The Oaks News
Ximena Chávez Balderas Reinterprets Sacrificial Remains at Tenochtitlan
Ximena Chávez Balderas, a PhD candidate in anthropology at Tulane University, is a Junior Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. Her research has focused on funeral rites, the afterlife, and ritual sacrifice in Mesoamerica. Her recent research report, “The Offering of Life: Human and Animal Sacrifice at the West Plaza of the Sacred Precinct, Tenochtitlan,” discussed her fieldwork at the site and her attempts to analyze, via a complex system of classification, general trends in Mesoamerican sacrifice.
Brief Q&A with Ximena Chávez Balderas
What is the significance of the West Plaza as a site? Why is it unique?
The West Plaza was the main plaza of the Sacred Precinct, which means it was at the foot of the Great Temple, or the Templo Mayor, but it also housed several important small religious buildings, like the skull rack and the ballgame. Citizens on the West Plaza were able to view the rituals taking place on top of the Great Temple, so it was an important area in terms of rituals, performances, and public events.
The plaza is connected with sacrifice in a couple of ways. In addition to the skull rack and the ballgame, which is also connected to sacrifice, I suspect that the bodies intended for sacrifice were prepared somewhere near the skull rack. And besides that, all the bones and fragmentary materials were utilized to consecrate sacred spaces in the plaza—essentially, they were putting the energy contained in the bones into the buildings.
Your work utilizes a data-driven approach to studying sacrifice, attempting to find larger trends in the practice. Is this type of approach new?
Well, the Templo Mayor was excavated in 1978. Since then, we’ve seen the creation of the Urban Archaeology Program in 1991, but only in the past ten years have excavations of the main plaza really started up in a very systematized way. Some excavations were conducted there in the sixties, but they were more of a salvage operation—they were working very fast—so we don’t really have a lot of material or information on their work. Now we have a team led by Raúl Barrera, of the Urban Archaeology Program, that’s been working in different areas, but following a systematized methodology.
On the other hand, the Templo Mayor Project is a large, interdisciplinary team, with biologists, conservators, physical anthropologists, archaeologists, architects, and so on. So that’s the difference, really—when you’re working with these big datasets, you really need to be working with a team.
Overall, it’s a very exciting period in terms of archaeological discoveries, but of course it’s a challenge as well. I can remember my first day working with a particular offering that was composed of nine thousand animal bones, and I thought, “I don’t know what to do.” But I knew I had to organize my ideas, I knew I needed to design a methodology, and I knew that would take time. So it was a challenge, but I was happy I was the one doing it—right? Because it’s not only a challenge, it’s our heritage. It’s an enormous responsibility.
At your talk, there were a few questions about blood sacrifice, its significance, and the difficulty of studying it. I was wondering if you could talk about that.
In sacrificial practices, blood had a central role. It was a precious liquid, the essence of the body, and so it was used in a number of specific rituals—the nourishing of crops, for example. But of course, analyzing blood in an archaeological context is not only a challenge, it’s almost impossible. Normally, what we would expect is to have blood on the flint knives used in sacrifices, on the sacrificial stones, in the receptacles that held the blood and hearts after their removal, but it’s actually very hard to find. Part of that is because the site is below the water table, but part of it, too, is because of past archaeological practices. When the Templo Mayor was excavated in the seventies, a lot of the techniques we use today weren’t developed yet, so they weren’t looking for the things we look for, they weren’t treating the objects the way we would treat them. So, for instance, they would often end up cleaning the stones they found.
Right now, we have two sculptures of the god of the underworld that were found in 1994 by the archaeologist Leonardo López Luján, and when he found them he noted a thick layer of brownish soil covering them. He decided to send it for electrophoresis and chemical testing, and eventually they were able to determine that it was blood. That was something that couldn’t have happened during the initial excavation. Now, of course, you need to take samples of everything—not only to use with the techniques that are available at this moment, but thinking about the techniques that might be available in the future. So now we’re much more careful; we save part of the samples we collect for the future.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Lori Diel Parses the Images and Enigmas of the Codex Mexicanus
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.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Eric Dyrdahl Investigates Pre-Columbian Craft Production in Ecuador
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.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Pre-Columbian Studies Junior Fellow Jessica MacLellan on Maya Stone Platforms and the Organization of Community
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.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Byzantine Studies Fellow Eleni Kefala on Byzantium and America before and after the Age of Reason
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.
Read more interviews in our ongoing series.
Pre-Columbian Studies Fellow Brian Bauer on the Wari Empire
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.
A Collaborative Workshop in Santiago Looks Southward
The Pre-Columbian Studies program at Dumbarton Oaks, the Chilean Comisión Nacional de Investigación Científica y Tecnológica (CONICYT), and the Universidad de Chile supported an international group of scholars to meet for a workshop titled “Rethinking the Inka Empire: The View from Kollasuyu” from May 18 to 20, 2016. Led by Frances Hayashida (University of New Mexico), Andrés Troncoso (Universidad de Chile), and Diego Salazar (Universidad de Chile), this select group of archaeologists and ethnohistorians met in the beautiful setting of Pirque just south of Santiago. Engaging with recent research in the region of Kollasuyu—the southern province of the Inka empire, which encompassed much of northern Chile and Argentina—the workshop shifted the traditional focus from the central Andes to explore the ways in which research in the southern Andes raises new questions about the Inka empire as a whole.
The workshop facilitated a productive interaction, generating new dialogues between disciplines and intellectual traditions north and south of the equator. New data sets and theoretical positions were brought together in ways that will contribute to refining our models of Andean prehistory and Inka imperial expansion. The workshop participants included Felix Acuto (Argentina), Sonia Alconini (United States), Ian Farrington (Australia), Francisco Garrido (Chile), Marco Giovannetti (Argentina), Ana María Lorandi (Argentina), José Luis Martínez (Chile), Colin McEwan (United States), Axel Nielsen (Argentina), Daniel Pavlovic (Chile), Tristan Platt (United Kingdom), Claudia Rivera (Bolivia), and Verónica Williams (Argentina). Auditors included Noa Corcoran-Tadd, Ester Echenique, Cristián González Rodríguez, Natalia La Mura, Shelby Magee, Kelly McKenna, Beau Murphy, and César Parcero-Oubiña.
Dumbarton Oaks Collaborates with the Walters Art Museum
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.
Ancient Central American and Colombian Art at Dumbarton Oaks
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.
Past Presented: Archaeological Illustration and the Ancient Americas, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, will be awarded the Association for Latin American Art’s annual book prize on February 12 at the College Art Association meeting in Chicago. The award, supported by the Arvey Foundation, is for the best scholarly book published on the art of Latin America from the Pre-Columbian era to the present. This comes only a year after Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks received the College Art Association’s Alfred A. Barr, Jr. Award for Smaller Museums, Libraries, Collections and Exhibitions.
Illustrations remain one of the fundamental tools of archaeology, a means by which we share information and build ideas. Often treated as if they were neutral representations, archaeological illustrations are the convergence of science and the imagination. This volume, a collection of fourteen essays addressing the visual presentation of the Pre-Columbian past from the fifteenth century to the present day, explores and contextualizes the visual culture of archaeological illustration, addressing the intellectual history of the field, and the relationship of archaeological illustration to other scientific disciplines and the fine arts. One of the principal questions raised by this volume is how do archaeological illustrations, which are organizing complex sets of information, shape the construction of knowledge? These visual and conceptual constructions warrant closer scrutiny: they matter, they shape our thinking. Archaeological illustrations are a mediation of vision and ideas, and the chapters in this volume consider how visual languages are created and how they become institutionalized. Past Presented: Archaeological Illustration and the Ancient Americas is about the ways in which representations illuminate the concerns and possibilities of a specific time and place and how these representations, in turn, shaped the field of archaeology.
John Pohl, UCLA, "Bringing the Pre-Columbian World to Life: The Scholar’s Role in Entertainment Media" | Thursday, February 6, 2014
In popular culture, ancient civilizations have often been portrayed as mysterious worlds far removed from our own. From the costume dramas of the 1950s and 1960s to the feature films of the twenty-first century, Hollywood has conjured a great variety of epochs and characters, yet has struggled to represent the ancient Americas. Dr. Pohl has decades of experience documenting the Pre-Columbian past in scholarly publications, as well as bringing it to life in films. His lecture will provide unique insight into the reasons for the movie industry’s challenges in representing the ancient civilizations of the Americas.
This illustrated lecture is presented in association with the current exhibition in the Dumbarton Oaks Museum, Inspiring Art: The Dumbarton Oaks Birthing Figure.
To attend the lecture, RSVP to Museum@doaks.org.
John M. D. Pohl is Adjunct Full Professor in the Department of Art History at UCLA. A specialist in the ancient art and writing of Mexico, Dr. Pohl is noted for bringing the ancient past to life using a wide variety of media and techniques. He has contributed to feature film production design with Dreamworks SKG, and to museum exhibition development with the Walt Disney Company’s Department of Cultural Affairs and the Princeton University Art Museum. His most recent endeavors include the acclaimed exhibitions, “The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire,” for the Getty Villa Museum (2010) and “The Children of Plumed Serpent, the Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico,” for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Dallas Museum of Art (2012). Dr. Pohl has published numerous books and articles, including Exploring Mesoamerica and The Legend of Lord Eight Deer.
Staff activities and accomplishments outside Dumbarton Oaks
- The Virgil Encyclopedia appears this month, December 2013, through Wiley-Blackwell. Featuring over 2,200 entries, it is the first comprehensive reference volume to be published in English on Virgil. The Encyclopedia is an editorial collaboration between Jan M. Ziolkowski (Director of Dumbarton Oaks and Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Medieval Latin at Harvard University) and Richard F. Thomas (George Martin Lane Professor of the Classics and Harvard College Professor), with the editorial assistance of Michael Sullivan, Research Associate at Dumbarton Oaks.
- Colin McEwan, Director of Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, gave a lecture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on November 22, as part of the museum’s Friday Focus lecture series. The lecture, "Pilgrimages, Peaks, and Plumage in the Andes," was presented in conjunction with the temporary exhibition Feathered Walls: Hangings from Ancient Peru.
- Gudrun Bühl, Director of the Museum and Byzantine Curator at Dumbarton Oaks, gave a talk at the M. Victor Leventritt Lecture, "New Takes on the Ancient and Byzantine Worlds," at the Harvard Art Museums on Thursday, December 5.
A summary of the proceedings of the Sign and Design Symposium
Organized by Brigitte Miriam Bedos-Rezak (New York University) and Jeffrey F. Hamburger (Harvard University), the symposium placed the phenomenon of script as image (as opposed to text and image) in a cross-cultural perspective. Participants presented research on the medieval Latin West, the Byzantine East, the Islamic world, Jewish manuscript illumination, and both Pre-Columbian and post-colonial Latin America.
Our age, in which computers have taken over all forms of textual production and promise to give new meaning to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century concepts of “automatic writing,” has witnessed a widespread nostalgia for, or at least sympathetic interest in, older, more personalized forms of writing, such as calligraphy, glyphs, and graffiti. The relationship between word and image has long been a staple of scholarship. Of these, ut pictura poesis is only the most familiar. Ekphrasis is another. Variations on the text-image paradigm include oppositions between oral and written, hearing and seeing, and, in the medieval West, Latin and the vernaculars -- a hierarchy of languages, both spoken and written, that varies in its relationship to visual forms of expression. Whereas semiotics insisted on the linguistic nature of all systems of representation, and Derrida’s deconstruction, building on Saussurian linguistics, emphasized the logocentricity of Western thought, the anthropological turn in the Humanities has redirected attention to the ways in which images and imagistic modes of presentation augment and enhance the primacy, presence, and power of speech. The symposium sought to tap into and interrogate the newfound interest in presence, or in the production of effects of presence; in issues of agency -- the agency, not only of human actors, but also of objects; and in the role of materiality in the production of meaning.
Contributors explored ways in various cultural traditions have organized the relationship between image and letter, whether in terms of equivalency, complementarity, or polarity. Papers explored those situations in which letter and image were fused, forming hybrid signs that had no vocal equivalent and were not necessarily bound to any specific language. It emerged that while imagistic scripts work on the visible, troubling representation, they also challenge the legible in terms of linguistic signification. The incorporation of figures, objects, colors, even events, within the letter insists on the material dimension of the sign. As the iconicity of the letter transforms reading into gazing, the script-like character of the image compels consideration of the co-signification of sign forms. In mediating each other into altered formats, the script-image disrupts a-priori models and ideas and thus redefines both text and image in terms of their signifying and representational processes. The disruptive effect of imagistic script inheres in a suspension of meaning that defamiliarizes the system of representation and signification in which it was produced and circulated.
Looking at the material and visual dimensions of script, including pictographic, ideographic and logographic writing systems, as well as alphabetic scripts, the contributors offered a variety of ways to consider this entire nexus of issues. Are the visual dimensions of script essential or extraneous? Do they merely shape expression or are they constitutive of meaning? Such questions go to the heart of the relationship between representation and reality.
Participants pictured above are (back row) Irvin Cemil Schick, Ivan Drpić, Cynthia Hahn, Didier Méhu, Ghislain Brunel, Elizabeth Boone, Tom Cummins, Anne-Marie Christin, Beatrice Fraenkel, Antony Eastmond, Vincent Debiais, Herbert Kessler, Irene Winter, (front row) Katrin Kogman-Appel, Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, and Jeffrey Hamburger.
A summary of the 2012 Pre-Columbian Studies symposium
Pre-Columbian Studies was both honored and delighted to host 130 scholars over the Columbus Day weekend for its annual symposium, The Measure and Meaning of Time in the Americas. Organized by Anthony Aveni of Colgate University, the program brought together a group of scholars from diverse disciplines to address the ritual and calendrical representation of temporal existence in the Mesoamerican and Andean worlds. Speakers included Alfredo López Austin (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), William Barnes (University of St. Thomas, Minnesota), Harvey Bricker (Tulane University), Victoria Bricker (Tulane University), Linda Brown (George Washington University), Jahl Dulanto (DePauw University), Markus Eberl (Vanderbilt University), Richard Landes (Boston University), John Monaghan (University of Illinois at Chicago), Stella Nair (University of California, Los Angeles), Juan Ossio (Universidad Pontificia Católica del Peru), and Tristan Platt (University of St. Andrews). The meaning of time in the ancient Americas was compared with both conceptual and functional meanings among other cultures. Pre-Columbian Studies looks forward to the resulting publication.
Mesoamerican and Andean Timekeeping
The Aztec, Maya, and Inca civilizations used complex and multiple timekeeping systems for purposes of agriculture, worship, and political authority. Because little of the material record of the pre-Conquest peoples of the Americas survived, scholars through the ages have had limited primary sources to study in order to reach a comprehensive understanding of timekeeping in the Americas.
The Library’s newest exhibit was prepared to coincide with the recent Pre-Columbian Studies symposium, "The Measure and Meaning of Time in the Americas." The online exhibit further explores these themes.
The Dumbarton Oaks Summer Fellowship term ends on August 3. We would like to bid a fond farewell to our wonderful Summer Fellows in all three research areas.
2012 Byzantine Studies Summer Fellows with staff
Back row (left to right): Matthew Briel, Robert Kitchen, Krzysztof Domzalski, Wolfram Drews, Manuela Studer-Karlen
Front row (left to right): Patrick Andrist, Susannah Italiano (Program Assistant in Byzantine Studies), Heather Hunter Crawley, Margaret Mullett (Director of Byzantine Studies), Jeffrey Walker, Massimo Bernabo, Martin Wallraff
2012 Garden and Landscape Studies Summer Fellows
Back row: Terre Ryan
Front row: Katherine Rinne, Xiangpin Zhou, M. M.
Not pictured: Naama Meishar
2012 Pre-Columbian Studies Summer Fellows with staff
Back row (left to right): Elisa Mandell, Erick Rochette, Bridget Gazzo (Librarian, Pre-Columbian Studies), Cynthia Kristan-Graham
Front row (left to right): Lori Diel, Mary Pye (Interim Director of Pre-Columbian Studies), Emily Gulick-Jacobs (Program Assistant in Pre-Columbian Studies)
Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology are now available online
The publications department and the Pre-Columbian Studies program are pleased to announce that Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology is now available through JSTOR.
The series, which was inaugurated in 1966, features specialized studies on the art and archaeology of the Pre-Columbian Americas. Past volumes have examined human decapitation in ancient Mesoamerica, the burial theme in the iconography of the Moche, the major gods of the ancient Yucatan, and the hieroglyphic writing of the Zapotecs. All thirty-six titles in the series will be available in their entirety to subscribers, and new content will be added as it becomes available.
Dumbarton Oaks is thrilled to welcome the 2012 summer fellows! A complete listing is below.
Dumbarton Oaks 2012 Summer Fellows
Patrick Andrist, Université de Fribourg
“Critical Edition with Commentary of the Dialogue of Athanasius and Zacchaeus”
Massimo Bernabò, Università degli Studi di Pavia
“The Illustrations of the Arabic Gospels of Infancy (Firenze, Biblioteca Laurenziana cod. Orientale 387)”
Matthew Briel, Fordham University
“Translation and Commentary of George-Gennadios Scholarios's Tracts on Predetermination”
Duncan Campbell, Australian National University
Garden and Landscape Studies
“The Dumbarton Oaks Anthology of Chinese Garden Literature”
Lori Diel, Texas Christian University
“The Codex Mexicanus on the Mexica of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco”
Krzysztof Domzalski, Polska Akademia Nauk
“A New Look at the History and Material Culture of the Pontic Region in the Early Byzantine Period: The Evidence of Fine Pottery”
Wolfram Drews, Universität Münster Historisches Seminar
“Christians Beyond the Border: An Item on the Agenda of Byzantine Emperors?”
Heather Hunter Crawley, University of Bristol
“A Sensory Archaeology of the Riha Hoard”
Robert Kitchen, Knox-Metropolitan United Church
“Ethiopian Monastic Translation: Dadisho Qatraya from Syriac to Ge’ez”
Cynthia Kristan-Graham, Auburn University
“A Marketplace of Ideas at Chichén Itzá: The Mercado and the Group of the Thousand Columns”
Elisa Mandell, California State University–Fullerton
“Representing Death and Decomposition in Costa Rican Funerary Masks”
Naama Meishar, The Hebrew University
Garden and Landscape Studies
“Politics and Ethics in Landscape Architecture: Spacing, Expression, and Representation in Jaffa's Slope Park”
Miranda Mollendorf, Harvard University
Garden and Landscape Studies
“The World in a Book: Robert John Thornton's Temple of Flora (1799–1812)”
Katherine Rinne, California College of the Arts
Garden and Landscape Studies
“The Source of the Soul: Water for Villa Waterworks in Renaissance Rome”
Erick Rochette, The Pennsylvania State University
“The Price of Prestige: Examining Classic Maya Jade Artifact Use and Economic Organization”
Terre Ryan, Loyola University Maryland
Garden and Landscape Studies
“Setting Liberty’s Table”
Manuela Studer-Karlen, Université de Fribourg
“Byzantine Church Iconographic Programs and the Liturgy: The Case of Christ Anapeson”
Jeffrey Walker, University of Texas–Austin
“Joseph Rhakendytes’ Synopsis of Rhetoric: Translation and Commentary”
Martin Wallraff, Universität Basel
“The Canon Tables of the Gospels by Eusebius of Caesarea (Fourth Century): Critical Edition and Commentary”
Xiangpin Zhou, Tongji University
Garden and Landscape Studies
“An Imagination of the Chinese Shangri-La in a Western Way: Zhang Garden in Shanghai (1882–1918)”
Congratulations to Elizabeth Boone and Jack Tannous
Professor Elizabeth Boone, Dumbarton Oaks Senior Fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies and Professor of Art History in the School of Liberal Arts at Tulane University in New Orleans, was recently elected to both the Academia Mexicana de la Historia and the American Academy of Art and Sciences.
In April, Jack Tannous, Post-Doctoral Teaching Fellow in Byzantine Studies, accepted the post of Assistant Professor of Late Antiquity in the Department of History at Princeton University. Jack will begin at Princeton on September 1st. The Byzantine Studies program, and the entire community of Dumbarton Oaks are immensely proud of this achievement, and wish Jack all the best in his new post.
Lisa Trever, "Moche Mural Painting and Practice at Pañamarca: A Study of Image Making in Ancient Peru"
In 2010, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection inaugurated a new pre-doctoral fellowship scheme, the William R. Tyler Fellowships. Eligible applicants are Harvard graduate students working on dissertations in art history, archaeology, history, or literature of the Pre-Columbian or Mediterranean/Byzantine worlds. Lisa Trever, the fourth of our incoming Tyler Fellows, is a Pre-Columbianist studying Moche murals. She writes:
"My dissertation project is an art historical study of the mural paintings found within the adobe temples of the late Moche center of Pañamarca (c. 600–900 CE), located on the north-central coast of Peru. Mine is a contextualized study of the relationships between painted images and architectural spaces that includes mural paintings known since the mid-twentieth century and others discovered by my dissertation fieldwork. Continued analysis in 2011–12 focuses on visual and stratigraphic analysis of the multiple, superimposed layers of painting observed on temple walls as well as residue analysis of liquids splashed on the walls as libations. The paintings of Pañamarca form part of an ancient Moche visual and ritual tradition wherein mimesis and pictorial narrative were central representational concepts. I ground this study in a discussion of the philosophical foundations of mimesis, both in the west and as might be recovered from visual and material evidence that underscores the importance of corporeality and embodiment in ancient Moche artistic and ritual practice. I interpret the Pañamarca paintings as images to be seen, experienced, and physically engaged with in real social spaces and during different moments in time. In particular this study analyzes the phenomenological effects and performative capabilities of canonical Moche mural paintings within the site’s Ceremonial Plaza, Platform II, and newly discovered Recinto de los Pilares Pintados. These temple paintings served to model ritual behavior and embody religious doctrine as they effectively participated in the instantiation of the late Moche presence at the southern frontier.