Withstanding Entropy, or “The Joy of the Z.6620’s”

By Roderick Saxey, June 29, 2012

This is our second summer working on the microfilm project—wonderful work for people of a certain inclination, who enjoy creating greater order out of lesser (or occasionally out of chaos) and presenting others with something useful and worth their while. I come excited every morning at nine and am always sorry to leave at five.

As to imposing of order on things, an experienced bibliothecarian put it to me as “I want the forks with the forks and the spoons with the spoons.” It’s a marvelous feeling to take the Escorial’s bizzare nota antiqua Ψ.II.12 and relegate it to a parenthesis after the far neater Cod. 447 of Revilla & Andrés’s catalogue. (As I say, people of a certain inclination.) And, though alternations of anger and despair are not an uncommon experience when going through some catalogues (or certain Italian websites), there’s great satisfaction in turning an overlooked corrigendum into an obedient correctum.

For presenting something useful, I have little doubt. Some great and long-established scholars have stopped by our little office (affectionately, «τὸ Μπουντρουμάκι») with various questions and we’ve been very gratified to be able to share online resources with them or point out bibliography they hadn’t seen but that we came across just by chance. These things and more, including things overlooked by the existing catalogues, we include in our descriptions of the manuscripts (separate from our descriptions of the films) and many of them will be helpful to researchers, first here at D.O. and later to anyone in the world.

One danger of working with the films – and a blessing as well – is simply that we come across so many cool things. If dealing with sloppy or ill-conceived catalogues is like trudging through the Augean Stables, then traveling through a constant series of palæographical masterpieces is like sailing past the Sirens. (“Stop! We will give thee wisdom! …Take a photo; it’ll last longer!”)  Sometimes you have to stop your ears with wax and concentrate on the folio-numbers.

Just now, as I was writing this, young Vladimir came across yet another parchment masterpiece: Patmos Codex 171, a 9th-century illustrated and annotated manuscript of Job, in uncials. Some of the pictures are available on line, such as the following, and I hope that eventually the whole codex will be part of the great democratizing of learning that characterizes our age (see: BL), but for now it, like so many others, are not available except in the libraries that house them and in those, like ours, that own good films. So we can offer people something of value indeed.

Sir Job of Uz and the Gorgonodracontium
(Πάτμος, Μονὴ Ἰωάννου τοῦ Θεολόγου, χγρ. 171, σελ. 487)

About me: I studied Shakespeare and mediæval Greek before coming to D.O. I’ve just finished yet another Master’s degree and am now looking for further adventures in teaching or in research, library work, etc. I’m very happy that I finally get to go back to Oxford—if not in real life, then at least through cataloguing our many Bodley manuscript films.

Vaticanus græcus 749, fol. 238

Μεγίστης Λαύρας χγρ. Β. 100, φύλ. 181β

(More illustrated Job here!)

History: The Story Starts with the “Stuff”

by Caitlin Ballotta, June 25, 2012

Thomas Whittemore, Founder of the Byzantine Institute

This summer, I am working as an intern in the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) here at Dumbarton Oaks.  As you may have guessed, ICFA is home to images; however, its vast stores further hold a treasure trove of other materials relating to Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and garden and landscape studies, including moving films, maps, manuscripts, notes, and nearly any type of paper record imaginable. Over the past few weeks, I have tried my hand at processing one of ICFA’s many collections, learning the “ins” and “outs” of archiving through close interaction with a “paper trail” that documents the archaeological activities of Thomas Whittemore (a colorful and enigmatic character, active in the early half of the twentieth century, who can best be described as an English professor-archaeologist-jetsetter-philanthropist) prior to his founding of the Byzantine Institute in 1930.

Examining folder contents in order to revise the collection’s finding aid

I am currently revising a finding aid, or a tool that will serve as a point of access to this collection for future researchers.  My task, then, is to understand the context surrounding the materials entrusted to ICFA in order to catalogue and arrange the individual items in a logical order that simultaneously preserves the integrity of the collection itself and the way in which it was created.  In short, I am working to make collection contents utilizable so as to facilitate scholars’ and visitors’ research experience.  (In some cases, however, an archive’s holdings are too extensive to allow each and every item to be documented on a finding aid, and researchers can (re)discover some rather fascinating gems as they sift through the contents of acid-free boxes and folders!  Take, for instance, this wonderful piece by Suzanne Fischer that appeared in The Atlantic last week.  In it, she wrote of one researcher’s “chance” encounter with a piece of Lincoln lore.)

Shelves of Archival Materials in ICFA

I can’t begin to express what a privilege it has been to immerse myself in history through the archival process.  Reading original correspondence and examining notes and drawings made by the very subjects of my research have made the past come alive for me—have opened a gateway into history in a way that no passage from a textbook can mimic.  When I delve into a collection, it is as though I am communicating directly with the players who once inhabited the narrative I am striving to comprehend and convey.  Just think:  Housed within an archive’s myriad rows of storage containers, protected from the elements, are the components of a great many stories.  History is, after all, a retelling of past events, and its anecdotes have to originate from somewhere…  For me, then, an archive is a space teeming with life; it is a place devoted to preservation in which an individual can touch—can interact with— those well-catalogued items that help us to construct the ever-evolving historical narrative that shapes our present.

What is next for me, you ask?  I will soon begin designing an online exhibit relating the early activities of Thomas Whittemore.  I certainly hope that everyone will come to appreciate Mr. Whittemore as I have over the past few weeks.  Below is a sneak peek…Stay tuned!

Thomas Whittemore and George D. Pratt bring relief supplies to Russian and Bulgarian monks living on Mount Athos, 1923

About Me:

I am a rising junior at Harvard College, and I am concentrating in English while pursuing a language citation in Spanish.  How did I become interested in archiving?  In part, I attribute my obsession to National Treasure.  However ridiculous it may sound, the movie’s protagonists showed me that history is a plotline that is just waiting to be uncovered, written, and perhaps even revised.

Oral History Project

Oral History Project

by Erik Fredericksen, June 22, 2012

This summer, I’m working on Dumbarton Oaks’ Oral History Project along with another intern, Gabriela Santiago. While you can find a basic history of D.O. on its website, the Oral History Project aims to record a more colorful, nuanced history of the institution through the different narratives told by the very people who have lived and worked here. The project interviews former directors, fellows, directors of studies, scholars, staff members, and other people who have played a role in the development of Dumbarton Oaks.

The project has already conducted numerous interviews. Much of our time has been spent watching or listening to these interviews and transcribing them for publication on the D.O. website. (You can find our published interviews here.) But the transformation from an oral interview to a transcript is not always as simple as it sounds. For one thing, Gabriela and I have quickly learned the ins and outs of conducting phonetic Google searches: did he say Singopolos? Sigopoulos? Tsingopolous? (Answer: Xyngopoulos, a Greek art historian.) As we transcribe these interviews, the history of Dumbarton Oaks seems to be gradually coming into focus, whether through broader characterizations of change over the past few decades or through more personal anecdotes—two favorites so far: Elizabeth Ettinghausen meeting her husband at D.O. and Helen Evans watching Prince Charles’ wedding with the Greek fellows during her summer here. By drawing on individuals’ memories such as these, we’re creating not only an intellectual (see Robin Cormack’s interview for methodological disputes in Byzantine art history), but also a social history of Dumbarton Oaks. The more interviews that we publish, the more they overlap and connect to each other. Out of the disparate recollections of individuals, a collective institutional memory starts to take shape—an exciting process to see first-hand.

In addition to transcribing and publishing interviews, Gabriela and I are conducting new interviews during our summer here. Just this Tuesday, we sat down with Stephen Zwirn, the Assistant Curator of the museum’s Byzantine Collection, who has seen D.O. undergo two massive overhauls of its physical space, as well as other, subtler evolutions.

Moving forward, Gabriela and I are continuing to transcribe interviews and hunt down new interviewees. I myself am currently transcribing an interview with Musja Kazhdan, wife of Alexander Kazhdan, an interesting account well worth the issues presented by its only being preserved on a cassette tape, a piece of technology I’m told was very popular during the Late Byzantine Period.

Robin Cormack, a Byzantine Studies Visiting Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks in 1972–1973 and a Byzantine Studies Visiting Scholar in 2011, describes how he was first sidetracked from studying modern art into the field of Byzantine art.

A little manual repair ensures that the tape-recorded interview with Musja Kazhdan survives. Soon to be published online, her interview narrates, among other things, her journey along with her husband (the Byzantinist Alexander Kazhdan) from Russia to Dumbarton Oaks.

About Me:

I graduated from Harvard College this past spring, with a concentration in Classics. Interested primarily in Greek and Latin lyric poetry and 20th century Classical reception, I plan to move on to a graduate program in Classics.


Basement Sigillography

by Lain Wilson, June 15, 2012

This summer I am working as the Dumbarton Oaks seals intern, which involves adding content to the new online catalogue, launched in spring 2012. I first came to seals through coins. Participating last year in the Byzantine coins and seals summer school, I worked primarily with the gold hyperpyra of two Byzantine emperors, but in and out of seminar I gained some of the experience and knowledge necessary to read, interpret, and use the vast trove of seals–17,000 specimens from over a thousand years–preserved in the collection at Dumbarton Oaks. They, together with coins, provide a vantage, spanning almost the entire duration of the empire’s life, from which to appreciate the social, economic, administrative, and institutional history of Byzantium.

This project takes the important first step of making the collection available broadly to individuals outside of DO and–more importantly–those who have to travel here to view the collection, and beyond the fraction already published in six volumes. It includes sophisticated and expansive search criteria, as well as a feature whereby seals may be selected, saved to a list of “Favorite Seals,” and there compared side-by-side. This will be the first project of its kind–an open, digital catalogue–among the various centers around the world that possess large seal collections, and it represents a great step forward in making broadly available a source that has long been the preserve of specialists. The first stage, which I’m working on this summer, is bringing online those entries from the six published volumes, but also integrating new, high resolution photographs, expanded commentary, transliterations (in the new Athena Ruby font) and translations of the inscriptions.

It’s very exciting to take part in bringing to light these great, albeit small, witnesses of the past. Although it is only possible to contextualize a bare handful of the tens of thousands of seals surviving in the world today, one can imagine them sealing correspondence both humble and exalted–letters between friends, complaining about the weather, or imperial orders to provincial officials–or certifying the security of a monastic treasury, or affixed to the bottom of a chrysobull given to a great landowner.

Obverse of Seal of Romanos I, Constantine VII, and Stephen (931–44). Romanos, center, assumed the throne in 920 during the minority of Constantine, left, who would not attain sole rule until 945.



As I have worked my way through the Catalogue of Byzantine Seals volume 6, which is given over entirely to some of the most impressive specimens in the collection, my mind has been much on the broader political narrative of Byzantium, in which the names of these seals’s owners loom large.

Reverse of Seal belonging to Synetos and Niketas, apo eparchon and general kommerkiarioi of the apotheke of Constantinople (713/14). This side has no engraved markings, but instead retains an impression of a burlap sack, filled with goods which the seal certified, and against which the seal was struck.





But it is, in part, and with great effort, from some of the humblest and roughest pieces of lead that the histories of the offices and institutions, foundations and families, which altogether lent Byzantium its social and economic shape, have been written.



About Me:

I am currently a graduate student at Princeton University, working on the social and economic history of cities in the middle Byzantine period (ca. 900–1204), as well as history of local elites.

Manuscripts on Microfilm: Step Aside, the ninetheenth-century German Expert is here!

by Saskia Dirkse, June 8, 2012

I am an intern for the Library’s manuscripts-on-microfilm project, and this is the second summer I have worked on this project. One of my favorite things about our work is that we’re able to learn a great deal about the history of a manuscript, about its transmission and readership. When past readers were especially moved or struck by a passage in a manuscript they might make a note, “θαυμασιώτατον in the margins. At other times, when the words on the page were less riveting, they might doodle the alphabet or jot down their shopping list or make a comment about the weather. As I was working with the microfilms during the course of the summer, I realized that they too collect traces and evidence of their creators and users. For one blog post, I compiled a collage of microfilm marginalia (i.e. random things that happen to be visible in the frames) using my own discovered gems and those of my colleagues. The collage included paperclips, scissors, fingernails, a gold-embroidered cloth used as background in manuscript photography (a standard feature of the Iviron Monastery microfilms from the ‘70’s which helped me identify at least two unlabeled films!) and half of a holiday snapshot with mountain view (we weren’t quite sure about that one). After this first week back at work, I’ve decided that in the manner of the excellent film Inception, we need to take things one step further (or perhaps I should say, we must fall into the next reality) and look at the marginalia in catalogues. Catalogues of Greek manuscripts (especially older ones) are wonderful because one can find centuries of comments, corrections and references all penciled in with beautiful penmanship and a delightful dedication to sharing knowledge. The older Munich catalogue (published 1806-1812 under the auspices of Ignaz Hardt), which has been digitized by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek and is available on their website, is a particularly fine example of such a work of many hands.  It is from this book that I wanted to share something:

When I was looking through the microfilm of ms. gr. 366, a beautiful eleventh-century menologion (this film has been catalogued as Mun.1.26 for those interested in having a look), I came across the following small piece of text on the last page of the manuscript, a note by the scribe (or a reader) asking for blessings upon the scribe, the owner and the readers:

I puzzled over it for a little bit, got a few things but couldn’t quite make it out and I thought it might be worth having a look whether Hardt made any mention of it in his catalogue.  Sure enough, he did:

It’s perhaps difficult to tell from this image but I’ll add a link to the pdf where the quality and resolution are better. As you can see, Hardt (or one of his collaborators) made a noble attempt at deciphering the scribbles but there are problems with his transcription. At some point later in time, a reader came along, compared manuscript to catalogue and then proceeded to blow everyone out of the water – well, me, at least – with his amazing palaeographical skills. The transcription is really good and completely deciphers this mass of squiggles and blotches. It was a wonderful reminder for me of the expertise and dedication that so many great scholars have had for these manuscripts and their commitment to sharing that treasure of information and learning through careful cataloguing, preservation, editing and publishing.

About me:

I am a fourth-year graduate student in the Byzantine Greek studies program at Harvard University. I am writing my dissertation on the Spiritual Meadow by John Moschos.

An Intern’s Week at the Museum…

By Danielle Parga, June 15, 2012

What a phenomenal two weeks it has been! My name is Danielle Parga and I am the Curatorial Intern for the Dumbarton Oaks Museum, specializing in Pre-Columbian art. I am here to help with upcoming exhibition projects, which as of now involves the fall 2012 exhibition featuring Maya objects, and a 2013 anniversary exhibition of the Pre-Columbian collection.

This week we worked on exhibit color, matching our Maya pieces with a paint color for their display cases, and defining a neutral wall color which would help showcase the individual objects. We all agreed on a subtle grey as a base with individual bold highlight colors for each case study. For an example, our mosaic mask will have a teal blue case while our bone bells will have a tangerine case. We even brought up the painted display cases to the exhibit space to see how the colors would react under the lights – as it turned out, the color looked very different under the gallery lighting.

I also helped update bibliographies on each piece of our collection for the collections database. We have about 700 pieces, so this was an undertaking. I helped transfer information from our program Endnote to an online database so that bibliographies pertaining to each work of art are now available on the web for all those who are curious.
For our 2013 exhibit, which is still in planning stages, I began with some basic research on featured objects. I started compiling information on the famous epi-Olmec Tuxtla Statuette, housed in the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum, to eventually prepare exhibit labels and further auxiliary text. I also looked into a Quimbaya gold statuette from Colombia.
On another note, I was working this week on our Tlazolteotl birthing figure, one of the collection favorites. Our 2013 exhibit hopes to show the stunning history of the piece. For example, Diego Rivera put it in one of his murals and Man Ray did a photomontage of the sculpture. But most famously, Indiana Jones steals a gold copy of it in his well-known opening scene from a booby trapped cave. Thus I spent a good part of the week checking in with Lucasfilm LTD about their replica movie prop. Sadly, it seems it is in another exhibit but they are willing to license the clip of the movie to play within our case. Perhaps this could add a multimedia edge to the exhibit? We’ll find out in 2013…

As for me, I am a recent graduate of Harvard College. During my time there I studied History of Art and Architecture, focusing on pre-Columbian art. In addition, I minored in archaeology considering there was much overlap. Moreover, I got a Certificate in Latin American Studies from the David Rockefeller Center. My honors thesis was titled, Spiritual Smoking: The effects of smoke on incense burners in Imperial Aztec Mexico, which focused on copal incense in relation to burners, space and the body. I am very happy to be a part of the Dumbarton Oaks family for this summer and hope that my future exploits are this exciting!

Dumbarton Oaks Welcomes 2012 Summer Interns

Dumbarton Oaks welcomes fifteen summer interns for summer 2012!  The interns are working on a variety of projects in departments across the institution including our Gardens, Museum, Library, Byzantine Seals, Image Collections & Fieldwork Archives (ICFA), Oral History Project, Publications, and Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (DOML).

The 2012 Dumbarton Oaks Summer Interns are:

Dumbarton Oaks Catalogue of Byzantine Lead Seals
Lain Wilson

Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library
Shane Bobrycki
Rebecca Frankel
Christopher Husch

Garden and Landscape Studies/Dumbarton Oaks Gardens
Robin Abad Ocubillo, Landscape Architecture Intern
Siobhan Aitchison, Landscape Conservation Intern
Alexis Lopez del Vecchio, GIS/GPS Intern

Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA)
Caitlin Balotta

Library, Manuscripts on Microfilm
Vladimir Boskovic
Saskia Dirkse
Roderick Saxey

Museum Curatorial Intern
Danielle Parga

Oral History Project
Erik Fredericksen
Gabriela Santiago

Christopher Alessandrini

Throughout the summer, interns will be blogging on this site to share information about their projects and the experience of being part of the Dumbarton Oaks community.

Interns are introduced to D.O. Library collections with Librarian, Sarah Burke Cahalan