but there are of course things I didn’t speak about, like the link to paradise. If we look at any book on Islamic gardens and their tradition, there’s a strong reference to the representation of paradise. Many of these gardens are in desert areas, or very arid dry regions, and so if you have within that region a secluded little island, walled and irrigated, with some green lush vegetation, that becomes a kind of paradise.

In the case of Kashmir, the interesting thing is that when you arrive in the valley, because it’s so fertile, it’s almost as if you’re already in a paradise. Why would you need a garden? So it’s a little ironic with Kashmir.

In the history books, when people write about Islamic gardens, the standard idea is of a rectangular garden with a cross axis—the tomb garden is a typical example—with a design that very much looks inward. You look inward to the central tomb which stands above the rivers, and it’s all very symbolic.

But when you look at Kashmir, this conception doesn’t necessarily apply, because they don’t often strictly implement the charbagh [quadrilateral garden layout] anymore, because of the topography of the region. Instead they start stretching it and working with it, and the garden becomes a platform from which you look outward, into the paradise around you, and the landscape outside.

 

You’re actually involved with the preservation of some Mughal gardens. How has your research into these lost networks affected your preservation work? Has it facilitated it, impeded it?

Well, it has made it more difficult in a sense. I should say, I started working in Kashmir by assisting INTACH, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, which has chapters throughout India. I started helping the Kashmir chapter, and they were doing some conservation work for the government, which runs the well-known sites. So they have these walled-off, well-known sites which they can ticket for about ten rupees or so; it’s very accessible to the common man.

The local chapter was focusing on some of these famous sites, employing architects on some of the key structures, and then around that the department of floriculture did its floriculture-flowery thing, which, I should say, is very European and bright, like British planting beds. And so that’s their focus, and when I was asked to assist with some of the famous sites, to give them some ideas about what they should do in the wider garden, they didn’t even realize how big that garden was. They’d asked me to give some input about what should be planted in the garden, and I complicated that, I said, “We can’t just answer that question without understanding more.” So in that sense it makes conservation more complicated, because we don’t have a few gardens, we have so many more, a network.

That’s why I’d like to tell this story in book form, to capture the bigger picture, because I think it needs to be understood and reintroduced into the traditional history and understanding of the Mughal gardens. I think right now a lot of preservationists don’t have the expertise to deal with the network of gardens, and there’s also a fairly corrupt system which allows the demolition of even protected areas. So what will really happen with the gardens? I can’t say. But it’s a typical argument, that if we don’t understand the issue we’ll never be able to solve it.

I hope at some point there will be a certain recognition, that conservation will become less complicated—I mean, if you look at some of the sites I discussed, today, there are local people just growing vegetables there, and they have an orchard on the side. And I think they’re the most charming ones.

Of course there are issues with things falling apart, the building not being maintained, but in some way it’s still a form of low-key preservation, while with the famous sites they’re overdoing it, they’re turning these sites into tourist attractions. They’re developing things, they’re destroying things, they’re polishing these buildings up in a way that they never would have looked, so that history is unreadable. Dereliction, after all, is a very beautiful layer of history, which is interesting to preserve as well. If you’ve had three hundred years of dereliction or slow decline, why would we need to erase that?

It might be wishful thinking, but I would like conservationists to understand the significance of this network of sites and to try to retain that in a simpler way. They shouldn’t feel forced to turn everything into a tourist attraction, or subject it to museumification and beautification with all these flowers and so on. They’re spending so much time implanting little floral arrangements, cutting the lawns and so on—there’s no need, they never would have gotten on like that in the past. It would have been wild flowers or something much simpler. And I guess, in that sense, my research could make conservation a little easier.

 

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The Beads of Las Orquídeas

Eric Dyrdahl Investigates Pre-Columbian Craft Production in Ecuador

Posted on Jan 05, 2017 04:50 PM by Bailey Trela |

Eric Dyrdahl, an archaeology graduate student at Pennsylvania State University, was a junior fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in fall 2016. His dissertation research focuses on craft production in the Late Formative period (about 800–400 BCE) in the Imbabura region of Ecuador. In addition to working in Ecuador, he has conducted obsidian characterization research in central Mexico.

Dyrdahl’s research report detailed the history of the Las Orquídeas site and his work excavating it. In the course of his research, Dyrdahl has unearthed countless beads, ceramics, and ornaments made from animal bones and shells in different stages of production—evidence of a complex and systematic approach to the creation of craft items that Dyrdahl intends to study in greater depth.

A Brief Q&A with Eric Dyrhdahl

In your research, you work with fragments—beads, ceramics, and so on. What are the other sources you’re using to make sense of this welter of crafts?

So, beyond artifactual remains? Well, it’s about two thousand years later, but there are ethnohistoric accounts of traders in Ecuador, especially in the area where I work. So I’m certainly looking at those models, and thinking archaeologically, “How would these appear? What kind of evidence are we going to have depending on this model?” And I’m testing those against the actual evidence that I have to see which seems most plausible.

But otherwise . . . well, in some of the other research reports we’ve seen recently, the fellows have analyzed codices and other things. I don’t really have anything like that to bring to bear. What I’m working with is a little too old.

 

In your talk you mentioned recognizing craft items that have shown up in other regions after what was probably a laborious process of transference. How do you trace these crafts? What makes them unique and identifiable?

It’s the form, primarily. One of the things that I need to do going forward, which I haven’t been able to do as much of as I would like, is to actually see these materials from other areas in person and compare production techniques, to see if they’re using the same methods for perforating beads and forming edges and so on. That would be the best indicator of shared production.

But the unfortunate truth is that, for so many of these types of artifacts, we know so little about their origins and the full spread of production. Las Orquídeas is one area where these things are being produced, but there could be a lot of other sites that we simply haven’t found yet. So there’s a lot of network analysis that needs to be done before we can understand the connections between the sites that have been studied from this period. From there it would be much easier to look at forms and production techniques and begin to connect the dots.

 

You mentioned that your site contains a lot of different artifacts at different stages of production, that there’s a fair bit of standardization to the process of production. But you also discussed a whalebone artifact, which is a bit of an anomalous material. How did the artisans react to working with this strange material? How did it fit into the process of production?

One of the nice things about studying the process is that there are a number of tasks that actually overlap. So if you know how to work shell, and you can perforate shell, you can perforate stone. Similarly, if you know how to work with animal bone—and they’re making animal bone tools— you can work with this whale ivory. That’s one of the reasons I’m taking a more holistic approach in thinking about the whole range of artifacts, versus just picking out the Spondylus beads, for instance. Once we take this broader perspective we start to see the great overlap between a lot of these tasks, and that a lot of these crafts aren’t actually indicators of some kind of specialization—the idea that, well, this person knows how to work whale ivory, and so only this person can do it.

One of the things I do is experimental archaeology, so I try to replicate some of the things I find. I’m not the best artisan in the world, that’s for certain, but you begin to understand that even though these things are important and impressive, they wouldn’t necessarily have required much specialized knowledge. Working with these materials, even though it would have been tedious and difficult, does not necessarily mean that the process of producing these artifacts was complex.

 

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The Bug Market

Deirdre Moore on Cochineal Insect Cultivation in Eighteenth-Century Mexico

Posted on Nov 28, 2016 10:20 AM by Bailey Trela |
The Bug Market

Deirdre Moore grows her own bugs. On the broad, mitt-like pads of prickly pear cacti, carefully cultivated fuzzballs house the illusive insect known as the cochineal. On October 31, Moore, a 2015–17 Tyler fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies, delivered a talk entitled “Indigenous Knowledge and Breeding of Cochineal Insects in Eighteenth-Century Colonial Mexico,” which traced her research into cultivation practices and the economics of the cochineal market.

As Moore explained, cochineal were valued in centuries past for the red dye extracted from their ground-up bodies. Throughout the eighteenth century, the cochineal was aggressively grown in Mexico, especially the province of Oaxaca, which boasted one of the few climes favorable to large-scale cochineal farming. Eventually, it became one of the first truly transcontinental cash crops, dying everything from Oaxacan wool to the red coats of the British military.

Yet northern European understandings of cochineal were only hazy at best. The intelligentsia hotly debated whether the cochineal was a bug or a plant (the dried insect resembles a crunchy, long-deceased pea). Moore’s research has sought to compare Oaxacan expertise in cochineal farming with the bevy of European misunderstandings wrought by the cochineal trade.

A Brief Q&A with Deirdre Moore

What is the actual ink-making process like? There’s a long period in which it’s a really popular dye—but are there any evolutions in the process during that time?

There were three traditional ways of curing these insects. You can boil them—killing them by immersing them in hot water and then drying them—or you can toast them as you would normally toast your corn, or you can dry them in the sun. Different areas within the Oaxacan region preferred different methods -possibly for climatic reasons. During the eighteenth century, there was pressure from colonial authorities to try to standardize the way cochineal was cured. Archival records indicate that these colonial authorities preferred cochineal to be dried in the sun because they thought there was less opportunity for fraud and adulteration of the end product. But drying in the sun often ended up being a more lengthy curing process. Also, if you dry cochineal in the sun, sometimes the insects will give birth to their babies before dying. Then the product is less valuable since the weight decreases and it is mixed with baby cochineal dust. So there was a certain amount of resistance from some growers. Of course, the concerns about fraud and adulteration were also real. Some people even made fake cochineal by passing wet clay through a fine mesh, drying the result and then mixing it with cochineal to bring up the weight of their product. Various types of adulteration were common during the eighteenth century.

In terms of the actual dyeing, I was surprised when I watched the process. I assumed it would be a fairly set recipe, but it was very ad hoc. The local weaver and his wife whom I visited, ground up their dried cochineal and then appeared to add things at whim. They were mostly using baking soda as a mordant but it was not measured out with the precision one might imagine dyeing textiles would involve. They also disagreed with each other frequently about what shade of red they wanted and how much of this and how much of that to put in to dye their wool. There were a couple of hours where they were periodically adding fistfuls of things. They were changing the color as it developed. Every batch they make ends up being a different shade of red. The colors they ended up with were beautiful.

The other thing that surprised me was that they were using copper and various other metal implements, and of course metals can affect the colors of dyes. When I asked them about this they said, “No, no, not at all,” the types of metal weren’t going to have any kind of effect. But they did tell me that a women once came to visit while they were dyeing with cochineal. When they put the wool in the pot it turned brown instead of red. So they asked this woman, “Are you pregnant?” And she said yes, and they asked her to move further away. They dipped the wool again, and it turned orange. Then they asked her to leave altogether, but they said they never got a good red on that occasion. This kind of scenario does appear in a variety of texts in other places in the world—the idea that an unborn baby has an effect on the dyeing process.

 

A question that came up after your talk asked about the social aspect of cochineal production. What are the social issues or changes that spring up along with the market?  

Well, from the very beginning of the colonial period, right after the conquest in the early 1500s, a lot of social problems arose around cochineal. You have people who were previously subsistence farmers suddenly making an extraordinary amount of money selling cochineal to the Spaniards. In the tradition of the newly wealthy everywhere, they’re carrying on poorly, buying all sorts of alcohol, getting drunk on Sunday, wearing all the best clothes, and buying the best thick chocolate. There’s even an anecdote—that these get-rich-quick folk were served the thin chocolate more commonly drunk by the lower-classes—and threw it out on the ground in front of their hosts. The moral outrage from their social superiors, who recorded these behaviors, is still palpable over four centuries later.

Moving on into the eighteenth century, you see a continuation of the social problems caused by cochineal wealth. It’s a cash crop, and people are making a bit of money off it comparatively. Many farmers chose to grow less corn since cochineal was more profitable. There are entire areas where the authorities complain that locals are not growing food. With the arrival of a larger market some people stopped growing corn altogether, because they could buy food with the profit they were making off the cochineal and still have money left over. There was a manuscript that I mentioned in my talk in which a priest tells his bishop in the eighteenth century, “I can’t even get the children to come to school, because they’re all growing cochineal.” Cochineal is widely assumed to have had a significant long-term effect on the history of Oaxaca. Currently, Oaxaca remains the area of Mexico with the most indigenous people still living on their traditional lands and speaking native languages. That is less common in many other states in Mexico. In many cases people had to move away from their traditional areas much earlier on for economic reasons. Cochineal was a cash crop that was viable and lucrative even when it was grown on small plots with poor soil. In certain cases, those circumstances allowed people to stay on their land.

 

What is the spread of cochineal today? Where are they located? Where are they still being farmed?

Currently, the vast majority of cochineal is being grown in Peru, and—this is interesting—a large proportion is still coming from smaller areas of cultivation. There is a large plantation in Chile. A much smaller proportion of the global supply of cochineal comes from the Canary Islands, Botswana, and other areas. Very little comes from Mexico these days. There are two lines of thought on domesticated cochineal in Mexico. One is that it arrived in Mexico—that it evolved in Peru and somehow was transferred in the Pre-Columbian period. But one of the strongest arguments for cochineal evolving in Mexico rather than Peru is that domesticated cochineal has a lot of coevolved parasites preying on it that are local to the southern Mexican landscape. Frequently, when you see a relationship like that it indicates that the biological entity evolved over a long period of time in the same area as its parasites. This is also why it is often easier for plants and insects to flourish, or even become invasive, in areas where they are not native. Competition with a large population of parasites makes it much more difficult to grow and tend to cochineal in Mexico. There was a lot of skill involved in knowing how to grow native cochineal and deal with the many parasites of cochineal in the Mesoamerican landscape. During the early nineteenth century, people started trying to develop an industry of domesticated cochineal in Guatemala. Certain reports indicate that the venture did not succeed until native Oaxacans were sent along with the cochineal to teach the local population insect growing skills. They kind of end up stealing Oaxaca’s thunder. Guatemalan exports of cochineal surge and Oaxacan exports slump. The viability of growing cochineal in other areas eventually caused Oaxaca to lose its monopoly. I’m fascinated by the transfer process because it involved local knowledge and understanding of the life cycle and predators of cochineal.

 

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Reading the Notemakers

Andrea Cuomo on Greek Scholia and Byzantine Pedagogy

Posted on Nov 10, 2016 10:25 AM by Bailey Trela |
Reading the Notemakers

Andrea Cuomo, a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17, is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Byzantine Studies at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. On November 2, he delivered a research report entitled “The Editing of Greek Scholia and the Study of Medieval Greek Literature,” in which he examined elite educational practices in Byzantium during the Middle Ages.

An essential component of elite education was learning to read, write, cite, and allude to Attic Greek, a task that was aided by editions of the classics bearing detailed scholia, or annotations. In his talk, Cuomo described the production of scholia and their use as learning mechanisms in the Byzantine Empire. Contending that the Byzantine schooling system represented neither sterile erudition nor a cult of the past, he questioned how Byzantines used and related to this tradition, and how modern scholars might go about producing critical editions of these texts.

A Brief Q&A with Andrea Cuomo

In your talk you spoke about the grammarian Manuel Moschopoulos. For the layperson: who was Moschopoulos? 

Unfortunately, Moschopoulos—the author whose textbook I am trying to edit—is a shadow figure. He’s known to classical philologists because we know that he worked on all the classics, and we can infer something about his life from his work. So we know he was teaching at the school at a monastery in Constantinople, when suddenly, in the first decade of the fourteenth century, he disappeared. And we don’t know what happened. We know that he was probably involved in some conspiracy against the emperor, because he was imprisoned, and in 1306 he disappears, either because he died, or . . . well, we really don’t know. Like I said, he’s really a shadow figure, and we only know what we can infer from what’s left.

 

What exactly are scholia and why are they important?

They are important for two reasons. At that time, for the Byzantines, scholia were central because the Byzantines wanted to learn Attic Greek—the Greek of the Greek classics. Since they were learning it as a foreign language, they needed the scholia—just like if you want to learn Shakespeare, you need not only the text, but also a gloss for every word. Unlike glosses, though, scholia were a little bit longer than just a synonym. They sometimes rephrased difficult passages, but always with the aim of providing students with good examples to imitate when writing on their own. So really, they were useful tools with the pragmatic, tangible, concrete target of learning.

Sometimes, and this is probably what’s more interesting for our sensibility, these scholia give us parallels, or they’ll say, for instance, “Don’t imitate the style of this person,” and they quote an author. So we can also begin to grasp Byzantine aesthetic judgment on literature.

For us, they’re important because they tag a lot of words and a lot of syntactic constructions, so to speak, and if we follow the tagging as a contemporary Byzantine tagging system, we can end up interpreting Byzantine texts in an interesting way. For instance, if I have the text of a Byzantine author, who I know used scholia to learn Greek, then we can verify whether he was following these rules. And we can also tell whether he was switching into a lower or a higher register, always following this contemporary tag. So, our interpretation will be not anachronistic.

And the scholia can even help us classicists, or other people in the humanities, to understand the status of education: Whey would a grown-up society like Byzantium in its last two centuries learn this language? They knew that they were studying the past, but they actualized it, and they said, “It’s important for us; we are that.” So in a way, we can also use this kind of research to explain the importance of classics nowadays—I don’t necessarily like this approach, but at least I understand it can be useful.

 

When you have this group of people, almost a workshop, producing one set of scholia, what does that do to the idea of authorship? Is it a joint authorship? What is interesting or exciting about trying to discern the individual scholiasts behind the words?

It’s a very difficult question, because we all imagine the idea of authorship, and for many kinds of works it is easy to understand the concept—for a historiographic work, for a novel—but for this material it’s very difficult. So there are a couple of things we need to consider. First, they were comments that originated in a school—and as I tried to point out in my talk, this school had a chair, who was Maximos Planoudes, and he had his assistant, and they all surely promoted and contributed to the creation of this scholiastic corpus. Books were very rare then, and I think that if there was one, they annotated it jointly. That’s the first part: already at the very beginning of this corpus there was a joint authorship.

But really, for us, it doesn’t matter who wrote exactly which scholia. What’s more interesting to know is how they were transmitted, which is the second part of authorship. Scribes were more autonomous when they had to copy material. For example, when they copy Herodotus, they are very faithful, as if they were copying the Bible; but when they copy scholia, they may decide to omit or add one scholion, and so in a sense the scribes are also our authors. The question is: If I produce a critical edition, should I publish only what is original, or should I give you the idea of every single manuscript? To answer your question, I don’t believe the individual authorship matters with scholia. The point is how these scholia worked and their impact on learning. 

 

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Ecologies of the Former World

Adam Goldwyn Pushes Ecocriticism Back to Byzantium

Posted on Nov 01, 2016 01:00 PM by Bailey Trela |
Ecologies of the Former World

Adam Goldwyn, a fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17, is an assistant professor of medieval literature and English at North Dakota State University. His intellectual interests include classical reception and comparative approaches to medieval literature, though recently he has begun to work with a new theoretical approach to the past: ecocriticism.

As Goldwyn explained in his talk, “Byzantine Ecocriticism: Humans, Nature, and Power in the Medieval Greek Romance,” he first came to be interested in ecocriticism while teaching a literary seminar. After analyzing Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad, a student asked Goldwyn whether the Greeks had had greater imaginations than modern people; it was difficult for him to imagine the cosmos carved on a shield, and when he looked at the stars he saw only dots. In attempting to answer the student’s question, Goldwyn read up on light pollution and its effects on the night sky; the melding of literary and environmental concerns catalyzed his interest in ecocritical studies.

Goldwyn began his lecture by explaining the basic tenets of ecocriticism and the related school of ecofeminism. As an approach to literary analysis, ecocriticism seeks to interrogate the ideological underpinnings of humanity’s interactions with the natural environment. Though initially developed as a framework for understanding industrial and postindustrial societies Goldwyn has sought to push its reach backward in time by applying an ecocritical approach to classical and medieval texts, including Ho Polemos tes Troados, a Greek translation of the Old French Roman de Troie, in an attempt to develop an understanding of Byzantine environmental ideology.

A Brief Q&A with Adam Goldwyn

During your lecture, you did some rereadings of myths from an ecocritical perspective: Medea as an environmental shaper, Jason as a pillager who steals the natural resource of the golden fleece. Are there other myths or texts that you’ve had intriguing ecocritical readings of, or that you thought lent themselves well to the theory?

One of the things that makes myths so interesting is that they’re often about these very early human-nature encounters, before the relation has been solidified by society. So you have things, for instance, like the labors of Hercules, which is a man wearing a lion skin, going around and imposing a human, civilized order on the world through, among other things, the killing of really powerful monsters or unusual kinds of creatures. So I think that the Hercules myth, as the human conquest of nature, is one. I certainly think that Ovid’s Metamorphoses is quite interesting—and recently controversial, because of some of the issues around divine-human sex and the issue of consent. But people transforming back and forth between animals and humans, and between humans and plants, makes you think about the borders between humans and gods. It turns out the borders between these seemingly fixed categories are very fluid. I think that that opens up a lot of space for thinking about ideologies, value systems, and what it means to be a plant, an animal, a certain kind of animal—a monstrous animal or a cute animal or a dangerous animal—or a god or a human. I mean, what’s human about animals, and what’s divine about humans?


One of the main tenets of ecofeminism as you described it is that oppression based on things like race, class, gender, and sexuality stems from the tendency to oppress nature. Is there a goal in ecocriticism to return to a state where the boundaries between humans and nature aren’t as clear?

That’s a tough question, and I think it’s helpful to talk about humanism. Before, you had God at the center of the universe—this is like the geocentric model of the universe—and then Galileo comes along as a humanist, and humans become the center of the epistemological world. Humanism is, in a sense, the study of humans at the center of things. Ecocritics point out that we can move away from thinking about humans as the center, and instead think about humans as part of a linked network of equally important and equally autonomous creatures. And we come to realize that something as small as a honeybee turns out to be a cornerstone of global ecology. So, post-humanist thinking, or transhumanist thinking, decenters the human and thinks of the world more as a networked web of symbiotic interconnections.


You’re pushing ecocriticism into the past and using it to study Byzantium. What is the backflow? How can Byzantium end up affecting ecocriticism?

There are a couple of things I can think of. One: Ecocriticism has largely been a project of the West, and predominantly of Anglophone scholarship. So even in ecocriticism, you have mostly scholars in the U.S. or England writing about ecocriticism from their own perspective, and writing mostly about contemporary or even medieval English literature. So we can end up bringing in a comparative context.

I think another thing that’s really important is to see how much ecocriticism suffers from a presentist view. Of course we’re in a new environment, or moment, because of anthropogenic climate change, but when we push back and develop Byzantine and medieval ecocriticism, and ancient ecocriticism and Biblical ecocriticism, and see how far we can push it back, we begin to see that the ideologies that underlie these things in fact go quite far back. We’ve inherited a system of environmental beliefs and attitudes that may not have been so bad when they developed, when you only had a couple hundred thousand humans and all they had were stone tools. You could have an ideology of deforestation then because you didn’t really have the technological means to accomplish it. But now, we have the same ideology, but the consequences are radically different, because you can cut down hundreds of acres of rain forest in a day or a week. Trying to push back the chain of ideologies that got us to where we are is really important for thinking about the contemporary moment.

 

A lot of the textual excerpts you read that were about Medea mentioned her education in magic—I believe one even referred to “liberal studies.” I’m wondering if you could talk about this connection between education, magic, women, and ideologies.

The etymology of liberal arts is, basically, the education that a free person would have needed, so in some sense of course education is that which a free man—and emphasis on the man when we’re talking about Rome—would need. One of the things that ecocritics and ecofeminists often discuss is the different environmental ideologies between men and women, and how nature itself is often given a feminine gender. And there’s a problematic but somewhat commonplace binary that men have an environmental ideology of exploitation (think hunting), whereas women have an environmental ideology of sustainability or care (think of gathering, or gardening, as opposed to hunting). I mean, it’s a little bit of a gender-essentialist perspective, but by educating women, by bringing them into environmental discourse, I think that we can shift from a certain kind of male-dominated narrative about how we should treat the environment to one that’s dominated more by care, nurture, and sustainability. 

 

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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 Bailey Trela |
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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“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 12:05 PM by Bailey Trela |
“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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“The Lord of Vilcabamba”

Pre-Columbian Studies Fellow Brian Bauer on the Wari Empire

Posted on Sep 28, 2016 04:55 PM by Bailey Trela |
“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, and read more interviews in our ongoing series.

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