By Caroline Roberts, Conservator, and Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation
Emergency preparedness is very much on our minds right now. Real-life disasters have been happening around the world: Hurricane Florence, Typhoon Mankhut, and the terrible fire at Brazil’s National Museum. Our thoughts are with the people and communities affected by these events, while the events themselves serve as sobering reminders of how important it is for museums to plan for emergencies. Here at the Kelsey Museum we have the ability to plan in a special way: by responding to an entirely pretend disaster.
Every other year, the University of Michigan’s Department of Emergency Management organizes and runs a tabletop drill for us, in which we respond to and recover from a made-up disaster scenario. In August we had our third such drill and — as happens every single time we participate in one of these exercises — we found ways to improve our plans for response and recovery. Our thanks to Sydney Parmenter, emergency management specialist at U-M, for organizing and leading this year’s exercise. Talking through each response decision, thinking about the roles we would each need to play as responders, and seeing where problems are likely to occur — this all helps develop our preparedness as a team. Real life is different from a drill, and we’re fully aware that we’ll never be perfect, but this series of unfortunate, hypothetical events always informs and empowers us to improve.
As our readers know, this blog series celebrates all the not-exactly-fine-art items in our beloved archaeology museum. A big focus of our collection (and our ongoing research and teaching) is daily life in the ancient world, but another big area of focus for our museum is centered on excavation-based research and teaching. Our current exhibition, Urban Biographies, Ancient and Modern, celebrates this, with a very cool look at three of the Kelsey’s current field projects, each focused on an ancient city, AND a special focus on the methods archaeologists use to study ancient cities. Detroit, our closest big, urban neighbor, provides a contemporary comparison.
In the Detroit area of the exhibition, you can see a lot of great stuff, including videos of Detroit residents talking about their neighborhoods, urban farmers talking about Detroit’s modern-day farms, and an urban archaeologist from Wayne State University talking about the archaeology and history of the city.
In this part of the show, you can also see a giant block of … wait for it … DIRT.
Yes, this big case of dirt is our Ugly Object of the month. I love this block of dirt because it is exactly like the vertical soil samples archaeologists use to study different occupation levels at archaeological sites, including active cities like Detroit, except it’s way better because it’s a lot bigger than the small-diameter core samples archaeologists usually use. I like being able to see the different levels and kinds of dirt, including — all the way at the bottom — sand from an ancient lakebed. Other layers tell different stories, like a layer with chunks indicating construction materials and a very old trash dump.
I’m an avid gardener, and I live in hope that one day the dirt in my back garden will tell me an interesting story, like this big block of soil does. So far, I have found one tiny toy car and a marble. Maybe I’m not going deep enough ….
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Urban Biographies, Ancient and Modern will be on view at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology through January 6, 2019.
At the end of August and beginning of September, the annual migration of students, both new and returning, comes back to Ann Arbor. Roads will soon be closed off and traffic patterns thrown asunder. That one way to work we are all used to will longer be an option. Parents helping their children move into their dorms park wherever they can, often causing nightmares for the regular denizens of Ann Arbor.
Soon, those students will start venturing out on their own, making friends and filling the cafés and restaurants we locals have grown accustomed to having all to ourselves. They will form groups of friends through their residences, their departments, their activities, and their classes. They will spend much time together, forming bonds and taking a lot of group photos.
For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present a mystery. Just like in 2018, U-M students have been gathering together since the university was founded, in 1817. With the advent of photography in the mid-19th century, they could document themselves.
Often in archives work, while working on one project, other, seemingly unrelated, materials pop up. Many times, these are “orphans,” left behind by someone who had knowledge about them, but who has since left the institution. While organizing the Kelsey archives, these three photographs were found. Sadly, they are accompanied by no documentation, no explanation.
These photographs are presented as a mystery, but also as a call for help. If any of our readers recognize the people captured here, or the locations, or date, or even if this is from the University of Michigan at all, we can begin piecing together this puzzle.
Astute readers will notice one clue that may assist. In the lower right corner of the first photograph is the signature “Randall and Pack.” Some research into this reveals that Randall and Pack was a photo studio active in Ann Arbor between 1908 and 1917.* That gives us a time frame for at least one of the photographs. However, all other details remain obscure.
The archives present an opportunity to save history, to save the names and faces of people who have passed through these walls. Unfortunately, this is not always easy, and we rely on our community for assistance. These students may have a Kelsey connection, but without details we may never know. And with this loss, these photographs become an oddity in the archives, rather than a memory.
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* Directory of Early Michigan Photographers, by David V. Tinder (Ann Arbor: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan, 2013; online edition), s.v. “Randall, Herbert”; see also “Pack, Ambrose Clarkson.”
On August 24 the Kelsey Museum’s latest special exhibition, Urban Biographies, Ancient and Modern, opened to the public. It will be on display until January 8, 2019. An online version of the exhibition will remain available on the Kelsey website even after the museum show closes.
The exhibition features Kelsey-sponsored archaeological research at Gabii in Italy, Olynthos in Greece, and Notion in Turkey and compares these ancient cities with modern Detroit. Comments on both the exhibition and the website are very welcome.
What does the concept of an “urban biography” mean to you? What do you think we can learn by comparing past and present? What are some of the details of the biography of your hometown, or of another city you know well? Please leave a comment in the “Leave a Reply” box at the bottom of this page.
Last week Suzanne and I took on the daunting, seemingly insurmountable task of cleaning out the Conservation Lab. When Suzanne mentioned earlier this summer that she wanted to schedule a lab cleanup, I thought she meant getting rid of some cardboard boxes, the used swabs … the usual tidying up one does in warmer months when there’s enough light to see things starting to pile up.
Oh, was I ever wrong.
What Suzanne had in mind was in fact a purge of all unused STUFF that had accumulated since her arrival at the Kelsey some 16 years ago, as well as a number of things that were here pre-Suzanne. We’re talking camera and microscope parts adapted to long-gone bodies; sad-looking Dremel tools that have seen better days; files that, at this point, belong in some sort of archive. We discovered the residues of past experiments — including blobs of dried-up green goo that I’m pretty sure were my doing — and various and sundry samples of artifacts, grout, bugs, and debris from now-ended research campaigns.
There were moments of extreme indecision on my part, but Suzanne never wavered in her quest to rid our space of excess. Were it not for her drive and vision for a cleaner lab, I’m pretty sure we would have failed, with me buried under a pile of unused condition report template forms, never to be seen or heard from again. Thankfully, she got us through it. As a result, the lab has some rediscovered room to grow, and I learned quite a few things about the history of the Kelsey’s conservation department.
It’s been pretty quiet in the corridors of Newberry Hall lately. The Kelsey staff is as busy as ever, but the students are all away for the summer; some are taking part in fieldwork projects, others are conducting their own research. (Some might be kicking back, though I’d wager it’s not very many.) The Kelsey research library and the IPCAA study areas — normally hives of activity enlivened by the voices of students chatting about their research, an upcoming exam, or the latest happenings on campus — are dark and deserted.
Frankly, it’s been a little dull around here.
But the new semester is approaching and the students have begun to trickle back, hale and tan and with renewed energy, and we who have stayed behind prod them for details about their adventures abroad.
The first to return this year is one of our favorite Canadians, Craig Harvey, who’s beginning his sixth year as an IPCAA grad student. We sat down with Craig to learn about his summer and (let’s be honest) to live vicariously for a little while as he regaled us with tales of his travels.
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The Kelsey: Welcome back, Craig! What have you been up to this summer? Craig: Quite a lot! My “summer” actually started back in January when I left for what I thought would be a three-month research trip to Israel, Cyprus, and Jordan to collect data for my dissertation. During my trip, I was invited to join a survey project in Saudi Arabia, which extended my travels until June when I presented at a conference in Jordan and participated in a second project in Israel.
Kelsey: Wow. That sounds amazing. What specifically were you working on?
Craig: During my time in Israel, Cyprus, and Jordan I was doing a lot of traveling to sites relevant to my dissertation, which is on Roman-period construction in the Eastern Mediterranean. Specifically, I was looking at the extent of local influence on the construction techniques and materials used in Roman baths. When I was not visiting sites, I was conducting research in libraries and meeting with local scholars.
Kelsey: And in Saudi Arabia? Craig: In Saudi Arabia, I was part of a survey project documenting the archaeological remains around the city of al-Ula, and for the project in Israel, I was working as the numismatist and was processing and identifying their coins.
Kelsey: That sounds like an incredible experience. Did you get to travel around much? Craig: Yes, I got to travel a lot, although not all that much in Saudi Arabia. I have been going to Jordan since 2008, and yet there were still places I had not seen before, so this trip was a chance for me to finally get to these important archaeological sites.
Kelsey: What did you do in your free time? Craig: More travel! I tried to visit as many sites as possible, even those not connected to my dissertation. While in Cyprus, I rented a car and visited a number of the Painted Churches in the Troodos Mountains, and I even managed to visit Beirut and a few sites in Lebanon during the month I was in Jordan.
Kelsey: You must have seen some spectacular things. What would you say was your favorite aspect of the trip? Did you discover any “hidden gems”? Craig: Well, like I said, I have been going to Jordan for over ten years now, but I still cannot get over how friendly and hospitable the people are. In my opinion, they are some of the nicest people in the world. In terms of a hidden gem, I have to recommend Qasr Bshir, which is a Late Roman fort in the Jordanian desert. It is one of the best-preserved Roman forts in the world, with its walls and towers nearly fully preserved. In my opinion it is one of the best hidden sites in the Middle East and is just spectacular.
Kelsey: Thanks a lot, Craig! What’s next for you? Craig: Now I’ll go back to writing my dissertation!
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Craig would like to express his thanks to the American Center of Oriental Research, the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute, and the Rackham Graduate School for the generous grants that funded much of his travel.
This month’s Ugly Object takes the cake for being both incredibly interesting and really, really ugly. What exactly is this rather scraggly looking textile fragment? We’re not entirely sure, although its report suggests that it might have once been part of a cap.
This bit of cap — discovered at Karanis, Egypt — was made using a technique called sprang or nålebinding, an ancient precursor to knitting in which loops of yarn are interlinked using a single needle. Are you a yarn enthusiast or experimental archaeologist and want to try the technique for yourself? Check out Suzanne’s 2016 blog post about an ugly sprang sock, which features links to pages detailing how to knit/link your own ancient sock.
There are other cool things about this sprang fragment, one being its color. We suspect it could be an organic red dye, although analysis would be needed to confirm this. Rose madder, a red colorant derived from the processed roots of the madder plant, was used frequently as a pigment in Roman Egypt and might have been used to color our cap frag. Another cool thing is the black overcast stitches that run along one edge. These could very well be part of the cap’s original construction, or perhaps an ancient repair.
This and other less frequently seen Karanis textiles will be on display in the upcoming Kelsey exhibition Ancient Color, opening February 8, which explores the sources, uses, and scientific investigation of color in the Roman world.