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….

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