Ugly Object of the Month – May

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

Are you ready for swimsuit season? No? Me neither, which is just as well because it’s SHARK MONTH at the Kelsey. This is one of the all-time cutest, weirdest, made by the most-amazingly-skilled craftsperson Ugly Objects ever: a mosaic glass fish head.

 

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Fish head inlay fragment. Mosaic glass. 1st c BCE – 1st ACE. Egypt. Gift of Alexander G. Ruthven. KM 1965.3.135.

 

What do we know about this tiny bit of a scary-looking fish? Not much, because it’s got zero excavation provenance. One, I do know that whoever made it had enviable motor control. Mosaic glass is made of small pieces of colored glass rods, or canes, which have been sliced up, placed close together, and then fused with heat. Two, inlays like this one would have decorated Roman Egyptian walls or furniture.

Three, former UM graduate student Lindsay Ambridge wrote an article about this object, in which she discusses the meanings of fish in ancient Egypt. Bottom line: fish were important for many reasons, chief of which was as a food source.

To me, this fish looks more like predator than prey – check out the pink gums and very, very pointy teeth. See it in all its splendor in the Upjohn Exhibit Wing – look in the glass case on the south side of the back hall.

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From the Archives #19

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

Around the world, the Kelsey Museum is known as the home for the excavations at Karanis, which the University of Michigan conducted between 1924 and 1935. The collections and archives from this expedition continue to fascinate us, and they provide a wealth of information we continue to revisit through many projects. Scholars from everywhere look to the collections, both artifacts and archives, to further research and our understanding of Egypt under Roman power. Here in Ann Arbor, the collections play an important role with classes and exhibitions.

When Francis Kelsey was finding funding for the Karanis expedition, he was actually initiating a fund to excavate at multiple locations. In 1924, UM went to Karanis, as well as Antioch and Carthage. These latter two sites turned out to have single season excavations, as the focus was placed on Karanis due to its rich artifact and papyrological finds. UM stayed there through 1935, when finally excavations were completed. However, the team did not excavate only at Karanis during this time, as they ventured to other sites while in Egypt. In 1931, the team went to Soknapaiou Nesos (Dime), and in 1935 they excavated at Terenouthis. Each of these also turned out to be a single season excavation due to a number of reasons.

Since 1931, the Kelsey has still housed the archives and artifacts from Dime. Not nearly as plentiful as Karanis, it still provides a wealth of information for archaeologists working at Dime today. These archives were deposited within the papers of the Karanis Expeditions, not even separated into their own collections. Because of the tremendous attention paid to Karanis, the Dime archives are not as often studied.

Over the past academic year, Classics professor Arthur Verhoogt made an effort to focus on Dime again. Prof. Verhoogt worked with two UROP students, Bianca Gallina and Josiah Olah, to revisit this collection, study what they could within the Kelsey as well as Bentley Historical Library. The two students scoured the letters, papers, drawings, and maps, and made note of what they found that would be useful to researchers.

For this month’s From the Archives, we present some of the items they digitized. Much like Karanis, the excavations at Dime resulted in some impressive maps. These will likely look familiar to some readers, as the style and look of these maps are similar to those from Karanis. The maps include triangulation points, cross-sections, and overview of the excavation site. Having these on hand will assist us in understanding the work carried out at Dime nearly 90 years ago. This is even more important to our colleagues who continue working at the site. This Spring term, the students will continue digitizing more archival materials, including house drawings. In Autumn, the Dime excavators will visit Ann Arbor to further research the materials housed here. By then, we hope to have everything digitized to provide even greater access.

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The El Kurru Heritage Project

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

For the past several years, I’ve spent part of the winter in the small Sudanese village of El Kurru, and every year I fall a little bit more in love with it. I work there with Kelsey Research Scientist (and Kurru dig director) Geoff Emberling on the excavation and preservation of an ancient, royal cemetery.  Two years ago, the Kurru project team began to deliberately focus on community engagement as a way to forge stronger links between the local community and the ancient site.

This work has evolved slowly, beginning from plans to present the site to tourists (of which there are a surprisingly large number). El Kurru is an interesting site, with a big pyramid, two beautifully-painted subterranean tombs, and a large rock-cut temple. But the site is only a small part of what I love about El Kurru. I love the Sudanese friends and colleagues we have there, the beauty of the Nile, and the family we live with. Tourists to the site, sadly, enter from a desert road and never have a reason to visit the town. As we planned the site itinerary for tourists, we kept saying to ourselves – wouldn’t it be great if visitors could keep walking and go into town, down through the date palm groves, and see the Nile? What if they could drink some Sudanese coffee, hear some music, and eat Sudanese food?

Over the past two years, we’ve worked with University of Michigan colleagues to assemble focus-groups in El Kurru to explore this idea. Not only did village residents think it was good idea – an exciting idea, even – to showcase local culture, they had a clear vision for what visitors should learn about their village and what experiences make El Kurru special. Here are photos of a few.

 

Mohammed Ahmed Al-Makee, who is in his nineties, is one of El Kurru’s last traditional weavers. His wife dyes and spins cotton into yarn, and from this he weaves scarves, shawls, and bed coverings on a pit-loom in the courtyard of his house. He allowed my colleague Jack Cheng and I to talk with him about his work and to record the sights and sounds of his loom, which he inherited from his grandfather.

2_Musicians

Once or twice a during the field season, we are treated to a riverside concert of traditional music. There is singing and dancing, and the primary instrument is the tambour, a stringed guitar-like instrument. These instruments are made in the village and are often decorated by the town’s henna artist. In this group, the musician I know best is Abdel Bakee, the drummer.

3_Baker

Bread is the backbone of every meal in El Kurru. There are several popular kinds of bread in Sudan, but the one shown here is a pita-type bread made from wheat flour. It is baked fresh every day in multiple village bakeries and is especially delicious right out of the oven. The baker pictured here is Ahmed Ibrahim.

4_Palm groves

El Kurru is an agricultural village focused on date farming. The date palms grow in beautiful gardens along the Nile. Families own a plot of land and work together to irrigate it, care for the trees, and harvest the dates, of which there are many kinds. From the house where we live, we can walk across the street and through this section of trees to get to the Nile. It is about a five minute walk to the river.

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Ugly Object of the Month – April

CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

April’s Ugly object isn’t an object per-se. It’s a specimen – a shell – and it was excavated at Karanis during the 1924-25 field season. It’s rather small and unprepossessing. But to me this shell is a thing of beauty. Why? It is a murex shell, and was once the likely carrier of shellfish purple (or Tyrian purple), one of the most valuable dyes in antiquity. Pliny wrote at length of the Roman passion for purple, and described in detail the extraction and processing of the color from a gland found in the throat of the snail. The dye produced a range of purples from magenta to purple-black. One can imagine the vast numbers of snails that would have been needed for a dye vat large enough to color the yards and yards of textile used in the elite fashion industry of Rome. Pliny cites an observation by the 1st century BC biographer Cornelius Nepos that a pound of dye would have sold for 100 denarii – about half of the annual salary of a professional soldier. This was some seriously valuable stuff.

Tyrian purple, like many other natural colorants, has now been chemically synthesized. We can buy a shirt or sweater in purple or any other color today at very little expense, which makes it hard to relate to the craze that drove people to seek out the murex snail on Mediterranean beaches. I can’t think of a color today that screams ‘bling’ the way purple did in the ancient Roman world. Can you?

You can spot the murex shell in the Graeco-Roman Egyptian galleries on the first floor of the Kelsey’s Upjohn wing.

References to the text of Pliny the Elder, The Natural History (Historia Naturalis) Book IX, Chapter 63 are from a translation by John Bostock, M.D.  London: George Bell and Sons, Covent Garden. 1890.

 

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Murex snail shell KMA 3712, Graeco-Roman Egyptian galleries, Kelsey Museum

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From the Archives #18

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

The archives at the Kelsey Museum are a treasure trove of valuable information, but it also acts as a memory holder. People who have contributed to the archives routinely return to find something they had forgotten long ago, only to find it within the Museum. Often it is a memory jolt, reminiscence, or a search for something to include in a report or study. The great thing about making the archives available, and fielding these requests, is not only the ability to support research on whatever level, but those requests often lead to conversations. Those conversations start revealing bits of history that are not apparent in the archives. Names of people. Stories about them. What it meant to live with a team in that time under those conditions in that place.

This month’s From the Archives focuses on this find from the Qasr al Hayr archives. A simple request a few days ago paved the way to look for these memories. Often the act of searching for one item leads to the finding of so many more. Here we see a bit of that. We see team members as they were in 1964, going about their business, living their lives. There was no thought about an unknown archivist looking at these same photos 43 years later. Or that these would be shared widely. Instead, the photographs of the architecture, landscapes, and finds, are what normally make it into the public eye through publications.

One of the most humbling aspects of working in archives is this reminder of how time passes. Our own photographs may some day be viewed in the same manner. We take photographs and save documents in order to remind ourselves years from now, but these items have a longer shelf life. Though names may be lost, their presence is still with us. And so, too, will our presence live on.

 

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Artifact Investigation

CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

I love a good mystery, and nothing (save a really good crime novel) is better than an artifact mystery. I love the thrill of investigating an object, identifying its agents of deterioration, and nabbing those culprits one by one. I also really enjoy teaching new conservators how to use investigative tools to make their own observations. I recently spent a day looking at an object with Ellen Seidell, a U of M junior who is interning in our lab. The ceramic bowl – excavated at Karanis in 1929 – was covered with feathery white crystals, as well as a drippy, peeling surface coating. I had my suspicions as to what these were, but wanted Ellen to learn for herself how to identify unknown materials.

To do this, we examined the bowl under longwave ultraviolet light. This is a useful tool not only for crime scene investigation, but also for identifying varnishes and coatings. Ellen and I could immediately see a bright yellow luminescence on the surface. We then performed a chemical test to determine that the coating was cellulose nitrate – a material used to treat newly excavated artifacts in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Finally, we determined that the white crystals were salts. Water-soluble salts like these can be absorbed into artifacts during burial. Fluctuations in humidity can cause salts to crystallize and re-crystallize inside the object, which can cause damage to artifact surfaces.

So what did we do with this evidence? First, we decided to remove the salts. I felt that this would be a good experience for Ellen, since not all salty bowls have the advantage of being in a climate-controlled museum, and since monitored desalination is an important conservation skill. Next we addressed the coating, whose identity allowed us to choose an appropriate solvent for its removal – which Ellen did herself. The treatment is complete, bringing the case of the salty, peeling bowl to a close (for now).

 

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Left: Ceramic bowl before treatment. Right: bowl under longwave ultraviolet light.

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From the Archives #17

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

The name George R. Swain is one that is familiar to many in the Kelsey community. His photographs dominate the archives, and they make the bulk of those from excavations such as Karanis. He was also instrumental in the photography of collections from overseas, and capturing people in the countries he visited. Through his lens, we see life as it was in Egypt and Turkey/Syria in the 1910s and 1920s.

Swain’s is not the only name that played an important role in the history of Kelsey photography, though. Starting in the 1950s, Fred Anderegg worked with the Museum on a number of excavations, including the project at St. Catherine’s on the Sinai Peninsula. In the following years, Mr. Anderegg spent time photographing the Kelsey artifacts in order to document them. What ensued was thousands of photographs, all done in black-and-white on 35mm rolls. Thanks to Fred, the Kelsey now has thousands upon thousands of these 35mm images cut up into strips, organized by year they were photographed, the roll number within that year, and frame within roll. Each 35mm strips envelope includes a key for which artifact was photographed, and which frame it can be found in.

Many of these photographs were then contact printed, where a similar size print was made in the positive. These were adhered to the accession cards that acted as the database before computers became such an integral part of our daily work.

Over the years, the Registry has worked to digitize some of these when we needed good, quality photographs of our collections. However, with 10s of thousands of these strips waiting to be digitized, it has been a daunting task, to say the least. A few have been digitized as needed, but only a handful and quite sporadically.

Recently, the Kelsey Museum partnered with the History of Art’s Visual Resources Collection (VRC) to pilot test a project where these photographs will be digitized en masse, with the proper metadata and filenames attached to each file. This will save the Kelsey many person-hours, and will allow for a greater inclusion of photographs in our database and for other uses. Though they are still in black-and-white, they provide great photographs where we can easily distinguish each item from another. These are used for publications, but also serve as record shots of our collection.

The entire process will take some time to complete, if it does go forward (we started with about 100 rolls to test out and see if we can continue it). However, it is a much quicker process than what we could do internally, and will result in higher quality scans. In due time, these will be available to Kelsey staff, as well as researchers and students looking to get a glimpse of items often kept hidden out of view.

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Ugly Object of the Month – March

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Are any of you readers out there a Girl Scout? I was a Girl Scout, and I’ve still got my sash hanging in a closet somewhere, covered with a pretty decent number of badges. For those who are unaware, a Girl Scout earns a badge when they learn a new skill or visit a cool place (like a museum). The most memorable badge experience I had was learning how to safely use a pocket knife. Although not quite as compact as today’s modern, Scout-wielded pocket knives, this month’s ugly object reminds me of all that is good about a micro tool kit. You’ve got your rings (in this case iron and two smaller bronze rings), attached to which are various picks and what looks like a pair of tweezers. I mean, what self-respecting Scout (or ancient person) would ever journey into the splinter-infested wilderness without tweezers? We’re pretty sure that this set was used for medical purposes, and I can just picture something like this hanging from someone’s belt alongside keys and a wallet chain (ok, maybe not the wallet chain). Whoever it was who possessed this handy tool kit had the right idea: always be prepared.

You can catch a glimpse of this ugly but handy artifact in The Art and Science of Healing: From Antiquity to the Renaissance until April 30, and after that you can find it in the healing and beauty case in the 2nd floor galleries.

 

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KM 1485a-g

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And the winner is…

Thanks to everyone who submitted their vote for their favorite “Ugly Object” of 2016.

The winner this year is… wait for it…. the spooky love spell figurine!!!

https://kelseymuseum.wordpress.com/2016/12/

Stay tuned for more Ugly Objects from the Kelsey.

 

 

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Ugly Object of the Month – February

SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator of Conservation

This month’s ugly object is one of ancient Egypt’s niftiest, most all-purpose and off-the-chain gods: the god of war, but also of childbirth, fertility, sexuality, and humor, he was also known as a protector of the household. He’s never the tallest or best-looking guy in the room, but he’s one of our very favorites – he’s Bes.

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Bes figurine. Faience. 1st – 3rd c AD. University of Michigan excavations at Karanis, Egypt. 25979.

 

This particular Bes figurine looks (take your pick) like a gremlin or an ewok, or one of many other creatures one might find in the Nordic fairy-tale woods. The way he’s manufactured also makes him look kind of like a gummy bear. No matter, folks! Beauty isn’t everything, and Bes is up to the job. See him yourself – he’s on view at the Kelsey starting February 10, as part of the special exhibition, “The Art and Science of Healing: From Antiquity to the Renaissance.”

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