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)

The oblivion of history

The Byzantine Seals collection of Dumbarton Oaks is one of the institution’s many hidden gems, in this case, literally tucked into a corner of the labyrinthine basement. Dumbarton Oaks has over 17,000 seals, the largest collection in the world. These small pieces of lead represent a fantastic window into the complexity of Byzantine culture, stamped by officials often more than a millennium ago to seal and dignify their correspondence. The tragedy of the seals collection, as Jonathan Shea always says, is that because these seals contain an interior channel through which a string passed, they are slowly degrading from the inside, a process that we have not been able to stop with modern conservation technologies, though not through lack of trying.

I’m working on digitizing some of D.O.’s monogrammatic seals, which are stamped with at least one monogram giving the seal-owner’s name, titles, or offices, in addition to other inscriptions, invocations to the Virgin Mary or to Christ, and iconography, generally of a religious nature. Monogrammatic seals are of the early Byzantine period, and are often quite simple in comparison to seals from latter centuries. Most seals in Greek, the predominant language of the Empire, while some are in Latin, holdovers of the fallen Western Roman Empire, yet a fraction are in Arabic, Syriac, and other languages spoken by the various populations living within the imperial boundaries.


These little seals can be quite complex, though the monogrammatic seals are generally much less complex than leaden seal of the Middle Byzantine era: often, stamped onto one 20 mm lead blank there will be a portrait of the Virgin Mary, a monogrammatic invocation to her, an inscription containing the seal owner’s name(s), and an additional monogram containing multiple titles. However others can be quite simple, perhaps with just a cross on one side and a simple monogram on the other. Most contain common names of the period: Constantine, John, Peter, Theodore, etc., though others contain stranger names and names that are even completely unattested otherwise; these leaden seals show emperors and generals, but also tax officials and silversmiths: all too often they are the only extant evidence of the very existence of these citizens, of the very life they once led and deeds they once accomplished, of the fleeting honors and titles that these citizens and officials of the Byzantine Empire, otherwise completely lost in the oblivion of history, once reveled in.

Solving these monograms and cataloguing them provides the brunt of my daily labor, as part of Dumbarton Oaks’ effort to make an accessible, online catalogue of our giant collection as a tool for academics and budding sigillographers to utilize wherever they might be. As the metal within these seals slowly degrades, this catalogue, including fantastic high definition photos taken by our very own Joe Mills, becomes a more and more important scholarly resource, to preserve these relics of Byzantine administration, and of people lost and forgotten in the history books.

Cross-pollinating archaeology, gardening and conservation

As the Garden Conservation intern for this summer, my tasks have been very diverse. As part of my research, I have been studying the history of the Dumbarton Oaks gardens and the people who created and contributed to the gardens over the years, notably Mildred Bliss, Beatrix Farrand and Ruth Havey. I have also been studying nearby gardens and parks (Dumbarton Oaks Park, Montrose Park, Hillwood, Meridian Hill, among others); familiarizing myself with the works and ideas of Beatrix Farrand, the main designer of the Dumbarton Oaks gardens; and reviewing all the current standards, protocols and guidelines related to the conservation of cultural landscapes. One of my objectives for the summer is to help the Garden and Landscapes department develop an approach that perceives and manages the gardens as a dynamic, flexible cultural landscape, as a place that is simultaneously historic and contemporary, as a place where the contributions, ideas and designs of many people are subtly layered. A place that is changing and evolving as constantly as the plants, animals and insects that inhabit it, and yet there is a sense of continuity and history. One of the places in the gardens that I feel best expresses this “layers of time” effect is the Arbor Terrace (also known as the perfect place for a tea party), where Farrand’s original design is quietly meshed with Ruth Havey’s stone curves, and then crowned with the fantastic chicken wire installation known as “The Cloud”.


What is conservation, though, and what makes it different from preservation? Preservation, mostly used when referring to historic preservation, essentially means sustaining the existing form, integrity and materials. Conservation, however, is more about curating the landscape: preserving the past, while engaging with the present and future in interesting ways. Change has always been part of the Dumbarton Oaks gardens, the most dramatic example being the ultra-modern glass pre-Columbian museum wing, which in the 1960’s replaced the fountain that now sits in the ellipse.

Now imagine this completely flooded

Now imagine this completely flooded

Another one of my tasks has been to complete the excavation of the frame yard in the kitchen garden, started by 2012 garden conservation intern Siobhan Aitchison. With help from gardener (and fellow Peruvian!) Luis Marmol, so far we have cleared the vegetation and weeds over the area, and cleared some of the profiles. Excavating without my trusty and well-worn trowel at first felt strange, until Luis showed me just how useful a Hori Hori knife, a Dutch-style weed puller, and a metal rake can be! No wonder some of the tools in the toolkit of the archaeologist have been adapted from gardening tools…However, due to the fact that so far we have had an extremely wet summer, with almost daily rains, we have not been able to make much progress with the excavation. Today I went to visit the frame yard and thanks to the intense rains of the night before, it had become a gigantic birdbath!

The luscious tomatoes

The luscious tomatoes

Like my fellow garden interns Kate and Matt, I also spend two days a week helping the gardening crew with a wide array of tasks including weeding, pruning, watering, planting and replanting. I have been working mostly in the area around the Kitchen Garden, which includes the vegetable garden, the herbaceous border and the cutting garden. The vegetable garden is my favourite place so far (after the delightful swimming pool, obviously); where else can you weed while smelling the basil and being surrounded by tomatoes? I also like the orchard, where I once saw a squirrel push another

A flowery artichoke

A flowery artichoke

squirrel out of a tree. The second squirrel, who was clutching a crabapple, went flying out, fell on its back, and after a few seconds, just picked up his apple and ran off….

About me….I am Rosabella Alvarez-Calderon and I have a  B.A and a professional degree in Archaeology from Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru and have worked in both pre-Columbian and historical archaeology for several years. In 2013 I graduated from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design with a Master’s Degree in Design Studies, specializing in Critical Conservation.

A flocks of mums....

A flocks of mums….

A Summer at Dumbarton Oaks: The Written Presence of Oral History

Dumbarton Oaks has been supremely accommodating these five weeks past: the staff is knowledgeable and welcoming, the work engaging, and the amenities are minor astonishments.

Buoyed by up all day by strolls through the museum and our proximity to the delicious D.O. garden, I work on the Oral History Project. My task is to contact former affiliates of Dumbarton Oaks, from librarians to archivists to gardeners to researchers to administrators, and request interviews; those affiliates who acquiesce I proceed to research, alongside my partner James Curtin, so that we can draft questions to ask over the course of the interview (which we later conduct, transcribe, and post on the web).

Our general strategy in drafting questions is this: we want to know how a given interviewee discovered Dumbarton Oaks, how he or she perceived the atmosphere here, what he or she did professionally and deemed to be of especial significance, the complications and consequences thereof, who the interviewee consorted with while here, and also any anecdotes (amusing, we hope) that shed light on the culture of the institution (the pool is a magnet for such stories). We think that such a strategy elicits responses from which can be reconstructed the most crucial shards of D.O. history, shards important to administrators as they determine how best to steer Dumbarton Oaks based on the vector and quality of its wake; and important to scholars who can refer to the archives in exploring whether D.O. is a good fit for them and their research, in exploring how to take full advantage of D.O.’s prodigious but optimally organized collections, and finally in exploring the research and methods of their great precursors. We also flatter ourselves into thinking that the interviews are of general interest.

Joan Southcote-Aston in the former Dumbarton Oaks Princeton Index Reading Room, 1965.

Joan Southcote-Aston in the former Dumbarton Oaks Princeton Index Reading Room, 1965.

For those of our readers who want to overleap the transcripts and land right in the fun stuff, my partner has booted a blog for the Oral History Project’s greatest hits (which he has gone on to blog about—super-hip, no?), centering on the many modes of recreation here at D.O., great scholars whom we unfortunately couldn’t interview for whatever reason, and D.O. miscellany, from the goofy (Fletcher’s Castoria, anyone?) to the primly sublime (meet Ms. Joan Southcote-Aston!). We hope the blog both sparks new interests in its readers and renews respect for D.O.’s richness and strangeness. And the blog is just the tip of the iceberg—after poking around there, we do recommend that you check out the full interview transcriptions!

When I’m not History-Projecting, you can find me playing junior archivist in the basement of the Main House. Stop by, say hi, make a suggestion for Oral History Project blog posts.


Joshua Wilson is from Grand Junction, Colorado; he recently graduated from Harvard College.

Garden-scale GIS

Despite growing up in the DC area, this is my first chance to spend time in Georgetown. I had never even heard of Dumbarton Oaks prior to May of this year! I’m very thankful to John Beardsley and Gail Griffin for this opportunity to work here. The first half of the summer working as the GIS intern has been wonderful and I’m looking forward to the second half.

 Pruning wisteria in the summer is a Sisyphean task. These Urn Terrace tendrils grew in five days!

Pruning wisteria in the summer is a Sisyphean task. These Urn Terrace tendrils grew in five days!

Like Kate and Rosabella, the other Garden and Landscape Studies interns, I spend about two days a week working in the gardens with Dumbarton Oaks’ professional gardening crew. So far, I have worked in the central part of the gardens from the orangery downhill to the the ellipse fountain. I’ve done a little bit of everything in the gardens: weeding, watering, carrying pots, pruning wisteria (an almost constant job in the summer with all this rain!). I’ve enjoyed both working directly with the gardening team as well as the more solitary tasks where I’m kept company by the catbirds and chipmunks. Spending extended periods of time working in the garden has helped me appreciate the garden’s design and Beatrix Ferrand’s vision for the property.

My GIS work at in gardens is as varied as my work in the garden. This summer, I will update a few of Dumbarton Oaks’ maps, attempt to map the relationship between soil moisture conditions and tree infections, explore how native bees interact with the garden landscape. My main task this summer is to expand the garden’s GIS tree database to include trees in the non-public areas of Dumbarton Oaks. A previous intern, David Wooden, cataloged the trees in the public gardens during the summer of 2010.


Many gardens around the world have been converting their scattered paper records into a GIS database. Not only does the database allow you to plot the exact location of each tree, but also keep records of each tree’s condition and any disease treatment or maintenance work performed. The 2011 GIS intern, Charlie Howe, produced a user manual so that anyone on the garden staff can enter observations on trees throughout the year. The database uses unique ID numbers for each tree to relate spatial location with tables of non-spatial observation data. Each tree point is associated with three data tables: observations on the tree’s status, records of work done on the tree, and any photos associated with the tree. The database is and always will be a work in progress, and much of the data are sparse at the moment. In the future, we hope to include more photos of trees to visually track their condition over time.

An example tree point and associated data. Tree point highlighted in blue.

An example tree point and associated data. Tree point highlighted in blue.

To illustrate, the image above shows the Red Oak on the South Lawn near the Orangery. The tree point itself stores location and elevation data and is linked with four observations. The initial observation in 2010 was made by David who measured the tree’s diameter. The June 2012 observation recommends checking for bacterial leaf scorch. The March 2013 observation records bleeding canker and ambrosia beetle damage.

Left, bleeding canker on Red Oak (Quercus rubra) in the Green Garden. Right, Redbay ambrosia beetle (Xyleborus glabratus) in Florida, photo by Stephen Ausmus at USDA (http://www.flickr.com/photos/usdagov/8411820043/), used under CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0).

Left, bleeding canker on Red Oak (Quercus rubra) in the Green Garden. Right, Redbay ambrosia beetle (Xyleborus glabratus) in Florida, photo by Stephen Ausmus at USDA (http://www.flickr.com/photos/usdagov/8411820043/), used under CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0).

(An aside on a common tree disease: Bleeding cankers are dark, wet patches on tree trunks caused by a fungus-like organism called Phytophthora and are very hard to treat. Phytophthora lives in the soil and the cankers are exacerbated by wet conditions and existing tree wounds. The liquid oozing from the cankers is sweet and alcoholic and attracts ambrosia beetles and other boring insects looking for a meal. These secondary afflictions further weaken the tree and spread more Phytophthora.)

Hard at work! The diameter of a tree is a standard proxy for its overall size. Photo by Walter Howell

Hard at work! The diameter of a tree is a standard proxy for its overall size. Photo by Walter Howell

For the past two weeks, when I’m not out in the garden, I’ve been wandering around the property with measuring tape and clipboard in hand. Each tree in the non-public garden needs to be measured and checked against the database location from previous CAD surveying efforts. Many trees were removed and many new trees planted during the construction of the library a few years ago. Rectifying the data has been a challenge! Mapped trees in the area below the chicken coop and pit house were especially hard to located until I realized that the fence boundary was mapped incorrectly.

Left: field map of the area between the Dell and the Garden court. If you haven't taken a walk west past the library, come check out two lovely winding paths through the woods! Right: Trees to map and measure.

Left: field map of the area between the Dell and the Garden court. If you haven’t taken a walk west past the library, come check out two lovely winding paths through the woods! Right: Trees to map and measure.

In addition to my main work on the trees, I have been updating maps for the visitor’s brochure and for facilities management. The new visitor’s map will have better labeling of garden zones to help visitors learn about and better appreciate the garden’s design and history.

In-progress map of garden zones. Some names, extents, and locations may be labeled incorrectly.

In-progress map of garden zones. Some names, extents, and locations may be labeled incorrectly.

cf. Perplexing Bumble Bee (Bombus perplexus) near Hume, VA

cf. Perplexing Bumble Bee (Bombus perplexus) near Hume, VA

Some of my interests in addition to maps and spatial analysis are entomology and ecology. I’ve been assisting with a citizen science project monitoring bees in Virginia native grasslands and I’d like to use some of those methods to map how bees and other pollinators are using the garden landscape. Which garden zones attract the most pollinators? Where are the bees traveling across the garden? How can the garden be managed to promote healthy populations of native bees? With this project, I hope to produce a useful map for the garden and to help Dumbarton Oaks’ garden staff harness the powerful analysis, research, and decision making aspects of GIS.

About me: I’m currently earning a certificate in GIS studies while completing a Master’s thesis in Geology/Paleontology from Penn State. I studied Geology and Religion at William and Mary. In the near future I hope to combine my interests in GIS with citizen science, landscape use, and biogeography, into a fulfilling career.

The Mysteries of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library

There must be something secret brewing in the Mezzanine. Why else the high security? “STAFF ONLY: This door does not lead to an exit or any Museum Exhibits” warns not one but two signs in the stairwell. The door is locked. I myself have even seen the stairs barred by a velvet rope.

What are they trying to hide?

What are they trying to hide?

A distinguished scholar of medieval literature

A distinguished scholar of medieval literature

I speak not yet as an insider, but soon. I am but the latest initiate in the Mysteries of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, joining this curious cult alongside my colleague Sasha Benov (who blogged recently). Grand Mystagogue Raquel Begleiter has guided us through the first ceremonies, and we all await our ultimate meeting with the Pontifex Maximus Jan Ziolkowski.

What secrets I have obtained so far I will share – but many are those which I know lie ahead to be discovered, and more are those whose existence I cannot even yet fathom. In the infamous words of Donald Rumsfeld – not an initiate in the Mysteries of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library:


“There are known unknowns: that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns: there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

Not a distinguished scholar of medieval literature

Not a distinguished scholar of medieval literature

This I know: next year, we will be publishing a volume entitled Latin Lives of Muhammad. The book collects medieval writing on Islam and its patriarch. It’s my job to edit the volume’s spelling, formatting, and style. Among the texts I’ve edited so far, I’ve encountered a 9th century Latin translation of the Byzantine chronicler Theophanes, an anonymous 14th century biography of Muhammad, an anonymous biography from a manuscript in Pisa, and a controversial work known as The Apology of al-Kindi, a Latin translation of an Arabic text that claims to be two letters exchanged between a Muslim and a Christian.

Unsurprisingly, all of these texts are extremely hostile towards the Islamic faith. However, they are fascinating pieces of historical evidence. For example, although the Western texts graphically defame Islam, their cruel satires show a degree of Christian knowledge of Islamic religion and folklore. The hajj and the prohibition of alcohol and pork make appearances, as do references to daily prayers, the Islamic view of paradise, and tales about Muhammad’s miracles.

Illustration of Muhammad from a Latin translation of the Qu'ran

Illustration of Muhammad from a Latin translation of the Qu’ran

Of course, the Christian authors twist these facts in their propaganda. The Pisan manuscript horrifyingly explains the prohibition of pork by telling the story of a Jewish woman who deceives Muhammad (who had hoped to make love to her), kills him, and feeds his body to swine in a sewer. Because of this, Muslims now refuse to eat pork, the author explains. Beneath its repulsive exterior, this tale shows that one cannot mock a belief without knowing about it first.

Fascinatingly, both the anonymous 14th century text and the Pisan manuscript present Islam as a Christian heresy – not as a foreign religion. In the first, Muhammad is revealed to be the adopted name of Nicholas, an early Christian deacon who left the Church to found his own religion in act of revenge. In the second, Muhammad is merely a camel-herder duped by an evil Christian named Maurus, himself a companion of Nicholas. This rewriting of history strips the Muslims’ Muhammad of his agency, reducing him to a puppet figure in an intra-Christian battle between true faith and heresies. It also reveals the true purpose of the text: to rally Christian readers behind a uniform religious identity by warning them of the consequences of religious betrayal. Most appropriate literature for a period of crusading.

Without doubt, this volume will make waves – as much as any bilingual edition of medieval literature can, at least.

I have many more rites to complete in the Mysteries of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. As I learn more secrets, I will certainly share them.