Ugly Object of the Month — June 2015

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

Beauty isn’t everything at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology; we value all evidence of life in the ancient world, even when the object is, erm, ugly. This month’s ugly object is an Aphrodite figurine made from copper alloy (aka bronze).

Image 1
Figurine of Aphrodite. Bronze. Late 3rd century AD? KMA 10888. Before treatment.

I would never argue that Aphrodite herself is unattractive, but this figurine has seen better days. It was severely corroded when excavated at Karanis, Egypt, in the 1930s, and the legs were in pieces. Sometime after excavation, the corrosion patina was stripped with an electrochemical treatment that was once popular for archaeological metals. This resulted in a dull, brown, pitted surface with multiple holes.

Fast forward to 2015, when this object was chosen for a special exhibition. We wanted to reattach the feet and other fragments, but the latter are very thin pieces of metal from the fronts of the legs. They did not attach well to the upper thighs, each other, or the feet, and they could not support the weight of the torso. Our solution was to make prosthetic legs for the Aphrodite, legs that would support the torso and to which the metal “skin” fragments could be attached. I was the conservator for this treatment, and I began by masking the metal surface with Parafilm, a plastic paraffin wrap that is used as a sealant in labs. This protected the metal surface as I worked with the object. Next, I formed new legs with a two-part epoxy putty.

Image 2
At top, the surface is being masked with Parafilm. In the lower image, epoxy putty is being shaped for the left leg.

I shaped the new legs one at a time by pressing them into the voids in the upper thighs and placing the feet and other fragments into position on the putty while it was still soft. Once it had cured, I removed the putty from the figurine and the metal fragments from the putty. I then painted the white putty and sealed all the join surfaces with a conservation sealant. Next, each leg and its fragments were glued into place with a conservation adhesive.

Image 3
At left, the glue is setting for the finished left leg. At right, the right leg is being shaped in place on the figurine.

We conservators like this object because it looks very real to us. This Aphrodite is almost 2,000 years old, and she is not lying about her age. In most museums, we see perfect examples of objects like this one. But in the field, on a real-life excavation (or at the Kelsey!), an object like this Aphrodite is incredibly special, even though it’s not perfectly gorgeous.

You can appreciate this ugly object yourself; from June 5 through July 26 it is on view in the exhibition “Rocks, Paper, Memory: Wendy Artin’s Watercolor Paintings of Ancient Sculptures.”

Image 4
Figurine of Aphrodite, after treatment.

5 thoughts on “Ugly Object of the Month — June 2015

  1. Caroline 06/17/2015 / 8:19 pm

    Great post, Suzanne! I’m glad your ugly object of the month idea came into being! It’s true that that not everything is beautiful, but an ugly object can be very important. Beauty isn’t everything…

  2. Caroline 06/17/2015 / 8:23 pm

    Reblogged this on An Archaeologist's Diary and commented:
    Suzanne at the Kelsey had mentioned this blog post idea when I visited a few weeks ago. I’m glad it came into being because ‘ugly’ objects can be very important–sometimes more important than pretty ones!
    Enjoy this post on Aphrodite and her prosthetic legs!

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