Alexander Kazhdan: A Scene or Two

Over the past few weeks I’ve transcribed a few oral history interviews and proofread even more half-finished transcriptions. It’s been fascinating to watch the same names pop up again and again and to collect various anecdotes, watching my understandings of individuals come together piece by piece, like a grand mosaic. One individual who hovered prominently in the background of nearly every conversation was Alexander Kazhdan, the famous Soviet émigré Byzantinist. In this piece I’ve tried to bring together a few biographical details and a few anecdotes about Kazhdan that I found illuminating or charming.

A disclaimer: Hopefully it goes without sayingbut just in case it doesn’tthe research/narrative/mass of assumptions displayed hereafter is neither authoritative nor wholly reliable, being the half-formed result of a cursory acquaintance with, and study of, the subject. Anyone desiring a more nuanced (read: accurate) understanding of the matters treated should feel free to consult the correspondence herein referenced, which can be found in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives.

In 1966 Ihor Ševčenko and his wife traveled to Moscow and spent what we can assume to be an enchanting evening at the historic Bolshoi Theatre. Afterward, Alexander Kazhdan—the famed Soviet Byzantinist—invited the pair to his home. They made themselves comfortable, allowing the conversation to play over several topics. At one point, Ševčenko—the Director of Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks—asked Kazhdan if he had any interest in coming to America and working at Dumbarton Oaks. Kazhdan’s answer, according to his wife, Musja, was brusque and unequivocal: No, never, his place was in Moscow—he would never leave.

This curt refusal, so in line with Kazhdan’s general bearing—efficient, honest, occasionally dramatic—was most likely an uncharacteristic instance of dissimulation. Ševčenko later received a letter from Kazhdan’s superior at the Soviet Academy of Sciences that referenced Ševčenko’s tentative offer. The letter explained that, unfortunately, “press of work” made it impossible for Kazhdan to accept any invitations in the near future—a response that smacked of suppression and censorship. Three years later, Ševčenko was back in Moscow to visit Kazhdan and reiterate his offer. Shortly after this second meeting, Ševčenko wrote a letter to Professor Paul Lemerle in France, detailing his most recent covert discussions with Kazhdan:

“[Dr. Kazhdan] was not optimistic concerning his chances of coming to the United States at this particular juncture in time, but said that these chances would be better if he were to receive an invitation from a European Center of Byzantine Studies.”

What we get here is a snapshot of a decidedly shrewder Kazhdan, a calculating, politically savvy puppeteer; not only does he desire to escape the Soviet Union, but he is willing, in the process, to circumvent traditional bureaucratic channels, and—better yet—he knows exactly how to do it; he seems to be slowly prodding Ševčenko in the right direction.

The plight of Soviet academics was well recognized at the time, and, as a result, there existed baroque pathways for the extrication of promising intellectuals. What followed Kazhdan’s expression of interest was an impressive display of international realpolitik. Ševčenko was in constant communication with members of the US State Department, the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), university professors in Austria and France, Kazhdan’s superiors in Russia, and myriad minor bureaucrats the world over, the end result being that in May of 1971 an additional invitation was sent to Kazhdan at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. A month later the Soviet Academy responded equivocally, refusing to clearly deny Kazhdan the right of travel and leaving him in a sort of academic limbo. A final decision was awaited.

Efforts to remove Kazhdan eventually stagnated, and it wasn’t until early 1976 that he was again invited to Dumbarton Oaks. In the meantime, the Kazhdans’ circumstances in Russia had deteriorated drastically. Their son, Dima, had become highly and inconveniently religious and had emigrated to the United States, a move that provoked the ire of the Soviet state. As a result, Musja had been laid off from a job she’d worked faithfully for 28 years, and Kazhdan himself was forbidden to attend conferences or publish scholarly work. Dima, now working at Harvard University, communicated his parents’ renewed wanderlust to Ševčenko—also at Harvard—while Alexander and Musja prepared to leave.

Because leaving Russia had only ever seemed a remote possibility, a vast library had accrued within the Kazhdan home. Transporting the obscure and oftentimes rare volumes posed a problem for more than just practical reasons; by order of the state, only certain books (and a certain number of those certain books) could be moved across international lines. Kazhdan’s solution was both wily and time-consuming; hoping to bypass as many of these strictures as possible while avoiding suspicion, he went from post office to post office, mailing out small packages of only two or three books at a time. Some of the books were sent to Dumbarton Oaks, where Alice Mary-Talbot, then working part time, witnessed them trickling in: “I noticed in the mail room there were these piles of brown paper packages. Every week there would be more of these piles of packages. And I said, ‘What is this?’”

The official itinerary that Kazhdan and Musja eventually submitted to Russian authorities claimed that, after a reasonable period of globetrotting, they would end up settling in Israel. Travelling under the aegis of this deception—another uncharacteristic bit of guile—they arrived in Vienna, Austria, where Kazhdan rendezvoused with Giles Constable, the recently appointed Director of Dumbarton Oaks. There was still much to be fleshed out: a salary had to be negotiated, as well as the specifics of Kazhdan’s impending appointment (the length of his stay, his official title, and so on); visas had to be arranged, living space provided. After some prolegomenous discussions,the Kazhdans traveled to Paris, where they awaited further news.

While in Paris, they lived in Cité Universitaire; Alexander lectured for a small influx of cash at the Collège de France. As Musja recalls, Alexander asked the university officials whether it would be better to lecture in bad French or bad English; they told him, matter-of-factly, that bad English would be preferable. At the time, Kazhdan possessed a writing knowledge of English; over the next two decades he would go about the task of compiling this new language, ending up with a bemusing mélange of the arcane and esoteric, a formidable accretion once described by Anthony Cutler—a four-time fellow at Dumbarton Oaks—as “good, but very amusing.” Alexander culled words from a wide array of readings—historical texts, a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus that he steadily translated into Russian, nineteenth-century novels—resulting in a vocabulary that was highly flexible yet frequently antiquated. He was constantly trying out new words, both in conversation and in his writing. Michael McCormick recalls editing Kazhdan’s articles:

“He would use all these words that I’d never heard of. And I’d say, ‘Sanya, you can’t use this word.’ And he would say, ‘But it’s an English word!’ And he would pull out an English dictionary and show me it was an English word; and Sanya would use it. I mean, I could cross it out and he’d put it back in again.”

His time at the Collège de France was the start of an extended engagement with the English language, which would later become the primary language of his scholarly works.

And so, after a brief stint as refugees, the Kazhdans arrived in America—and, more specifically, Dumbarton Oaks—in the summer of 1979, only to find themselves living in an apartment girt about by a large new Soviet embassy. “So, they were surrounded by the KGB,” Michael McCormick recalls, laughing. “They were a little skittish about it…I mean, you wake up and all you see around you is the power of the Soviet Union.” Despite this perceived threat of continued surveillance, Kazhdan reveled in the fresh promise of academic freedom, a liberty which augmented an already impressive propensity for work. “He was happy in direction—that he could do what he wanted,” Musja explains. “It was not this pressure that he had to only write something about economics.” Kazhdan threw himself into his work, evincing the notoriously stalwart work ethic for which he’d later become known. Once, in the midst of preparing the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium—perhaps his most famous contribution to the field of Byzantine studies—Kazhdan experienced a health scare. “He convinced himself that he was going to die in the next two weeks or something,” McCormick explains. “And, he just locked himself in the room and churned [articles] out. It was incredible. He produced something like—I don’t know, but literally hundreds.” Kazhdan survived this little scare, continuing to work at Dumbarton Oaks until his death in 1997.

Anecdotes of Kazhdan’s time at Dumbarton Oaks are numerous and frequently colorful; he’s remembered most readily for his stubborn (and often risible) nature, his harsh but fair criticism of scholarly work (others’ and his own), and his singular commitment to Byzantine studies. Despite this, he managed to cut a larger-than-life figure, becoming an irreplaceable presence on the grounds of Dumbarton Oaks. He threw great parties in his home, hosted grand feasts that segued smoothly into early morning roistering, and generally made an indelible impression (good or bad) on all he met.

The trouble when contemplating a near-mythic figure like Kazhdan is, of course, that our moon-eyed fascination with the two or three distilled attributes that we suppose constitute the figure’s essence—his eclectic tongue, his brusqueness, his sterling mind—will often preclude any willingness to accept divergent anecdotes or traits. There is a certain depth, a certain complexity denied the object of worship; we ignore the occasional fault, the hidden vice, the obscure sorrow.

Which is not to say we can’t enjoy the image of Alexander Kazhdan, more myth than man, the source of countless enthralling yarns—it’s just to say that we might find the quieter moments rewarding as well, that we might consider, in lieu of a flashier anecdote, the time Michael McCormick took his good friend Alexander Kazhdan fishing along the Niagara River. We might examine this subtly limned scene and find within an old man—worn out by the specter of an authoritarian government eternally nipping at his heels—comfortable for once, in the calamitous roar of a nearby cataract, with dropping the veil of his habits:

“We’d drift down to the Falls (the closer you get to the Falls, the better the fishing is). I fished, and Alexander rowed. When we were out in the middle of the river, and there were no boats to be seen anywhere, he told me many things that he’d never told me before and never told me after.”

Learning How to Share

One of the first lessons a child learns in school is how to share – in other words, how to spread around good things so that they might reach other people who would enjoy them. This elementary lesson has been quite resonant in my life lately, as much of my most recent Communications work has concerned crafting plans to reach out to the local community in order to convey information about events and resources at Dumbarton Oaks. One of my current projects involves publicizing the extension of hours that the Dumbarton Oaks Museum is open to the public. Our lovely Museum, which you can learn more about here, will now be welcoming visitors Tuesdays through Sundays between Noon and 6 PM.

Finding A Rare Medium

In outreach work such as this, it is important to use media innovatively to attract and engage the general public. Some strategies that can accomplish this publicity feat are suggested in a recent New York Times article entitled “Sharing Cultural Jewels.” The piece explains how a prominent freelance photographer employed visual media to effectively promote the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other prestigious New York City cultural institutions. The after-hours romps through moonlit museums which he documented on Instagram provide a glimpse into the “life” of seemingly inanimate structures and exhibits.

Dumbarton Oaks Music Room

Could similar Instagram adventures take place in our own Music Room?

Such social media campaigns share the sense of mystery encountered in the exploration of curated space in addition to revealing underlying narratives. Museums such as ours and the institutions in New York do indeed tell stories tangibly, but they also present a bit of a puzzle for the public. Both exhibit viewing and outreach work require the piecing together of related bits of salient information in order to produce a cohesive mental image. Like any game of skill, tackling these brainteasers requires a good strategy. Just as preliminarily peeking at the back of a puzzle box to see the whole picture aids my assembly, defining objectives before writing out a communications plan allows me to efficiently develop events and sort through contact information with specific goals in mind.

Solving the Publicity Puzzle

Puzzlingly enough, museums have more in common with communications work than the organizational “pieces” that they share. Like a museum, an outreach document is a meaningful and strategically designed form of display. Meanwhile museums themselves act as conduits of communication, for their exhibits are able to reconstruct the narratives of fallen empires. Social media techniques expand the range of this communication in the same manner that the printing press magnified the accessibility of the written word. This comparison illustrates why it is so beneficial that Dumbarton Oaks has a museum to complement its research libraries: material objects bring life to words and images in order to share stories from the past. When I was a child, I not only learned how to share but also received an introduction to classical civilizations from some short but captivating books. Presented as Greco-Roman newspapers, these volumes illuminated ancient lifestyles with accounts of everything from wars to worship conveyed through first-person story snippets.

Roman News Book

Just wait until you read about usurping emperors and rebellions in the Byzantine News!

Similar storytelling methods can facilitate sharing in our newsletters and promotional campaigns. Through advertising exhibits and events, I hope to better learn how to effectively share stories and information with insight and ingenuity. Of course my creativity must be a bit tempered, as the goal of this advertising is not to manipulate perceptions but to lead people towards the truth. Various newsletter features, each of which showcases one of the many interrelated aspects of scholarship occurring here, will permit people to systematically piece together an authentic picture of Dumbarton Oaks. Like the ancient “newspapers” of my childhood, the pieces I create will allow people to be introduced to the past by sharing in stories firsthand. I am so glad that my internship enables me to share such material, as this news is far too enjoyable to keep to myself!

The Secret History of Dumbarton Oaks

The first time a Dumbarton Oaks intern walks into the building they can be forgiven for imagining their new environment to be somewhat sterile. The immaculate displays, white walls and cooling air-conditioning all convey the impression that everything at Dumbarton Oaks is carefully controlled and ordered. But for those fortunate few working on the Oral History project, we are able to see a second side to Dumbarton Oaks, a human side. Every sort of character has called this institution home from statesmen to children to academics from around the globe, and we are privileged to hear their stories.

Whether it was the nigh messianic figure that was Alexander Kazhdan a man who many would have a heated argument with in the morning and then after lunch they would reconcile and continue as great friends. Or the Blisses themselves who are (perhaps unsurprisingly) revealed as more than just Washington Socialites who collected artifacts. They were intensely generous benefactors with an eye for the exquisite and a very relatable humanity. These are the pieces of information that make an institution into a community. The famous Halloween parties which saw some of the most extravagant costumes ever put together by academics (many with a Byzantine flavor), outdoor gatherings in the 70s which played the Beatles and the Stones so loudly that the neighbors complained and frequent use of the swimming pool with some users noticeably more clothed than others.

Ultimately, the oral history project opens a win to the past, present and future of Dumbarton Oaks. It tells one story from a hundred different perspectives across 75 years of history. And while it might be a very different history than that of the Roman Empire or of pre-Columbian America it is also a history that will only grow in depth and detail as Dumbarton Oaks continues on.

A Blissful Endeavor

Inside the Bliss-Tyler Correspondence

Perched atop the third floor of the main Dumbarton Oaks house lies the research center’s publications department. Here, a staff of a little more than half a dozen negotiate proposals, edit content for publication, and delve into what they call digital humanities projects – a surprisingly accurate way to convey the more profound endeavor of modernizing the past.

For the past several weeks I have been contributing to the division’s Bliss-Tyler project, an online catalog of communications between diplomats and art collectors affiliated with Dumbarton Oaks.

Three chapters of the project have already been published, with hundreds of letters between 1902-1927 already publicly available.

Assigned to work on the fourth chapter, my job is to prepare the next wave of letters to be transmitted online. Although the focus of this project is to catalog the acquisition of artworks, the correspondences of this time period provide first person accounts of many historically relevant items, including the great depression, World War I, the League of Nations, and post-war reparations.

For starters, I read through the various chapters to get a sense of the characters at play. There is Royall Tyler, an intelligent man and eventual financial adviser who has particular acumen in Byzantine art, Robert Woods Bliss, a not so exceptional Harvard graduate who becomes quite influential in the League of Nations and buys much artwork with the assistance of his wife (and step sister) Mildred Barnes Bliss.

The early letters are not the most interesting; we see Royall Tyler’s persistent request to meet Mildred and the all to be expected awkwardness when she informs him of an agreed marriage with Robert.

But before I get into some of the more fascinating and at times jaw-dropping excerpts from the letters – as in the instance when Royall Tyler says “God has punished” the Bulgarians with two destructive earthquakes for their refusal to sell their art – let me first give you a better idea of what I actually do 5 days a week in my little office cubicle.

The Rundown

Staff at Dumbarton Oaks have already been working for a few years to transcribe the records of letters sent between the Blisses and Tylers. The work, however, does not stop after they have the text on the screen. From there, research primarily conducted by Yale Professor Robert S. Nelson and Dumbarton Oaks archivist James N. Carder adds to the accessibility of the project. Hundreds of footnotes, translations, annotations, and pictures are added so that any user can look at just one letter and figure out who the key people are.

Chapter 4

Chapter 4 is still private as we complete editorial work, but it will be published soon.

My job follows a similar series of steps that were used in the previous three chapters:

1. First, I split up a several hundred page document containing the compiled entirety of the letters into individual missives. Each letter is saved under a particular naming system and stored individually. The same process is used for a compiled list of the annotations.

2. Using an XML editor, the *.docx files are converted into html files with specific styling that the database on the site will eventually use to recognize what and where footnotes go.

3. I create a spreadsheet (*.csv) of the file names, titles, and various metadata so that they can be uploaded to the site in one round. The system used to read the zipped file of the csv and html files is fairly strict, so a little tinkering is used to remove any non-unicode characters or anomalies in file or folder names.

4. After the files are uploaded, I get to work adding links to annotations for each letter. The words requiring links are bolded, which makes them easy to recognize, but since there are well over a thousand links to be rendered, the process can be slow.

5. Additional work goes into adding images from the Dumbarton Oaks archives, relating letters by subject and date, and other various work.

A Few Snippets

While the letters up until 1927 are already up for free viewing on the site now, chapter 4 (1927-1933) will feature many interesting correspondences. Although we are at work preparing them for publication, here is a sneak preview of a few excerpts:

1. Royall Tyler on Adolf Hitler (October, 1932):

“Hitler’s day is past, and I’m not sure that it’s a bad thing that he should have been shown up by events to be the yellow warbler he is”

2. Mildred Bliss on the Great Depression (October, 1930):

“Although we’ve come through the crash unscathed there is a temporary shrinkage.”

3. Robert and Mildred Bliss on Royall Tyler’s son failing to pass the tests required for entry to Oxford (April 1930):

“Too much facility & unnecessary success are far more disturbing to the young & the year of reasonable work ahead will be studying & developing & result in his 1931 exam being a mature & good paper more useful to him in the end. I honestly believe this & am so writing him.”


About me: I am a rising sophomore at Harvard college, originally from Baltimore, MD. While I am yet to officially declare an area of study, I am interested in philosophy, classics, and (a little bit of) computer science.

A Not-So-Private Investigation: ICFA’s Oral History Project

by Caitlin Ballotta, July 3, 2014

Shelves of archival materials in ICFA

Shelves of archival materials in ICFA

This summer, I have the pleasure of interning in the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) at beautiful Dumbarton Oaks.  During my last internship with ICFA (I was here two summers ago, and I’m just delighted to be back!), I designed an online exhibit chronicling the early life and career of Thomas Whittemore, a man who—let me assure you—is one of the most fascinating people whom you’ve (probably) never heard of.  While my previous project involved a good deal of digging through the archives and imagining myself in conversation with the people whose papers and personal effects I routinely rifled through, my current project is rather different:  I get to talk to people.  You see, talking is key when it comes to collecting oral histories, and that is my task this summer—well, part of it, at least.

Thomas Whittemore, founder of the Byzantine Institute (AKA the subject of my research last summer)

Thomas Whittemore, founder of the Byzantine Institute (AKA the subject of my research last summer)

I should note that ICFA’s oral history initiative is distinct from, but related to, the Oral History Project being administered by the Dumbarton Oaks Archives (DOA).  Whereas the DOA seeks to gather Dumbarton Oaks affiliates’ memories of the institution and their perceptions of how it has changed over time, ICFA aims to uncover information pertinent to its Fieldwork Archives—to get down to the “nitty-gritty” with regard to important conservation and excavation projects undertaken by Dumbarton Oaks and the Byzantine Institute.  ICFA’s questions, then, are more targeted and are designed to enhance our—and, by extension, our researchers’—understanding of the collection materials.   Luckily, ICFA’s and DOA’s missions and, at times, our lists of interview candidates overlap, which enables the two departments to collaborate, whether by conducting joint interviews or by helping each other to establish contact with persons of interest.

Before I proceed, I must confess that I haven’t gotten to do much talking to people as yet.  That will come later on in the summer.  The last few weeks, in contrast, have been devoted to an extensive pre-interview process.  By this, I mean that I’ve spent my days identifying “key suspects” from our collections; investigating their lives and work; and, last but not least, tracking them down.  (In case it’s not clear from the preceding, I’ve begun to think myself an amateur detective.  But this is perhaps not surprising, given that I was always an avid Nancy Drew fan.)  I’ve also recorded my findings in a dossier of sorts, making recommendations as to whom ICFA should seek to interview and in what order.  Additionally, I’ve just begun contacting potential interviewees—or, in some instances, contacting someone who knows someone who knows the desired interviewee.  (Six degrees of separation, anyone?)

File Folder with Poreč Materials

File Folder with Poreč Materials (1997- 2000)

During the first stages of my investigation, I spent some time poking through several of ICFA’s archival collections. While I examined correspondence, financial records, and photographs galore, it was a sampling of fieldwork “notebooks” from different projects and periods that caught my eye this time—and that compel me to make a brief and rather off-topic meditation on the art of note-taking.

 


 EXHIBIT A:

Fieldwork notebooks from Bargala excavations (1970)

Fieldwork notebooks from Bargala excavations (1970)

A series of notebooks from excavations at Bargala (located in the modern-day Republic of Macedonia) in the summer of 1970.  Each excavator had his or her own notebook—all the same size, all the same brand—within which to keep a log of work done or discoveries made from day to day.  While every worker certainly had a unique style of note-taking—some in pencil, others in pen; some with drawings to scale, others with rough sketches; some writing full paragraphs, others listing bullet points—the notes’ organization was fairly consistent.  That is to say, each notebook was home to a self-contained series of observations that were bound together and organized chronologically, often featuring (hand-written) page numbers, tables of contents, and indices.  Enhancing readability even further, certain reader aids were added retroactively to the individual fieldwork notebooks so as to make them work together as the chapters in a textbook might.

A notation at the end of Susan Boyd’s fieldwork notebook directs the reader to consult pages 86-97 of John Rosser’s notebook.

A notation at the end of Susan Boyd’s fieldwork notebook directs the reader to consult pages 86-97 of John Rosser’s notebook.

Indeed, John Rosser's Bargala notebook picks up, as promised, where Susan Boyd's had left off.

Indeed, John Rosser’s Bargala notebook picks up, as promised, where Susan Boyd’s had left off.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


EXHIBIT B:

Sampling of Ann Terry's Poreč Notes

Sampling of Ann Terry’s Poreč Notes

A collection of notes and papers from the newly-donated (and thus still-to-be-processed) Henry Maguire and Ann Terry Poreč Archive.  Making three trips—in 1997, 1999, and 2000—to Poreč (located in modern Croatia) to study the mosaics that adorn the Eufrasius Cathedral, Maguire and Terry published their findings in a beautiful two-volume book, Dynamic Splendor (2007).  ICFA’s Poreč Archive, then, gives insight into the pre-publication process, allowing researchers to see the notes and illustrations that gave shape to the book.  These notes, however, are quite different from the ones taken at the Bargala excavations.  Not contained within notebooks, for instance, Terry’s observations are recorded on loose sheets of paper of differing sizes (and colors).  Some pages are typed; some are hand-written; and still others contain some mixture of the two.  There are print-outs of e-mails, sticky notes, and even annotations made to Xeroxes of a collaborator’s drawings.  I think it fair to say that these observations would be nearly impossible to navigate were it not for the notes Terry provided to ICFA…


Photo log from the Bargala excavations--a pre-Excel spreadsheet!

Photo log from the Bargala excavations–a pre-Excel spreadsheet!

What is the point of these observations, you ask?  Well, what originally struck me about the differences in note-taking style was how much our conception of and our relation to information has changed—and will continue to change—over time.  Indeed, the advent of new technology alone would be enough to guarantee that.  What I mean is that many of us today (myself included) have notes in any number of places:  in notebooks, on scraps of paper, in our cell phones, on our computers, on USB drives, in that mysterious non-vaporous entity known as The Cloud.  And while technology certainly increases our access to information, it also presents us with more and more ways to hide it (often unintentionally) from one another—and, interestingly enough, from ourselves.  Things that were once locked away in file cabinets now reside in e-mail inboxes and computer folders within folders within folders, never to see the light of day once created.  What will happen to these records in the future?  What will the archivist’s job be like in the years ahead, now that a “paper trail” is no longer just a paper trail?

These issues merit a blog post—to say nothing of a book—of their own, but they further remind me of just why oral history is so valuable:  you can learn a lot from “stuff” (indeed, that’s why I love archives), but you can learn a great deal more from the people who created, owned, or worked with said “stuff.”  This was certainly the case, for instance, when DOA and ICFA conducted a joint interview with Robin Sinclair Cormack back in 2011.  While speaking with Mr. Cormack, we learned that there was a “secret project” (that had since been “covered up” and thus omitted from fieldwork reports) involving the bronze doors of the Hagia Sophia—something that the rather more reticent materials in our collection certainly could not have told us.  Oh, the intrigue…

As I am no Nancy Drew, I will most likely not uncover any secrets that can rival The Story of the Bronze Doors when I enter into the interview phase of my project later on in the summer, but I am excited nonetheless.  You see, oral history enables archivists and researchers, the detectives of the scholarly realm, to read between the lines—to make the “paper trail” (whether paved with paper or electronic media) a tad bit easier to follow.  And that, Dear Reader, is excitement enough for me.  Let the sleuthing begin.

 


About Me:

I graduated from Harvard College in May with a degree in English.  I am deeply interested in the intersection of technology and education.  Thus, when my internship with ICFA ends, I will seek to work in the Digital Humanities field while applying to graduate programs in English.  My eventual aim is to teach at the university level and to aid in the development of online supplements for humanities education in primary and secondary school classrooms.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered: The Byzantine Seals Catalogue at Dumbarton Oaks

Over the first four weeks of my internship at Dumbarton Oaks, I’ve learned that there are more seals here than a Navy wedding off the coast of Alaska (Get it? I’m here all summer, folks! As an aside, I’m sure a necessary qualification for being a Byzantinist and/or a sigillographer is enduring and even embracing this pun. Jonathan Shea, for example, has a picture of two pinnipeds on his office door!).

I tried to find a Seel on a seal, but this was the best I could do.

I tried to find a Seel (the Pokémon) on a seal, but this was the best I could do.

Anyways, I hope I haven’t lost you yet. My job for the last month has been to put the fourth volume of the Dumbarton Oaks Catalogue of Byzantine Seals online, which can be accessed here. The seals in the collection are made of lead, and are thus quite durable, often outliving all other evidence of their original owners. This makes them very valuable for historians, and thus makes my task of putting them online for the world to see that much more heroic.

Each entry for each individual seal, which comes with its personal accession number, requires the completion of several fields, which include a description of the obverse and reverse, a commentary, a date, a physical description, a bibliography, and a transcription and translation of any inscriptions. This is a lot of work!

I enjoy concrete tasks where I can easily track my progress and efficiency. After struggling through entering in a meager quartet of seals on my first day, I realized that I would get speedier. Quadrupling that value the next day, I felt more hopeful. Still, I tried to think like a 19th century American to find out what ways I could optimize my task. Probably the most effective solution – switching to wireless Internet – was unfortunately not in my control, so I had to settle on switching the variables that I could alter. Here’s what I came up with:

1. The Cottage Industry is outdated.

Basically, trying to do each seal individually slowed things down. I quickly learned that I had to make an assembly line, clumping together certain tasks. I imagine this is how some teachers grade tests! When editing a seal, the website requires you to fill out certain required fields, save the information, and then reopen the editing tab in order to add in the inscriptional information. The transcription of the inscription (this description is a prescription for disaster!) comes in two forms. First, in Athena Ruby, which, while a layperson might see it as the Byzantine iteration of Wingdings, is actually an incredibly sophisticated font developed right here at Dumbarton Oaks!

The Athena Ruby Palette

The Athena Ruby Palette in all of its numinosity

An inscription in Athena Ruby ends up looking like this:

The obverse inscription of Fogg 928.

Next I have to type up the inscription in normal Greek letters. There is a lot of switching of keyboards and searching the palette for strange letter forms, so it is far more efficient to tackle the inscriptions of several seals together! Assembly line!

2. The Pomodoro Technique

I did not invent the Pomodoro Technique, but you should definitely check it out. Basically, it posits that working in a goal-oriented fashion for 25 minutes, followed by a brief, 5 minute break increases productivity. This is an excellent strategy not just for cataloging Byzantine seals, but for doing chores, homework, or really anything productive! Instead of having a set 25 minute limit, I like to enter in five seals at a time, and I count that as one Pomodoro unit! If you don’t ascribe to the Pomodoro Technique, you’ll be playing ketchup with all your coworkers (Alright, that one was terrible. I apologize.)

3. Have a good supervisor and a good Supervisor.

If anything strange comes up on a seal, I have the luxury of asking my boss, Jonathan Shea, who is so knowledgeable concerning Byzantine seals that he probably has his own custom one. The seals are often very formulaic, but sometimes some very strange things will come up, such as one metropolitan who decided to label himself ἐλάχιστος, literally “the smallest” metropolitan, a rather befuddling epithet. This was neatly resolved by the adjective “humblest,” which I think is slightly less amusing.

Next, to increase productivity, my office, somewhere in the basement of Dumbarton Oaks, has no windows, no natural light, and no decoration except for a reproduction of this mosaic from Constantinople.

Fun fact: Christ is actually holding "Catalogue of Byzantine Seals at Dumbarton Oaks and in the Fogg Museum of Art, Volume 4"

Fun fact: Christ is actually holding “Catalogue of Byzantine Seals at Dumbarton Oaks and in the Fogg Museum of Art, Volume 4.”

So if I ever have the temptation to lose focus during a “Pomodoro,” I have to do it in front of a quite imposing figure of JC, flanked by the Emperor and Empress, no less!

4. Have smart friends.

One painstaking part of my job was that I have to post both the Greek text with certain epigraphical notations (like parentheses) [and brackets] as well as the clean, unadulterated Greek text to be translated into English. For a while, I would simply manually erase all the parentheses, which caused quite a bit of eye strain. I recently had the bright idea to ask my good friend from high school about whether this could be automated, and within five minutes he had made me a program to automatically remove certain marks! Observe:

He wasn't being condescending with the labels... I'm that bad at technology.

He wasn’t being condescending with the labels… I’m that bad at technology.

Anyways, this saved a ton of time! Thanks again, Jack!

I hope that this insight into how I approached my first task here at Dumbarton Oaks wasn’t too boring; maybe you can use some of my strategies when thinking about how to best manage your own time! Using these strategies, I’m able to enter in around 170 seals a week! Once I finish the fourth volume, I’ll be moving onto something a bit more narrative based, which should hopefully include some more outside research! I’ll keep you guys updated, and leave you with my favorite seal so far (BZS.1958.106.1843)!

It's a sphinx. I like the owner's style (Photios, a 10th century tax collector in modern day Turkey)

It’s a sphinx! I like the owner’s style… (Photios, a 10th century tax collector in modern day Turkey)

About me: I’m a rising senior at Harvard in the Classics department from Wellesley, Massachusetts.

Intern-al Affairs

I must first apologize for the fact that the title of this post has very little to do with any of its contents, and warn that any reader who comes to it expecting some sort of intrigue or salaciousness will be disappointed.  The punning habit dies hard.  You may take some comfort in the fact that I have selected the best of the lot, which included such gems as “Intern-al Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which did not seem relevant to much of anything, and “Intern-Ship of Fools,” which, while perhaps accurate in at least my own case, would have started the post out in a significantly darker tone than I felt to be appropriate.  “Intern-al Affairs,” happily, is vague enough to be relevant to almost anything and bureaucratic-sounding enough to avoid sounding too ominous.  And most importantly, it preserves the pun.

I’m an intern (surprise!) with the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, which is a text series that publishes medieval literature in editions that have the original language text and an English translation side by side.  (For all you active and recovering classicists in the audience, it’s the same idea as the Loeb Classical Library, but for medieval material.)  Essentially, my job (and Jessi and Zak’s job) is to read the texts and translations of our scholars, critique them, and come up with a diplomatic way to frame these critiques.  If sitting around and reading Latin all day sounds like your cup of tea, you can’t beat it with a stick.  If it doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, you should reevaluate some of your attitudes and life decisions.

The first weeks of the summer were dominated by examining a forthcoming edition of the miscellaneous poetry of Venantius Fortunatus, an Italian poet of late antiquity who spent much of his time hobnobbing with members of the Merovingian court and the powerful clergy of southern France.  It is going to be a very good edition and you all should be waiting breathlessly for its release.  Until that time, however, you may whet your appetite with this epigram that I wrote in the style of Fortunatus:

Audi me, quivis ades antistes venerandus,

ut de te merito praemia magna metam.

Fortunatus, bless his sainted soul (feast day Dec. 17), had a bit of a sycophantic streak.

Once in awhile our work will demand an expedition beyond the confines of the office, generally to the library.  The library is a place of great awe, the workings of which are mysterious to even those of us who work at Dumbarton Oaks, and as a result a journey thither requires great preparation of soul and body.  It was such preparation that I undertook when a different project, a collection of the medieval Latin biographies of Muhammed, demanded a visit.  You may imagine me thus:

Image(Image in the public domain, via http://www.timetoast.com/timelines/henry-stanley).

Due to the library’s somewhat confusing layout, it took me some time to find what I needed, but I eventually found the book in question and got to exercise what is probably the most entertaining privilege library users have: use of the Book Trolley, which safely transports items from the library to the main house.  In my excitement, I made this video:

In the world of philology, Book Trolleys are still something to be marveled at.  With the conclusion of my adventure, I think that this is proper to conclude this post.  Stay tuned for more!