Letter from the Met

BY EMMA SACHS, PhD candidate, Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology and Museum Studies, University of Michigan; Bothmer Fellow, Metropolitan Museum of Art

This year I have been conducting research and writing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a Bothmer Fellow in the Department of Greek and Roman Art. I vividly remember the day I found out I’d be coming to the Met—February 21, 2014—because that was the day Pompeii opened in IMAX. Expecting that this would be a major box office hit, I preordered tickets and dragged my extremely amenable friend to the theater 45 minutes early to stand in line—only to be told by a confused theater employee that there was no line, and the theater would be available about 10 minutes before the show. We should have lowered our expectations when a woman in the restroom loudly announced that “If anyone is planning to see the movie Pompeii, don’t do it!!” But sometimes hope is blind and academics naïve—especially when their field of study is featured in 3D. Needless to say, it was terrible. Vesuvius couldn’t have erupted too soon, and even when it finally happened, the IMAX effects were mediocre. If we had to sit through a poorly crafted story, we could at least have been rewarded with a few more fiery rocks flying at our faces. That evening I was busy explaining my disappointment over the phone to my parents when the fellowship offer from the Met appeared in my inbox. So it wasn’t a bad evening after all.

I moved to New York in August and started at the Met in September. The Bothmer Fellowship was awarded in support of my dissertation research, and accordingly most of my time has been spent closely studying the museum’s fantastic collection and writing at my desk in the Watson Library, the museum’s central library (the Met has 28 libraries in total!).  I also routinely participate in talks, tours, and lectures arranged to introduce Fellows to the museum’s 17 curatorial departments, its system of administration, and active projects.

The focus of my research is wall painting from the Bay of Naples region, where the volcano Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 and buried much of the surrounding region, including the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and nearby villas in the countryside. While this disaster by no means “froze” this region in time, perfectly preserving it for posterity, the volcanic debris did help to preserve a considerable amount of wall painting, protecting it from exposure the elements. For this reason, the majority of the corpus of Roman fresco comes from Campania, and any systematic study ever done that pertains to “Roman” wall painting has its roots in this material and in this region. The Met has the best collection of Roman wall painting in the Western hemisphere, so it is naturally a magnet for wall painting specialists. I am particularly interested in the museum’s paintings from the Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor in Boscoreale, which was excavated in 1899–1902. In 1903, many of the villa’s frescoes, mosaics, and smaller finds were sold at a Paris auction and dispersed to numerous institutions and private collectors around the world. Nineteen fresco sections were purchased by the Met in 1903, and they have been a highlight of the museum’s collection ever since. I should note that a few small finds eventually made their way to the Kelsey Museum, including bronze hardware, agricultural tools, and a stone rotary mill on display on the Kelsey’s second floor.

View of the Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor with Vesuvius in background, 1900 (F. Barnabie, La Villa Pompeiana di P. Fannio Sinistore, scoperta presso Boscoreale, 1901, tav. XI)

View of the Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor with Vesuvius in background, 1900
(F. Barnabie, La Villa Pompeiana di P. Fannio Sinistore, scoperta presso Boscoreale, 1901, tav. XI)

First installing of cubiculum M at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, c. 1905

First installing of cubiculum M at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, c. 1905

While my experience thus far has been very fruitful for my dissertation, I have also learned a great deal about the museum and its objects. The great breadth and depth of the museum’s collection of antiquities—dating from the fifth millennium BC to the fourth century AD—allows for an encyclopedic display, organized by time and region (much like the Kelsey’s installation, if a bit more expansive). While I came to the museum a little skeptical of this linear march through time, I have observed that it is accessible to many different kinds of audiences: easily comprehensible to casual visitors and yet helpfully contextual for specialists. One of my favorite Fellows’ activities was conducting a tour of the Greek and Roman galleries to about 20 other scholars. This allowed me to explore the Met’s institutional history and the prominent role the art of antiquity has played since the museum’s founding in 1870. Indeed, the first object accessioned by the Met was actually a Roman sarcophagus from Tarsus in southeast Turkey. In 1870 it was donated to the museum—which at that time only existed on paper—as a gesture of diplomacy by the American vice-consul in Tarsus, Abdo Dabbas. The most sizable acquisition made by the museum in the next thirty years was that of the Cesnola collection, about 35,000 ancient objects from Cyprus, purchased from General Luigi Palma di Cesnola in 1874 and 1876. This collection formed the core of the Met’s early holdings, and in fact the general himself became the first director of the museum in 1879, holding the position until his death in 1904. While as a Fellow I have learned so much about the Met and its collections, as always, the Kelsey is never very far out of sight. Some pieces from the Cesnola collection eventually made their way to the Kelsey and are on view in the Cypriot case on the first floor.

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A Romano-Egyptian Lion Takes a Bath

BY CARRIE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

When it comes to conserving works of art, how do you treat what you can’t see?

When a carved limestone lion from Karanis came to the conservation lab a few months ago, grain-sized bits of stone were coming away from the sculpture’s pitted, weathered surface. It was the type of deterioration conservators often associate with salt activity. Egypt has salty burial conditions, and objects that are porous—like ceramics and stone—absorb salty water into their bodies.

Sodium chloride, or table salt, is a common type of water-soluble salt found in archaeological artifacts. When moisture levels in the air fluctuate, sodium chloride crystallizes and liquefies. This action is called “cycling,” as the salt goes through cycles of change from liquid, to solid, to liquid phases. With these phase changes come changes in volume—an expansion and contraction of the salt. In the crystalline phase, salts are sometimes visible on an artifact’s surface; this is called efflorescence. Crystallizing salts can grow right through the surface of an artifact, sometimes even pushing it off. Imagine salts cycling inside an artifact, and, well, you can see why so many ancient stone sculptures are in such bad shape!

A close look at the Karanis lion revealed no salt crystals visible on the surface. However, salts can be present even if visible efflorescence is not. I had a hunch. I took a small sample of stone powder that had detached from the surface, and tested it for chloride salts. Sure enough, the test came back positive.

Limestone lion during desalination treatment

Limestone lion during desalination treatment

Since salts are so sensitive to fluctuating humidity levels, and since the lion was slated for display outside its usual climate-controlled storage environment, I decided it was time for the lion to take a bath. Soaking artifacts in a water bath is an often-used method for extracting potentially harmful salts, and by measuring the amount of salt in the water bath over time, we could monitor this extraction in a quantitative way. After a few hours in a bath of purified, or deionized, water, quite a bit of salt was removed from the lion, and with it much of the risk of potential damage from salt activity.

Conservator Carrie Roberts tests salt levels in the bath

Conservator Carrie Roberts tests salt levels in the bath

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My Favorite Artifact

False Door of Qar

False Door Panel of Qar

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.

BY TINA SMITH, Volunteer docent and member of Kelsey Board of Members. Smith is a long-time docent who has been active in nearly every activity at the museum. She holds three degrees:  a B.A. in Biology from Mt. Holyoke College, an M.S. in Biology from Brown University, and an M.S. from Rackham in Natural Resources Planning and Conservation from the University of Michigan.

Favorite Artifact:  False Door Panel of Qar, also known as Pepy-nefer. Limestone, paint. 6th Dynasty (2407–2260 BC). Egypt. KM 1981.4.1.

Detail of False Door Panel of Qar

Why:  “It’s great fun to work with when I give gallery tours. For example, I point out the man’s picture and use it to talk about ancient Egyptian art. I ask the children to pose like the “photo ID.”  I have them try to look at me while at the same time keeping their heads in profile as in the ancient Egyptian way of drawing people. Much stretching, wiggling, and contortion ensue as the children attempt Egyptian poses. It’s an attention-getter, and I can then tell them about the ancient Egyptian rules of drawing the human body using a grid to divide the body into three portions, a system devised during Dynasty 5 (about 2,500 BC).

This leads me to explain who Osiris was and how he became god of the Underworld, the process of mummification, and how ancient Egyptians buried their dead in tomb shafts with false doors to trick tomb raiders. And how the sun had barely set on the funeral proceedings before they arrived to steal the grave goods, despite all the precautions taken to hide the burial chamber.

And then there are all those wonderful hieroglyphs that enable me to discuss writing, the significance of the Rosetta Stone, and the realization that ancient Egyptian was a syllabic language and that no one has ever heard it spoken.

One can use that false door panel to talk about so much!

About Artifact:  The false door panel of Qar is from his tomb at Saqqara in northern Egypt, which was equipped with several false doors, each a focal point for offerings to his ka. This panel, which formed the left jamb of one of these doors, depicts Qar holding a staff and scepter of authority, markers of his governmental role as chief magistrate. Qar’s nickname—Pepy-Nefer—incorporates the name of the reigning king, Pepy I, and reinforces the notion of royal favor attached to the location of his tomb in the court cemetery of his time.

But it simultaneously communicates another message: such nicknames in the 6th Dynasty were part of a larger royal initiative to highlight the king’s positive qualities through the inscriptions of his officials: Pepy-Nefer means “King Pepy is good.”

Translation:  Right vertical line: “The lector Priest who is in the heart of his lord, the true senior warden of Nekhen, the revered Qar.” Left vertical line: “For the House of the Eternity of the Revered Qar, whose nickname is Pepy-Nefer.”

Background:  In addition to building elaborate tombs in prestigious cemeteries, elite officials of the Old Kingdom expressed status and identity in their tombs by emphasizing ties to the king and through the extensive use of hieroglyphic text in the decorative schemes of their chapels. Access to this sacred script was extremely limited at this time, and its use signaled both privilege and literacy, a highly regarded personal achievement.

Find It:  On the first floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing, find the Djehutymose Coffin. On the left-hand side of the wall called “Place, Proximity and Literacy in Old Kingdom” (directly across from the coffin) you’ll find the False Door of Qar.

Learn More:  Society and Death in Ancient Egypt: Landscapes of the Middle Kingdom, by Janet Richards, Kelsey Curator of Dynastic Egypt Collections. Published in 2005 by Cambridge University Press, the book is available in hardcover or paperback through Amazon.com.

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Camping and Kanka Cola: Life at Labraunda

BY CHRISTINA DIFABIO, PhD student, Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan

The BULP 2014 Team and the Monumental Fountain House, photo courtesy of Liam Dean-Johnson.

The BULP 2014 Team and the Monumental Fountain House, photo courtesy of Liam Dean-Johnson.

My fieldwork experience was crucial for my decision to apply to graduate school. During my junior year at Brown University, I had the opportunity to become involved in a new archaeological project directed by Prof. Felipe Rojas, who is at the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown. Since 2013, I have been part of the Brown University Labraunda Project (BULP). BULP is concerned with the rural sanctuary of Labraunda in ancient Caria, now modern southwestern Turkey, and is part of the greater Labraunda archaeological project directed by Dr. Olivier Henry.

In antiquity, Labraunda was a sanctuary dedicated to Zeus Labraundos, and people from cities to the north and south came to worship the local deity at an annual festival. The sanctuary is known for its monumentalization by local satraps under the Persian Empire in the mid-4th century BCE: Mausolos (most famous for his Mausoleum, a wonder of the ancient world, located in Halikarnassos, now modern Bodrum) and his brother Idrieus. The current objective of the project is to study a monumental fountain house that lies just outside of the sanctuary. Before our studies, the fountain was largely overlooked because it does not conform to traditional classical architecture, even though its importance is clear due to its position between the two entrance gates to the sanctuary. Our studies suggest that the fountain was built in the mid-4th century BCE and used in some capacity through the Christian period. It is the largest fountain house at Labraunda, and it would have provided rest and refreshment for visitors after a long journey.

I enjoy the intellectually stimulating (and physically tiring) research, but even more so I love learning and living in the Labraunda community. Multiple groups work at Labraunda at a time. In addition to our Brown team, I interact with Turkish, French, and Swedish scholars on site. During the week, we camp about a five-minute walk from site, so we do not have the same accommodations we would have if we were staying in a hotel in the closest town (i.e., we have limited electricity and two working toilets). When I tell this to people, they often describe it as “roughing it,” but with such great company and views of the mountains and stars, I can’t complain at all. I have also enjoyed working with local Turks in the trenches. Language is often a barrier, and I am on my way to learning Turkish. However, we often find things to chat about, mostly the weather (Bugün hava çok sıcak—Today the weather is very hot!), and we have fun as we work together. Some of the younger workers have affectionately dubbed our team members kankalar, similar to “bros” in English, and we have named our daily soda breaks “Kanka Cola.”

When I first heard about this project, I never could have imagined where it would lead me. Now as a first-year student in IPCAA, I plan to specialize in Western Anatolia and continue fieldwork in Turkey. The excavations of the monumental fountain house are almost complete, but I look forward to seeing where BULP’s future studies at Labraunda will go.

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Conserving a Dog Skull

BY MADELEINE NEIMAN, 2014–2015 Samuel H. Kress conservation fellow at the Kelsey Museum

This past Friday marked the opening of our new exhibition, “Death Dogs: The Jackal Gods of Ancient Egypt.” My favorite object in the exhibition is a desiccated dog skull excavated from Karanis, a Roman period village in Egypt. Here at the conservation lab we have affectionately named the skull Kalbi, or “my dog” in Arabic.

While he is not the prettiest specimen, the conservator in me is amazed by Kalbi’s phenomenal state of preservation. Large portions of the dog’s skin were preserved by the arid desert environment at Karanis. Even his eyelids and nose remain! Today, I thought I would share with you the challenges of displaying Kalbi, as well as how we overcame those challenges.

Challenge 1: The dried skin covering the skull is extremely fragile. Skin is composed of a network of collagen fibers—chains of amino acids that are spiraled together to form fibrils that, in turn, bundle together to form fibers. As the skin covering the skull dried, the fibers shrank and stuck together, causing it to become brittle and cracked. In several locations along the edges, the delicate skin was in danger of completely falling off.

Solution 1: Cracks in the skin were stabilized by gluing small pieces of Japanese tissue beneath the cracks. The tissue acts like a splint; it bridges/reinforces splits in the skin and secures loose pieces in place.

Gluing Japanese tissue mends under cracks in the skin

Gluing Japanese tissue mends under cracks in the skin

Challenge 2: Several of the teeth had fallen out of the dental aveoli—the small voids in the jaw that hold the roots of the teeth.   While we could easily secure the teeth in place with a small amount of adhesive, figuring out their correct anatomical location was trickier.

Solution 2: For assistance, we turned to Richard Redding, a Kelsey Research Scientist and zooarchaeologist (specialist in archaeological faunal remains). Richard determined the proper placement of each tooth, and we glued them into place.

Challenge 3: We needed to find a way to put the head back together. The dog’s head came to the lab in two pieces; without muscles to hold them together, the skull and jaw had separated. Unfortunately, the fragile teeth and delicate skin along the lower jaw meant that the skull could not safely rest on top of the jaw.

Solution 3: A mount. The creation of mounts is typically the domain of our talented exhibition preparator Scott Meier. When objects are particularly fragile, however, Scott and the conservation staff collaborate. In this case, we combined forces to create a mount that would allow the skull to float above the jaw, giving the appearance of a complete head without allowing the two pieces to touch.   Scott made a raised support using a carved wood block and brass dowels. To the top of the wood block, I attached carved pieces of ethafoam, which keyed into raised areas along the base of the cranium, locking it into place. With the skull held above, the jaw could be slid into place below. Each piece is separately supported, but Kalbi’s head appears complete.

Kalbi on display at the Kelsey Museum

Kalbi on display at the Kelsey Museum

As you can see, the preparation of objects for exhibition is a team effort! We hope you will come by to visit Kalbi and all of the other artifacts on display in “Death Dogs: The Jackal Gods of Ancient Egypt.

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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.

BY MARGARET COOL ROOT, Curator of Greek and Near Eastern Collections, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, and Professor of Classical and Near Eastern Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan

Stone stamp seal (upper left), impression made by the seal (upper right), with drawing of the seal below

Stone stamp seal (upper left), impression made by the seal (upper right), with drawing of the seal below

Favorite Artifact: Female with grain and symbols. Stone stamp seal. Late prehistoric period (4500–3800 BC). Tepe Giyan, Iran. KM 1991.3.74.

Why: First—this object is one of a large group collected at the site of Tepe Giyan by Ernst Herzfeld, a very famous and important archaeologist. Second—the imagery carved on the seal is really important in the history of visual art.

About Artifact: Images of power, cult, and cosmos were disseminated on large monuments and also on small portable objects such as cylinder and stamp seals. Seals bore scenes carved in the negative onto cylindrical or flat surfaces and then rolled or pressed into still-damp clay documents and tablets to yield infinitely reproducible possible renderings.

This stone stamp seal is one of the earliest examples of a particular and very resonant image of female fecundity in ancient Near Eastern art: an iconic motif of the female figure with limbs splayed to suggest sexual invitation, birthing, or both. She is flanked by sheaves of grain, symbols of abundance through the ages, representing the fertility of flocks, human families, and the earth itself, an image that reverberated throughout later seal traditions in the region for the next 3,500 years.

When viewing the seal, keep in mind that ancient seal carvers worked at a very small scale and had to create forms in the negative.

Background: Gods, rulers, regular mortals, and institutions all had seals. Seals carried status as emblems of personal identity and administrative authority, and they were used as signatures on contracts and/or official tablets. They also had magical properties to bring good luck or ward off evil. Often seals were passed down as heirlooms. By the same token, the special properties attached to seals meant that they were often buried with their owners or strewn as votive offerings in the brick work of important buildings.

People proudly wore pendant stamps and cylinder seals suspended around their necks or wrists or pinned to their clothing. The act of making an impression with one’s seal was a creative moment likened unto the force of the rising sun, as these words from the Hebrew book of Job 38:13–14 (Old Testament) suggest: “Have you taught the dawn to grasp the fringes of the earth . . . to bring up the horizon in relief as clay under a seal?”

Find It: In the ancient Near Eastern seal exhibit case on the first floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Enter the museum through the Maynard St. entrance, go straight by the Security Desk, and then turn right and right. The ancient Near Eastern seal exhibit case will be directly in front of you.

Learn More: The stamp seal described above is featured in Root’s 2005 book, This Fertile Land, available in our Gift Shop or online.

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Snowing Dogs and More Dogs

BY MARLENE MICHELS GOLDSMITH, Volunteer Docent, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan

"Death Dogs" poster (left) and lamppost banner outside the Kelsey Museum (right).

“Death Dogs” poster (left) and lamppost banner outside the Kelsey Museum (right).

As I write this, it seems to be snowing dogs and more dogs inside and outside of the Kelsey Museum, all in preparation for our upcoming special exhibition: Death Dogs: The Jackal Gods of Ancient Egypt, opening Friday, February 6.

Let me tell you why.

Our docent class was cancelled today due to a morning snowstorm, but by afternoon I managed to trek to the museum. Death Dogs banners greeted me everywhere! Up on the second floor, I found Exhibitions Coordinator Scott Meier busy mounting some electrifying background art. Even though no artifacts yet graced the space, I definitely found myself in ancient Egypt. That’s when I pulled out my camera phone.

I’m not an academic, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen an ancient Egyptian exhibit on jackal gods. Exhibition Curator Terry Wilfong, however, has been intrigued by them since childhood. I know this because I once audited his course on ancient Egyptian religion. Also, I know he is a longtime film buff (the original The Mummy film with actor Boris Karloff tops his favorites list). At the Kelsey, Wilfong is curator of Graeco-Roman Egypt. At the University of Michigan, he is professor of Egyptology in Near Eastern Studies.

The exhibition will explore these mysterious jackal-headed gods associated with death and the afterlife in ancient Egypt. At the heart of the exhibition will be the three most important jackal gods:

  • Anubis, best-known of the Egyptian jackal dogs, embalmer, and guide to the dead;
  • Wepwawet, opener of the ways to the afterlife, frequently working with Anubis, and
  • Duamutef, son of Horus, protector of the canopic jar containing the stomach and protector of the East.

The exhibition will feature about 40 artifacts, some never before displayed and many coming from University of Michigan excavations in Egypt during the 1920s–30s. Alongside these, you’ll see archival photographs and explanatory graphics as well as an assemblage of modern toys, games, and other pop cultural manifestations of the Egyptian jackal gods.

And in the Gift Shop, you’ll find a special “Death Dogs” tee-shirt for sale, I’m told. Think concert tee-shirts with jackal gods on the back side.

Now you know you have to go to this exhibition – right? Mark your calendar now – “Death Dogs: The Jackal Gods of Ancient Egypt” opens Friday, February 6, and runs through Sunday, May 3, 2015.

The "Death Dogs" exhibition includes banners inspired by (left) representations of dogs found on ancient stelae from Terenouthis, Egypt, and (right) an Egyptian hieroglyph of a jackal god.

The “Death Dogs” exhibition includes banners inspired by (left) representations of dogs found on ancient stelae from Terenouthis, Egypt, and (right) an Egyptian hieroglyph of a jackal god.

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Attending the Archaeological Institute of America Annual Meeting

BY KATHERINE LARSON, PhD candidate, Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan

Over the weekend of January 8–11, I—along with the majority of the Classics Department—escaped the frigid air of Michigan to attend the joint Archaeological Institute of America (AIA)/Society of Classical Studies Annual Meetings in New Orleans, the first in which I participated by giving a paper. Attending these conferences is key for young scholars such as myself to establish a name and professional presence, to meet and network with friends and colleagues, and to learn about current, cutting-edge research. The AIA is the biggest and most widely attended, but many of us attend and participate in several conferences over the course of the year: alongside classes and excavation schedules, they are foundational to the annual rhythms of the archaeological academic life.

Back in mid-August, I submitted an abstract to the organization and learned in early October that it had been accepted for a fifteen-minute presentation at the meeting. My paper was titled “And Now, For the Rest of the Story: Interrogating Small Finds from Tel Anafa, Israel” (with a nod to the late Paul Harvey). In honor of the forthcoming Kelsey Museum publication of the final volume of the Tel Anafa excavation reports, I amalgamated the numerous studies of small finds from the site, including metal agricultural tools, terracotta spindle whorls and loomweights, and stone grinding implements, which have been written since the first volume on Anafa came out in 1994. We’ve come to realize over the years that, in addition to possessing luxurious imported objects from the Phoenician coast, the late Hellenistic residents of Tel Anafa were self-sufficient for their daily needs and engaged heavily in various forms of animal husbandry, agriculture, food production, and crafts (including metallurgy and textile manufacture). I argued that, while these objects are often overlooked in site-wide studies in favor of architecture and pottery and their discussion limited to specialist studies, they can tell us important things about daily life, economy, and social and cultural relationships in the ancient world. The Karanis objects on display at the Kelsey are another good example of this: they tell us so much about the people who lived and worked at Karanis, including how they spent their day, what they ate, what they wore, and so on.

The Annual Meeting used to be more difficult for me: I didn’t really know anyone outside my own school, and I’m not good at walking up to people I don’t know to introduce myself. This isn’t the case anymore, and the meetings have become a fun and easy way to catch up with friends, former professors, field colleagues, and IPCAA alums. The book displays and sales are famous, with many publishers offering recently published texts at 25–50% off. Alas, I missed out on the deeply discounted inventory-clearing sales on the last day of the conference, when graduate students get in line at 7:30 am clutching hotel room paper cups full of coffee in hopes of finding $100 volumes for $5.

The AIA isn’t all about formal papers and networking: many of us were able to find a little time to explore the nearby French Quarter. Highlights for me were eating charbroiled oysters and visiting St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Archaeologically, the burial ground is fascinating, with family mausoleums spanning from the 18th century to the present day, funerary inscriptions in French and English, and a particularly memorable monumental tomb of Italian design and imported marble.

Thanks to the financial support of the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, I was able to attend this year’s annual meeting and present the results of important research in a public forum to a community of archaeologists. Next year, I’ll be “on the market” and with any luck will spend the meeting interviewing for jobs!

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Conserving a Seleucian Incantation Bowl

BY MADELEINE NEIMAN, 2014–2015 Samuel H. Kress conservation fellow at the Kelsey Museum. During her time here, Madeleine’s work will focus on the technical analysis and treatment of objects from the Seleucia collection.

Incantation bowl (KM 31455) from the site of Seleucia-on-the-Tigris.   The object is a wheel-thrown, buff-colored earthenware bowl the surface of which has been painted with black pseudoscript (small lines meant to mimic Aramaic writing) and images of anthropomorphic figures.

Incantation bowl (KM 31455) from the site of Seleucia-on-the-Tigris.
The object is a wheel-thrown, buff-colored earthenware bowl the surface of which has been painted with black pseudoscript (small lines meant to mimic Aramaic writing) and images of anthropomorphic figures.

The vessel was excavated in the 1930s from Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, a site approximately 18 miles south of modern-day Baghdad, Iraq.  Magical bowls like this one were placed in the corners of houses or under thresholds as a means to protect their owners from evil spirits.  The text and images drawn served to combat demons or other supernatural beings that might harm the object’s owner. Today incantation bowls, including this one, are important for the study of ancient magical and religious practices.

Can you guess why the bowl came to the conservation lab?

How about if you compare it to another incantation bowl in the Kelsey collection?

Incantation bowl (KM 3756) from the site of Seleucia on the Tigris.  The object was found alongside the above-pictured bowl.

Incantation bowl (KM 3756) from the site of Seleucia-on-the-Tigris.
The object was found alongside the above-pictured bowl.

Yes.  That’s right.  There is a thick, dark crust covering much of the interior and exterior of the bowl, and it hides the decoration on the bowl’s surface. Curators here at the Kelsey have asked the conservation lab to remove the crust so that the decoration on the surface is easier to see.  Before the crust can be removed, however, conservators must figure out what this strange material is.

Based upon a close examination of the surface, we suspect the crust is most likely one of two things.

Option 1: Salts! This bowl was buried under ground for approximately 2,000 years.  During that time the porous ceramic vessel was likely exposed to ground water containing a range of salts; chlorides, nitrates, phosphates, and sulfates are all commonly present in soil and are, as a result, often found within the fabric of or on the surface of ceramics recovered from archaeological contexts. While salts typically appear as areas of white crystalline efflorescence on an artifact, they may also occur as dark, hard surface accretions similar to the material visible on the bowl.

Option 2: A Modern Coating.  It is possible that the darkened surface is due to the application of a modern coating.  During the 1930s, when this object was excavated, archaeologists and conservators often covered artifacts with a resin or glue in an attempt to protect and strengthen surfaces.  While these materials were applied with good intentions, they can alter over time in unexpected and undesirable ways.  A once clear, coherent coating could become dark and brittle like the coating on the bowl.

However, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle notes, “it is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.”   So . . . how will conservators here at the Kelsey get the data necessary to determine what is covering the bowl?

Like historians, conservators look at archival records.  The Seleucia archive at the Kelsey Museum holds a range of primary source documents created by archaeologists at the time of excavation, including journals, object lists, and photographs.  We will examine these documents for any clues to what the bowl looked like at the time of excavation (e.g., was the bowl’s surface dark when removed from the ground?) as well as the conservation methods that might have been used on the bowl. We will also utilize a range of scientific examination techniques available across the University of Michigan campus to study the chemical makeup of the crust.

I hope you will check back with us in the coming months as we work to uncover the surface of this bowl.

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Writing a Dissertation on the Archaic Forum Boarium

BY ANDREA BROCK, Ph.D. candidate in the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan

“Every journey begins with one step.” –my mom

My at-home workspace, complete with furry dissertation buddy.

My at-home workspace, complete with furry dissertation buddy.

Enough with the background reading and procrastinating. This fall semester marked the official start of my dissertation, in written form at least. I feel like I’ve been working on this project for a decade already (although three years is more realistic). My dissertation is centered on my fieldwork at the Sant’Omobono Project in Rome. Specifically, I am interested in reconstructing the environment and topography of the archaic Forum Boarium. After returning from Rome at the end of the summer, I wrote a long to-do list of my intended accomplishments for the upcoming semester. A major part of that list was to write the opening chapters of my dissertation.

Although the primary goal was always hanging over my head, for weeks I couldn’t even begin to think about the dissertation. First there were conference abstracts that needed to be submitted, then countless grant proposals that needed to be dealt with if I had any hope of supporting my fieldwork in 2015, then just another book that I needed to read, then a meeting with my advisor, then some data crunching, then writing the conference papers… and so it goes. By the time the day came when I had nothing else to do, I just stared at my computer screen. An entire day wasted doing nothing but sitting in front of my computer! It is incredibly daunting to write the first sentence of such an intimidatingly long task. Upon lamenting (read: procrastinating) to my mom, she offered the true, albeit corny, words of encouragement above. I finally realized that I couldn’t avoid it any longer and started typing.

The main strategy that helped me get started on my first dissertation chapter was to write an extensive outline first. That way, I was able to get all of my thoughts on paper without having to worry about constructing vaguely coherent prose. This outline included the abundant references, which I would ultimately need to put into footnotes. After discussing the outline with the applicable committee member—and fortunately getting her approval—I was able to write more freely and quickly. I still encountered days where my momentum slowed, but I tried to keep the task in perspective. Each day was just focused on a particular section of a particular chapter. And each chapter isn’t so different from a seminar term paper, right? And I knocked those out tons of times as a pre-candidate, so why be intimidated by my dissertation? Well, that thought process worked for me at least. The semester is nearing an end and that long to-do list I wrote has been largely completed. Now, I just need to repeat the process next semester, and the semester after that, and the semester after that. But first, a break!


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