Ugly Object of the Month – February

BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator for Conservation, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Our galleries are closed at the beginning of this month as we install a major exhibit from Pompeii, Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero. So I’m taking this opportunity to feature a favorite Kelsey ugly object that is rarely on view: an ancient dirty sock. In the photo below, you see the part of the sock that would cover your toes and the front part of your foot (the heel and ankle are missing).


Knitted Sock. Wool. 2nd – 4th c AD. KM 22558.

The sock was excavated at Karanis, Egypt, during the University of Michigan’s 1928 field season. This object is hideous, accessible (who doesn’t have daily experience with dirty socks?), and interesting. It’s obviously old, stained, and worn, with a large hole in one toe. But it’s also a very cool, very early form of knitting called single needle knitting or naalbinding.

I could tell you more about this technique, but why not try it yourself by making your very own ancient-Egyptian-style sock? The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London did this in 2009 and 2010, in an experimental archaeology project called “Sock It!” Scholars used ancient techniques to recreate a pair of socks just like this one. Click here to read their blog about the project, and here for instructions and a pattern to do it yourself. February is a great month to make yourself a cozy pair of ancient ugly socks!

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And the winner is….

Thank you everyone for voting for your favorite “Ugly Object” of 2015.  Our winning “Ugly Object” is….

OCTOBER!  Congratulations Scary Hair!



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From the Archives

BY SEBASTIAN ENCINA, Museum Collections Manager, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Happy new year, readers. The Kelsey Museum is back in the swing of business, and we are already in the midst of the semester, working with students, classes, and upcoming exhibitions. As it is the Winter term, some people begin planning for fieldwork and being overseas. Some Kelsey staff will be leaving for the field in just a matter of days, while others will wait until May/June/July to be at their respective projects.

For those who have never been on an archaeological dig, you are missing out! There is so much to learn, to experience. Being overseas, especially, affords a person the opportunity to interact with different people, eat different foods, and lead life at a different pace. There is also the opportunity to travel, see the sites a country has to offer. And there is, of course, the actual archaeology, what there is to discover that gives us a better understanding of the past. It truly is a magical experience.

But it’s not all fun and adventures. Sometimes being overseas brings with it some hindrances and annoyances that add up to interesting stories, but not exactly a great experience. For those not used to travel, new water and new foods will have an adverse effect on digestive system. Dealing with customs and authorities might be an issue. Many people will miss their family and friends, and the comforts of home.

In other cases, the environment is pestering, quite literally. Working as an archaeologist, one will find themselves outside often. Sun, wind, occasional rain, heat and cold all contribute to grueling days. And in many areas of the world, the flora and fauna of the region pose risks to health and work. Wild animals and overgrown plants get in the way, not caring for the work one is pursuing. Some, like the mosquito, will carry diseases one has to be wary of.

This is a problem that affects the modern archaeologist, but it is not a new dilemma. The papers of Qasr al-Hayr, an excavation headed by Oleg Grabar in the 1960s and 1970s, show how the simple fly was proving to be a nuisance even back then. Professor Grabar reached out to colleagues and experts for resources or suggestions for ways to handle the fly problem. In this month’s From the Archives, we see a response from a colleague at the Freer Gallery of Art, along with a pamphlet discussing the household fly from the US Department of Agriculture. The pamphlet makes recommendations, such as traps, screens, insecticides. However, the letter expands on this, noting that the region is rife with flies, and trying to tackle the situation would demand many more resources than realistically available, and any efforts would be lost as flies from surrounding regions would just fill the vacuum created.

Qasr al Hayr was a medieval Islamic town found between the Euphrates and Damascus. By its placement at the foot of one of the few mountain passes in the central Syrian desert, it commanded a commercial and strategic position of importance between settled and nomadic groups. Those of us who have worked in that area of the world know how prevalent flies are, and any efforts to lessen their numbers seem to be fruitless. They are a constant presence.

Being out in the field is truly a great experience, one many students, staff, and professors look forward to every year. But it comes with a price. Sometimes that price is large, other times it is small, but even those small problems have ways to multiply and cause big headaches.




Letter from Qasr al Hayr archives on fly problem in Syria


Pamphlet from Qasr al Hayr archives on fly problem in Syria

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Keeping our heads on straight: custom mount design for Oplontis garden sculpture

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Over two hundred artifacts and sculptures are traveling from Italy to Ann Arbor for the upcoming exhibition Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero, opening in February. Among them are three marble heads that once stood in the north garden of Villa A at Oplontis. The heads will be displayed in the Kelsey’s temporary exhibition space as they once were in the garden: atop tall, narrow plinths. Sculpture like this might normally be held in place with a metal pin inserted into a hole in the base of the neck. These heads, however, lack such an accommodation, which meant that exhibition coordinator Scott Meier and I needed to come up with another way to secure the heads to their exhibit mounts.

Scott’s idea is to create a two-part mount custom fit to each head’s neck base. The mount will essentially serve as a clamp, immobilizing the head and preventing it from tipping off the plinth if it is accidentally bumped. In order to create such a mount we needed a cast of each sculpture’s neck. Scott and I were able to do this in person in June 2015, when we traveled to Oplontis with curator Elaine Gazda. First, I covered the ancient marble surface with a temporary layer of Parafilm® M, a stretchable plastic film, in order to protect the stone from any staining that might be caused by the mold-taking material.


Carrie applies protective Parafilm® M to the base of each neck


For the mold-taking material we used silicone rubber putty, which Scott applied in a thick layer to the surface.


Scott creates a mold of the neck using silicone rubber


The putty cured overnight, leaving us with three hollow, rubber neck molds – which we dubbed the “blue brains” because, well… that’s what they look like.


Carrie and Scott pour plaster of Paris into the molds


These “brains” eventually served as receptacles for plaster, which we used to create duplicates of the neck bases.


Plaster duplicate of one of the three neck bases


The duplicates are being used to cast the two-part mounts in epoxy resin. Once it’s cured, the epoxy will fit perfectly around the bases of the necks and hold the heads in place with the help of metal brackets. You won’t be able to see the custom-fit mounts when the heads are on display, but you will be able to appreciate the many steps that took place in order to recreate the sculptures’ original plinth presentation. See the marble heads and more in Leisure and Luxury next month at the Kelsey!

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Ugly Object of the Month – January

BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator for Conservation, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

This month’s ugly object is, well, not as ugly as it could be. As fish go, there are certainly more attractive examples, but for an archaeological artifact made from lead? This is in great shape! We really like it! We chose it for you because – although our galleries are closed for a major exhibit installation – you can go see this little guy in person, right across the street in the Hatcher Graduate Library. He is moonlighting, along with four of his Kelsey friends, in a special exhibition curated by our colleague, papyrologist Brendan Haug.


Amulet, lead, Islamic, KM 80685


The exhibit, From Christianity to Islam: Egypt between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, looks at Egypt’s transition from Romano-Byzantine antiquity to the Islamic Middle Ages. It opens on January 18th and is on view through May 4th. You can see in the Hatcher Graduate Libraries 7th floor exhibit space. You can find address, parking, and other location info here.

Did you remember to vote for 2015’s Ugly Object of The Year?! If not, get to it! Follow this link to cast your vote.  The earlier Uglies are linked here:

June, July, August, September, October, November, December

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From the Archives

BY SEBASTIAN ENCINA, Museum Collections Manager, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. As is customary for the University of Michigan, staff at Michigan are given the week between Christmas and New Year’s day off. The Museum is preparing for this break, and the staff will shut down for behind-the-scenes business (don’t worry, the galleries will be open during the break). There is much work to do before we all go away, and much to get accomplished as we prepare for our upcoming exhibition, Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii (February 2016). This is a frantic time of year, as we catch up on work and projects that were set aside while working with students and classes.

Our predecessors worked hard during this time of year as well. Egypt is an extremely hot country, so the traditional dig season for many archaeologists, North American summer (when classes are no longer in session), is not ideal for excavations there. The extreme heat found in the deserts would be dangerous for the crew members on any dig. Instead, the Michigan team, as do many other projects then and now, opt for a North American winter season. Teams would arrive in Autumn, and due to the long trip to Egypt, they would stay a prolonged period of time. In many cases, the teams would be in Egypt over the holiday break, working from December (or earlier) into the new year and beyond. For the Karanis team, this meant being in Egypt, away from family, on Christmas. But they made the most of it. Pictures show decorations at the dig house as the team made their surroundings festive.

They, and the rest of the team, found other ways to keep entertained during the holiday season. And that is the focus of this month’s From the Archives. While at Karanis, the workers held a fencing contest on Christmas day (KM Neg #676). Unfortunately, our records do not indicate what year this took place, or if this happened every year, but we know that at least once in the life of the excavation, some fun was had with a fencing competition. The archives do not indicate if there was a winner, how many participated, or if this was just a random occurrence between two people having a little fun. The photographer is also unknown, though it would not be a stretch to assume George R. Swain was the man behind the camera.


KM Neg #0676: Workmen fencing on Christmas Day

On a Christmas day 90 years ago, the Karanis project team was preparing for their own holiday season just as we are today. They had decorations and games to pass the time. They were finding ways to make their current home as festive and comfortable as their permanent homes. Thousands of miles from Michigan, they just wanted the same comforts we will be enjoying soon.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

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Conservation Lab safety in the Zone

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Conservators in the Kelsey Museum Conservation Lab sometimes use chemicals and other potentially harmful materials to carry out treatments. Like other research laboratories at the University of Michigan, our lab must comply with OSEH health and safety regulations. This means maintaining an up-to-date inventory of chemicals and other hazardous materials, supplying a ready set of safety data sheets, and filling out a compliance log in our official lab safety “Blue Book”. This also means making sure that our emergency equipment is working properly.

Last month three members of the LSA Zone Maintenance team visited the lab to inspect our shower and eyewash station. Yep, the Kelsey lab has its very own shower. Bet you didn’t know that! However, we only use this shower if a harmful material is accidentally spilled on someone and needs to be immediately washed off. The same goes for the eyewash station. This isn’t equipment we use regularly, but it needs to be functional 24/7, because you never know when an accident could happen.

This is an inspection the guys and gals at LSA do regularly – I mean, U of M’s got a lot of labs! For our inspection, they rolled in a special bin rigged up with a spout and a shower curtain to prevent water from spraying over the entire lab (not something you want with fragile artifacts lying around). I confess I was a little nervous about it all, having witnessed another inspection resulting in an indoor deluge (this was at another museum – a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away). But needless to say our inspection went off without a hitch, and we can rest assured that our emergency equipment is up to scratch. All in a day’s work for the folks at Zone Maintenance. Thanks guys!


LSA Zone Maintenance Team in action

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Check out the latest news from the IPCAA students

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Ugly Object of the Month – December

BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator for Conservation, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

This month’s ugly object is a limestone relief sculpture of Isis-Thermouthis. Like many of our previous ugly objects, it’s from the site of Karanis, which was a Roman-Egyptian farming village in the Fayoum Oasis. One cool thing about the ancient Egyptian religion is that the pantheon was big, and you could choose from a wide variety of locally appropriate gods and goddesses. Isis-Thermouthis is a special agrarian deity, an Isis/cobra goddess combination who was responsible for protecting the harvest. This relief was found in a house at Karanis, and scholars have speculated that items associated with Isis-Thermouthis (like sculptures of her and votive offerings to her) were originally displayed in household shrines.


Relief of Isis-Thermouthis, limestone, 2nd – 4th century AD, KM 25751

Like many of our ugly objects, this one has seen better days. It’s burned, and few surface details remain. For comparison, this link will take you to an attractive Isis-Thermouthis figurine at the British Museum. You can, of course, visit Isis-Thermouthis at the Kelsey Museum. This object is on the first floor of the Upjohn Exhibit Wing, in the case devoted to University of Michigan excavations.

December marks the final month of Ugly Objects for 2015. Readers, it is therefore time to vote for Ugly Object of The Year! The earlier Uglies are linked here:

June, July, August, September, October, November

Choose your favorite, tell us in this survey, and we’ll announce the winner in January 2016.

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From the Archives

BY SEBASTIAN ENCINA, Museum Collections Manager, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Thanksgiving is upon us, and many of us will be flying or driving to see our families in other parts of the country. Highways will be congested and traffic slows down to a crawl at toll booths and highway gas stations. Often times, during these seasonal road trips so many of us venture out on, the price of gas rises to meet demand. “Isn’t there another way to do this?” we wonder.

This debate on alternative energy has been a focus for a number of years on the political landscape. What may be surprising to some people is that this debate is not new. Arguments for different energy sources has been with us for over a century. Early cars ran on both electricity and gas, with gas winning out in the early days.

This month’s From the Archives showcases a chance find in the archives. The materials stored at the Kelsey relate to the collections and business of the Museum, which includes newspaper articles from the Detroit News written about Museum/University matters. In 1924, the University of Michigan set out on several projects: Antioch (Turkey), Carthage (Tunisia), and Karanis (Egypt). The finds at Antioch proved to be exciting enough for the Detroit News to devote a large portion of their newspaper to the project. And, rightfully so, someone decided to save a copy of this for the records of the dig, where it then became a part of the history of the Museum.

Newspaper #1-1

Detroit News Sunday, September 21, 1924, p. 12

While the original intent of the newspaper clipping was to save the history of this archaeological excavation, often such mementos wind up sharing with the modern audience other bits of history. Below the finds of Antioch we see an image of famous American inventor Thomas Edison. The Wizard of Menlo Park is quoted discussing alternate sources of energy. “Why worry about coal? Asks Edison; Says sun and sea will do its work.” Even as far back as the 1920s, people like Thomas Edison lauded alternative energy, cleaner than coal and an endless supply. He speaks as if it is a given, an obvious solution to the problems facing society.

Newspaper #1-1 detail of Edison article

Detail of article on Edison from the Detroit News Sunday, September 21, 1924, p. 12

The push for alternative energies, with solar panels going on homes and high-end electric cars hitting the roads, seems to be a modern solution to a century-old problem. The truth is, this debate has been ongoing for much longer. Even America’s Inventor weighed in on the discussion, suggesting it was obvious and easy to harness wind and sun. It is interesting to think what the world would look like now if more attention was given to Edison and his recommendations were followed.

The clipping presents us with a fun aspect of archives. Historians and archivists often go through archival materials looking for specific bits of information. While perusing things such as newspapers, they come across random facts, stories, and articles that were not the focus at the time, but present such interesting history that could easily be overlooked. The past is made even more accessible and fuller, showing us all aspects of past lives. And to think, even more stories await us in the Kelsey archives!

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