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A group of individuals gathered around a table attentively listen as a man presents on Byzantine coins.

The Black Sea at Dumbarton Oaks

Posted On April 26, 2024 | 14:04 pm | by briggsm01 | Permalink
Object Study Session at Dumbarton Oaks

In December 1989, the legendary archaeologist Boris Marshak, a specialist in Central Asian archaeology and art history who excavated Sogdian culture in Panjakent, Tajikistan, visited Dumbarton Oaks’ collections to study an array of silver artworks. What he saw can be traced through scraps of paper scattered in object files, his notes, and observations recorded, presumably on the spot, by then Byzantine Curator, Susan Boyd. Many of the works Marshak requested for study might be considered marginal to a perspective of Byzantium focused on Constantinople, and so not displayed in public-facing galleries representing the canonical classical Mediterranean view of Byzantine art. In storage, however, the artworks offered him alternative ways of looking at medieval material and visual culture from the perspective of Eurasia and the Volga region, which is to say, Byzantium as viewed as a western and southern neighbor.

A group of people watches as a man displays images on a computer screen.
Ittai Weinryb, Associate Curator and Director of Graduate Studies at the Bard Graduate Center, leading Object Study Session at Dumbarton Oaks (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Dospel Williams)

On a recent morning this past March, a dozen students, fellows, faculty, and curatorial staff gathered in Dumbarton Oaks’ storerooms and found themselves unexpectedly following Marshak’s steps. Co-organizers Elizabeth Dospel Williams, Curator of the Byzantine Collection, and Ittai Weinryb, Associate Professor at the Bard Graduate Center, selected a range of artifacts drawn from Eurasian contexts for an object-focused workshop to address the often miscataloged and overlooked artistic production of these regions. An international and multidisciplinary group of participants specializing in western European, eastern European, and Central Asian history, art, and architecture from American University, the Davis Museum, Hood College, Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University, Rutgers University, University of Athens, and the University of Kassel, also participated. The day’s object-focused discussions prompted conversations about taxonomy, manufacture, iconography, trade, and the history of collections, and in doing so, shifted and expanded the group’s views of Byzantium and the Middle Ages into wider frames.

Two sides of a copper coin. On the obverse is Greek delta (Δ) standing for depspotes, meaning lord; On the reverse are, rho and omega, the first two letter of Romanos’ name in Greek.
Two sides of a copper coin struck by the mint of Cherson in the time of Emperor Romanos I (920-944)

The morning began with a presentation and handling session with coins and seals from the northern shores of the Black Sea region, led by Jonathan Shea, Curator of Coins and Seals, and Ivan Marić, Post-Doctoral Fellow in Byzantine Coins. The selection highlighted the unique economic and political conditions of the regions to Byzantium’s north, particularly the distinctive nature of the governance and minting traditions of Cherson. Cherson’s coins fall outside of the regular pattern of Byzantine minting: while it struck regular denominations up until the seventh century, the design with three standing figures over two sides is unique to the region (BZC.2009.004 Justin II, Half Follis, Cherson, 565–70). And from the ninth century on, Cherson produced coins of a unique and uncertain denomination, the only Byzantine mint to use abbreviated monograms as the design motif (BZC.1947.2.84). In a similar manner, seals provide evidence of the early political authorities of Cherson under local archontes (BZS.1955.1.1140) and their leader, the proteuon (BZS.1955.1.1547).

A silver bowl with a repoussé medallion of St. Demetrius dressed in armor holding a shield and spear.
Bowl with Medallion of St. Demetrius

Following the coin- and seal-handling sessions, participants turned to artifacts from the Byzantine Collection. An important theme emerged in discussions about medieval wearables, whose value and portability made them ideal bearers of cross-cultural meaning. Kolti (temple pendants) prompted discussion about the transcultural imagery of elite rulers’ dress in Byzantine, Rus, and Mongol traditions (BZ.1950.4.1-2 and BZ.1999.13a-b), while a silver bracelet (BZ.1959.53) might just as well have been made in North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean, or Central Asia. The fragmentary remains of a silver belt elicited questions about the transferring of forms and meaning, since it held overlapping but also distinctive meanings in the contexts of European and Central Asian male dress (BZ.1940.10.1, .2, .3, .4, .5, .6, .7, .8). One of the central objects of discussion was the recently discovered silver bowl with a portrait of Saint Demetrius in its center (BZ.1955.16), which Williams and Weinryb spotted during a visit to storage in 2022 and subject of a current research project. The bowl, a unique product of Black Sea and Caspian Sea regions, combines gilded silver with a center made of a gold medallion supported by a bitumen base. Using bitumen as a sculpting material for small-scale drinkware was common in these regions, and helped the group identify its provenance.

The session ended with an elusive silver disc (BZ.1952.9), whose attribution, like so many of the objects, has been difficult to determine. The object file contains Marshak’s by now familiar, fragmentary commentary, along with a range of dates and locations, as the disc’s attribution traversed space and time, from ancient Sasanian Persia to early Islamic Central Asia. As participants examined the disc, surprising details captured their attention: the peculiar nature of the disc’s stamps, the stamps’ similarities to Byzantine seals, and the figure’s elusive smile and fashionable moustache. The disc, and the discussions around it, epitomized so many of the workshop’s recurring themes: that artworks from Central Asia and the Black Sea region have been long miscategorized or misdated in a scholarship that sought to define the region’s fluid, multicultural visual and material culture into strict categories. It was an inspiring day, where scholars, both seasoned and young, met in front of objects for a shared learning experience, bringing fresh appreciation of the artworks at hand, and the ways conversation around objects can lead to new forms of research and communal understanding.

Elizabeth Dospel Williams is Curator of the Byzantine Collection at Dumbarton Oaks.

Ittai Weinryb is Associate Curator and Director of Graduate Studies at the Bard Graduate Center.