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Of Plants and Power

New from Dumbarton Oaks Publications: The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century

Posted on Jan 09, 2017 10:35 AM by Lain Wilson |
Of Plants and Power

A Swiss doctor pens the first survey of Russia’s fauna. A British opium trader builds an opulent garden with plants culled from Indian and Chinese ports of call on land bought from the Maori in New Zealand. A Mongol monk writes a medical manual in Tibetan on the fringes of the Qing Empire. A Prussian naturalist takes field notes on Peruvian rafts used to haul massive loads of fruit up rivers.

Welcome to the world of The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century, where plants prove even more globally mobile than the people and politics that set them in motion. Imperial geopolitics meets the systematic study of plants—transformed by new discoveries, inventions, and taxonomies—in this book of essays by sixteen scholars working across five continents. Plants were the focus of cutting-edge experimentation, and botany was big business. Opium could build, or topple, a nation; so could the ginseng that cured an addiction. The ability to identify, document, ship, and transplant the right plants built fortunes and projected power. Trading in plants and exploiting their properties became a key way to grow and run an empire.

The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century investigates the ambitions of the nations that sought to use this power; documents some of the “agents of empire” who were its sometimes ambivalent enablers; charts the routes traced by people and plants around the globe; and examines how people and nations alike used plants to fashion identities for themselves. Featuring 183 full-color illustrations reproduced at high quality from prints, books, and paintings, many drawn from the rich collections of the Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Collection, this book also highlights the artistic merits of the thousands of botanical publications of this age of empires.

The book grew out of a symposium held at Dumbarton Oaks in fall 2013 to celebrate the Rare Book Library’s fiftieth anniversary. Editors Yota Batsaki, Sarah Burke Cahalan, and Anatole Tchikine have brought together contributors from disciplines that include landscape architecture, media studies, comparative literature, archaeology, history, and art history. Readers can also sample its contents through an extensive online exhibit developed in conjunction with the 2013 symposium. Together, The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century and the accompanying exhibit provide indispensable resources for anyone interested in the history of science, the eighteenth century, imperial studies, and the history of globalization.

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New from Dumbarton Oaks Publications

Sign and Design: Script as Image in Cross-Cultural Perspective

Posted on Aug 03, 2016 09:12 AM by Lain Wilson |
New from Dumbarton Oaks Publications

In 2012, an international conference held at Dumbarton Oaks considered cases where image and script were fused into a hybrid sign. Tackling a range of examples from an assortment of cultures, especially those with a natural home at Dumbarton Oaks, the ideas planted then have flowered into a publication, which is being released this month. Editors Brigitte Miriam Bedos-Rezak and Jeffrey Hamburger explain that Sign and Design: Script as Image in Cross-Cultural Perspective marks a shift away from an interest in text and image to a concern for the dialogic role of image in writing.” The book groups its essays into three suggested directions for examining the systems of representation that give script-images meaning: the iconicity of script, text as “imaging the ineffable,” and performativity. Scholars from disciplines including history, art history, and anthropology work in concert to bring together subjects as different as Aztec pictographic writing, Sumerian and Akkadian monuments, and medieval Jewish book art. You can find out more about Sign and Design and purchase it on the Harvard University Press website.

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Notes on the 2016 Garden and Landscape Studies Symposium

Thinking About “Landscape and the Academy”

Posted on Jun 02, 2016 03:44 PM by Lain Wilson |
Notes on the 2016 Garden and Landscape Studies Symposium

The 2016 Garden and Landscape Studies symposium explored the many landscapes of the academy. John Beardsley and Daniel Bluestone presided over four groups of talks that considered not only central campuses but also designed landscapes managed by universities such as gardens, arboretums, and forests. The conference provided opportunities both to reflect on the importance of landscape to Dumbarton Oaks and to explore the complex and constant management of landscape and its larger role in our lives.

The first section of the symposium considered the role of the core campus in the lives and education of students. Joseph Claghorn discussed the monoculture of elms and the significance of their departure from Harvard’s central landscape during the twentieth century and addressed the shifting landscape of the university and the commons. His talk suggested that more diverse communities—whether of plants or students—are also more robust communities.

John Davis and Karen Van Lengen discussed the pedagogical landscapes of vastly different educational institutions on either side of the Hudson River. Davis spoke about West Point and its attempt to use a particular landscape, the “engineer’s garden,” to address a national lack of expertise in military and tactical knowledge in nineteenth-century America. He discussed how nineteenth-century military educators used the “engineer’s garden” at West Point to teach soldiers and citizens to judge a multitude of varying situations. Davis discussed how cadets internalized the landscape of West Point and used its lessons in their later careers. 

In contrast, Van Lengen stressed a different connection between pedagogy and landscape at Vassar College, which was an all-female institution until the late 1960s. Van Lengen focused on how Vassar students made their own landscaping program in response to their surroundings and interests in the environment. Students’ interaction with the landscape at Vassar helped shape the college as an early leader in ecology and conservation. As at West Point, students of Vassar carried conceptions of landscape into their future endeavors. But in the case of Vassar, this was more often in roles of stewardship and preservation of natural landscapes and habitats. Both Davis’s and Van Lengen’s talks addressed the gendered aspects of landscape in American education. They also opened questions about the difference between managing a landscape for practical education as opposed to research.

The middle of the symposium gestured at Garden and Landscape Studies’ continuing effort to bridge history and practice. These sections were crucial in incorporating the perspectives of those who consider themselves primarily practitioners rather than scholars, educators, or historians. Mark Hough and Linda Jewell discussed the various conflicts and compromises involved in reconciling typologies between the campus and the garden at Duke University. Their talk delved into the challenges of balancing the different needs of student use, ecology, pedagogy, and the general public as they interact on the modern campus in America. Hazel Ruth Edwards spoke of the role of landscape as a nurturing force on the Howard University campus. Her talk was strengthened by images drawn from her own familial connections to the institution over generations. Gary Hilderbrand delivered a talk about the Olmsted brothers’ work in designing two campuses, which they hoped would have a transforming effect on the students and university by creating an atmosphere of quiet good taste for the development of character. Hilderbrand’s interest in the Olmsted brothers is informed by his current work developing the same campuses and extending their tree canopies. He noted his role has changed from theirs, as he needs to give voice to a larger number of interested parties involved in these spaces without sacrificing either the intention or the conviction of the projects. The speakers in this section often addressed the question of how to build flexible landscapes. They also concentrated on the need to predict the spaces of the future.

Another session of speakers addressed the role of campus and landscape in changing social and political contexts outside America. John Dixon Hunt spoke of the symbolic and literal changes in the design of buildings and landscapes in the new British universities, in contrast to the older Oxbridge models. Tianjie Zhang discussed the reconfiguration of Chinese university landscapes in the early twentieth century during the period of intense educational reform. Burak Erdim gave an extensive discussion of academy and landscape in Turkey during the Cold War. Finally, Hilary Ballon added a twenty-first-century perspective by speaking about her instrumental role in building NYU Abu Dhabi’s new campus. Her talk raised multiple issues around globalized education and the advantages and limitations of the exported American campus. She also suggested possibilities for the American campus model to adapt to different cultures and contexts around the world. 

The last section discussed community, conservation, and environmental landscape. Peter Alagona talked about the role of field stations in American university research and academic life. He addressed the importance of these spaces in conservation and ecology, particularly in light of California’s ongoing water crisis. Dino Martins from the Mpala Research Centre in Kenya stressed the importance of making scientific research applicable to the lives and challenges of small farmers in East Africa. He also spoke of the importance of understanding the effects of population growth and its impact on wildlife and conservation in the coming century. In conclusion, David Foster spoke about the history and legacy of Harvard Forest and Farm. Foster’s work spans multiple communities across the ecology, research, and education sectors, and both his and Martins’s talks addressed spaces that work as hubs of knowledge negotiating between different interest points.

Speakers at the symposium emphasized the importance of stewardship and ecology. They also noted the opportunity to teach students these concepts and values within the landscapes of the university campus. Among other topics, the symposium raised questions about the limitations of the neoliberal university in the twenty-first century, the increasingly urgent issues of elitism, and the treatment of women. They particularly highlighted the necessity of adaptation as the needs and uses of university landscapes change. Dumbarton Oaks, which transformed from a residence into a research institute with the transfer to Harvard in 1940, is representative of this need for continual adaptation.

As a complement to the symposium, the gardens staff recreated an early modern physic garden once planned on paper by Beatrix Farrand, which she based upon a physic garden in Padua.

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Good Ink

Dumbarton Oaks in the news

Good Ink
  • The role of Dumbarton Oaks—and of Director of Byzantine Studies Margaret Mullett—in the continuity of Byzantine Studies and in fostering the field is mentioned in G. W. Bowersock’s review of two recent books by Judith Herrin, “Storms Over Byzantium,” in The New York Review of Books 60, no. 18.
  • The Friends of Music concerts of November 3rd and 4th by pianist Joel Fan were recently reviewed in the Washington Post.
  • The October symposium on "The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century" and Linda Lott's Four Seasons of Flowers were reviewed by Patricia Jonas in the Newsletter of the Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries, no. 131 (November 2013).

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Bliss Symposium Award Recipients

Five Harvard students received Bliss Awards that allowed them to attend the "Sign and Design" symposium

Posted on Nov 07, 2012 02:40 PM by lisaw |

Dumbarton Oaks awarded five Bliss Symposium Awards to Harvard students to facilitate attendance of "Sign and Design." The Bliss Awards are intended to enrich students’ academic experience through attendance at Dumbarton Oaks symposia that relate to their fields of studies. Below are reports from four of the award recipients about their experiences attending "Sign and Design."

Bliss Symposium Award recipientEmma Langham Brown

Emma is a junior at Harvard University concentrating in Medieval History and Literature and pursuing a secondary field in French Language and Literature. She is particularly interested in medieval materiality, and in conjunction with her department is currently designing a course called Taking Place: Medieval/Material/Culture that has an accompanying blog. Emma writes:

I am honored to have had the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C in mid-October for "Sign and Design." I'm fairly certain I was the only undergraduate student there, and I felt a little nervous in the presence of such an array of scholars. But as it turned out, my questions were welcomed. All of the brilliant scholars I met at Dumbarton Oaks were more than happy to talk about medieval scholarship with me, despite my 20-year-old novice-ness. I came away from the conference with 12 pages full of notes, a head full of ideas, some wonderful new friends, and a thesis idea. I was so inspired by the last segment of the conference, "Instrumental Images," in which Ghislain Brunel of the Archives Nationales in Paris and Beatrice Fraenkel of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales gave brilliant papers that both played on the idea of the signature or the logo in medieval texts, that I would like to consider medieval insignia in tandem with the modern logo for my thesis next year. I am thankful for such a mind-opening experience.

Denva Jackson

Denva is a third-year PhD candidate in the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University.

While at Dumbarton Oak’s "Sign and Design" symposium this weekend, I was reminded of the reverence given to the word in the medieval and early modern period. Christ was the word made flesh and even though we and theologians of the Middle Ages turn to his representation time and time again, it is actually the word that preceded everything.

Yet, how can we as art historians talk about words? Should we not leave this to our friends in the study of history and literature? I am reminded of the talks given by Katrin Kogman-Appel and Irvin Cemil Schick on Jewish and Islamic art in which words are not only used as signifiers to create meaning but also, through their careful rendering, are meant to be seen in the same light as images. They illustrate reverence; they presence the sacred. We also see that texts can be frames or storehouses for images. Cynthia Hahn in her talk on the Gellone Sacramentary showed us that not only do images punctuate the text, they stand as markers for our attention, focusing our gaze and centering us in the moment.

It has been suggested by scientists that we use the right side of our brain to process images and our left to process text. What, then, should we make of this slippery collision of two different forms of signification? Must we tease them apart as our brain does or can we see them as constantly referring to each other in a sort of dance? I believe the scholars at the "Sign and Design" symposium would suggest the latter and I think those who took part in the creation of the objects wouldn’t disagree.

Bliss Symposium Award recipientErika Loic

Erika is a fourth-year PhD student in the History of Art and Architecture. Her dissertation research is on medieval manuscript illumination, monasticism, and Bibles in medieval Spain.

Prior to October’s "Sign and Design" symposium, I had visited Dumbarton Oaks on two occasions. Each of these prior visits had been organized as a full-day session for a group of students looking at some particular part of the collection, in one instance Byzantine ivories and in another a whole variety of objects from the Pre-Columbian Collection. These sessions were focused, intense, and very much object-based. They also benefited from the participation of fellows, who led us through discussions of objects they knew particularly well.

I bring up these previous visits to give a sense of the great variety of my experiences at Dumbarton Oaks. In contrast to these single-day sessions, the "Sign and Design" symposium offered me something of a very different nature. The speakers who presented papers during these two and a half days were selected meticulously and with an eye to fruitful discussions between scholars in different disciplines. Shared themes emerged elegantly in talks that were—at least superficially—very different. The potential for interdisciplinarity is inherent in the nature and mission of Dumbarton Oaks, but this was the first time that I had been able to participate in it so fully.

My participation in this symposium had almost immediate effects on my teaching and my own studies. Within a week, I was already incorporating some of the images and discussions from "Sign and Design" into the course I am teaching currently, “Picturing the Bible, 300–1300.” In particular, talks by Herbert Kessler and Katrin Kogman-Appel helped me to widen the scope of what I had been teaching.

My one-on-one interactions with the symposium speakers during lunches and evening receptions were also wonderfully and unexpectedly beneficial. I will relate but one single example out of many: although Irene Winter is a Professor Emerita in my own department, I had never had the chance to speak to her until this symposium. Although I am not working in her specific field, she was amazingly generous with her time, offering me some very thoughtful advice on starting (and ultimately finishing!) a dissertation.

I am filled with gratitude toward Dumbarton Oaks for hosting such a rewarding event and for making my visit possible through the Bliss Award. If "Sign and Design" is any indication of what one can expect of a Dumbarton Oaks symposium, then I look forward to many more years of symposium attendance.

Natasha Roule

Natasha is a second-year graduate PhD student in Historical Musicology. Natasha is also pursuing a secondary field degree in Medieval Studies. Her research interests include troubadour music and its reception history, as well as modern interpretations of Early Music.

The rich and sensuous spectacle offered by the gardens, the Music Room, and the presentation slides emphasized one of the symposium’s conclusions: to question the meaning of signs, designs, words, and symbols to engage all the senses. As a student of historical musicology—and in particular of the music and culture of medieval troubadours—this conclusion is especially meaningful to me. Auditory entities, particularly when inscribed and ornamented on the page of a manuscript, also function as signs that provide meaning unique and immediate to their cultures. While presentations recognized that symbols and signs are crystallized in the surface onto which they were inscribed, discussion returned these signs to their human creators and to their original status as objects deeply imbedded with immediate meaning.

I am deeply appreciative that I had the opportunity to participate in the "Sign and Design" symposium, and will forever remember the unique feeling of interdisciplinary, scholarly, and humanistic community that it fostered.

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Script as Image at Dumbarton Oaks

A summary of the proceedings of the Sign and Design Symposium

Posted on Nov 07, 2012 02:36 PM by lisaw |
Script as Image at Dumbarton Oaks

Organized by Brigitte Miriam Bedos-Rezak (New York University) and Jeffrey F. Hamburger (Harvard University), the symposium placed the phenomenon of script as image (as opposed to text and image) in a cross-cultural perspective. Participants presented research on the medieval Latin West, the Byzantine East, the Islamic world, Jewish manuscript illumination, and both Pre-Columbian and post-colonial Latin America.

Our age, in which computers have taken over all forms of textual production and promise to give new meaning to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century concepts of “automatic writing,” has witnessed a widespread nostalgia for, or at least sympathetic interest in, older, more personalized forms of writing, such as calligraphy, glyphs, and graffiti. The relationship between word and image has long been a staple of scholarship. Of these, ut pictura poesis is only the most familiar. Ekphrasis is another. Variations on the text-image paradigm include oppositions between oral and written, hearing and seeing, and, in the medieval West, Latin and the vernaculars -- a hierarchy of languages, both spoken and written, that varies in its relationship to visual forms of expression. Whereas semiotics insisted on the linguistic nature of all systems of representation, and Derrida’s deconstruction, building on Saussurian linguistics, emphasized the logocentricity of Western thought, the anthropological turn in the Humanities has redirected attention to the ways in which images and imagistic modes of presentation augment and enhance the primacy, presence, and power of speech. The symposium sought to tap into and interrogate the newfound interest in presence, or in the production of effects of presence; in issues of agency -- the agency, not only of human actors, but also of objects; and in the role of materiality in the production of meaning.

Contributors explored ways in various cultural traditions have organized the relationship between image and letter, whether in terms of equivalency, complementarity, or polarity. Papers explored those situations in which letter and image were fused, forming hybrid signs that had no vocal equivalent and were not necessarily bound to any specific language. It emerged that while imagistic scripts work on the visible, troubling representation, they also challenge the legible in terms of linguistic signification. The incorporation of figures, objects, colors, even events, within the letter insists on the material dimension of the sign. As the iconicity of the letter transforms reading into gazing, the script-like character of the image compels consideration of the co-signification of sign forms. In mediating each other into altered formats, the script-image disrupts a-priori models and ideas and thus redefines both text and image in terms of their signifying and representational processes. The disruptive effect of imagistic script inheres in a suspension of meaning that defamiliarizes the system of representation and signification in which it was produced and circulated.

Looking at the material and visual dimensions of script, including pictographic, ideographic and logographic writing systems, as well as alphabetic scripts, the contributors offered a variety of ways to consider this entire nexus of issues. Are the visual dimensions of script essential or extraneous? Do they merely shape expression or are they constitutive of meaning? Such questions go to the heart of the relationship between representation and reality.

Participants pictured above are (back row) Irvin Cemil Schick, Ivan Drpić, Cynthia Hahn, Didier Méhu, Ghislain Brunel, Elizabeth Boone, Tom Cummins, Anne-Marie Christin, Beatrice Fraenkel, Antony Eastmond, Vincent Debiais, Herbert Kessler, Irene Winter, (front row) Katrin Kogman-Appel, Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, and Jeffrey Hamburger.

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The Measure and Meaning of Time in the Americas

A summary of the 2012 Pre-Columbian Studies symposium

Posted on Nov 07, 2012 02:36 PM by lisaw |
The Measure and Meaning of Time in the Americas

Pre-Columbian Studies was both honored and delighted to host 130 scholars over the Columbus Day weekend for its annual symposium, The Measure and Meaning of Time in the Americas. Organized by Anthony Aveni of Colgate University, the program brought together a group of scholars from diverse disciplines to address the ritual and calendrical representation of temporal existence in the Mesoamerican and Andean worlds. Speakers included Alfredo López Austin (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), William Barnes (University of St. Thomas, Minnesota), Harvey Bricker (Tulane University), Victoria Bricker (Tulane University), Linda Brown (George Washington University), Jahl Dulanto (DePauw University), Markus Eberl (Vanderbilt University), Richard Landes (Boston University), John Monaghan (University of Illinois at Chicago), Stella Nair (University of California, Los Angeles), Juan Ossio (Universidad Pontificia Católica del Peru), and Tristan Platt (University of St. Andrews). The meaning of time in the ancient Americas was compared with both conceptual and functional meanings among other cultures. Pre-Columbian Studies looks forward to the resulting publication.

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Now on View: The Ancient Future

Mesoamerican and Andean Timekeeping

Now on View: The Ancient Future

The Aztec, Maya, and Inca civilizations used complex and multiple timekeeping systems for purposes of agriculture, worship, and political authority. Because little of the material record of the pre-Conquest peoples of the Americas survived, scholars through the ages have had limited primary sources to study in order to reach a comprehensive understanding of timekeeping in the Americas.

The Library’s newest exhibit was prepared to coincide with the recent Pre-Columbian Studies symposium, "The Measure and Meaning of Time in the Americas." The online exhibit further explores these themes.

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Sign and Design Symposium

Posted on Jul 06, 2012 09:53 AM by lisaw |
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Dumbarton Oaks is pleased to announce the symposium Sign and Design: Script as Image in a Cross-Cultural Perspective (300–1600 CE), which will take place at Dumbarton Oaks from October 12 to October 14, 2012. During the three-day conference, co-organized by Brigitte Bedos-Rezak (New York University) and Jeffrey F. Hamburger (Harvard University), scholars of Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Pre-Columbian cultures from numerous disciplines—art history, history, literature, religion, linguistics, and law—will come together to consider the purpose, operations, agency, and specular forms of iconic scripts. Please visit the symposium’s webpage for further information, including abstracts, the program, and a registration form.

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Food and the City

2012 Garden and Landscape Studies Symposium

Posted on Jun 01, 2012 03:55 PM by lisaw |
Food and the City

The intricate interrelationship between urban context and food production, central to the current debate on sustainability, was the focus of the 2012 Garden and Landscape Studies symposium at Dumbarton Oaks. The conference explored the links between culture and cultivation, with particular attention to the modern era and urbanization schemes that engaged the production of food, either as a means to achieve self-sufficiency, or as part of a ruralist perspective. As the city displaced food production further from its center, the relationship between living, working, and eating became more abstract. Today, this relationship is tested across planning and community design schemes: American suburban developments include agricultural land as a conservation measure and a nostalgic nod to a pre-agribusiness countryside; European designers focus on the suburban-rural interface to develop a new type of productive landscape, one performing simultaneously as an open space system and an agricultural laboratory; and in cities like Kampala, Uganda, or Rosario, Argentina, urban agriculture is part of a participatory design process that integrates housing programs.

Organized by Dorothée Imbert, the symposium provided a critical historical framework for today's urban agriculture by discussing the multiple scales, ideologies, and contexts of productive landscapes, from allotment gardens to regional plans. Topics included the production and distribution of food in relation to human settlement and urban form, from German Siedlungen to Italian Fascist new towns, and Israeli kibbutzim to contemporary Tokyo. The conference placed particular emphasis on the efforts of modern and early-modern landscape architects, garden designers, and architects/planners to reconcile the demands of feeding cities and regions with the exigencies of urban expansion.

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Rome Re-Imagined: Byzantine and Early Islamic Africa, c. 500–800

2012 Byzantine Studies Symposium

Posted on May 04, 2012 05:10 PM by lisaw |
Rome Re-Imagined: Byzantine and Early Islamic Africa, c. 500–800

The short period of Byzantine rule in the Maghreb belies the region’s importance to the empire in the sixth and seventh centuries. Given the profound economic and strategic significance of the province of “Africa,” the territory was also highly contested in the Byzantine period—by the empire itself, Berber kingdoms, and eventually also Muslim Arabs—as each of these groups sought to gain, retain control of, and exploit the region to its own advantage. In light of this charged history, scholars have typically taken the failure of the Byzantine endeavor in Africa as a foregone conclusion. The symposium sought to reassess this pessimistic vision both by examining those elements of Romano-African identity that provided continuity in a period of remarkable transition, and by seeking to understand the transformations in African society in the context of developments in the larger post-Roman Mediterranean. An international group of researchers from North America, Europe, and North Africa, including both well-established and emerging scholars, addressed topics including the legacy of Vandal rule in Africa, historiography and literature, art and architectural history, the archaeology of cities and their rural hinterlands, the economy, the family, theology, the cult of saints, Berbers, and the Islamic conquest, in an effort to consider the ways in which the imperial legacy was re-interpreted, re-imagined, and put to new uses in Byzantine and early Islamic Africa.

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