Sequencing Ancient Pottery from Northern Afghanistan


Bactrian bowl (left) and Greek bowl (right)

BY CHARLOTTE MAXWELL-JONES, PhD student, U-M Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology

Pottery is one of the most common archaeological finds.  This is because unlike cloth, wood, food, even human remains, pottery doesn’t chemically break down, and almost everyone in the ancient world used it for storage, transportation, and dining.  Archaeologists use pottery as evidence for daily behaviors, trade and travel patterns, cultural contact, and dating.

I have been lucky enough to work on a large corpus, or collection, of pottery from northern Afghanistan for almost four years.  All of the pottery is from the capital of ancient Bactria, the easternmost frontier conquered by Alexander the Great in the late 4th century BCE, and right now it is stored in Kabul, Afghanistan.  I am studying this pottery to create a chronological sequence for the city it comes from.  This will help us date the deposits the pottery is found in and help us determine how the capital interacted with neighboring cities.

There are two types of “chronologies”: relative and absolute.  Relative chronology will tell you what is before and after something, but it doesn’t give you a date.  Absolute chronology will tell you the date of an object, either specifically (October 1957) or generally (late 3rd century BCE).  Both types are useful, but I started with a relative chronology.   To do this, I first looked at all the pottery I was studying, from about 600 BCE to 600 CE, and figured out what pottery shapes were present (turns out, a lot!).  Then I went through and wrote down how many examples of each shape I found in each archaeological deposit.  Usually pottery shapes come into use, grow in popularity, and then decline—a lot like fashion trends.  So I look for these trends in pottery and then make a list of what order the shapes show up in.  Jeans are a perfect example: bell-bottom jeans came before ripped, stonewashed jeans, which came before wide-legged jeans, which came before low-rise jeans.   Pottery was just as much a part of people’s daily lives as clothing, and although the trends may not have changed as quickly as jeans in the late 20th century, they are just as recognizable.

Studying this pottery, I’ve been able to see big changes in pottery types.  In the Achaemenid Persian period, right before Alexander the Great came to Bactria, undecorated, peach-colored pottery is popular.  After the Persian Empire is conquered, there is a huge growth in the number of shapes and decorations in use.  Some of these shapes and decorations are so similar to what has been found in Greece and the Near East that if they were side by side, it would be hard to tell them apart.  Although it’s not the globalization that we have today, this shows that despite distance, people in the ancient world were connected to one another.

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From the Field: How tall was this pyramid?

BY GEOFF EMBERLING, Assistant Research Scientist, Kelsey Museum, blogging from his fieldwork site at El Kurru, Sudan

Due to overwhelming demand, I am giving my answer to the question of how tall our pyramid would have been when first built. The angle of the facing stones is about 73 degrees, and if you just do a calculation on that basis (yes, it’s trigonometry), you get a height of about 43 meters.

If you do a more detailed (and accurate) calculation based on the size of the blocks and the setback of each course, you find that the pyramid had about 72 courses of stone and that it was about 34.5 meters high.

These calculations are remarkable partly because the pyramid has a much lower angle now, and it’s only a bit over 9 meters high. So a very rough reconstruction shows what the profile of the pyramid would have looked like originally:


Is that even remotely plausible? Where did all that stone go??
We looked at some nearby sites, and it seems that it is plausible—there are some pyramids at the site of Nuri from about the same period of time that were built of solid stone and have survived better, and they could have been close to 34 meters high. They also have a profile like the one I’ve reconstructed here.


We don’t know where all the stone went…but some of it seems to have been used in the village over the past century or two.

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Conservation for Seleucia Show, Part 3

BY BRITTANY DOLPH, Graduate Conservation Intern, UCLA/Getty Conservation Program

It may come as a surprise that sometimes conservators decide to not treat an object, after consulting with archaeologists and curators. One reason for this might be that the treatment would destroy information that’s important to scholars. This always has to be weighed against the risk that the artifact could fall apart or change irreversibly. An instance in which we might not treat an object would be the case of this figurine that has a black resin or sticky substance on it.

 A ceramic figurine, shown from the rear, showing a thick, black accretion along a break edge.

A ceramic figurine, shown from the rear, showing a thick, black accretion along a break edge.

Though the resin might be considered an eyesore, we did not remove it in case it is actually an ancient repair. In fact, there are references to repair materials and practices in classical sources, one of which is pitch.  On the other hand, a more modern mounting material, such as displayed by this figurine, was indeed removed, by placement in a vapor chamber. The solvent vapors penetrated the adhesive attaching the mounting material, allowing for quick and gentle removal.

Left: stone head fragment “before treatment” (IL2012.04, TMA 1931.436), to which has been adhered a modern mounting material. Right: “after treatment” shot, in which the mounting material was removed.

Left: stone head fragment “before treatment” (IL2012.04, TMA 1931.436), to which has been adhered a modern mounting material. Right: “after treatment” shot, in which the mounting material was removed.

Another way we use information is to decide which objects are in greatest need of treatment. Given a limited amount of time, objects that could just use a surface cleaning to spruce up their appearance may have to wait three months if there’s another object in danger of falling apart! One of the more major treatments undertaken for the Seleucia exhibition was the desalination of this vessel, which showed a frightening patch of salt crystals around the rim and handle.

Left: detail image of salt crystals on the surface of a ceramic vessel (IL2012.04, TMA 1931.144).  Right: the ceramic vessel in a desalination bath, with the probe of a conductivity meter immersed to measure the concentration of the remaining salts.

Left: detail image of salt crystals on the surface of a ceramic vessel (IL2012.04, TMA 1931.144). Right: the ceramic vessel in a desalination bath, with the probe of a conductivity meter immersed to measure the concentration of the remaining salts.

Archaeological objects are exposed to numerous substances during burial, the source of which can be the soil, materials dissolved in liquid water moving through the site, or even the object itself, perhaps from manufacture. Salts of the water-soluble variety can be dangerous when they enter the body of a ceramic or other porous object, simply because the crystals can expand and contract with changes in the humidity of the air. Expansion, as you can imagine, places a lot of stress on something, especially if it’s expanding from the pores within. To combat the salts, conservators perform what we call desalination: in these cases where the vessels are well fired with no surface decoration, we immerse the vessel in a bath of specially purified water. The idea is to flush the salts out of the ceramic, while tracking the progress with a meter that measures the presence of the dissolved salts in the water. If the vessel had had surface decoration, the process would have been trickier; likewise, if it had been poorly fired, or even fired at a low temperature, it would have run the risk of disintegrating completely in the water. Thankfully, we determined that this vessel was good to go for the desalination bath—and by all counts, was successfully rid of its soluble salts.

As you can see, we do keep busy in the conservation lab—and the Seleucia exhibition was no exception!

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Curator Favorites

When it comes to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s collections, not all artifacts are created equal. Some call out to us intellectually, others emotionally. To that end, we asked our curators to name their favorite Kelsey artifact or object. Here is the sixth in a series.

Amphora by the Berlin Painter

Amphora by the Berlin Painter

BY LAUREN E. TALALAY, Curator Emerita and Research Associate (retired Associate Director and Curator for Academic Outreach), Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, Adjunct Associate Professor, The University of Michigan

 Favorite Artifact: Amphora by the Berlin Painter. Clay, Attic Red Figure (ca. 480 BC). Common Fund purchase 1977. KM 1977.7.1

Why. The amphora’s aesthetics as well as its subject matter. The simple beauty, wonderful color, rich black background, and elegantly drawn people move me. I love the way the painter has given us two individuals focused only on each other. It’s a poignant moment frozen in time of a warrior going off to battle or returning from war. Although the topic’s roots go back to antiquity, we can still relate to the difficult issues of war in our time. While it is hard to see, there is also a shield behind the warrior that was incised by the artist but never painted. It makes me wonder why the artist never finished it.

About Artifact.  The painter of this amphora, who like many other Athenian vase painters never signed his name, can be recognized by his style on more than 300 vessels, some of which are among the most beautiful surviving examples of red-figure pottery. He is called the “Berlin Painter” after his masterpiece now in Berlin (Antikensammlung). His simple, elegant composition often “spotlights” one or two figures against the dark background.

The scene on this side is most likely one of sacrifice, with the young warrior setting off or returning from battle. Facing the youth is a woman who may be his wife. The warrior holds a spear; an incised, but never painted, shield is faintly visible behind and to the left of him. The reverse depicts an old man with a staff, perhaps the warrior’s father. The young man also holds a vessel, which, however, seems to be the wrong kind for a libation or sacrifice scene.

Background. In scenes of this nature, figures are more often painted holding a non-footed vessel called a phiale. The piece may have been incorrectly restored before it arrived at the Kelsey. The Kelsey Museum purchased the Amphora by the Berlin Painter through Bruce McAlpine of Bruce and Ingrid McAlpine Ancient Art, London dealers. It was part of the ex-collection of Lord Belper of Nottingham, England.

Find It.  First, locate the ancient Greece exhibit case on the first floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. This exhibit case faces the wall of windows. While standing in front, look toward the right-hand end of the exhibit case where the artifact sits.

Two Talalay books—In the Field: Archaeological Expeditions by the Kelsey Museum, coauthored by Lauren E. Talalay, and Prehistorians Round the Pond, coedited by Lauren E. Talalay—are available in our Gift Shop.

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3D Gabii: (Re)excavating the Past

BY MATT NAGLAK, PhD student, U-M Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology


3D image of an excavated wall

One of the major problems of excavation is its innately destructive nature. Once a layer of dirt is excavated or a stone is removed, it cannot be put back. It is therefore vitally important to obtain all the information possible not only about the layer itself but also its relationship to all the layers around it. Unfortunately, it is not always possible for an archaeologist to know in advance what information is going to be needed to understand the site as a whole. Often no one realizes that significant information has been lost until the excavation is finished and analysis has begun.

In the past, the only way to combat this problem was to take photographs and detailed notes. The Kelsey and IPCAA projects at Gabii and Sant’Omobono, Italy, however, are using new technology to create 3D photomodels of layers that will in a sense let us “reexcavate” the site after the actual digging is finished, recovering valuable data and relationships otherwise lost. One of my jobs on the site of Gabii is to take pictures and then create the 3D models for each of the trenches. Then we are able to look again at the surface of a layer in all its detail, almost as if it had never been removed in the first place. With the click of a mouse we can excavate a trench again or reinsert earlier layers, moving in either direction through time in a way never before possible. This ability has proven invaluable to how we understand the results of excavation and is sure to be a staple of future archaeological work. I am very excited to return to Gabii this summer to continue this innovative work!

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From El Kurru to Ann Arbor: Q&A from the Field

BY GEOFF EMBERLING, Assistant Research Scientist, Kelsey Museum

I received a nice note from Julie Donnelly, who teaches at Clague Middle School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her 6th grade students had a bunch of really good questions about the dig and about living in a village in Sudan. It turns out that 6th graders are pretty smart! I’m going to try to answer their questions in several posts over the next week or two.

One group of questions was about life in the village.

Is El Kurru considered to be *modern*? For instance, do people have cell phones, furniture, and computers?
Do they have grocery stores?
Is there a citywide call to prayer, and, if so, how does it affect your team and their work schedule?


There are maybe 1,000 people living in El Kurru village (nobody seems to know for sure). The village is modern in some ways. There are four shops on the main street, including Waleed’s grocery store (above), the barber shop where I got my haircut, and a coffee shop that would amaze you—a woman making the delicious local coffee called jebena on coals that rest on the floor, which is sand. So, not a lot of businesses, but there are a few. People drop by the grocery store all day long . . . women sometimes feel more comfortable shopping through a window on the side of the store rather than going inside.

Nearly everyone here has a cell phone . . . one feature they enjoy is an ability to play the radio out loud on their phone while we are all working in the excavation. In fact, Sudanese went from having a pretty minimal wired phone network to a complete mobile phone network in a very short period of time in the last 10 years or so, and it is changing everything about working and living in Sudan.

And yes, there are mosques in the village, and we hear calls to prayer throughout the day (with loud calls to prayer starting at 5:45 am!). The person who gives the call to prayer is called a muezzin, and we all have our favorite ones. This is one of the more observant Muslim places I’ve worked, and many people in the village go to the mosque to pray 5 times a day.

What is a typical work day for your team?
Do you ever take a day off to rest?


We live in a house in the village—here’s a photo of the outer courtyard, which is really a nice place to have a cup of tea in the afternoon, and we do a lot of work here too as you can see.

It gets light here around 7 am. We get ready, have our tea and coffee, and start work at 8 am. We have hired around 70 local men to help with the excavation, and most of them prefer to work from 8 to 2 even though it gets hot here in the afternoon (it’s recently been between 95 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the afternoons).

We eat according to a Sudanese schedule: “breakfast” is a big meal at 11 am, and we have “lunch” a bit late for Sudan, at about 6 pm. They would normally have dinner at 9:30 or so, but we are all too tired, so we have just two main meals. We eat a local, organic, and mostly vegetarian diet—lots of fava beans (called “fuul”), eggs, tomatoes, and cucumbers, sometimes pancakes with savory sauces, and bread with everything. And we eat Sudanese style, with our right hand, mostly using little pieces of bread to scoop up the food. My personal favorite is the sweet spaghetti they serve with every meal—hard to eat with your hand!

We work six days per week, with Fridays off. We are a pretty active group, though, so we sometimes catch up on work on Fridays, and sometimes drive off to visit other sites in the area, which is important for us.

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Conservation for Seleucia Show, Part 2

BY BRITTANY DOLPH, Graduate Conservation Intern, UCLA/Getty Conservation Program

Last month, I discussed the documentation aspects of conservation, especially as it pertained to our preparation of objects for the exhibition “Life in Miniature: Identity and Display at Ancient Seleucia-on-the-Tigris.” Often, when time allows, conservation research can contribute technical information about objects, revealing how the artifact was made and even how it was used during its “life.” Furthermore, technical data aid us in making treatment decisions later on. Though we didn’t have the chance to do additional chemical analysis for this particular exhibition, we used different types of imaging techniques to get as much information as possible. And using different kinds of light in different ways for gathering information is ideal because it allows us to avoid taking samples. For example, a visual assessment can reveal seams, showing us that the miniature ceramic figurine below was made in two separate clay pieces before being joined together and fired.


This ceramic figurine, photographed from the rear, shows a seam running along the contour of the left side from bottom to top. Fingerprints are visible along the seam as well, where the maker attempted to bridge the sides by pushing the clay over.

A look through a simple binocular microscope can show tool marks that provide clues to how an object was made. For example, a stone figurine could have been roughly cut to size using a chisel or claw, then carved with final tools, and perhaps filed to create a smoother surface. In other cases, microscopy can reveal the remnants of pigment applied to a surface. In addition, condition problems such as micro-cracks, spots of metal corrosion, and many other issues are identified.

Conservators also often flash ultraviolet irradiation (sometimes incorrectly referred to as light) onto the surface of objects. Different materials react differently to the UV, so that we can often tell where additional materials have been applied by the color, strength, and opacity of their fluorescence or lack thereof. It can be especially helpful for finding previously applied conservation or repair materials.

Visual assessment . . . microscopy . . . UV . . . what do we do with all of this information? It helps to us to make decisions—which, it turns out, is a big part of the job! The first step is to decide whether or not even to treat an object. If we decide that treatment is necessary, we then have to decide how to go about it and what materials to use.

Next month, we’ll take a look at examples of treatments—and situations where we might decide not to treat at all.

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Curator Favorites

When it comes to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s collections, not all artifacts are created equal. Some call out to us intellectually, others emotionally. To that end, we asked our curators to name their favorite Kelsey artifact or object. Here is the fourth in a series.

Seated Dignitary from Karanis, Egypt

Seated Dignitary from Karanis, Egypt

BY T. G. WILFONG, Curator of Graeco-Roman Egyptian Collections, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, and Professor of Egyptology, University of Michigan

Favorite Artifact: “Statue of a Priest.” Black basalt. AD 50-100. Karanis, Egypt. KM 8218.

Why. It’s hard to resist this statue: it’s a lively example of how Egyptian art adapted and survived into the Roman period. Although this isn’t a portrait, we get a vivid sense of the anonymous priest that this statue represents. With his smiling, eager expression, our priest seems ready to get off his seat, while the monumental quality of the statue attests to the endurance of Egyptian culture into Roman times. I never get tired of looking at this statue.

About Artifact. This statue was found in a courtyard near the South Temple by the University of Michigan’s 1928 expedition at the ancient site of Karanis (modern Kom Aushim). It represents a very late manifestation of traditional Egyptian style, all the more valuable because of its archaeological content.

Although classically Egyptian in its formality and frontal, symmetrical orientation, the statue’s proportions are not those of classical ancient Egyptian art. Its pose and monumentality hark back to the Old Kingdom but do not reflect the earlier canon of proportions. For example, the head and ears are bigger than one would expect.

The figure wears not only a traditional Egyptian short kilt but also a sash across his chest. The shaved head and costume indicate a priest, and he would have served the cult of two crocodile gods of the South Temple, Pnepheros and Petesouchos. The priest would have participated in the daily cult activities of the temple and its periodic festivals, and he may even have been involved in oracles delivered by the crocodile gods or the mummification of actual crocodiles as votive offerings.

Background. This statue has a number of parallels from elsewhere in Egypt’s Fayum region; a similar statue from Soknopajou Nesos very closely resembles this example. Most of these statues are inscribed, some in Greek and some in Egyptian Demotic.

The Kelsey’s statue itself would have had an inscription on its base but was left unfinished: minor detailing work on the figure was not done, and the base and back pillar remain rough, in preparation for an inscription that was never written. Therefore, we do not know the name of our Karanis priest and can only guess about the specifics of his titles and duties from what is known generally about priests of his time.

“Statue of a Priest” anchored a special 2013 Kelsey exhibition: “Karanis Revealed, Part II.”

Find It. Fittingly, “Statue of a Priest” sits serenely (perhaps contemplating the day’s temple activities) in its own exhibit case on the first floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Look for it between the Graeco-Roman Egyptian case and the stairway leading up to the Roman galleries.

Check out Wilfong’s new book, Life, Death and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt: The Coffin of Djehutymose, at

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“We do not follow maps to buried treasure, and ‘X’ never, ever, marks the spot”–Indiana Jones


BY JENNY KREIGER, PhD student, U-M Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology

When I teach my students about archaeology, I find that many of them have vague ideas about what archaeologists do. This is especially true for those parts of archaeology that do not take place in the trenches: the reading, writing, thoughtful discussions, and detective work that happen elsewhere. Some archaeologists (myself included) do the majority of their work in paper and ink rather than dirt and potsherds, and this side of archaeology is its own sort of adventure.

I began a new phase in my adventure this year: my dissertation. Right now I am preparing for what I hope will be several months of research abroad in the fall, split between Naples and Rome. My work deals with catacombs (underground cemeteries) in the major cities of late antique Italy, particularly the economic systems that helped produce these complex sites and the artifacts in them. While in Italy, I will spend my time examining archives, museum collections, and catacomb sites, but before I go, I need to build a good foundation for my research. So for now, I am reading about the sites I will visit, collecting inscriptions and other texts that tell parts of the catacombs’ story, and designing ways to organize and analyze the data I will gather. It may seem like slow going now, but all of this will help me make the most of my time in the field.

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Pulled from the Trenches

BY GEOFF EMBERLING, Assistant Research Scientist, Kelsey Museum

Back-filled temple at El Kurru

We are in the final preparations to return to the archaeological site of El Kurru in northern Sudan for a second field season. We have obtained our permissions from the governments of Sudan and the United States, raised funds, gathered an international group of about 25 archaeologists, and purchased and packed all our trowels, notebooks, and computers.

The site is well known to archaeologists as the burial site of many of the “Black Pharaohs,” kings of Kush who conquered Egypt and ruled as its 25th Dynasty from about 725 to 653 BC. They are mentioned in the Bible because they helped defend Jerusalem against the invading Assyrian army in battles around 701 BC, but it was ultimately the Assyrian army that drove them out of Egypt. Kush, however, continued as the major political power in the Middle Nile valley for another 1,000 years or so. As a result of its importance, El Kurru was designated part of a UNESCO World Heritage area, “Gebel Barkal and the Sites of the Napatan Region.”

It will be an unusually exciting season. One of our teams, directed by Prof. Abbas Sidahmed Zarroug, is working to preserve and protect the royal pyramids. Abbas is a Sudanese archaeologist who grew up in the village of El Kurru, and he has a unique perspective on this cultural heritage. Another team, directed by Prof. Rachael Dann of the University of Copenhagen, will be working around the currently known royal burials to identify non-royal burials or perhaps even royal burials missed by earlier archaeologists.

My team, based at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan, will be working to excavate the burial chamber of the largest pyramid at the site and to uncover a “mortuary temple” (temple for a dead king) with mysterious underground chambers (see photo above). We are also investigating the royal city around the cemetery by following remains of what we think is a city wall. We are grateful for major funding from the Qatar-Sudan Archaeological Project; from the National Geographic Society, who will be sending a film crew to document our work; and from Ms. Kathleen Picken.

Note: Keep up to date with this year’s season at El Kurru by following Geoff Emberling’s blog posts at:

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