Written by Beth Bayley, Archivist Assistant
People today just love to sing the praises of technology. We especially love to think back to the past, and speculate about how much more our predecessors could have accomplished if they had our technology (Lewis and Clark with GPS! Or Da Vinci with a laptop!).
Here in ICFA, we have plenty of vintage technology, including a collection of fieldwork notebooks (as mentioned in Setting the Stage: Background on the Byzantine Institute), which served as records kept by the Byzantine Institute fieldworkers restoring the mosaics in Hagia Sophia and Kariye Camii in the 1930s-1950s. Below are some images of the men at work in Hagia Sophia.
Imagine if the fieldworkers uncovering and restoring the mosaics had smartphones, instead of quaint little notebooks and smudgy pencils. Think of the efficiency! With smartphones, they could have photographed their work as they did it, and tapped out notes on the fly. Or they could have made digital audio recordings of what they did, saw, and felt.
For example, Fani Gargova, ICFA’s Byzantine Research Associate, just found a brief mention of Edward VIII’s visit to Hagia Sophia on Saturday, September 5, 1936, in a notebook by Richard Gregory. It would have been great to hear how the workers felt about the royal visit. If they had the technology, the workers might have tweeted their impressions out to the world, rather than writing them in a notebook:
For a look at Edward VIII and Thomas Whittemore, director of the Byzantine Institute and the man behind Hagia Sophia’s restoration, please visit the Dumbarton Oaks Library and Archives Facebook Page here.
Every spring for about 20 years, a number of workers would come to Istanbul for a season of fieldwork. Several core members, including Ernest Hawkins, George H. Flockton, the Gregory brothers (William and Richard), Albert H. Lye, H.S. Hatcher, Alec T. White, Nicholas Kluge, and A. A. Green, returned to Istanbul from their homes in England and other places to spend a summer and part of the fall working on the mosaics in Hagia Sophia and Kariye Camii.
Several conservators got their start at Hagia Sophia, and although Whittemore was not a trained archaeologist, he believed in thorough documentation of his projects, and many of the methods he introduced are still currently in use. To see what mosaic restoration looks like today, check out this video from St. Catherine’s in Mt. Sinai, Egypt. Incidentally, contemporary conservators still use dental tools, just like the workers did in Hagia Sophia.
Whittemore required each worker to keep a notebook, to take daily notes and to illustrate, to the best of their abilities, whatever mosaic or image they were working on. The workers recorded information on conservation techniques, diagrams of the location of their work, and the occasional observation about what life was like in Istanbul in the 1930s and 1940s. These notebooks are probably the only existing original record that describes in detail how the mosaics were uncovered and cleaned.
At the beginning of each season in May, the workers would set up their scaffolding and their lights. Each panel would be divided up, so everyone had an area that they were responsible for. Below is a page from William Gregory’s 1936 notebook, “Book of diagram showing work from day to day.” It is clear that each worker had a task, whether it was tracing, toning down or replacing conservations, or cramping.
The notebooks contain a range of information, from text to diagrams to drawings, depending on the skills and interests of the fieldworker. This page, from Nicholas Caruana’s 1949 notebook, shows a lunette panel border in Kariye Camii:
A 1951 article in Archeology magazine describes the process of uncovering the mosaics:
“The laborious and tedious job of cleaning each tessela has begun. The surface and edges of each cube must be carefully cleaned, as well as the all-important interstices between individual cubes. Whereas the heavy plaster over-coat is removed by the gentle and judicious use of chisels, the later stages of the work are carried on with delicate dental tools and brushes of the very finest quality. No solvents, liquids, or chemicals of any kind are used.” (William MacDonald, “The Uncovering of Byzantine Mosaics in Hagia Sophia” Archaeology, Vol. 4, No. 2, Summer 1951, p. 89-93).
Thomas Whittemore believed in a low-interference model of conservation, directing his staff to avoid altering or “improving” the mosaics. Michael James, one of the workers, described it in his 1949 notebook:
“The Whittemore Method of conservation is right. It is an impersonal method. The mosaic is left as it is found but intact. The spirit of the mosaic is never tampered with; for nothing is added, no cubes rearranged; no attempt is made to replace. Here, by the grace of Thomas Whittemore, the Byzantine reveals himself.”
In the collection The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers, we have a variety of hues, sizes, and styles of fieldwork notebook. Everything from humble steno pads, their acidic pages now crumbling, to big elaborate sketchbooks made to last.
Some of the notebooks may have been bought elsewhere, purchased from stationers in England or France, but there are also some Turkish-produced notebooks.Periodically, the field notes were typed-up for Thomas Whittemore to review. It is also possible that some were typed so that backup copies could exist in multiple locations. The notes contained summaries of work progress and records of how decisions were made, and Whittemore used the information to assist him in writing his reports.
The original notebooks were passed along to the Byzantine Institute Library in Paris, and eventually made their way to Dumbarton Oaks, when the fieldwork materials were donated here two years after Whittemore’s death in 1950.
Notebooks, like the ones in our collection, may be vintage, but are far from being obsolete. They may even be more popular than ever.
An informal survey of ICFA shows that 5 out of 7 of us keep Moleskines or the equivalent as journals, planners, or collections of thoughts and to-do lists – in addition to our smartphones. William Powers, in 2010’s Hamlet’s Blackberry, talks about how even now, in our super-connected era, sales of blank notebooks are growing. Powers thinks that the surge in popularity of blank books has to do with the fact that they don’t demand anything from us:
This humble tool…gives me a sense of order and control. Unlike my screens, which thrust words, images, and sounds at me all day and night, my paper notebooks project no information at all. The pages are blank. They invite me to fill them with information, and when I do, it’s information of my own choosing that I write with my own hand…
Digital screens are tools of selectivity, too, but using them is more reactive, a matter of fending off and filtering. Because a paper notebook isn’t connected to the grid, there’s no such defensiveness… (Hamlet’s Blackberry, p.152)
Because truly, who says the Byzantine Institute workers would have been more productive if they had access to today’s technology? They also might have been more easily distracted (just like us).
We all have had the experience of taking pictures of something rather than spending time actually looking at it. A camera can capture a moment, but can also serve as a divider, keeping us from the kind of thorough contemplation that a monument or mosaic might deserve. Their camera-free, unmediated working method meant the workers had to look very closely at what they were doing, and take time and care to record it.
And of course as archivists, we are grateful that they had notebooks, because this antiquated technology can still be read.