Written by Jessica Cebra, ICFA Departmental Assistant
Between 1927 and 1932, the director of the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, Egypt, Evaristo Breccia conducted three excavation campaigns at the site of ancient Oxyrhynchos, today’s El Bahnasa. The excavations uncovered roughly 500 fragments of decorative architectural sculpture, a mix of capitals, friezes, cornices and other decorated blocks. Breccia published the findings in two volumes of the museum annual, but only featured approximately 200 of the 500 fragments.
Breccia and other art historians, such as Ernst Kitzinger, tentatively dated the fragments as 4th-6th century works. The diverse sampling of Coptic decorative sculpture was given no further detailed study as a whole, until 1953 by Josephine Harris, a former Dumbarton Oaks Junior Fellow. Harris set out to analyze and catalog all of the fragments, in order to discuss their interrelationships, the development in their formal features, and their relationship to decorative sculpture from other Early Christian sites in Egypt, Turkey, and elsewhere in the territories of the former Byzantine Empire. Her work ultimately offered a more specific dating of the fragments to the 5th-6th centuries and deciphered distinct ‘styles’ and developments of the decorative motifs.
Josephine Harris’ time at Dumbarton Oaks as a Junior Fellow in the 1940s inspired her lifelong dedication to researching and cataloging the architectural sculpture fragments excavated from Oxyrhynchos and housed at the Graeco-Roman Museum. The result of her work is now accessible as an archival collection in ICFA: Josephine M. Harris: Coptic Architectural Sculpture from Oxyrhynchos, ca. 1950s-1970s.
Harris’ early interests in Classical studies, archaeology, and numismatics turned towards Coptic sculpture while cataloging art and architecture for the Research Archive at Dumbarton Oaks. The Research Archive, still housed today in ICFA, is a compilation of bibliographic and photographic sources from extant publications about Early Christian and Byzantine sites. Under the direction of Wilhelm R.W. Koehler, Dumbarton Oaks staff and fellows compiled the sources; the timeliness of the collaboration contributed to the efforts of the Harvard American Defense Group to protect and preserve cultural monuments and information during World War II.
Harris started a Junior Fellow in 1942 and continued working on the project until 1945. She described her work and interests in her application letter to renew her fellowship for one more year:
As you know, in the Archives project my section of the Early Christian world is Egypt… I am reasonably sure that by the end of another year I shall have completed all of the Christian Egyptian monuments within our period, that is, from the beginning of the Christian era to the end of the Iconoclastic dispute.
My personal research is concerned with Coptic sculpture and its problems. By a classification and study of stylistic features I am attempting to determine its development and to establish its chronology. At the end of the next year I should have ready for publication a preliminary report of my findings. I hope also to have in more complete form a rather definitive work on the whole subject which would not be published until I had visited Egypt to check my results with the objects themselves.
– From a letter to Paul Sachs, dated April 10, 1944, Dumbarton Oaks Archives, fellows and scholars files, Josephine Harris folder
After leaving Dumbarton Oaks, it took Harris some time to gain momentum on her personal research as she became an art history instructor at Smith College. In 1946, she became instructor at Wilson College in Chambersburg, PA, where she would become the Chair of the Fine Arts Department seven years later in 1953. At this time she also received two fellowships to travel to Europe and Egypt to study Coptic sculpture. Having been granted leave for the academic year, Harris commenced in earnest the research for her Oxyrhynchos catalog; her photographs from the 1953 trip are the earliest dated materials in the collection.
Beginning my own assessment of the collection materials, I was initially faced with the mystery of Oxyrhynchos. The intrigue began with the word itself. To a novice, the name Oxyrhynchos sounds like a cryptic code name for a top-secret operation. Upon taking a closer look at Harris’s photographs depicting the numerous fragments sitting on the shelves, pedestals, and mounted to the walls of the Graeco-Roman Museum, I began to recognize the unique and confusing qualities these pieces of carved stone possessed, and why Harris dedicated decades of her life to understanding them.
Oxyrhynchos was a prosperous regional capital in Hellenistic times and a center of classical and monastic culture. It remained prominent in the Roman and Byzantine eras, though gradually declined up to its abandonment in 641 when the canal system the town relied on fell into disrepair. Today, Oxyrhynchos is better known for the 50,000 or so papyri that were excavated from rubbish mounds beginning in 1897 by Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt of Oxford, financed by the Egypt Exploration Society of London. It was the richest single find of papyri including documents from the time of the first Ptolemies (ca. 300 BCE) to after the Arab conquest (ca. 640 CE). The papyri yielded a huge mass of everyday papers – private letters, shopping lists, tax returns, etc. – but also the songs of Sappho, elegies of Callimachus, Greek tragedies, and fragments of Euclid’s Elements.
‘Early’ and ‘Later’
In my initial encounter with the collection materials, I found all of Harris’ photographs grouped together, separated from the textual documents. Some of the photographs were labeled ‘Early’ and others labeled ‘Later.’ There were also many other photographs labeled with various number identifiers or not labeled at all. The identifiers were a mix of museum object numbers, negative roll and frame numbers, publication plate numbers, dates, and Harris’ own catalog numbers. Many of the photographs were Harris’ own, and others were collected as comparative material. Many were boxed and cataloged in an orderly fashion, while others were loosely scattered. There were also many contact sheets and their corresponding negatives.
After understanding the chronology of Harris’ multiple trips to Egypt and learning how Harris’ catalog connected to her method of labeling her photographic negatives, it became clear that ‘Early’ refers to the photographs taken in 1953, and ‘Later’ refers to the photographs taken in 1963. There are even later photographs Harris took during trips in 1976 and 1978. The ‘Early’ photographs were compiled into an early version of Harris’ catalog that basically placed each fragment into a category of architectural type (e.g., capital, frieze, cornice), and then were subdivided by decorative motif (e.g., plant, geometric, mixed) to more easily compare different renderings of the same imagery.
The ‘Later’ photographs were combined with the ‘Early’ photographs in a later, more developed catalog that included much more detailed description and exposed the logic behind all of the other numerical systems used as identifiers. For example, catalog number 443 corresponds to each of the following:
22984 [Graeco-Roman Museum inventory number for the same fragment]
Roll I, 11 [Harris’s 1953 negative roll number and negative frame number for the image depicted]
Oxy 11 (1/10/63) 13-14 [Harris’s 1963 negative roll number with date embedded, and also negative frame numbers for the additional images depicted]
Oxy I, pl. XLII, 151 [Reference to the illustration plate number in Breccia’s two publications in 1932 and 1933. Harris’s concordance lists refer to the two publications as “Oxyrhynchos I” and “Oxyrhynchos II,” respectively. She often abbreviated them to “Oxy I” and “Oxy II.” The plate number is in Roman numerals and illustration number is noted.]
‘Oxy I’ or ‘Oxy II’
When Harris photographed a fragment that was already published she would make a note of the plate number listed in the Graeco-Roman Museum’s annual publication to match it to her own photograph (Oxy I, pl. XLVIII, 174 = Roll IV, 14). At first I thought ‘Oxy I’ and ‘Oxy II’ possibly referred to something Harris wrote about in her research to differentiate between two decorative styles, time periods, or even between two sets of photographs or rolls of film. It took me a while to realize that two separate volumes of the publication existed, and to get my hands on both of them. Eventually, it became clear that she was distinguishing between the two published volumes.
Harris kept notebooks and many loose sheets of paper to record multiple concordance lists that grew over the years, eventually linking each of the 500 physical fragments to each of their other instances, whether it be a negative, photograph, catalog card, publication plate, or similar object.
‘Style I’ and ‘Style II’
After deciphering all the codes and numbers, and learning a little bit about Oxyrhynchos, the time came to better understand Harris’ research and her reasons for compiling the catalog in the first place. Harris was determined to understand the relationships between the fragments themselves, as well as their relationship with other architectural decoration throughout the Byzantine Empire in the 5th to 6th centuries. Harris took into consideration the influence of local ‘primitive’ or ‘folk’ Egyptian styles, other contemporaneous architecture in the region and elsewhere in the former Byzantine empire, and especially the influence of the imperial workshops in the capital Constantinople during the reign of Justinian. One of the few textual documents in the collection aside from Harris’ draft of her unpublished manuscript is a grant report Harris wrote after receiving funds from the American Philosophical Society to continue her work in 1959. Here, again, she describes the ‘problems’ of Coptic sculpture and the launching point for her research:
“A transitional period which has been especially stimulating and challenging is that which witnessed the change from the pagan ancient world to the Christian medieval one; in a narrower sense, the shift from Roman art to Early Christian art. One concern is the contribution of Egypt to the formation and development of Early Christian and early Byzantine art, and especially with the role played by Coptic sculpture.
…it’s agreed that Coptic sculpture evolved out of the late antique style that was current over the Mediterranean world. It is the Egyptian equivalent, with local characteristics and individualities, of a process that was taking place in all provinces of the Roman Empire: the gradual stylization and orientalization of the more plastic, natural Graeco-Roman style, a process which culminates in the official Byzantine style of Justinian. Coptic art may then be supposed to reveal the Egyptians use and development of a rich and varied Graeco-Roman vocabulary of decorative design and ornamental patterns.”
Once Harris’ catalog was organized and described, she ventured to analyze and compare the fragments to one another, as well as to other examples of similar sculpture. Essentially, Harris came to the conclusion that there were two main styles at Oxyrhynchos. ‘Style I’ encompasses most of the material found. According to Harris, its characteristics are: richness of decoration, preference for plant motifs, and juxtaposition of geometric and natural forms in exhaustive combinations and variations. A deep undercutting of edges also enhances the sharp contrast of light and dark, and often employs extra grooves impressed in the stems, vines, or meander patterns.
‘Style II’ is contemporary with ‘Style I,’ but represents a different tradition involving a simplification and stylization of patterns, sometimes making it difficult to distinguish between vegetal and geometric ones. The patterns are modeled clearly, but not as deeply cut, and tend to look ‘old-fashioned’ and not as dynamic.
Since ‘Style I’ is more popular among the surviving fragments, Harris saw indications of ‘stylistic’ development where renderings of forms gradually become less naturalistic. Since ‘Style II’ has a smaller amount of material to examine, Harris did not determine a comparable stylistic evolution, but believed the ‘style’ remained constant no matter what other impulses arrived from abroad.
Documentation versus Research
After my assessment and revised understanding of why the collection materials were created and how they functioned in Harris’ research, I devised a new arrangement for the collection. To be short, the primary distinction reflects the two different activities through which Harris created the collection materials: the physical activity of documentation (i.e., photographing, developing negatives, printing contact sheets, printing larger photographs, producing slides, and collecting comparative photographs) and the intellectual activity of assembling her catalog (i.e., grouping photographs by category, organizing the categories, attaching the photographs to descriptive note cards, assigning catalog numbers to the photographs). These materials make up the first and second series of the collection. Harris’s unpublished manuscript, which was previously grouped with correspondence, is also included in the second series because it encompasses the intellectual framework of her research and goes hand in hand with her catalog. A third and fourth series were created to compile the few additional records deriving from Harris’ work and other photographic materials that are secondary to, and do not correlate with, the act of assembling her catalog.
The Josephine M. Harris: Coptic Architectural Sculpture from Oxyrhynchos, ca. 1950s-1970s collection is the second collection I’ve processed in ICFA, after completing the assessment and rehousing of the department’s cold storage materials. It has been an enriching experience to learn about a new place, person, and subject and to process various types of documents other than audiovisual formats. The next step will be to physically rearrange the collection materials in accordance with the new arrangement and to rehouse the materials for better preservation. While Harris’ research was never published in a finalized form, her work has lived on in the scholarly publications of others. I look forward to seeing the collection materials in their own finalized form, ready for future research. For the time being, I’d like to leave you with a sampling of Harris’ catalog descriptions, which are quite systematic yet quirky, like the fragments themselves.
Running vine with heavy stem (Nos. 19-27); Running vines with stems intertwined (Nos. 28-38); Vine scrolls (Nos. 39-52); Small friezes with undulating stems and an alternation of grapes and/or leaves in the undulation (Nos. 53-76); Small friezes with undulating stems with leaves only in undulation (Nos. 77-98); Small friezes with double undulating stems forming ovals which contain leaves and/or bunches of grapes (Nos. 99-111); Small friezes with stems undulating and interloped (Nos. 112-116).
Large scrolls with grape vines (Nos. 117-123); Scrolls with animals (Nos. 124-135); Small scrolls with birds (Nos. 136-140); Scrolls with pliant leaves (Nos. 141-153); Scrolls and undulating stems with lotus seed-pod fillers (Nos. 154-173); Scrolls and undulating stems with flower fillers (Nos. 174-187); Scrolls and undulating stems with leaf fillers (Nos. 188-204); Scrolls and undulating stems with various fillers (Nos. 205-217).