Byzantine Institute / Internship / Inventory / Thomas Whittemore

Rethinking Oversize Materials in Archival Collections

Written by Deena Gorland, ICFA Intern (Fall 2014)

Edited by Rona Razon and Shalimar White

Due to previous experiences working at the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic, I was relatively well-prepared for the challenges inherent in processing substantial quantities of oversize materials in the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) of Dumbarton Oaks. Certainly, I was cognizant of how large format materials present a unique challenge to archives, since their physical size requires different organizational and storage needs than normal-sized documents (e.g., personal papers and correspondence).  In addition, the oversize items in ICFA has been intellectually separated from their parent collections; therefore, the context or relationships between the items was lost and needed to be restored.

Starting in 2011, ICFA staff conducted a re-assessment of its oversize architectural drawings, tracings, and rubbings, primarily to evaluate their current storage environments and state of preservation, as well as to determine their history and relationship with ICFA’s primary collections such as The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers and the Robert Van Nice Fieldwork Records and Papers. The goal was also to review and enhance the existing catalog records, for instance location and creator information was updated and/or added. After completing the archival processing of the documents and photographs in the aforementioned collections in 2014, ICFA staff members were well situated to intellectually incorporate or reunite the related oversize materials into the parent collections or into the frameworks of existing finding aids. With this in mind, the overall project goal for my internship was to continue the department’s efforts to enhance access to the oversize materials by developing the existing records, as well as devising arrangement plans for the oversize holdings.

Over the course of the semester, my primary responsibilities were to identify materials related to individual collections within the preexisting inventory records, create separate Excel worksheets for each group, and update pertinent information by physically examining the materials. When evaluating certain groups of architectural drawings, I realized the value of developing a stronger comprehension of a given item’s proper historical context and frequently referred to the existing finding aids for these collections.  This, in turn, provided me with context and an understanding of how these separated items may relate to collections that have already been fully processed and described in ICFA. As a result, I was able to efficiently “group” the item-level records in relation to their parent collection.

After separating the collections into individual worksheets, my second task was to assess the oversize drawings themselves, their overall condition, and various preservation needs.  I scrupulously inspected each drawing, rubbing, and tracing – transcribing relevant text or inscriptions, measuring its size/dimensions, and noting any preservation issues, such as tears, discoloration, or inappropriate housing. In particular, it was important to note whether an item was an original drawing versus a reproduction, since they were frequently interfiled in the same folder and should ideally be separated for preservation purposes. I updated the related inventory records to correct any inaccuracies of previous processors.

The first collection (Early Archaeological Projects Associated with Thomas Whittemore) I evaluated included rubbings of graffiti produced for Thomas Whittemore at Abydos in Egypt, the site of excavations conducted by the Egypt Exploration Society during the 1910s and 1920s.


Thomas Whittemore at Abydos, Egypt, ca. 1910s-1920s. Graffiti of boats visible behind Whittemore.

Converted to digital March 2004

Rubbing of graffiti of boat on the south face of the east pier in the inner chamber of the Osireion (Cenotaph of Seti I), Abydos, Egypt (BF.F.1993.F2846)

A majority of the rubbings from this collection were eventually reproduced and published after Whittemore’s death by his associate, Alexandre Piankoff, in two articles: “The Osireion of Seti I at Abydos During the Greco-Roman Period and the Christian Occupation,” Bulletin de la Société d’Archéologie Copte 15 (1958-1960): 125–149 and “Les Peintures de la Petite Chapelle au Monastère de Saint Antoine,” Les Cahiers Coptes 12 (1956): 6-16.  ICFA holds both the original rubbings created in the 1920s, as well as reproductions likely made decades later for Piankoff’s publications. In his 1958-1960 article, Piankoff stated that “during my visit to Abydos a few years ago I noticed that nearly all the graffiti had faded and become invisible” and that that he offered the article “as a memorial to Prof. T. Whittemore, who made every possible effort to save these few drawings from oblivion” (p.125). As a record of graffiti once scratched onto the pillars and walls of the Osireion (or Cenotaph of Seti I) by Christian visitors in the 5th century, the rubbings preserved in ICFA are now invaluable. The graffiti depict subjects as diverse as boats, crosses, and animals, such as lions, fish, and birds. Or sometimes, a combination such as this phoenix with a cross hanging around his neck.

Reproduction of graffiti from the Temple of Seti I Abydos, Egypt (BF.F.1993.F2860)

Reproduction of graffiti from the Temple of Seti I Abydos, Egypt (BF.F.1993.F2860)

Another prized historical relic was recorded during the summer of 1970 during the joint Yugoslav-American archaeological excavations at Bargala, a site northeast of Štip in eastern Macedonia (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). The records from this project are included in The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers. The American project team at Bargala included veterans from previous Dumbarton Oaks fieldwork projects, including Cyril Mango, Ihor Ševčenko, A.H.S. Megaw, Richard Anderson, and Susan Boyd. Richard Anderson produced detailed architectural plans and topographic maps for the preliminary report, which was published in the Dumbarton Oaks Papers (Blaga Aleksova and Cyril Mango, “Bargala: A Preliminary Report,” DOP 25 (1971): 265-281). These drawings are also preserved in ICFA.

Site plan of Bargala by Richard Anderson (BF.F.1993.F2894). See Fig. 1 from DOP 25.

Site plan of Bargala by Richard Anderson (BF.F.1993.F2894), Fig. 1 from DOP 25.

Detail of site plan by Richard Anderson showing the Church of St. George (BF.F.1993.F2894).

Detail of site plan by Richard Anderson showing the Church of St. George (BF.F.1993.F2894), detail of Fig. 1 from DOP 25.

In addition to the main basilica, the site at Bargala included a smaller structure, the Church of St. George. Project members excavated an area to the northeast of the church and discovered the remains of a cemetery. Inside the church, they also examined the painted decoration and documented the graffiti left by visitors. For example, here is a pencil rubbing of Greek inscriptions found atop a fresco depicting Christ Antiphonetes.

Pencil rubbing of graffiti, Church of St. George Bargala, Macedonia (BF.F.2005.F0014)

Pencil rubbing of graffiti, Church of St. George Bargala, Macedonia (BF.F.2005.F0014)

Fresco of Christ Antiphonetes, Church of St. George, Bargala, Macedonia, Fig. 60 from DOP 25.

Fresco of Christ Antiphonetes, Church of St. George, Bargala, Macedonia, Fig. 60 from DOP 25.

Throughout my internship, I gained a professionally enriching set of skills, and also learned practical techniques for evaluating, arranging, and describing the relationships between oversize materials and related materials, and how they might be integrated through their corresponding finding aids. It also verified my perspective on the need for greater synchronization of inventories and finding aids with the contents they describe to facilitate research. Taken as a whole, my time at the ICFA has only reaffirmed my decision to pursue a career in the field of archival science.


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