The Melancholy Beauty of the Past

A few months ago, Dumbarton Oaks announced the new online exhibit of the Nicholas V. Artamonoff Collection, available via their website.   This will provide scholars access to documentary images from archaeological digs from 1935-1945.  This is not especially exciting.  Such types of projects are always being announced on email lists.  Many such are in work.

The Dumbarton Oaks Artamonoff collection

But the images…

Black and white photo of ruined carved lintels incorporated into walls

Dumbarton Oaks is a house, a museum, and an organization, dedicated to the study of the Byzantine Empire, pre-Columbian South America, and landscape studies:

Dumbarton Oaks Research Collection

These images, photographed on archaeological digs in Istanbul, Ephesus, Hieropolis, and other sites in western Turkey, create a relationship with ruined stone, ancient carvers, and modern viewers.

Black and white photo of late-antique fresco revealed in rubble walls

While the purpose of this photography was the documentation of archaeological exploration of Byzantine architectural remains, the images have a vibrance that belies this static goal.

Elaborate carvings of a glittering world (ancient Rome and Byzantium) lie in pieces on the ground, with real foliage growing across their stylized carved foliage.  The camera caught these contrasts in shades of gray and black and lighter gray, shedding light on fragments of the past for us to experience them, 75/1000 years later and many cultures between us.

The internet, of course, has made it possible for us to share photographs as easily as making a phone call or filling out a form.  But when these images were captured, photography required large, heavy cameras, expensive equipment, and long exposures.

Black and white photo of ancient capitals heaped among ruins


But the photographs.

I began working my way through the images.  These were from a group of about 500 photos from archaeological digs undertaken by Dumbarton Oaks.  The sites are of interest to scholars of the late-antique and early-middle ages.  There is a lot of rubble, sand and dust captured by these photos.



Black and white photo of ancient capital built into later stone wall




Yet there is also dignity, reverence for the past, and an openness to sharing information that makes the effort on the part of this particular website so refreshing.


Black and white photo of geological stone layers against dark sky



And the images are stunning.  The quality of the black and white film makes them seem as though ruined rock and shifting sand are velvet and damask.


Black and white photo of ancient circular staircase in ruined walls

I wanted to share these photographs with our FIT family because the archive is beautifully shot.  Here are pieces of grand buildings, built to glorify humankind’s most dramatic empires.  They repeatedly survived world strife, pain and greed; yet they have a velvetty black and white abstraction which makes them look “Modern”.  I hope you will find these images as inspiring as I have.

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One Response to The Melancholy Beauty of the Past

  1. Gifari says:

    Well that really nice , artistic buildings in ancient times was superb and really creative, Nice share this is good

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