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Much Ado about Moche

Dumbarton Oaks’ collection of fineline drawings moves online

Posted on Oct 26, 2017 01:55 PM by Bailey Trela |
Much Ado about Moche

When Chris Donnan first set out to photograph Moche vessels in the 1960s, he met with a problem. The art, often a continuous scene around a vessel, lost more than just a touch of its beauty when converted to two static dimensions. It lost coherence, and, to the extent that it became more difficult to study, it lost some of its scholarly value.

It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that Donnan perfected his technique for photographing the vessels that captured all their iconographic detail. Moving around the vessels, he took several shots of each from a set focal point; once printed, he cut the photographs up and spread them out. The resulting flattened scenes made iconographical research faster and less arduous. Donnan’s research partner, Donna McClelland, then drew the newly arranged images on half-matte acetate, further “unwrapping” the scene and creating a final fluid depiction.

The Moche Archive, created by Donnan and McClelland and now housed at Dumbarton Oaks, has recently undergone another conversion aimed at enhancing its scholarly use: we are launching an online portal in English and Spanish to access nearly eight hundred of McClelland’s “rollout” drawings.

The physical archive, comprising over 100,000 photographs, slides, negatives, and drawings, has long been a significant scholarly resource, offering insight into aspects of the Moche world as diverse as flora and fauna, rituals and mythologies, and communication pathways. For nearly three decades, Donnan photographed painted vessels from more than two hundred public and private collections, resulting in a remarkable, and remarkably accessible, compilation of images.

The online portal provides access to high-resolution scans of fineline drawings made by McClelland. The rendering of a Moche vessel’s iconography presents an obvious set of challenges, similar in some ways to the production of a two-dimensional map of the world. Simply flattening the image is not enough; the original interplay of compositional elements has to be considered and attempts made to preserve it. “That’s one of these techniques McClelland was able to master,” says Ari Caramanica, a Tyler fellow who worked on the portal, explaining that it’s not easy to take a globular work and turn it into something easily legible, especially for scholars working from print or digital resources.

McClelland did, and she managed to create more than just a highly valuable scholarly resource. Her fineline drawings—precise, fluid, composed in stark black and white—are art objects in their own right. “She typically traced the imagery with a drafting pen in order to unwrap it, but then she did a lot of her work freehand too,” explains Pre-Columbian Studies Librarian Bridget Gazzo. “And the drawings are so beautiful, so llamativa—so attention-grabbing.”

McClelland’s drawings, which make the thematic content of the vessels’ decoration more apparent, were thoroughly categorized by Donnan and McClelland according to content and recognized figures in the images. Keeping this original categorization intact, Dumbarton Oaks has added terms and identifications from other well-known publications. As part of her institutional project, Caramanica created descriptive cataloguing and access terms for the nearly eight hundred digitized fineline drawings, a process that often relied heavily on Donnan and McClelland’s own published scholarship on Moche iconography.

Because Caramanica’s dissertation research, on agricultural landscapes of pre-Hispanic Peru, partly involves the Moche period (AD 200–900), the project allowed her to study the Moche’s unique environmental perspective. “The Moche are constantly depicting their natural environment and their daily life,” Caramanica explains. “And because it’s related to my research, I’m particularly interested in seeing how they depict the desert—how they conceive of it, what kind of activities take place there, and so on.”

One reason the fineline drawings—and Moche iconographical studies more broadly—are so significant is that we don’t have any systems of writing for the Andean region. In this absence, the art and iconography of Andean cultures take on a higher function, illuminating aspects of life that might otherwise have gone in a written record. Moche iconography, thanks to its stylistic choices, offers a particularly profitable set of images.

The vessels and their corresponding fineline drawings show an astonishing variety of figures and scenes. Animals, humans, and supernatural entities abound, as do scenes of ceremonies and quotidian tasks: deer hunting motifs, one-on-one battles, humans dressed for their everyday activities or garbed in highly stylized ritual attire, golden goblets being passed, and blood being let, spraying black droplets across the background.


Perhaps one of the most intriguing motifs centers around beans. In one scene, ritual runners, carrying bags in their hands, move through a field of vegetation. The scene is stippled with black-and-white amoeboid shapes: the beans. “We know at the time of Spanish arrival that the Inca had this system of runners to transmit messages or to deliver goods, and we think that’s what this represents,” Caramanica explains. Similar bags containing bicolored beans have cropped up during excavations. The ratio of black to white in the beans, likely connected to climatological factors, might have been used as a way of recording information; “the theory is that these beans may be some sort of counting device, or at least some sort of signaling device.”

Other scenes develop the bean motif further. Anthropomorphized bean warriors with delicate, dancer-like legs do battle with deer-headed figures. In running scenes, the runners themselves gradually morph into beans, or, as in a classic example of a spiraling scene, beans set off, slowly gathering human features as the images ascend.

“Most of the forms of iconography or expression ante- and postdating the Moche are either very geometric and abstract, or so supernatural and mythical that it’s difficult to interpret how the depicted figures might relate to the real world,” Caramanica explains. “The Moche are not only extremely realistic in their image-making, they also tend to repeat those images in different scenes, which makes it easier to identify, for instance, a husk of corn, or a particular character who reappears in scene after scene.”

These features—a lower level of abstraction than other Andean iconographical programs and a firm representational connection to the real world—are a large part of the style of Moche iconography. Prisoners are depicted with ropes around their necks, facial hair, and tattoos—descriptions that match up with mummies excavated at Moche sites. As Caramanica explains, with the Moche, “the archaeological record is so complete and well preserved that oftentimes we can excavate a tomb or architectural site and pull out objects we’ve seen in the fineline images, or even bodies that are depicted in some of these images.”

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Difference and Home

Jerry Moore investigates domestic architecture in ancient South America

Posted on Oct 18, 2017 11:01 AM by Bailey Trela |
Difference and Home

Jerry Moore, a professor of anthropology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, is a fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks this fall. His academic and archaeological work focuses on prehistoric cultural landscapes and built environments. On September 25, Moore delivered his research report, “Ancient Andean Houses: Dynamics of Domestic Space in South America.”


Q&A with Jerry Moore

Could you give an overview of the relationship between ethnicity and architecture in the ancient Andean world, at least as it relates to your work?

That’s a tough place to start, because ethnicity is just one kind of identity that gets expressed in people’s homes. I think the starting point for an inquiry like this is to just be attentive to how much happens in the home. Rather than thinking of any example of domestic architecture as a straightforward and unproblematic reflection of a given dimension, like ethnicity, I’m trying to look at the multiple intersections between social dimensions and the different materials in Andean houses.

One of the things I wanted to make sure everyone understood in my talk is just how diverse the Andes are. The Andean cordillera stretches from the tropical Caribbean all the way to the sub-Antarctic Tierra del Fuego, so it should come as no surprise that there is a lot of diversity in the houses Andean people create, and the different materials they use—materials that come with their own properties. There are certain things you simply cannot do with a house made of bamboo that you can with a house made of stone, so your ability to use the house as an expression of ethnicity or social identity or whatever encounters that material limit. That’s why I think it’s so important to understand houses from a multifaceted perspective, rather than focusing exclusively on ethnicity—or any other factor, for that matter.


As for your archaeological approach, what kind of evidence are you looking for?

It differs by the material, and it also varies in counterintuitive ways. For example, I’ve worked in two different regions on the coast of Peru: the Casma Valley, an irrigated strip with arid desert on both sides, and the Tumbes Valley, a region of dry tropical forest. The houses in the Casma Valley were made of river canes, while those in Tumbes were in many cases wood, with really durable upright posts. If you think about that, you’d expect a much more robust archaeological signature to be left by the wooden house than the cane house, but it turns out that in fact the opposite is the case. The reason is that that wood tends to get reused and recycled by other people. The cane walls get eaten by termites and sandblasted, but the stubs of the walls are all left, because what are you going to do with that?


In your talk you mentioned an association between modular housing and enforcing ethnic anonymity. I was hoping you could speak more about that.

In my talk, I was trying to ask, did the Inca empire employ a modular housing strategy simply because that was an easy way to get buildings built, or was it part of a strategy to erase the distinctions between forcibly relocated populations? These are populations whose differences were actively signaled by different hairstyles, clothing, and whatnot, but for some reason they seem to have been largely erased when it came to building houses. I’m really intrigued by that. Why would the home be the target of that strategy? Why would you do it there and not, for example, require everybody to have exactly the same headdress, or the same clothing? I don’t have an answer to that; I’m only about twenty-five percent into the project, so there’s a lot of questions that I still don’t have answers for—but that’s the way the process works.

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Secrets in the Soil

Eduardo Neves delivers public lecture in Pre-Columbian Studies

Posted on Apr 05, 2017 03:05 PM by Bailey Trela |
Secrets in the Soil

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.

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Divided No More

Ryan Clasby revisits the Andean-Amazonian divide at Huayurco

Posted on Mar 24, 2017 09:50 AM by Bailey Trela |
Divided No More

Ryan Clasby, who has worked as an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, Saint Louis University, and Webster University, is a fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 2016–17. His recent research has focused on Huayurco, a site in the province of Jaén in Peru, where he has worked to unearth evidence of long-distance interregional trade between Andean and Amazonian cultures during the Formative Period (roughly 1800–200 BC).

A Brief Q&A with Ryan Clasby

What is the state of scholarship on the Andean-Amazonian divide? Has there been a recent reevaluation of interactions between the two regions? Is the understanding more fluid now, or more rigid?

A little bit of both, I think. In the forties and fifties, people were treating them as very separate cultural areas that didn’t have a lot of interregional movement or exchange going on. But in modern times, the archaeological data really overturns all those prior assumptions. You can’t just rely on these rigid cultural areas anymore. You have to actually look at the data that’s coming out, and the amount of exchange that was going on. At the same time, though, you still have archaeologists who aren’t consciously or actively excluding the Amazon—but it’s not quite on their radar in terms of importance. Ideally, the new research will shed light on why we need to study this particular area.


In your talk you discussed Pedro Rojas, who did interesting excavation work in 1961, but then there was a lull. Why was there no follow-up to his work?

So, Pedro Rojas wasn’t principally a field archeologist. He was the person that did all of the drawings for Julio Tello, who’s considered the father of Peruvian archaeology. Early on, Tello had spent a lot of his time working on the Chavín culture, but his theory was that Chavín had its origins in the eastern slopes. When Tello died in the late forties, Rojas wanted to keep working with this hypothesis; in particular, he’d found examples of stone bowls in local museums that he was very interested in. So Rojas did a three-year expedition, but after that you only see a small amount of very ephemeral projects that were not in any way sustained.

Why is that the case? I think the Rojas findings weren’t exactly well published, and when they were, they were just given a brief mention in certain books. You do have archaeologists (particularly those who were students of Donald Lathrap) who continued to do work in the Amazon, but they tended to focus on other areas.

There was also another major factor: For a long time, Peru and Ecuador were involved in a border war, and they couldn’t decide where the boundaries were, and this created a sort of no-man’s-land that deterred investigation. Certainly, it made it more difficult for both Peruvians and foreigners to conduct research within the region. 


How does your work relate to this history?

The fact is, since Rojas excavated, these stone bowls do seem to have been ignored in the literature. And you really do see them a lot during this particular period—in fact, Dumbarton Oaks has one from the North Coast of Peru in its collection. So one of the things I wanted to do was explore this idea, which Tello, Rojas, Donald Lathrap, and Richard Burger proposed, that Huayurco is producing all these items as a way of participating in these long-distance exchange networks. Because most of what has been suspected of coming from the Amazon is highly perishable material that’s not going to be preserved at all, this was one of those few chances to really explore what was going on.

When I started to do original surveying, going into this area and going to the local museum collection, I realized that what Rojas found wasn’t a novelty—they were producing these stone bowls on a large scale. I think I said there are over 250 examples in the local museum. Not only were they producing these bowls, but the production seems to have been particularly unique and precocious for this specific area. Even in other places where you do see stone bowls, they don’t seem to be producing them to quite the same degree as they are at Huayurco.


Read more interviews in our ongoing series.

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The Hidden Fields of Peru

Ari Caramanica searches for agricultural traces in the Pampa de Mocan

Posted on Mar 16, 2017 11:11 AM by Bailey Trela |
The Hidden Fields of Peru

Ari Caramanica, a PhD student in anthropology at Harvard University, is a Tyler fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks. Caramanica’s research uses remote sensing techniques and paleobotanical analysis to reconstruct agricultural landscapes in coastal Peru. Since 2013, she has worked in the Pampa de Mocan, a desert area located on the north coast of Peru whose arid conditions conceal a rich history of agricultural activity in pre-Hispanic Peru.  

Brief Q&A with Ari Caramanica

You talked a lot about temporales, essentially temporary fields that spring up for a short period of time and are intensely cultivated. Could you describe temporales a little more, in the sense of when they spring up, and how they come into existence?

So there’s some history to the phenomenon—it’s been observed in the ethnographic record. The idea, basically, is to take advantage of a florescence of water during periodic episodes of El Niño, at a time when the inner valley infrastructure has probably been breached by major floods. Essentially, people go out into the desert margins and take advantage of this newly available resource of water. Because the soils out there are so loose, it doesn’t cause the same type of effect in terms of massive floods and mudslides.


You also talked about “fossil fields.” Would you mind explaining their significance?

This is another phenomenon that is pretty unique to the north coast of Peru. Because of the arid environment there, you end up with these extremely delicate but extremely legible markings on the landscape that represent ancient furrows, ancient canals—ancient agriculture. But they’re also very easily disturbed and destroyed; a lot of them are undergoing destruction as we speak, as modern urban centers continue to expand into the desert, and industrial agricultural companies and corporations are actively trying to cultivate the desert again with the help of modern water pumps.


How did these get discovered? In your talk you discussed aerial photography—did that aid the discovery of the fossil fields?

Aerial photography on the north coast really gets going during the Second World War, but it’s not terribly sophisticated technology—it’s a guy in a plane with a camera going along at about ten thousand meters or so. The resolution of these photos doesn’t give us the fields, but it does give us the bigger canals. So there have actually been people who looked at those pictures, saw the canals, and said, “Isn’t this amazing? Too bad it was never brought to its full fruition.” Because you can’t see the fields themselves in those photos. Some of the photos I showed during my talk were actually drone photos that we took, and you could see the fields. That’s a drone that’s being flown at a max of two hundred meters, but really more like fifty meters. But you’re absolutely right, when you’re on the ground and trying to discern what’s around you, it’s actually kind of difficult to see, if you don’t know what the patterns are.


Read more interviews in our ongoing series.

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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.


Read more interviews in our ongoing series.

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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.


Read more interviews in our ongoing series.

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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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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.


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Rethinking the Inka Empire

A Collaborative Workshop in Santiago Looks Southward

Posted on Jul 06, 2016 09:35 AM by Lain Wilson |
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Rethinking the Inka Empire

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.

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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.

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Where Have We Been? Where Are We Going? (Part 1)

Where Have We Been? Where Are We Going? (Part 1)

 Where Have We Been? Where Are We Going? (Part 1)

 Jan Ziolkowski, Director of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary this past November 1st. More than the sum of its individual parts, Dumbarton Oaks is a paragon of the gestalt principle. Director Jan Ziolkowski, who came to Dumbarton Oaks in 2007, believes that the close proximity of the research library, residential scholar accommodations, museum, and gardens is an immense asset for the institution. Ziolkowski works to preserve a balance between attending to commitments to the public (museum and garden visitors), respecting the wishes of founders Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, and strengthening ties with Harvard—all while serving the needs of scholars, who have sought a quiet refuge in which to pursue their research projects. In addition, Dumbarton Oaks has cultivated relationships with universities and institutions in the area, affirming its role in the community while mutually benefiting from shared resources and audiences. Through internal collaboration, Dumbarton Oaks shows its dedication to its role, as Mildred Bliss famously termed it, as a “Home of the Humanities,” rising to meet ever-present opportunities to study the past in order to “clarify the present and inform the future with wisdom,” as the Blisses proclaimed in 1940 on the inscribed plaque at the entrance to Dumbarton Oaks.

The Dumbarton Oaks library The Dumbarton Oaks Library

Dumbarton Oaks’ residential scholarship program brings advanced researchers from all over the world to make use of the institution's research library, which has unparalleled collections for Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape studies. Indeed, as Yota Batsaki, executive director of Dumbarton Oaks, put it, “the library is really at the heart of the scholarship that is produced here.” Daniel Boomhower, director of the library since early 2015, describes the library as “one-stop shopping,” explaining that it “acts as a whole in doing things that it otherwise couldn’t do if it was conceived of independently. All of these different aspects wouldn’t be consequential if they were pursued independently.” The new library, completed in 2005, brought together the three separate collections, which were previously held by their respective programs in the Main House. This centralized system has improved usability and expanded the resources available to fellows, who also have their offices in the library.

While Dumbarton Oaks is firmly established as a physical destination for scholars, Boomhower hopes that the website will come to play an analogous role as an online research portal. He envisions the site as a place where scholars may begin their research, and hopes to get all of the different elements of the site neatly amalgamated to form a comprehensive search tool. However, a search engine cannot parallel the community at Dumbarton Oaks; scholars who might otherwise be quite isolated can enjoy at Dumbarton Oaks the company and collaboration that comes from sharing a field of study.

Margaret Mullet, the former director of Byzantine Studies from 2009 to 2015, explains the importance of fellowship opportunities: “With the stimulus of lectures, seminars, colloquia, and symposia, the support of dedicated staff concerned only to put resources in the hands of the fellows, and the delight of gardens, music, good food, museum, and archival collections, the experience is holistic. This was the Bliss vision, and it remains nonpareil.” Over the years, fellowship positions have opened to include not only postgraduates but also those who have just begun graduate work. Scholars may now apply for one-month research stipends, summer fellowships, project grants, and short-term predoctoral residencies. In addition, under Ziolkowski, Dumbarton Oaks welcomed its first undergraduates as interns beginning in 2008.

Byzantine Studies colloquium, December 2014 Byzantine Studies colloquium, December 2014

The three eclectic fields of study at Dumbarton Oaks originated over time from the Blisses’ personal passions, and have since developed into full-fledged research programs. Initially, Dumbarton Oaks was created as an institution specifically dedicated to Byzantine studies, in which collaborative research, as opposed to isolated scholarly research, on Byzantine monuments could take place. Early administrative changes shifted the focus to publishing the independent research of preeminent scholars in the field, shaping Dumbarton Oaks’ reputation as the premier center for Byzantine studies. As Margaret Mullett observes, “Nowhere else is there a place where a dozen Byzantinists with widely differing disciplines and specializing in periods over twelve hundred years can come together and work together over the course of an academic year.” Dumbarton Oaks also supports advanced research in lesser-known fields, such as Byzantine numismatics and sigillography (the studies of coins and seals, respectively). Now, with the establishment of other research fields at Dumbarton Oaks, Byzantinists also have the opportunity to work alongside Pre-Columbianists and Garden and Landscape scholars, resulting in topics that reflect a level of collaboration, such as the 1996 colloquium on “Byzantine Garden Culture.” Current Byzantine Studies director Michael Maas (2015–16) envisions supporting scholarship in additional directions, bringing Byzantium into greater dialogue with the cultures with which it interacted over its nearly millennium-long existence, including Islamic, Central Asian, and Iranian, emphasizing Byzantium’s contributions in the context of the wider world.

Pre-Columbian Studies roundtable, November 2011 Pre-Columbian Studies roundtable, November 2011

Serving as a similar haven for Pre-Columbian scholars, Dumbarton Oaks’ Pre-Columbian Studies program was born out of Robert Woods Bliss’s personal affinity for ancient Mesoamerican art. Dumbarton Oaks has played a leading and defining role in the field since its official inception in 1970, and in many ways, the program’s development has been inextricably linked with the development of the field as a whole. Similar to the Byzantine Studies program, the Pre-Columbian program has shifted its focus away from acquiring objects, due to regulations upon exports from countries of origin. Instead, it has moved toward supporting a broader array of scholarship, the scope of which has expanded hugely since Elizabeth Benson was curator and first director, from 1963 to 1978, in terms of both the number of publications generated and the integration of perspectives from art historians, anthropologists, ethnographers, and archaeologists. Similar to Dumbarton Oaks’ other fields of study, there are plans to expand the Pre-Columbian Studies program, both to reach broader audiences through digital initiatives and to bring different cultures into closer interaction by placing a greater focus on previously overlooked Mesoamerican civilizations.

Garden and Landscape Studies public lecture, March 2013 Garden and Landscape Studies public lecture, March 2013

Although Garden and Landscape Studies was slow to develop into a full-fledged program—its initial endowment was established already in 1953 but its first director, Elisabeth MacDougall, was not appointed until 1972—it has nevertheless established itself at the forefront of the field of garden studies. Over time, the program expanded its scope from primarily European garden studies—as befit a department that grew out of Mildred Bliss’s collection of rare books on European garden design—to a broader examination of the cultural landscape with the inclusion of non-European, contemporary, and vernacular gardens. The program has striven to strike a balance between historical and modern perspectives, distinguishing it from other institutions that are more inclined to focus on either the past or the present, but not both. Over the years, Garden and Landscape Studies has included the perspectives of practitioners as well as academics, lending a modern frame of reference to a field that studies humanity’s relationship with nature while reflecting social, political, and philosophical realities. Director John Beardsley, in collaboration with Gail Griffin, director of gardens and grounds, has also implemented an occasional series of contemporary art installations in the gardens, challenging viewers to reconsider space and reaffirming the ways in which gardens buttress creativity and aesthetic experiences.

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David Stuart

Posted on May 05, 2016 11:00 AM by Dumbarton Oaks Archives |
David Stuart

David Stuart

David Stuart.

While his tenure at Dumbarton Oaks may have been brief, David Stuart’s short stay is balanced by the young age at which he joined the Pre-Columbian Studies program. Stuart received a Junior Fellowship during the 1983–84 academic year, the year after he graduated from high school. While junior fellowships are usually reserved for those who have secured the qualifications necessary to begin graduate-level work, the senior fellows committee made an exception for Stuart, whose achievements in deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics would later be highlighted in the 2008 PBS documentary, Breaking the Maya Code.

A number of factors conspired to lay the groundwork for David Stuart’s early interest in Pre-Columbian studies. His father, George Stuart, a Maya scholar and archaeologist who worked for National Geographic, brought his family along on Mesoamerican excavations. In an interview with National Geographic, the younger Stuart recounts a particularly memorable experience in which he visited San Bartolo in Guatemala—the site of the earliest and best-preserved Maya wall paintings ever to be found—which instilled in him a deeply rooted desire to pursue studies in the same field.

Growing up in the D.C. area afforded Stuart the opportunity to cultivate such interests. He began interning at Dumbarton Oaks during high school, cataloguing slides in the Pre-Columbian Studies department, and subsequently applied for and received a junior fellowship. Linda Schele, a renowned Maya scholar and former Pre-Columbian fellow (1975–76), wrote to Elizabeth Boone, director of Pre-Columbian Studies, recommending him to the fellowship program. She discussed an early encounter with Stuart, then twelve, during a trip to Palenque, Mexico, where his father was studying glyphs. Her initial hesitations and doubts at taking on someone so young as a mentee soon disappeared:

When they arrived, I was suffering from an injured foot and did not particularly wish to deal with a twelve year old enthusiast for glyphs so I sent him out to the back porch of Merle Robertson’s house with a drawing of the Tablet of the Sun text and said “Come back kid when you’ve figured out what it says.” To my amazement, to the utter astonishment of the Palenque community, and to his mother’s knowing grin, that twelve year old came back in twenty-four hours with a complete reading of the text, and it only took a few judicious questions from me to generate his understanding.

Linda Schele and David Stuart, 1985 Linda Schele and David Stuart, 1985

Stuart fondly remembers the time he spent at Dumbarton Oaks, noting that it was the first time in his life when he was able to immerse himself in academia, surrounded by those whose passions aligned with his own. During his fellowship, Stuart collaborated with Schele on a project entitled “Ancient Maya Writing,” which was to become the definitive guide to the civilization’s hieroglyphic writing system, detailing parts of speech, examining their literary style, and completing in-depth analyses. Although the planned book never materialized, the research collaboration morphed into other projects. The early eighties was the ideal time for such an undertaking, as the field was still evolving very rapidly as researchers came to a new understanding and appreciation of Mesoamerican writing as not just historical records, but as a sophisticated system of communication.

While at Dumbarton Oaks, Stuart received a MacArthur Fellowship (198489), which allowed him, once he moved on to study at Princeton University, to conduct fieldwork during summer expeditions to Copán, Honduras. He subsequently attended Vanderbilt University, and received his PhD in anthropology in 1995. In 1993, Stuart began teaching at Harvard University and working with the Peabody Museum. After eleven years at Harvard, Stuart moved to the University of Texas at Austin, in 2004.

Stuart has returned to Dumbarton Oaks on several occasions to take part in symposia. His most recent lecture, “The Role of Proper Names in the History of Mesoamerican Art and Communication,” was given as part of the 2008 Pre-Columbian symposium on “Scripts, Signs, and Notational Systems in Pre-Columbian America.” He discussed the way in which the need to write down individuals’ names led to the creation of writing systems in Mesoamerican civilizations, systems that, although quite different from each other, share certain similarities and functions.

David Stuart (left) with participants in the 2007 Pre-Columbian Studies Symposium, The Place of Sculpture in Mesoamerica’s Preclassic Transition, held at the Casa Santo Domingo in La Antigua, Guatemala David Stuart (left) with participants in the 2007 Pre-Columbian Studies symposium, “The Place of Sculpture in Mesoamerica’s Preclassic Transition,” held at the Casa Santo Domingo in La Antigua, Guatemala.

Recently, in June 2015, Stuart spoke at the Pre-Columbian Society in Washington, D.C., as part of a series of lectures in honor of his late father. His talk, “The Cross Group Temples at Palenque: New Readings and Interpretations,” evaluated the role of iconography and mythology in a seventh-century king’s temple that he had encountered during his time in Palenque.

Today, Stuart continues to teach at the University of Texas as the David and Linda Schele Professor of Mesoamerican Art and Writing. His current project involves research on documenting and preserving the Hieroglyphic Stairway in Copán, which has the longest of all Maya inscriptions from the Pre-Columbian period.

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Pre-Columbian Studies: From Collection to Research Program

Pre-Columbian Studies: From Collection to Research Program

Pre-Columbian Studies: From Collection to Research Program

Elizabeth Benson and James Mayo installing the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, ca. 1963.

Although Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks can be dated to 1963, it matured somewhat slowly as a program and became full-fledged only in 1970 with the appointment of its first fellow, Arthur Miller.

In December of 1963, curator Elizabeth P. Benson and director John S. Thacher opened the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. The collection, formerly exhibited at the National Gallery of Art, was beautifully installed in a glass-walled pavilion designed by the architect Philip Johnson. In addition to the art collection, Robert Bliss had also given Dumbarton Oaks 2,400 books on Pre-Columbian art history, anthropology, and archaeology, and this library would provide the basis for the research program. In 1964, soon after the collection opened, Dumbarton Oaks appointed a Pre-Columbian Advisory Committee. Initially tasked with making recommendations on acquisitions for the collection, the Committee soon also came to advise on lecturers and conferences as well as on publications resulting from these events.

Central to this early period in the development of the Pre-Columbian Studies program at Dumbarton Oaks was Michael D. Coe, professor of anthropology at Yale and a noted Mayanist. In 1963, Coe authored the Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art and, in 1964, he was appointed Advisor for Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, a position he would hold through 1979. Coe also gave the first Pre-Columbian public lecture at Dumbarton Oaks. On February 7, 1964, he delivered a paper, “The Beginning of Mesoamerican Civilization,” which would be the basis for a 1966 Dumbarton Oaks publication, An Early Stone Pectoral from Southeastern Mexico. This would be the first of a now 37-volume series of occasional papers in a series published by Dumbarton Oaks titled Dumbarton Oaks Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology Studies.

Olmec diopside-jadeite sculpture, an early acquisition by Robert Woods Bliss Standing figure, Olmec, 900–300 BCE, diospite-jadeite. Pre-Columbian Collection, PC.B.014, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Michael Coe also led the first Pre-Columbian symposium (then called a conference) in 1967. Titled the “Dumbarton Oaks Conference on the Olmec,” the papers would be published by Dumbarton Oaks the following year in a volume edited by Elizabeth Benson. The Olmec civilization was of particular significance to Dumbarton Oaks, as one of the first pieces of Pre-Columbian art that Robert Bliss had acquired in 1912 was an Olmec jadeite carving, although at the time of its purchase it was not yet recognized as being Olmec in origin. In addition, scholarly understanding of the antiquity of the Olmec culture had recently profited from the advent of carbon-14 dating technology, which helped to date the Olmec civilization to early within Pre-Columbian history (ca. 1500–300 BC).

After the death of Mildred Bliss in 1969 and the appointment of a new director, William Royall Tyler, who served from 1969 to 1977, Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks began to quickly evolve into a research program that was parallel, if smaller in scale, to the Byzantine Studies program. (The Garden and Landscape Studies program, then called Studies in Garden and Landscape Architecture, underwent a similar transformation at that time.) In 1970, the Robert Woods Bliss Fellowship in Pre-Columbian Studies was created, and the first fellowship was awarded to Arthur G. Miller. Miller worked for two years on a catalogue of the Teotihuacán mural fragments in Mexico, work that Dumbarton Oaks published as The Mural Painting of Teotihuacán in 1973. In 1971, the number of Bliss fellow appointments in Pre-Columbian Studies was increased to two with the appointment of the first doctoral candidate junior fellow, S. Jeffrey K. Wilkerson. In 1973, the program invited its first visiting scholar, Floyd G. Lounsbury. Summer fellowship appointments were first made in 1980.

Informal gathering of the Pre-Columbian Studies program and others in the Dumbarton Oaks Refectory Informal gathering of the Pre-Columbian Studies program and others in the Dumbarton Oaks Refectory

The Pre-Columbian Studies program evolved in other ways as well. Although the program was initially grounded in the collection and the early publications and lectures were focused on Pre-Columbian art history, the research program quickly grew to be more inclusive of the varied disciplines that make up Pre-Columbian studies. Pre-Columbian history, anthropology, ethnography, and especially archaeology became important components of the studies program. This was due in large part to the next program director and curator, Elizabeth Hill Boone, and the noted archaeologist, Gordon R. Willey, who had served on the Board of Advisors since 1963 and would transition to the board of Senior Fellows in the 1970s. He was an influential chair of the senior fellows committee for over a decade between 1973 and 1986. During this period, the Pre-Columbian library also grew exponentially under the stewardship of librarian Bridget Gazzo and transitioned from a specialized art library to a world-class comprehensive collection. Since 1963, the Pre-Columbian library has since grown to more than 33,000 volumes.

In his oral history interview, former director of Pre-Columbian Studies, Jeffrey Quilter, emphasized the unique significance of the Dumbarton Oaks Pre-Columbian Studies program:

Pre-Columbian studies as a field or a discipline or area, realm, arena of discussion or interaction, really only exists at Dumbarton Oaks. So, by the very framing of the discourse as Pre-Columbian Studies, Dumbarton Oaks created a place and a space where art historians and field archaeologists and those who work in the early colonial period on documents and those who work in remote antiquity can all—not always all at the same time, but over the long haul, over years—have a place to meet, exchange views, and interact in ways that they often don’t get to do, or at least get to do as easily, elsewhere.

Jeffrey Quilter and Juan Antonio Murro in the Pre-Columbian Collection Jeffrey Quilter and Juan Antonio Murro in the Pre-Columbian Collection

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United They Stand: Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks

United They Stand: Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks

The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection can be thought of as an academic tripod. Its three legs—Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape Studies—work both independently and in combination to support the institute’s ultimate goal of advancing knowledge. As three disparate disciplines, the fields of study coexist in a way that is unique to most research centers. Perhaps the greatest benefit of this coexistence, however, is that visiting researchers are afforded exposure to new perspectives that might affect their intellectual growth.

The Byzantine Studies program had its first fellows in 1941, the Pre-Columbian program in 1970, and the Garden and Landscape program in 1972. Since 1970, the interaction among scholars of these different disciplines has proven to be fruitful, and many scholars who have spent time at Dumbarton Oaks fondly recall such interactions when they have been interviewed for the Dumbarton Oaks Oral History Project. For example, Pre-Columbian fellow Ricardo Agurcia Fasquelle has spoken about the value of the weekly reports that are attended by members of all three programs. He called the experience “always enriching,” and noted that attending them made him able to see “the world from other people’s points of view.” Fasquelle also asserted that in order to study at Dumbarton Oaks, one had to be “willing to talk a language that isn’t just your own” and “be open to exposure to other fields and other ways of looking at data,” and that the results of such exchange could “only be productive and good.” He even went so far as to say that his archaeology fundamentally profited from the interdisciplinary interaction at Dumbarton Oaks.

In a similar manner, Annemarie Weyl Carr (Byzantine fellow, visiting fellow, junior fellow, and visiting scholar) discussed how individuals in different fields shared “common curiosities,” which had “been very exciting to look at together.” Carr reflected that it was through her interactions with members of other fields, particularly in the Pre-Columbian Studies program, that she “discovered anthropology,” a breakthrough that proved to be “critical” for the success of her studies. Profound dialogue could even take place in more casual times and places. Byzantine Studies fellow Elizabeth A. Fisher remarked that it was a conversation “just over lunch” with a scholar in another department that “opened [her] eyes” and induced her to consider “human capacities that [she] hadn’t thought about.”

Interdepartmental interactions at Dumbarton Oaks can be fostered in many ways. One way is through shared residency, formerly in the Fellows Building and now in the Fellowship House. These “close quarters” allow for the spontaneous meeting of neighbors. Collaborative projects also facilitate a “better mixing” of fellows in the words of Mark Laird, who cites the contemporary art installations in the gardens as one such venture that has resulted in a “better harmony at the institutional level.” Another example is the ability of the fellows to attend events such as colloquia and symposia sponsored by programs other than their own. Peter Jacobs, a former Garden and Landscape Studies senior fellows and the first recipient of the Beatrix Farrand Distinguished Fellowship, said he “enjoyed very, very much” attending the presentations of Fellows in different fields.

Maintenance of rapport among the three branches did not come without its challenges. Many scholars remember a time when it was perceived that the standing among the three programs was not equitable. Many thought that the Byzantine program was favored because it was the first to be established and that, with the creation of Pre-Columbian and Garden and Landscape Studies, these later programs necessarily had a junior status. When asked how Dumbarton Oaks had solved the problems of coexistence, former director Giles Constable replied:

Well, I doubt if they’ll ever be permanently solved, I think, the way you have three such different programs, not to mention the physical side of the garden and the museum. I don’t think that people often realize that D.O., although a fairly small institution, is an immensely complicated one with very different interests in these three fields which, inevitably to some extent, are jockeying for position with each other. The Byzantine was the senior program. And the Byzantinists, not only at D.O. itself but throughout the world, have always thought of it really as a Byzantine Institution and that most of the resources should be going there. Any cut-back they saw as very much at their expense.

This perception notwithstanding, the directors of Dumbarton Oaks have endeavored to make the three programs at Dumbarton Oaks increasingly equitable and productively intertwined. It has been the mission of each successive administration to obtain a balanced consideration of each of the programs so as to maximize their individual potentials as well as the potential of Dumbarton Oaks as a whole. And an important benefit of this effort is that Dumbarton Oaks’ scholars, often to their surprise, obtain inspiration from and engage in meaningful discourse with their colleagues from other disciplines. In the words of Henry Ford: “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”

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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.

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Past Presented Receives the Association for Latin American Art’s Annual Book Prize

Posted on Feb 04, 2014 02:15 PM by Lain Wilson |
Past Presented Receives the Association for Latin American Art’s Annual Book Prize

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.

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Upcoming Public Lecture

John Pohl, UCLA, "Bringing the Pre-Columbian World to Life: The Scholar’s Role in Entertainment Media" | Thursday, February 6, 2014

Posted on Feb 04, 2014 02:15 PM by Lain Wilson |
Upcoming Public Lecture

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 .

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.

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