The Oaks News
Eduardo Neves Delivers Pre-Columbian Studies Public Lecture
There are, unsurprisingly, mysteries buried in the dark earth of the Amazon.
The soil doesn’t simply hide fragments of the region’s past. According to Eduardo Neves, it’s a narrative in its own right. The terra preta (literally, “black soil”) of the Amazonian basin—which derives its distinctive color from the charcoal, bone, and manure worked into it by indigenous peoples over thousands of years—can, when properly studied, serve as a catalog of agricultural history.
Neves, a professor of archaeology at the University of São Paolo, Brazil, recently delivered a public lecture at Dumbarton Oaks that outlined the history of Amazonian archaeology and the suppositions that have driven it up until now. At the same time, his talk proposed new theoretical perspectives from which to approach the field. Seeking to “interrogate archaeology,” Neves fought back against the “paradigm of marginality” he believes has wrongly cast the region as an infertile zone unable to support large populations.
Neves began the lecture by describing the incredible diversity of the Amazon basin. Occupying roughly the same amount of land as the continental United States, the basin plays host to a variety of biomes and seven distinct language families that comprise among themselves hundreds of native languages. This parallel between the environment and its human inhabitants was, in a way, the crux of Neves’s larger argument; as he would go on to assert, the lush biodiversity of the region is partly a result of the diverse human activities undertaken there in the Pre-Columbian past.
Neves then took a brief detour to outline previous scholarship, focusing on Betty Meggers’s 1971 text Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise, a pioneering work in the field of cultural ecology. Meggers had argued that because the tropical soil in the basin was so acidic, the most effective approach to cultivation was slash-and-burn agriculture. This, combined with the main crop of manioc, or cassava, which grows quickly but is low in protein, forced early populations to move about frequently, preventing the establishment of large settlements.
The new consensus, one that Neves supports, contends that modern biomes in the Amazon basin are formed by ancient populations, and that the landscape itself, not merely the soil, was shaped by indigenous peoples. Much of the evidence for these claims, according to Neves, starts to appear in the stratigraphic record roughly 2,500 years ago, as the result of population growth and a settlement boom. Singling out the occupations at Pocó-Açutuba, Neves emphasized the stability and fertility of the terra preta, which contains ceramic sherds. According to Neves, Pre-Columbian indigenous peoples didn’t necessarily have to bow down before environmental limitations—they were very much capable of overcoming them.
But what, exactly, is the evidence for these claims? When excavating, Neves searches for both organic macroremains—chunks of preserved plant matter, like a corncob, that are visible to the naked eye—and microremains, miniscule fragments of wild rice or squash that require the aid of a microscope to discern. An even more telling trace comes in the form of phytoliths, small mineral bodies (most often of silica) that form inside a plant and are later fossilized, allowing them to survive when other organic evidence has decayed.
By searching for evidence like this, Neves has been able to discover signs of plant cultivation stretching back to the mid-Holocene period (6000–2000 BC). At Teotônio, a site located in the Upper Rio Madeira region of Brazil, Neves and his colleagues found evidence of the non-domesticated management of palms from approximately 6,500 years ago—findings that push back the oldest proven occupation date at the site by some three thousand years.
Neves spent perhaps the most time discussing another mid-Holocene site, Monte Castelo, located on the Guaporé River. Still occupied by the Tupari people, the remote site’s extensive shell midden was first excavated in 1983, though it wasn’t until thirty years later, with the aid of grant money, that Neves was able to visit the site.
In the wet season, as the high grasses flood, the midden is turned into an island; Neves and his team were forced to paddle to the large mound, but the effort was worth it. Over time, the large amount of shells buried in the midden have created a relatively neutral pH level in the surrounding soil, Neves explained, lending it remarkable preservative properties. Organic remains abound, and ceramic discoveries that appear to date from roughly 5,200 years ago would be among some of the earliest in the Americas.
After an intense discussion of the evidence, Neves offered a simple segue: “So what?” Monte Castello, as Neves explained, is not unique; sites like it are to be found throughout the tropical lowlands. The consequence of these findings, Neves believes, is that the old unified narrative of the Neolithic period is falling apart. “Ceramics, we are beginning to see, are not necessarily tied to farming,” Neves explained. They often predate the development of agriculture, and evidence of their production can be found far from traditional agricultural cradles.
This argument flowed naturally into a larger distinction Neves evinced, that between agriculture and domestication. “Domestication and cultivation may not be processes that, necessarily, lead to the development of agriculture,” Neves contended. Rather than way stations on a clearly defined road of cultural development, they might be ends in themselves. To encapsulate this state, Neves coined the phrase “the permanent incipient.”
It’s a conceptual turn that, Neves is convinced, would go a long way toward overturning “the notions of absence, uncompletedness, and emptiness” that seem to undergird the study of Pre-Columbian societies. When the nineteenth-century Brazilian historian Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagen declared that “for such people, who still live in childhood, there is no History, only Ethnography,” he was speaking within a developmental framework that Neves considers obsolete.
Neves ended his talk by letting loose, so to speak, and examining other sites with a more casual, broadly interrogative tone. He dwelled on the magnificent goldwork discovered in Tolima, Colombia, and displayed LiDAR images (a method of surveying that uses laser light to create highly detailed maps) of a site in northern Colombia where clearly designed manmade shapes are visible in the earth. The images, projected onto a screen, gradually zoomed out, and the individual geoglyphs gave way to a sprawl of overlapping shapes like a jumbled cipher.
As Neves evinced, there are still mysteries in the soil.
Denis Ribouillault Delivers the 2016 Garden and Landscape Studies Public Lecture
When, in the waning years of the sixteenth century, Pope Sixtus V was presented with an elaborately illustrated compendium of city views, he was also regaled with the idiosyncrasy of its production. The artist, working painstakingly to prove a point, had illustrated the entire volume using only his left hand.
That artist, Girolamo Righettino, was the subject of this year’s Garden and Landscape Studies Public Lecture, delivered on November 9 by Denis Ribouillault, an associate professor at the University of Montreal and a former summer fellow at Dumbarton Oaks.
Ribouillault’s talk, titled “Glorifying the City in Counter-Reformation: Girolamo Righettino Rediscovered,” traced Righettino’s involvement in the political life of Venice in the mid-sixteenth century, employing his sole surviving work of art as a case study: a view of the city of Turin executed in 1583.
Righettino, as Ribouillault made clear, was an anomalous figure. Though testimony survives comparing his lost oeuvre to the works of the celebrated mapmakers Abraham Ortelius and Gerard Mercator, Righettino was decidedly less professional. His city views were a hobby, one pursued largely for his own amusement. Lacking traditional training in surveying, Righettino frequently cribbed the technical aspects of his city views from preexisting works, among them Jacopo de Barbari’s famous Map of Venice.
Early in his talk, Ribouillault focused on the political implications of Righettino’s art. A theologian and Lateran canon, Righettino employed his skills as a draftsman diplomatically, attempting to serve his religious order and his Venetian patrons. His illustrations of cities like Rome and Genoa gained him favor with political figures like Marcantonio Barbara; he moved in the same intellectual circles as the luminary Palladio, and was held in high esteem by Venetian senators. Much of this fame derived from the use of his city views as diplomatic gifts—Sixtus V would not have been the only one presented with an original Righettino.
The absence of the bulk of Righettino’s work allows for rich and intriguing speculation, aided by newly discovered contemporary documents. For instance, as Ribouillault demonstrated, it is entirely possible that the aesthetics behind Sixtus V’s large-scale and controversial urban reform program were influenced by the collection of city views given to him by Righettino.
Righettino’s works were often blatantly flattering; their status as diplomatic gifts was even encoded in their composition. The view of Turin displays an act of gift-giving in the lower left corner: a ducal figure beneath a flowing baldaquin receives a book from a diminutive figure, half-boy, half-man. (Righettino, accounts attest, was famously short.)
In the second half of his presentation, Ribouillault began to analyze the ideology of the view of Turin, focusing on its elaborate ornamental and allegorical fecundity. Righettino was not a cosmographer or geographer, as Ribouillault argued, but rather a fine panegyrist whose view of Turin might best be described as an example of “chorography,” that is, a detailed delineation of a particular district or region.
Indeed, Ribouillault took pains to suggest that the most evident spiritual dimension in Righettino’s work was its detail; for the Italian artist, detail was tantamount to prayer. And yet the larger iconographical program of the view of Turin carries its own spiritual weight. As Ribouillault pointed out, the entire composition, in which the image of the city is cloistered within a geometric, ideal order, continuously oscillates between topography and allegory; the city is a grid, and also, by Ribouillault’s analysis, a “ladder toward paradise.”
According to Ribouillault, Righettino was working squarely within the “epideictic tradition of chorography,” in which the image of the city became a visual paean and the traditional cartographic view—top-down and essentially omniscient—was equated with the view of God.
As fantastic and as impressive as Righettino’s view of Turin is, the complex commingling of personal, political, and aesthetic concerns that helped to produce it was not unique to the Italian theologian, even if it does act as an exemplary case study. Toward the end of his presentation, Ribouillault recounted an anecdote about the fourteenth-century Sienese painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti that he believed threw light on Righettino’s own career.
Commissioned by a civic group to deliver an upbuilding triptych, Lorenzetti set about composing The Allegory of Good and Bad Government by imagining an ideal city. It was only after he had begun painting that he made sure this city was Siena.
Florin Curta on Byzantium and the Nomads
On the outskirts of empires, history is harder to come by. As cities give way to wilderness and stonework cedes its place to weaker materials, traces become rarer, stories disappear. But then, what about the people who won’t settle down, who have no homes at all?
Though Florin Curta admits nomads have long been the bugbears of historians everywhere, he’s still determined to investigate their interactions with the Byzantine empire. On October 13, Curta, a professor of medieval history and archaeology at the University of Florida, delivered the Byzantine studies program’s annual public lecture.
At the beginning of his talk, “An Uneasy Relation: Byzantium and the Nomads,” Curta foregrounded broad epistemic concerns centering around the issues of naming and identity. What, he asked, constituted “Europe” in the age of Byzantium? How was it understood and imagined? Deceptively simple questions followed: What, after all, is a nomad? And what does it mean to be nomadic?
Curta’s lecture first sought to answer these questions on Byzantine terms. Utilizing contemporary written sources that documented imperial interactions with nomads from the steppe lands, Curta evoked the Byzantine conception of nomadic peoples while emphasizing a key difficulty in studying them.
These external accounts of nomadic culture, as Curta showed, were often content to record with the broad brush of stereotype. Descriptions of nomadic peoples produced in Byzantium often drew from a long history of depiction, cribbing from the writings of older authors. Herodotus’s descriptions of the Scythians, for instance, were frequently used as a template when writing about nomads; Procopius’s descriptions of the Huns were often similarly recycled.
Whether this distorted image of steppe nomads served a political purpose or was simply a failure of established interpretative tools, it remains a misrepresentation that in recent years has been more and more belied by archaeological evidence. In the course of his talk, Professor Curta delineated the advances in bioarchaeology and the changes in methodology that have led researchers to question the clear-cut classification of nomadic peoples into preconceived ethnic categories.
Opposing the supposition that nomadism makes people disappear from history, Curta emphasized a nuanced approach to the study of nomadic peoples, one that benefits from uneasiness. Just as simplified ethnographic classification in Byzantine times had done away with the nuances of nomadic life, an emphasis on clear boundaries between Byzantium and the nomads in modern scholarship has frustrated the study of nomadic peoples. Processes that might not typically be associated with nomads—sedentization, conversion, and assimilation—are in fact rich terrains of study, Curta contended.
At the end of his talk, Curta obliged the audience with a moment of crowd service. After deconstructing common perceptions of nomadic peoples, he displayed a stock image of a Pecheneg warrior astride a horse, his outflung arm straddled by a vicious-looking hawk, his mount’s head adorned with a leather chanfron. The image hovered on the screen, colorful, striking, and questionably real.
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.
A public lecture by Stephen Whiteman
Constructed, neglected, rebuilt and expanded over the course of nearly a century, the Qing imperial park of Bishu shanzhuang played a central, but constantly changing, role in the history of the Manchu dynasty for nearly two centuries. Scholars of the site have focused on its final form at the end of the eighteenth century, taking a single vision of its design and use as descriptive of its entire history. In this talk, Stephen Whiteman explored the park’s early history under the Kanxi emperor, from its original conception as an imperial retreat to its representation through text and image—especially in the famed 36 Views, poems and illustrations of the park that were the first depictions of Chinese gardens to reach Europe—and considered the legacy of this history not only in the later iterations of the landscape, but also in collective memories of the rise and fall of the dynasty itself.
Stephen Whiteman is the 2012–2014 A. W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art. His current research explores the imagination and creation of cultural and political landscapes in the early Qing court, particularly through garden-building, image-making and textual inscription. A former junior fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, he received his doctorate in Art History from Stanford University and has taught the history of East Asian art and architecture at Middlebury College and the University of Colorado at Boulder.