Museum Textile Project

As a graduate student in art history at Bryn Mawr College planning to write a dissertation on late antique textiles, I was thrilled when I heard about the Dumbarton Oaks Museum’s collaborative research project on their collection of more than two hundred textiles of the Byzantine Collection’s holdings. These include examples from the Byzantine, Sassanian and early Islamic periods, a time now referred to as “late antiquity” in Egypt.

Pillow, 48.9 cm x 45.72 cm (19 1/4 in. x 18 in.), Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Museum (Acc. no. BZ.2010.070)

Pillow, 48.9 cm x 45.72 cm (19 1/4 in. x 18 in.), Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Museum (Acc. no. BZ.2010.070)

Though many of these objects have been part of the collection since the Blisses endowed their Byzantine Collection in 1940 to Harvard, the textile collection has not yet been systematically published.  Now, inspired by recent publications such as Sabine Schrenk’s catalog of the Abegg Stiftung’s late antique textile collection and Antoine De Moor and Caecilia Fluck’s “Clothing the House: Furnishing Textiles of the 1st Millenium AD from Egypt and Neighboring Countries,” Dumbarton Oaks is preparing a catalog and exhibition of the collection.
The plan is to focus on furnishing textiles, which we define as cloth used for any purpose other than dress.  Curtains, wall hangings and napkins are all furnishing textiles.   Concentrating on late antique textiles’ usage is a new and innovative approach.  Since these textiles began to surface in excavations in the late 19th century, scholarship has generally focused on dating and attribution of the textiles to production centers.  In recent years, however, scholars have started to question textiles’ functions in late antique society.  Schrenk’s catalog, for example, organized the objects not by suspected date or motif, but function such as wall hanging, curtain or tunic.
Attributing function to a late antique textile is no easy task.  Due to poor preservation conditions and early modern dealers’ predilections for cutting up late antique textiles, the objects are usually quite fragmentary.  To complicate things even further, textiles were often reused in late antiquity over and over again.  A part of a curtain could have ornamented a tunic in secondary or tertiary use.  Schrenk relied on size, shape and sometimes texture to categorize the Abegg Stiftung’s textiles.  She prudently categorized many textiles as “decorations from tunics or cloth” because she was unable to make a definitive designation.
At Dumbarton Oaks, we are attempting to build upon Schrenk’s innovative work and question whether there are further distinctions between furnishing and dress textiles.  Over the course of my internship, research assistant Betsy Williams and I have examined almost every textile in the collection, looking for evidence of use.  We have noted hems, selvedge, thread counts, thickness and weave structure.  We are wondering whether there was any sort of correlation in late antiquity between technical features and use.  Were stronger textiles with thicker warps used more often for furnishing?  Were textiles with higher thread counts used more often for dress?  These are questions that cannot be easily answered.  We hope these grand questions and preliminary research will start a conversation between art historians, textiles conservators and other specialists that may one day lead to more precise answers about the functions of late antique textiles.

Arielles Blog Post Picture

Revisiting the Greenhouse

Doing field archaeology during a summer heat wave, when temperatures exceed one hundred degrees, when you are gulping down half a liter of water every fifteen minutes, when the air is so humid that it is heavy, when you feel the mosquitoes buzzing around you, is…fun! These past few weeks, whenever Washington afforded me several consecutive days of clear skies, I have been focused on completing the excavation of the old pit greenhouse located near the vegetable garden, concentrating on two important tasks: excavating three 5 x 3′ test units in order to identify the base of the greenhouse, the way it was constructed (and de-constructed), and the type of soil it was built on; and clearing the profiles, in order to understand the stratigraphy of the area. Stratigraphy is a term borrowed from geology, and in archaeology it refers to the layers of both natural and cultural features. As a general rule, the more superficial layers are more recent and the deeper layers are older. Studying the stratigraphy of a site is useful to reconstruct the “life story” of the greenhouse: how it was built, how it was abandoned, and what has happened since then. In this case, the profile indicated that the greenhouse was built on very hard, rocky greenish-brown soil, and part of the floor may have been compacted clayish brown soil, an adequate foundation for this type of structure. “Reading” the layers and the physical remains of the greenhouse also revealed the imprint of demolished walls, and in one of the units we found a layer of broken brick under the central concrete corridor. These bricks would have served to reinforce and stabilize the foundations of the concrete floor.

Back in the Greenhouse

Back in the Greenhouse


Image 2

Reading the stratigraphy of the greenhouse: a floor made of compacted earth, followed by the concrete walls of the greenhouse. After it was abandoned, the greenhouse was filled in with earth and fill, in which we found the debris from the demolition process. Finally, a lush layer of fast-growing grass as the most recent layer. 

Unit two before exxcavation

Unit two before exxcavation



Unit 2 at the end of the excavation. Notice the concrete floor (left), the imprint of long-demolished walls on both the floor and the back walls (centre), and the hard, rocky, greenish soil which served as the foundation for the greenhouse.



Image 2, showing the remains of broken bricks under the concrete floor corridor of the greenhouse.



The back of the greenhouse, showing the concrete foundations and imprint of brick walls.

So far, we have been able to reveal a structure far more complex than what we initially believed, mainly due to the discovery of a concrete foundation located at a higher level than the original pit greenhouse, with the remains of a brick wall. Our very preliminary idea, based on the evidence, is that the greenhouse may have been built on two levels, taking advantage of the slope of the terrain.

Although the actual process of excavation yields plenty of information, it was the in the documentation through photography and ground plans that more details emerged, along with more questions and theories of how the greenhouse worked and what was its form. In this case, the plan of the excavation area was especially important since we have not been able to find the original plan for the greenhouse. However, even if we did have the original plan, it does happen that architectural plans and blueprints are not always absolutely accurate reflections of what is eventually built, and they do not include later modifications to the structure. Now that the excavation is complete, a potential next step could be to compare the floor plan of the excavated greenhouse with those of other, contemporary and similar structures; determining which areas were roofed and which were exposed; examine what was the relationship between the two main spaces we identified; and if we are looking at a structure that was built all at once or in stages. By understanding how the old greenhouse worked (and what did not…), we hope to obtain information that will be useful in the potential reconstruction of the greenhouse.

Please Do Not Climb The Lions, and other approaches to conservation and preservation

Part of my research has also focused on studying how nearby and similar parks and gardens, both public and private, approach the issue of conservation, and how do their approaches compare to that of Dumbarton Oaks gardens. In the United States, the Secretary of the Interior has issued a series of guidelines regarding the treatment and management of historic buildings, places and landscapes, and describes four main options: preservation (sustaining the historic form, materials and design), rehabilitation (adapting a historic building/landscape to new use, while still retaining the imprint and identifying features related to its old use; an example being the conversion of old industrial lofts to apartments and stores), reconstruction and restoration (choosing a period of significance, then removing all features that do not belong to this period; think Mount Vernon). One of the main problems with these options is that, with the exception of rehabilitation, all assume that the main value and significance of historic places lies in the past, which often restricts flexibility and the nature of places to change and adapt with time. For instance, I was surprised to read that there was actually a requirement to state a “period of significance” in which the place “acquired” its significance and value. This ignores the fact that places are not just discrete events and moments in time, but a continuum. Think, for instance, of an iconic place like the Lincoln monument, which has witnessed many significant moments that have shaped the way this place is perceived and remembered. It is very likely that this monument will continue to inspire and be the stage for more significant, perhaps even history-changing events in the future. How could we pick just one period of significance?

It is my belief that some of the most successful and valued places are those that preserve their past while adding layers of modernity, creativity and even whimsy. One of the historic places I researched got around this restriction by establishing a “period of significance” which spanned thousands of years, from the prehistoric period all the way to the time when the site was adapted for visitors in the mid-20th century. In this way the curators of this place thus recognized the futility of trying to decide what was “the” most significant period, and emphasized that historic places are made up of many different layers. For instance, is it possible to choose just one “period of significance” for Dumbarton Oaks, considering the number of people who influenced and shaped its design over the years, and considering that even today we still shape this place by the way we use it, the way we see it, the ways we value it? Over lunchtime (ice-cream sandwiches with watermelon, obviously) a fellow once told me that “conservation encourages restraint”, of making sure memorable places remain recognizable, but not static and unchangeable. Conservation is more about curating, about preserving the many layers of the past while adding more layers of interest. What would happen if one day we went for a quiet morning stroll in the gardens and found Lover’s Lane pool filled with pink rubber ducks? Wouldn’t we suddenly see the place differently?

Please do not climb on the lions! Preservation policies at Hillwood estate.

Please do not climb on the lions! Preservation policies at Hillwood estate.



Researching how the public uses and perceives a historic park by using rigorous hands-on methods (Montrose Park, Georgetown)

Dumbarton Oaks Oral History: An Intern’s Reminiscence

Amid other auxiliary projects, my fellow Oral History intern James Curtin and I have successfully interviewed nine Dumbarton Oaks affiliates over the course of the summer: Bridget Gazzo, Natalia Teteriatnikov, Valerie Stains, Herb Kessler, Gail Griffin, Eurydice Georganteli, Justin and Barbara Kerr, and Donald Mehlman. We’re deeply grateful to each one of these people for sacrificing their time to share with us their experiences at Dumbarton Oaks over the years, and we heartily encourage you to peruse their interview transcripts ( each offers a distinctive, creative vision of Dumbarton Oaks that nonetheless harmonizes with the others into a synergetic whole.

Librarian for Pre-Columbian Studies Bridget Gazzo, crisply knowledgeable, discussed with us the integration of the libraries at Dumbarton Oaks, a gargantuan project the fruits of which scholars studying at the institute savor every day. Researcher and archivist Natalia Teteriatnikov gave us a glimpse into how, fueled by a deep passion for Byzantine studies, she and her colleagues accommodated the arrival of the Princeton Index at D.O., an invaluable research aid, as well as how she went about organizing the D.O. archives. The elegant Valerie Stains chatted with us about the ticket to putting together a cutting-edge, but nonetheless tasteful and enriching, concert series with the Friends of Music program. Scholar Herb Kessler charted for us the democratization of D.O. under Director Giles Constable, and also provided us with an affectionate sketch of D.O.’s oracular Joan Southcote-Aston ( Director of Gardens and Grounds Gail Griffin, soft-spoken and deeply kind, took us beneath the garden’s mask of greenery and floral color to reveal the lush philosophy of gardening that puts forth the moldings of its features from behind that mask. Scholar Eurydice Giorganteli intelligently praised D.O. for providing her with the resources she needed to bloom as a scholar. Photographers Justin and Barbara Kerr shared their learned, creative love for Maya vases, as well as an eloquent description of the rollout camera, which Justin inventively applied to the process of photographing such vases. And, finally, gardener Donald Mehlman took us for a tour of the gardens in his expert shoes, renewing our appreciation for the indefatigable efforts required to keep the gardens in their pristine condition. Again, the Oral History interns’ gratitude goes out to all of you, for filling our summers to the brim with your know-how, your deep learning, your high-bouncing anecdotes, and the pleasure of your distinguished company.

 Though my colleague James has another week on the job, this will be, I’m sad to say, my last. I’ll miss the gardens and pool, I’ll miss the stimulating work; but most of all I’ll miss the friends I’ve made during my time here at Dumbarton Oaks, which has been not just a home for the humanities, but my home for the past three, good months, where I’ve always felt welcome.

James and Josh.

James and Josh.

Representing a Wild Washington

Coming from the perspective of a landscape architect, I view research as a design tool to help the public better understand the ever-changing dynamics in their own cities. Therefore, my goal this summer has been to relate and condense the different aspects and qualities of a Wild Washington into a form or concept that can be more easily understood to people living in and visiting DC. This involves the making of several key graphics. My ultimate goal, as a (budding) landscape architect, is to raise awareness and affect behavior by influencing the design of public space.

Urban Wild Scales

Urban Wild Scales

The first step in explaining a Wild Washington is to define the urban wild. Here, I’ve attempted to break down the various components and aspects of the urban wild into multiple scales, measured from “smallest, less visible” to “largest, more visible, assumed.” As evident in the graphic, the urban wild is not only represented by flora and fauna, but also by hydrology, infrastructure, and social activities. Instead of isolating and separating the wild from human appropriation and our constructed environment, how can we foster a stronger relationship between the urban wild and these aspects from our everyday lives?

Urban Wild Palette

Urban Wild Palette

I’ve also been developing a material palette that describes the ever-changing, cyclical characteristic of the urban wild. Inherent in this wild is the idea that nothing is stagnant and a climax stage does not exist. Instead, everything is part of an ever-evolving landscape, fluxing between tame and wild, back and forth. Particularly interesting to this palette (and arguably the most controversial) are the invasive and native species, which alternate in dominance depending on various external influences. Considering this natural flux, are invasive species as detrimental to native environments as people argue? The answer, of course, depends on the location, but perhaps invasive species are just one necessary part to the larger cycle evident in this palette.

Wild Washington

Wild Washington

Given the varying scales, components, and changing palette of the urban wild, I’m in the process of creating a map of a Wild Washington. Large and small corridors and patches form a wild matrix that highlights the movement and locations of plants, animals, water, infrastructure, and social activities. Selected layers of history, infrastructure, and vegetation help give shape to this vision of a Wild Washington, and scaled pullouts of the map highlight just a few of the existing spaces in this wild network.

Wild Spectrum

Wild Spectrum

Finally, Dumbarton Oaks’ relationship to corridors, topography, and water, as well as its proximity and integration with Rock Creek Park, make it an interesting case study within a “Wild Washington.” As a hybrid at the edge of a social and ecological spectrum and lying in the middle of this wild spectrum, Dumbarton Oaks is an integral part of this wild network. In particular, Dumbarton Oaks Park, with Farrand’s cascading water features, has a unique opportunity to hybridize design, experience, and the urban wild.

In addition to my research, I have continued to work in the gardens – planting, clipping, watering, hauling and testing my plant identification skills (to the point where Rigo, Mark, and Luis are probably tired of hearing me ask, “What plant is this?,” for the 100th time that day!). Below is a sketch of one genus I can now confidently identify: a hibiscus, which is currently in full bloom in the Cutting Garden.

Hibiscus Sketch

Hibiscus Sketch

Dumbarton Oaks: History Talking Back

The interns have moved far past the halfway point in our ten-week sojourn at Dumbarton Oaks, and I am reluctantly beginning to think about how I will spend the last few weeks of my summer and the school year, which is beginning to loom on the horizon.  In the meantime, however, I have been reflecting on my work here and the significance of the project to which I have committed a mere few weeks. 

Interviewees for the Oral History Project generally speak for about an hour on their experience and time at Dumbarton Oaks. It is important to note that we do NOT conduct interviews in the traditional sense; instead of a strict question and answer format, the ideal oral history interview has a few guiding questions that lead the interviewee to follow their stream of consciousness.  In this way, they independently identify what they view as most important without the interviewer inserting himself into the conversation.

Thus, oral history interviews are bits of super concentrated history—the most salient memories from a fifty-year period condensed into an hour.  It does not take long to peruse a transcript, and I highly encourage you to do so.  A reader will quickly discover that names, places, and themes reoccur with great frequency. The overlap of content between interviews allows one to create a coherent picture of what it was like to live and work at Dumbarton Oaks in the earlier days of the institution. Countless men and women—the brightest minds in their fields—have devoted great amounts of time and energy to study at Dumbarton Oaks. The magnitude of the knowledge that has accumulated here and its resultant impact on the scholarly community is almost too staggering in magnitude for the curious observer to even begin to comprehend.  Fortunately, though, the Oral History project is a perfect primer for the amateur historian; it covers many of the most important institutional and scholarly developments, all of which are discussed casually and in plain language.

As an individual with no formal training (and very little informal training) in Byzantine, pre-Columbian, or Garden and Landscape Studies, being a part of this project has been extraordinarily informative, and I find I have picked up much more information through osmosis than I would have by casually reading a textbook on one of the subjects.  The concentration of knowledge and the commitment to scholastic excellence makes Dumbarton Oaks one of the most exciting places for someone with a curious mind to spend time, even if he or she does not have background in the areas that are studied here.

For Josh and I, the job is never boring. Though some might think the study of ancient civilizations may be dry, many of the scholars showcase their sense of humor in the interviews. More than that, we have diversified from just interviewing and transcribing; we created a blog, did some entry-level archival processing [with the platform we worked on expected to go live in the fall], and even dabbled in some basic web editing. Bottom line: I have developed a respect for Dumbarton Oaks, its mission, and the people who work here far deeper than I would have expected before arriving here this summer. In the last few weeks I will be spending here, I fully intend to make the most of the garden, the museum, and all the other things that Dumbarton Oaks has to offer, fully aware of how lucky I am to be here.


  • Number of years the project has been ongoing: 6
  • Number of interviews conducted: 108 (and counting)
  • Number of interviews published online: 52
  • Breakdown of interviews by subject:
    • 39 Byzantinists
    • 32 pre-Columbianists
    • 12 Garden and Landscape Scholars
    • 10 Museum Staff
    • Administrators
    • Facilities/Maintenance Staff
    • Garden Staff
    • Librarians
    • 3 Friends and Family of the Blisses
    • Friends of Music Staff

A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside Anglo-Latin Aenigmata

Since you last heard from me, everything has changed on the mezzanine.

Well, maybe not everything—our basic job is the same, but my recent projects have breathed new life into my DOML internship (and our recent discovery of musical Latin renditions of nursery rhymes and Elvis Presley lyrics have at times made it feel a bit like an alternate universe).

The first of my projects has frequently given me flashbacks to mornings on a school bus telling riddles to pass the time.  This is because I have been editing a volume of Anglo-Latin aenigmata, or riddles.

Many of the riddles, written by several different authors, are based on a sort of medieval encyclopedia by Isadore of Seville, which gives insight into how the world was viewed in medieval times.  Some of the more puzzling riddles provided me with the most fascinating windows into legends that were widespread during the era of the riddles’ authors.

For example, there was a rich tradition of legend surrounding salamanders.  A riddle by Aldhelm, a 7th century poet, assumes this knowledge, describing a fireproof animal that could not be destroyed by flames.  I was, of course, stumped by this, having gained no enlightenment about this trait from observing my elementary school class pet, a salamander.  Perhaps some people are still aware of the supposed mythical qualities of the animal, but I’d always thought of them as rather ordinary amphibians.  However, they were widely seen as magical creatures strongly associated with fire, sort of like dragons, in the Middle Ages.


A fireproof salamander in a 14th century manuscript in the Bodleian Library.

I tried to solve the riddles as I went along, and it proved to be more difficult than the editing itself.  My success rate was something like 25%.  And that’s even counting the riddles that give away their solutions acrostically.  I’d like to think that my lack of knowledge about the minutia of medieval folklore is to blame for my dismal solving performance, but I’m a little embarrassed to report that I incorrectly guessed the answer to three riddles in a row, all of which had “furnace” as a solution.

Try your hand at solving one by Aldhelm:

Nunc mea divinis complentur viscera verbis

totaque sacratos gestant praecordia biblos;

at tamen ex isdem nequeo cognoscere quicquam:

infelix fato fraudabor munere tali,

dum tollunt dirae librorum lumina Parcae.

Now my insides are filled with divine words,

and all my vitals bear sacred books;

but nevertheless I can’t learn anything from them:

I, unlucky, am cheated by fate with such a duty,

while the dreadful Fates take away the light of books.

The solution is arca libraria, or book chest, in which libraries were stored at the time.


A manuscript of Aldhelm’s aenigmata, showing the riddle told above.

I am currently working on editing parts of Carmina Burana.  They are not the same poems that I am used to from my days of horribly mangling Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana on the clarinet in high school band.  A good portion of them focus on corruption in the Church, and how money can buy you anything—including salvation or a “not guilty” verdict in court.

Outside of my work at DOML, everything has continued to be amazing.  The Dumbarton Oaks community has grown steadily, with new fellows and interns arriving.  I am more and more grateful for the grounds and the people that populate them.  I’ve had an inspiring summer so far, and a significant portion of that invigoration has been drawn from DO.  I look forward to savoring my last month here.

A Rose By Any Other Name…

After a few weeks of perusing countless plant catalogues in Dumbarton Oaks Rare Books Collection, I’ve developed an appreciation for the significance of plant names. Before my Rare Book internship, I had not really given the Latin names of plants any real thought, other than that they were usually impossible to pronounce and spell. Although binomial nomenclature is made of two Latin words to describe the genus and species, the words can be Latinized versions of English names. Linnaeus coined binomial nomenclature for about 4,400 animal species and 7,700 plant species, with a surprising amount of names Latinized from surnames of people he knew. In creating a standardized natural history classification system, Carl Linnaeus also immortalized his friends, patrons, and rivals by occasionally turning their names into plant names.

When Linnaeus was a student at Uppsala University, his adviser Olof Rudbeck (1660-1740) encouraged him to take the Lapland trip that helped establish his botanical reputation. Rudbeck was a dear friend and patron of Linnaeus, appointing him as botanical demonstrator in the Uppsala Botanical Garden over learned teachers. In addition to professional and educational support, Rudbeck even aided Linnaeus financially by having him tutor three of his sons and board at his house. Linnaeus expressed his appreciation a few years later by naming an American flower Rudbeckia. In a 1731 letter to Rudbeck, Linnaeus explained his careful thought process behind the decision:

“I had chosen a noble plant in order to recall your merits and the services you have rendered, a tall one to give an idea of your stature; and I wanted it to be one which branched and which flowered and fruited freely, to show that you cultivated not only the sciences but also the humanities. Its rayed flowers will bear witness that you shone among savants like the sun among the stars; its perennial roots will remind us that each year sees you live again through new works. Pride of our gardens, the Rudbeckia will be cultivated throughout Europe and in distant lands where your revered name must long have been known. Accept this plant, not for what it is but for what it will become when it bears your name…”

Rudbeckia from William Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (1787)

Linnaeus honored many renowned botanists and naturalists, from those he had close relationships with to those he admired from afar. George Clifford (1685-1760), Director of the Dutch East India Company and wealthy horticulturist, became Linnaeus’s greatest benefactor. Clifford hired Linnaeus to be his house physician and head gardener from 1736 to 1738, during which Linnaeus prepared an account of his herbarium, later published as Hortus Cliffortianus (1738). Linnaeus dedicated the book to Clifford, but also named a South African plant genus Cliffortia in his honor. Both Linnaeus and Clifford studied the plant specimens of Virginia colonist John Clayton (1694-1773). Although Linnaeus did not, to my knowledge, correspond with Clayton, he respected this botanist’s work and named the American wildflower, the spring beauty, Claytonia virginica after him.

Cliffortia foliis linearibus pilosis from Linnaeus’s Hortus Cliffortianus (1738)

Claytonia virginica from A. P. Candolle’s Plantarum historia succulentarum (1799-1832)

In addition to honoring friends or fellow naturalists, Linnaeus used plant names to spite critics. Johann Siegesbeck, a St. Petersburg academician, defamed Linnaeus’s classification system based on plant sex organs as vulgar, useless and “loathsome harlotry.” Never one to take criticism graciously, Linnaeus named a genus of small prickly weeds Sigesbeckia, after the man who had annoyed him so. Friend, foe, or benefactor, Linnaeus and other botanists memorialized people within history and botany by incorporating their names into plant binomial names. Nature guidebooks, textbooks, seed packets, phylogenetic trees, and so on all bear the names of people Linnaeus and other early botanists chose to immortalize. These and other stories of 18th century botany are ones Deirdre and I are framing for the Botany of Empire symposium in October.

Sigesbeckia from Linnaeus’s Hortus Cliffortianus (1738)