Notes from the Garret

by Christopher Alessandrini, July 30, 2012

For two months now I’ve been copyediting and compiling Dumbarton Oaks’s 2011–2012 annual report. If you haven’t already, check out last year’s report. It’s an exquisite volume edited by Sara Taylor, Kathleen Sparkes, and Lisa Wainwright. I carry it with me to and from work on a daily basis, almost as a talisman. (“Still reading that book, huh?” the security guard is almost certain to say.)

What it boils down to is this: I spend a lot of time copyediting—restructuring sentences; fretting over serial commas, en dashes, and title formatting; Googling scholars and their institutions of study, etc. The Chicago Manual of Style and I have mumbled and bumbled our way through the gawky early stages of acquaintanceship and are, I am happy to report, in the process of cementing a lifelong friendship. Strunk and White are as always charming and flippant and wonderful conversationalists, though one might say too rigid in their declarations. Merriam Webster and I go way back; I won’t bore you with the progression of our friendship, though I will concede that recently we’ve had some unexpected spats. “Yearlong” could’ve been the end of us, Merriam and me.

When I’m not copyediting, I’m either scribbling to-do lists on post-its, monkeying around on InDesign, sending pesky emails to DO’s wonderful staff (apologies to those who experience dread at the sight of my name in your inbox—you guys have been wonderful!), and searching for photographs to illustrate the report. Here’s a sample spread; the frontispiece features a stunning photograph by Alexandre Tokovinine:

Preliminary Frontis

A preview spread, featuring a beautiful photograph by Alexandre Tokovinine

Because the annual report is essentially an institutional yearbook, I spend a lot of my time rummaging blindly through the unkempt bowels of the Shared drive in search of usable images. This often necessitates the unearthing of some mysterious marginalia: Santa Claus making a jolly, bearded appearance at the Christmas party; croquet on the North Vista; old photographs from fellows’ events that appear to be direct descendants of  “Luncheon of the Boating Party” and Edward Gorey’s “The Doubtful Guest.”

Oddly, this all comes together in the refectory. As I watch you artfully rearrange those three leaves of salad on your plate, I know that you’re secretly a cubed cheese fiend (Christmas party, 2011) and that you’ve written a dissertation on cranial modification as rite of passage in Pre-Columbian cultures. I think you’re great. And you—I read your report on the comparison between two botanical texts from the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries and I’m itching like mad to talk about them but I don’t even know where to start. I feel young and unwise and in over my head, but it’s not a bad place to be, not really. I read your reports—these narrow windows into your lives—and I feel like I sort of know you, if only a little. I’ve known you for five hundred words and already I’m cheering for you.

One story that especially held my interest involved the re-creation of the Dumbarton Oaks Tunic in sugar cookie squares. Some Pre-Columbian junior fellows crafted it as a farewell to former director of Pre-Columbian Studies, Joanne Pillsbury. Take a look:

The Cookie Tunic

Dumbarton Oaks Tunic, in sugar cookie squares

Andrew Hamilton, the junior fellow who spearheaded the project, managed to kill two birds with one stone: frosting the individual tocapu squares proved a painstaking process, but it offered Andrew unexpected insight into the tunic’s makeup. He was forced to interpret it in a defamiliarized context; in carefully reproducing the tunic square by square, he noticed patterns emerging that he’d glossed over in the Textile Gallery, where the tunic remained behind a pane of glass. This surprising research allowed Andrew to complete a chapter of his dissertation.

About Me

I’m a rising sophomore at Harvard College from Lexington, Massachusetts.

The Imperial Seals Online Exhibit

Lain Wilson, July 26th, 2012

After a whirlwind of a summer, my seals internship has come to an end. I was very happy to have assisted in the first phase of uploading commentaries and transliterations to the online catalogue. In addition, I was lucky to have had the opportunity to work with a new part of the Dumbarton Oaks website, the “online exhibits” feature. Complementing the completion of DO Seals volume 6, Jonathan Shea and I created an online exhibit for the imperial seals, which is presented here as the final project of the internship, although the process of cataloguing will no doubt stretch on for some years.

The exhibit is in five parts. Largest and most important is the chronological section, which includes a representative seal, typically one whose imperial portrait is the best preserved, and an accompanying short biography and commentary on the seals for each emperor included in the Dumbarton Oaks collection. I picked out the examples, wrote the biographies for emperors up to 1204, and selected the appropriate quotations from the sources; Jonathan did the same for the post-Fourth Crusade emperors, as well as the design and layout for the website. An example, of Herakleios and his son and associate Herakleios Constantine, can be found here.

The other four sections cover specific seals or elements: a selection of usurpers whose seals demonstrate some interest in their iconography or design, the development of religious imagery, the evolution of imperial titles, and the design programs employed by rulers to convey an ideology of imperial dynasty. These sections attempt to demonstrate the ways in which Byzantine lead seals function as works of art, on the one hand, as well as, on the other, works of propaganda.

Lead seals, like coins, were a form of circulating portraiture, not only promulgating the emperor’s image, but also a sense of his relationship to the divine, to his family, and, not least importantly, to the past. Byzantine society was not static, but it made great efforts to portray itself as consistently and, oftentimes, as conservatively as possible.

But change it did: Greek titles replace Latin ones, family names appear, saints’s cults expand and elaborate. Lead seals, employed by Byzantines over a thousand years of the empire’s existence, are chipped from its cultural fabric. In many ways provide a faithful guide to the ways in which an outward form might appear consistent while its elements undergo fundamental transformations.

Ludus Ludorum: The Game of Games


In D.O.’s Pre-Columbian collection, you can see several objects associated with the bloody ancient Mesoamerican “ballgame,” which often culminated in human sacrifice. The interns’ croquet matches this summer have featured slightly less bloodshed, but just as much ferocity.


Croquet may seem dainty and laid-back, especially when you’re playing in the extensive grounds of a DC mansion, but it’s no leisurely lawn game. We interns have been playing after hours for ultimate glory, and there is no pity.

There have been multiple showdowns. The first ended with many of the girl interns doing cartwheels, while Lain and Danielle (ahem, myes) came in for the win. In the last game, DC’s summer humidity tested many of us, while mosquitoes savagely punished those foolish enough to brave the gardens without bug spray (i.e. all of us). But alas, such distractions cannot crush pure talent. There were victory laps and tears, cruel game plans and screams of fury.


Now as summer winds down, there are only three weeks left to find out who is true king of the Game of Games…

July 7th: Nationals vs. Giants


It was hot!


We interns decided to do a group baseball game during our stay in DC. Six of us hopped on the Metro and made our way over to the stadium, peanuts in hand. It was days after Independence Day and it was crazy hot. Luckily we were under an overhang or else the sun would have been unbearable. Sweating, we watched the game, which was very close. At one exciting point, a home run ball landed right in the next section over. It came down to the 9th inning where the Nationals pulled through with the win.


Reconstructing the Scripture

Rebecca Frankel, July 27, 2012

Salve from the Mezzanine! Atop the main house at Dumbarton Oaks, I have spent the past six weeks bonding with my good friends Paul, Jesus, Allen and Greenough to help create the framework for a bilingual edition of the New Testament. This version of New Testament will form the sixth and final volume of the Vulgate Bible series to be published under the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library.

The Vulgate Bible, translated by Jerome from ancient Hebrew and Greek texts, dates back to the late 4th century. Seeking to promulgate the scripture among a wider audience, Pope Damascus commissioned Jerome to compile and revise previous versions of the Bible in a new Latin translation.

Though this text remained wildly popular up through the 15th century, its Latin is no longer a “vulgar” attribute as we round the first decade of the 21st. By publishing Jerome’s Latin next to Richard Challoner‘s literal but legible 1752 translation, we at DOML have been striving to make this text accessible to a wider contemporary audience.

Our process is not quite as simple as it might initially appear, consisting of far more than the juxtaposition of these two texts. Challoner’s translation is chock-full of bizarre punctuation and archaisms, requiring its own 2012 revision in conformance with the Chicago Manual of Style. Take Challoner’s translation of Revelations 21:8:
But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, they shall have their portion in the pool burning with fire and brimstone; which is the second death.

With a little bit of modern grammar-policing, this verse will read:
But the fearful and unbelieving, and the abominable and murderers and whoremongers and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, they shall have their portion in the pool burning with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.

Words such as “linnen,” “chearful,” and “murtherers,” though adorable, get the axe, becoming comparatively mundane cheerful linen murderers.

Complications extend to the process of formatting the Latin text. From the start, we face a major challenge in that there is no one definitive version of Jerome’s Latin. Conflicting manuscripts abound, and though we believe Challoner was primarily consulting the 1592 Sixto-Clementine edition, the two often diverge. Seeking to reproduce the Latin text which Challoner was reading as closely as possible, we must embark on a back-translating treasure-hunt to find the version that best corresponds to his English for any given phrase.

Thus, the Latin in this

is actually a holy hodgepodge of these

As deadlines approach, our work has begun to near its finish, and our commander in chief, Angela Kinney, prepares to depart. Most patient of pedants, most devoted of DOakers, she shall be sorly missen by her worker beeves.


About Me:

I am a rising sophomore at Harvard College from Temple, Texas.

Digitization: Handling the Past with Kid Gloves

by Caitlin Ballotta, July 19, 2012

I am currently in the digitization phase of my summer project here in the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) at Dumbarton Oaks.  (For a bit more information concerning the online exhibit I am designing, take a look at my previous blog post, “History:  The Story Starts with the ‘Stuff.’”)  Having devoted the past few weeks to producing electronic copies of photographic prints from several of ICFA’s collections, I have come to realize that converting the physical to the virtual is both an art and a science.

Unaltered photograph (before cropping) revealing negative decay

You see, the initial aim of archival digitization is to produce (as far as is possible) an exact replica of the collection item—to create, in this case, an electronic “original” that reflects the true state of the print photograph. Thus, be there inexplicable blotches and blobs, misshapen borders, or grainy patterns, my job is to capture them all. Before you begin to feel too disappointed, though, let me assure you that these are not the files that will ultimately appear online; the unaltered versions exist for documentation purposes and further serve as backup files (just in case The Unspeakable should happen).  I will make any necessary touch-ups, including cropping and color correction, to a separate, smaller file before publication.  Only the best will do for our viewers, of course!

Adjusting the camera height in order to capture the entire image within the frame

Digitization, however, is easier said than done.  Far more involved than pushing a button and watching a computer do its work, creating an electronic replica of a print is achieved through what can at times be a rather lengthy process of trial and error.  Each photograph has a unique “fingerprint” of sorts—its own size, degree of darkness or lightness, paper type and texture, and even reaction to environmental or storage conditions over time; therefore, every image offers the technician a new set of challenges. In my case, after selecting an array of images to feature in the upcoming online exhibit and attempting to digitize several of them using ICFA’s flatbed scanner, I discovered that many of the photographs’ high levels of contrast, in addition to the incredibly
(, incredibly) glossy paper on which they were printed, yielded a “hazy” pattern when scanned.  After several failed experiments (of which I will spare you the details), I concluded that digitization by camera was the only viable alternative.

Experimenting with various filter settings in order to produce the best digital representation of the original print

Converting ICFA’s Slide Room into a photography studio, I devoted an entire week to photographing the photographs (as ridiculous as that turn of phrase may sound) to be used in the exhibit.  While this method called for a good deal of experimentation with lighting and filter settings, ultimately requiring me to capture multiple versions of each image for eventual comparison and selection, I am quite pleased with the results.  Now in the midst of cataloguing, cropping, and retouching the digital files, I am excited about the progress I have made over the past few weeks and look forward to finalizing the exhibit…Stay tuned!

Cropping digitized photographs for online publication

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.