Assessment / Hagia Sophia / Robert Van Nice

Clandestine Heirlooms

Boxes 43 and 44 have been very straightforward, which is comforting after the confusion of the previous box or two.  Arranged chronologically, they contain Van Nice’s own folders (as is clear by his handwriting on the labels) containing miscellaneous papers relating to the Hagia Sophia project year by year.  The folders all contain the same kinds of papers—general correspondence with other researchers or professors interested in his work, with workers that he has kept in touch with from previous years, with schools or institutions asking him to come speak, and so on.  They also contain some time sheets, expense sheets, travel materials, and the occasional photograph or drawing.  Despite the relative internal disorder, the folders do make sense as a group.  However, when compared to earlier folders of boxes 38-40, for example, there is a lot of chronological overlap, and it is unclear why some of the budget material appears in these folders and some in the previous set.

As opposed to many institutional records that are kept according to standards year after year, the Van Nice papers are unique because of the always-changing scope and scale of the Hagia Sophia project.  For the first few decades, Van Nice reported his expenses only to Emerson, who financed the entire project.  These reports were generally informal, irregular, and often embedded into much longer and varied correspondence.  When the project became a part of Dumbarton Oaks in the late 1950s, there was necessarily an increase in the amount of formal paperwork to be done, but even that fluctuated with the changing administrations, the amount of money that was available to finance the project, and so on.  Because the Hagia Sophia project was essentially a one-man-show for so long, through so many changing circumstances, it makes sense to expect a certain amount of inconsistency with its records.

For our purposes, this means that the administrative files category may have to remain slightly chaotic–partly because an intense item-level re-organization would be artificial and time consuming, and also because the as-is condition of these papers reflects the essential nature of the project and the changes it went through.  Since the admin files really only amount to a few boxes that, while not perfect, are certainly intelligible, we have tentatively decided that it seems reasonable to make sure the folders are roughly chronological and leave it at that.

I was excited to come across a small set of correspondence between Van Nice and a historian of science whose work I encountered in my undergraduate studies—Derek J. de Solla Price.  Price was interested in ancient technology, including medieval and Byzantine surveying and engineering, which naturally interested Van Nice. In addition to their brief exchange, I found a few pamphlets for the Xth International Congress of the History of Science, which took place in 1962.  It proved to be a history-of-science-heavy box, because later on I found more correspondence between Cyril Stanley Smith and Van Nice, discussing the C-14 dating that Smith had attempted to do on some plaster samples of Hagia Sophia for Van Nice.

The “Antikythera mechanism,” an ancient Greek computation device. Price was the first to identify it as an astronomical calculator of sorts. Image via Wikipedia Commons.

As always, I came across a few great quotes from the correspondence.  Perhaps my favorite, from a letter written by Van Nice to a friend:

“A few days ago I was delighted to receive the collection of beaten-up underwear, etc., which I transmitted to you clandestinely at Sinai for delivery back in the land of the free and the home of the you-know-what. And what a collection! No self-respecting Bedouin would be caught dead in such heirlooms.”

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