You are here: Home / News & Events / Newsletter

The Oaks News

Showing blog entries tagged as: Pre-Columbian Collection

“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.


Read more interviews in our ongoing series.

Read More…

Spectroscopic Analysis of Museum Objects

Dumbarton Oaks Collaborates with the Walters Art Museum

Posted on Jun 02, 2016 03:44 PM by Lain Wilson |
Spectroscopic Analysis of Museum Objects

In preparing the forthcoming catalogue of Pre-Columbian objects from Central America and Colombia, Dumbarton Oaks has collaborated with the Walters Art Museum in the analysis of greenstone artifacts—primarily pendants and beads—from the Nicoya Peninsula and the Central Caribbean region of Costa Rica. Typically these objects are labeled as jadeite, but the team, including Bryan Cockrell, Colin McEwan, and Juan Antonio Murro from Dumbarton Oaks and Glenn Gates and Julie Lauffenburger from the Walters, sought to nuance our understanding of the objects’ compositions.

A number of minerals may be present in a greenstone object, and jadeite may be entirely absent. Atoms of one element may substitute for those of a different element in the crystal structure of the mineral, giving the material a range of colors. The team used two noninvasive techniques with equipment brought to the Dumbarton Oaks Museum study room—Raman spectroscopy and X-ray fluorescence spectrometry—in order to learn about the mineral and elemental compositions of forty greenstone objects in the collection. Raman spectroscopy involves the application of a laser beam to induce molecular vibrations in the material being studied; as a result, the frequency of the photons of the laser beam changes and is measured by a detector, revealing information about mineral composition. X-ray fluorescence spectrometry uses an X-ray beam to ionize atoms in the material, leading to the release of energy (fluorescence) that is characteristic of the material’s elemental composition.

The team is currently comparing this data to reference materials, but a number of objects have compositions different from those that have been ascribed to them in the past. There are greenstone sources known in Costa Rica, including serpentine, but so far not jadeite, while there are other sources in Guatemala and in the Caribbean. By combining mineral and elemental information and comparing it to published data, the team can work toward a longer-term goal of identifying the greenstone sources present among the objects.

Read More…

Library Exhibit

All that Glitters: Gold of the Circum-Caribbean

Posted on Feb 04, 2014 02:15 PM by Lain Wilson |
Library Exhibit

All that Glitters: Gold of the Circum-Caribbean, a book exhibit on the gold of Panama, Costa Rica, and Caribbean Colombia, will be on view in the research library through March 2014.

The exhibit is presented in association with the workshop in Pre-Columbian Studies, “Ancient Central American and Colombian Art at Dumbarton Oaks.” In addition to books, the exhibit also includes jewelry reproductions of Pre-Columbian objects from the Dumbarton Oaks collection. The reproductions, which are available for purchase from the museum shop, are created using the lost wax process. They are cast in bronze and plated, first in silver, then in gold. 

Read More…

Workshop in Pre-Columbian Studies

Ancient Central American and Colombian Art at Dumbarton Oaks

Posted on Feb 04, 2014 02:15 PM by Lain Wilson |
Workshop in Pre-Columbian Studies

From January 12 to 19, 2014, Pre-Columbian Studies held an objects-based workshop to initiate the production of the catalogue of Ancient Central American and Colombian Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Roundtable discussions, presentations, group object viewings, and individual analyses shaped the descriptions of the collection and the thematic direction of the projected publication. Authors completed first drafts of the catalogue entries that placed the Dumbarton Oaks objects in the context of other museum collections and archaeologically recovered materials.

Invited participants included: Richard Cooke of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, Francisco Corrales Ulloa of the National Museum of Costa Rica, John Hoopes of the University of Kansas, Julia Mayo of the Fundación El Caño in Panama, David Mora-Marín of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Karen O’Day of the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, Silvia Salgado of the University of Costa Rica, and Maria Alicia Uribe Villegas, director of the Gold Museum of Bogotá. Colleagues from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and Museum Conservation Institute, as well as from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, joined Dumbarton Oaks staff and fellows in a lively and productive discussion.

The workshop set the stage for further synthetic essays in the catalogue, as well as future avenues for technical analysis of both stone and metal objects. One of the main objectives identified by participants was the need for an iconographic concordance based on photographs and drawings, as well as a visual, biological, and technological glossary to guide future research on the art and archaeology of the area.

Read More…

2013 Dumbarton Oaks Anniversaries

A note from Director Jan Ziolkowski

2013 Dumbarton Oaks Anniversaries

In 2013 Dumbarton Oaks will celebrate the fifty-year anniversaries of two important constructions: the Rare Book Reading Room, which houses our rare and unique books and manuscripts; and the Philip Johnson Pavilion, which displays our collection of Pre-Columbian works of art. The two wings, though both completed in 1963, could not be more distinct in style.

The Rare Book Reading Room, which stands at the southwest end of the main building, was designed by the architect Frederic Rhinelander King (1887–1972). King, cousin of the novelist Edith Wharton, belonged to the same social orbit as Robert Woods Bliss (1875–1962) and Mildred Barnes Bliss (1879–1969), who donated Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard University in 1940. King’s design, aimed to recall the grandeur of the French eighteenth century, is well suited to the historical nature of the rare books, drawings, and manuscripts it houses. The look speaks to a strong strain within American culture that seeks out inspiration in the Old World and Enlightenment.

Figure 1. Philip Johnson, Museum Pavilion for the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., 1959–1963. (AR.DP.MW.PC.001)

Projecting to the north of the main building, in the opposite direction from the Reading Room, are the eight domes, with a central fountain, that constitute the Philip Johnson Pavilion. Commissioned in 1959 to showcase the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, it is remarkable for its interaction with the trees surrounding it. Thanks to their curves and glassiness, the octet of curving cells blends in with the nature around it, and the objects displayed within seem to float against the world outside. At the same time the architecture gestures to the Islamic world, particularly to Turkish structures of the Ottoman period. In sum, the Pavilion is anything but traditional European in either its design or its artworks (if the term artworks is not itself a Western imposition!).

Robert Bliss did not survive to witness the completion of the two edifices, since he died the year before, but his widow Mildred lived on through most of the decade. It is a tribute to the scope and flexibility they retained even as octogenarians that they should have envisioned a complex of buildings that could harmonize two additions as distinct in style and function as the Rare Book Reading Room and Philip Johnson Pavilion have been for the past half century.

To mark the anniversaries, we will celebrate not just the spaces themselves but also the uses for which they were established. The Blisses intended their buildings, grounds, and collections to serve both advanced scholars and the general public. Without interrupting experts who need library materials and without jeopardizing the proper protection of those materials, we are planning a series of small guided tours to the Rare Book Reading Room and the Philip Johnson Pavilion. Visits will be complemented by an ambitious calendar of talks, lectures, workshops, colloquia, and symposia. Through such activities we do our part to uphold the causes of the humanities and advanced research, while familiarizing the public with our complex missions—in historic preservation, innovative scholarship, and broad dissemination—and demonstrating their ultimate oneness.

Read More…

50 Years of Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks

50 Years of Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks

Robert Woods Bliss collected with passion and exacting care. Between 1912 and his death in 1962, he acquired works of art from some thirty ancient American cultures, many of them previously unstudied. His predilection for fine workmanship, high quality materials, and interesting or unusual designs shaped the collection – and in no small part, the emerging field of Pre-Columbian studies.

Committed to the dissemination of knowledge about Pre-Columbian art, Bliss collaborated widely to publish and exhibit his pieces. The National Gallery of Art hosted an exhibition of Bliss objects from 1947 to 1962. In 1963, wishing to display his collection in perpetuity, Bliss donated it to Dumbarton Oaks for installation in the museum’s new Pre-Columbian wing, designed by Philip Johnson.

In 2013, Dumbarton Oaks celebrates 50 years of Pre-Columbian art in the Philip Johnson Pavilion. Select artworks on loan from international and American museums join the permanent collection: a gilded Mixtec atlatl, a painted Maya figurine, ancient glyphs, and delicate Andean mosaics all highlight recent research and create new connections and contrasts between objects and cultures. After five decades, the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art continues to incite scholarly inquiry, reveal ancient craftsmanship, and delight the eye of the viewer.

Read More…

The Making of an Exhibition

An interview with Dumbarton Oaks museum staff on the making of the All Sides Considered interactive exhibit

The Making of an Exhibition

Gudrun Bühl, Museum Director

Can you describe the concept behind the exhibit?

Exhibition-making starts with an idea around selected objects rather than with a fixed display plan. In the case of All Sides Considered, which was developed with the intention to highlight and exemplify the research of objects in our Maya collection, we were interested in exploring the many layers of each selected object or case study – the material specifics and cultural signifiers studied by archaeologists, art historians, scientists, and anthropologists. To bring the scholarly and scientific analyses into the display, expansive label text was of the essence; yet, so as not to distract from the aesthetic value of the objects, a display setting had to be created that would be able to bring these two sides into play and keep them in balance.

The solution we came up with was this: approaching the gallery from the museum entrance, the visitor perceives mainly the colorful accentuated pedestals carrying the highlighted objects. Text and further interpretative material comes into sight only after the interested viewer has entered the area. In general, our interest in experimenting with settings is a crucial aspect of the museum’s exhibition program to activate the relationship between art, art scholarship, and visitors.

It was important to place the objects in prime locations within the narrow gallery. Set in cases that are positioned perpendicular to the walls, the artifacts are accessible from all sides. At the same time, the placement prescribes a passageway through the display; the visitor walks right up to the artifacts and then is gently forced to ‘slalom’ around them.

Each case study is equipped with a stool that resembles not unintentionally a lab stool. It invites the visitor to linger and engage with each object and the rather text-heavy information, which includes ‘hands-on’ items, slide shows, and a movie clip.

Hillary Olcott, Museum Exhibitions and Programs Coordinator

What are some new elements that you incorporated into the display?

One of the novel things about All Sides Considered is the interactive nature of the displays. Incorporating the interactive elements into the labels presented several challenges to the museum team. The most difficult elements to incorporate were the iPads. The challenge arose during the design phase of exhibition planning. We needed to come up with a way to incorporate seamlessly the iPads into the labels so that visitors would feel as though they were interacting with the exhibition itself, not with iPads. It was also imperative that the design allowed visitors to use the touchscreens without access to any of the buttons. While we did not want visitors turning the iPads on and off, we needed a display that allowed the museum staff to do so. Similarly, we needed a design that securely held the iPads but made it easy to remove them when maintenance was needed. After many hours of brainstorming and several prototypes, we came up with a successful design. However, it was not until the displays were installed, the labels applied, and the iPads running that we all breathed a collective sigh of relief and stepped back to admire our work. Although the iPads require some maintenance, they are an absolute success. They allow visitors to touch, hear, and explore the Dumbarton Oaks Collection like never before. I look forward to dreaming up new ways to use this exciting technology!

Miriam Doutriaux, Pre-Columbian Collection Exhibition Associate

How does the exhibit reflect the current state of/trends in Maya scholarship?

The exhibit showcases several exceptional Maya objects from the Dumbarton Oaks collection that were carefully reexamined by experts over the past three years. It focuses on the objects and the science behind the recent Dumbarton Oaks publication Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Six case-studies outline recent findings about the Maya, and illustrate some of the epistemological underpinnings of current Maya research.

Much knowledge about the Maya is derived from iconographic analyses, as evidenced in the comparative dating of 2,000-year-old etchings on a greenstone pendant. Careful observation and informed comparison with other objects often leads to new findings, including the discovery that four carved spheres in the Dumbarton Oaks collection are the earliest known Maya bone bells.

For example, experts in the fields of geology, mineralogy, conchology, biology, and physical anthropology contributed scientific opinions and analyses – from radiocarbon dating to X-ray diffraction analysis – to the study of a Maya mosaic mask. New technologies are also helping scholars to better visualize and experience the objects they study. A 3-D digital model revealed subtly carved features on a Maya stela, and X-rays exposed the production process of a rattle bowl with a hollow base.

Mayanists also rely on experimental archaeology to refine their understanding of ancient practices and production techniques. A carving station in the exhibit allows visitors to experiment with tool types used by ancient Maya carvers.

The exhibit is about the scholarly research process – the slow, painstaking work that underlies groundbreaking discoveries about the Maya. As museum visitors listen to a rattle bowl, flip through x-ray images, examine a 3-D digital model, and compare images or specimens, they are taking a scholar’s approach – and perhaps gaining a new appreciation of the thrills of Maya scholarship.

Chris Harrison, Senior Exhibitions Technician

Watch this video, in which Chris describes the workstation designed to allow visitors to experiment with tool types used by ancient Maya carvers.

Read More…

Document Actions