Ugly Object of the Month — November 2018

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation, with Kelsey Director Terry Wilfong

This month for the Ugly Object blog, we’re featuring an object chosen by Kelsey Museum director Terry Wilfong for the new Kelsey in Focus case in our Upjohn Exhibition Wing. To learn about this special object, I interviewed Terry, who is also the Kelsey’s curator of Graeco-Roman Egyptian Collections.

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Suzanne: Hi, Terry! The new Kelsey in Focus case features three ostraka, or pottery sherds with writing on them. Can you tell us what this is about? Why would someone have written on a potsherd?
Terry: In ancient Egypt, papyrus and parchment were relatively scarce commodities, but broken potsherds were easily available. Using a potsherd to write something, like a letter or a tax receipt, was a good way to reuse a common, inexpensive material.

Suzanne: Ostraka, in my opinion, are not the most aesthetically pleasing objects in the world (which is why they’re being featured in this blog), but some people really like them. Is it fair to say you’re one of these people? What can you tell us about the attractions of ostraka?
Terry: I am one of these people! My dissertation research focused on women’s lives in 7th–8th-century Egypt, and one of the main ways I studied this was by reading a set of excavated ostraka from a site called Medinet Habu. Unlike “official” documents, which were written on papyrus or parchment and tended to focus on the lives of elite men, the ostraka from this site were less formal and documented much more about the lives of women.
You are right that ostraka are not good-looking in the way we usually think of museum objects, but that’s what I like about them! They come in different shapes and colors, and they often show a lot of wear. They’re also usually hard to read, since you have to decipher someone’s handwriting at the same time you’re contending with the unique shape of the potsherd. Ostraka are challenging, but very cool.

white limestone with lines of Coptic written in black ink.
Coptic ostrakon written by “Severus.” Ink on limestone. 7th c. AD. 15 x 9.5 cm. KM 25120.

Suzanne: Of the three ostraka being featured in the Kelsey in Focus case, which one is your favorite and why? And can you tell us something about the text?
Terry: My favorite of these is a literary text by “Severus,” as the ostraka identifies the author. It’s interesting for many reasons — it is written on limestone, the handwriting is beautiful, the contents are unusual, and “Severus” was probably an author known locally in Egypt. To learn more about the text (and the language it’s written in), be sure to read my article in the upcoming Kelsey Newsletter (Fall 2018). I don’t want to give everything away in this post ….

Suzanne: Fair enough. We will look forward to your article! What is one thing you think everyone should know about this important class of non-art objects?
Terry: Beauty isn’t everything! Ostraka are written on throwaway pieces of pottery and stone, but if you want to know about the daily lives of ancient people, they’re wonderful — they contain lists, letters, receipts, and contracts. They’re like the email of Graeco-Roman Egypt: pure gold for anyone studying ancient lives.

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Come see this ostrakon for yourself! The Kelsey in Focus case is located on the first floor of the Kelsey Museum, on your right as you enter the galleries from the gift shop.

Interested in learning more about Coptic writings? Check out Written Culture of Christian Egypt: Coptic Manuscripts from the University of Michigan Collection in the Audubon Room of U-M’s Hatcher Graduate Library. This exhibition is curated by visiting scholars Alin Suciu and Frank Feder and is on view November 12th through February 17th, 2019.

From the Archives 35 — October 2018

By Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager

Every year at this time, children and adults start dressing up as goblins and ghouls and monsters of all kinds, scaring their neighbors and friends, and decorating their homes with skulls and witches and other Halloween trends. There is a focus on the deathly, the afterlife, the things that go bump in the dark. We look to be frightened, calling upon the wicked and evil to come give us a spark.

This is not a new phenomenon. A fascination with death has a very long history. Communication and connection with the afterlife, with demons and spirits, has been known for thousands of years. Looking back at ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians, there was a great amount of focus on the afterlife, for example. And the famous Greek and Roman stories are littered with cathartic moments of visiting the afterlife.

Even in the United States, death has been a popular topic since the arrival of the Europeans to the New World. Tombstones from the New England area show iconography that appears frightening to the modern viewer. Over time, skull and crossbones on tombstones changed to cherubim, appearing more welcoming and less scary.

For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present some rather macabre photographs. Again, we see people flirting with the dead, this time literally. Here we see several familiar names, though perhaps not as familiar faces, posing for the camera. We see Easton Kelsey, son of Francis Kelsey, posing with a skull. We see Leslie Askren, daughter of Dr. David Askren, a colleague of Kelsey’s who was a great resource and ally while working in Egypt. Finally, we see Mr. Brunton posing in a mummy case. Mr. Brunton is Guy Brunton, student of William Flinders Petrie, colleague of Joseph Starkey (the original dig director of Karanis), and archaeologist from the British School of Archaeology in Egypt. Mr. Brunton worked at Lahun, Egypt, and it appears some of the Michigan crew had a chance to visit for at least this one day, 26 February 1920 (the Karanis excavations did not commence until 1924).

2018-10-23-Archives-KK052-53
Easton Kelsey (left) and Leslie Askren (right) posing with skulls at Abu Gurab, near Lahun, Egypt, 26 February 1920. KK052 and KK053.
2018-10-23-Archives-KK057
Mr. Brunton in a mummy case at Abu Gurab, Egypt, 26 February 1920. KK057.

Though a fascination with the dead may still be ongoing, there are a number of differences between people working at excavations in the 1920s and our current excavators working in the field today. Though the skulls seen here may be unnamed people, they are still people. We cannot judge the people of the 1920s using today’s standards, but we can make a concerted effort to pay better respect to the people we encounter during excavations. Nameless to us, but these people had names, had families. It is on us to pay them proper respect, not to treat them as props for a photo op.

People will continue to be fascinated with death and the dead. Skulls and mummies will be party decorations for years to come. This interest is not new, but is something we share with many generations that have come before us. And likely something we will continue to share for a long time.

pile of skulls in barren landscape
Skulls and other bones from the mastaba at Abu Gurab, Egypt. KK051.

 

October’s News from the Conservation Lab — Multispectral Candy Corn

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Happy fall from the Kelsey Conservation Lab! In celebration of my favorite season, Suzanne and I bring you this gem from our conservation image archive: multispectral CANDY CORN! Here in the Conservation Lab we use multispectral imaging (MSI) primarily for research. MSI involves illuminating artifacts with ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light, and then capturing the results in an image. Some ancient pigments and dyes reflect and emit light in characteristic ways, and MSI can be used to identify them. We also occasionally deploy MSI for the sheer fun of it — because who wouldn’t want to see what their favorite corn syrup-infused Halloween candy looks like under ultraviolet light?

mosaic of four images of candy corn under different wavelengths of light
Multispectral images of candy corn, courtesy of Janelle Batkin-Hall.

The image above presents candy corn four ways. Starting at the upper left, the first is in visible light (VIS), or how you’d expect your candy corn to look in a glass dish on your coffee table. Below that we have longwave ultraviolet light (UVL), which causes the candies’ ingredients — possibly the food dyes — to fluoresce different colors. (Cool! And slightly disturbing?) The black-and-white image at the upper right (IRR) shows the candy in infrared light, revealing that candy corn is pretty darn good at reflecting infrared radiation. (Who knew?) And finally we have an infrared false color image (IRR-FC), which transforms the infrared reflectance into distinct colors. This is a post-photo capture process that can help ID pigments, and could tell us something about the food dyes if only we had a multispectral database of such things. (A girl can dream ….)

I for one will continue to consume candy corn in spite of all this information, because nostalgia is a powerful thing, my friends. Thanks for tuning in to our blogroll, and many thanks to former graduate intern Janelle Batkin-Hall for capturing these inspired multispectral candy corn images.

The New Faces of IPCAA — 2018 edition

There are four new faces in the corridors of Newberry Hall these days. These are the incoming grad students, hailing from places as far away as New Zealand. Since they’re likely to be our friends and colleagues for quite some time, we thought we’d dive right in and get to know them a little better.

Between orientation, classes, homework, and extracurricular activities, as well as the million other things new students deal with when they arrive at U-M, they’ve hardly had time to breathe, but they have very kindly taken a few moments to answer the pesky questions of a curious editor.

So, without further ado, let us introduce Theo Nash and Alex Moskowitz.


Man standing on large rock.A lifelong fascination with ancient ruins led Theo Nash to study Classics, earning First Class Honours for his Bachelor’s degree and a Master of Arts with Distinction at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. His research so far has been focussed on the Mycenaeans and their broader contexts, starting with his Honours thesis where he explored the creation of identity during the early Mycenaean period. In his MA he argued that the Mycenaean presence at Knossos during Late Minoan II was a precipitating factor in the emergence of palatial culture on the mainland, with a special focus on the contemporary development of Linear B and the contexts in which new scripts are created. He hopes to ask further questions of how scripts develop and spread, both at the palaeographic level and in their broader societal contexts. His other interests include the development of early Greek hexameter poetry and Attic vase painting.

How did you get interested in studying the ancient world?
Living in Germany as a child, I became fascinated with ruins; the rest is history (or, perhaps, archaeology).

What is your favorite thing about studying the ancient world?
That there were people, just like us, who lived what is really an incomprehensibly long time ago. Seeing traces of their life, like a thumbprint impressed on a vase before it was fired, bridges that gap with an immediacy and force that I find incredible.

What is something you think everyone should know about the ancient world?
There seems to be impression among a lot of the people outside academia that Classics is somehow a “solved” field — that because it’s been studied for so long there’s nothing meaningful left to say. But that’s not the case at all. Not only are we frequently making new discoveries, but we continuously find new and better questions to ask of the existing evidence. Far from being antiquated and fusty, it’s an incredibly dynamic and engaging discipline.

What are your career aspirations?
I hope to find myself in a position where I can continue to think about and engage with the Classical world and its relics, whatever that might look like in practical terms.

Who’s your favorite person from history?
The written records of the Mycenaean Greeks unfortunately yield very few personal narratives, but we do know from Hittite records about one Mycenaean named Attarissiya, a military adventurer in what is now Turkey. He appears to have had a personal vendetta against a local potentate, Madduwatta, whom he twice tried to kill for reasons quite unclear. When not distracted by such personal matters, he enjoyed raiding Cyprus. Not the most pleasant fellow, perhaps, but his fragmented CV is a poignant reminder not just of the narratives but also the personalities lost to the ages.

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Man in blue shirt among ancient ruins.Alex Moskowitz earned a BA in Ancient History with High Honors from Swarthmore College in 2015. His research there focused on modeling processes of cultural contact at the Greek site of Sybaris. In 2017, Alex received his MA in Classical Languages (Greek and Latin emphases) at the University of Georgia. His master’s thesis considered Herodotus’s Histories and focused on the role of colonial narratives in blurring distinctions between Greek and non-Greek identities. Alex has also participated in the Azoria Project in Crete and the Western Argolid Regional Project. Since 2016, he has excavated at Morgantina with the Contrada Agnese Project, most recently serving as an assistant supervisor. Alex’s research investigates economic exchange, migration, and transitions in cultural identity at the periphery of the Iron Age Greek world.

How did you get interested in studying the ancient world?
My interests in the ancient world started when I was a child! I stumbled upon some “Asterix” comics in my cousin’s basement and fell in love with the stories. I spent many hours flipping through the pages and reading about the adventures of this tiny Gaul having adventures in the ancient Mediterranean. While an undergraduate, taking ancient Greek and participating in my first field project in Crete revived those interests from a more academic perspective.

What is your favorite thing about studying the ancient world?
It’s the challenges associated with studying the ancient world that excite me most. Reconstructing an image of what daily life or cultural identity was like over 2,000 years ago with limited evidence is no simple task! But developing new methods to understand that evidence and perceiving patterns that may have been overlooked can be very rewarding.

What is something you think everyone should know about the ancient world?
Something I’ve always thought people should know about both ancient Greece and Rome is that both cultures were, by modern standards, really weird! They were obsessed with auguries, and oracles, and sacrifices. They believed in all sorts of magics and had some really peculiar theories for how human bodies work. We like to think of the Greeks especially as these incredibly wise people, but the reality is much stranger. They made some incredible insights in a lot of disciplines, but their world view was so different from our own and it is easy to forget that.

What are your career aspirations?
After I get my PhD, I would love to continue as an academic. In particular, I would like to find a position at a liberal arts college where I could really focus on teaching in a small-classroom setting.

Who’s your favorite person from history?
From ancient history, specifically, my favorite person is probably Herodotus. He is generally considered to be the founder of “history” as a discipline and I am constantly fascinated by the way he perceives connections and differences between different cultures. His book is a wonderful combination of history, ethnography, and pure fairy tale that is a joy to read not only for its many insights into the ancient world but also because it is remarkably entertaining when you give it a chance.


Thank you, Theo and Alex! Welcome to U-M!

We’ll meet the other two IPCAA newcomers, Lauren Oberlin and James Prosser, in a later blog post.

Ugly Object of the Month — October 2018

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

Well, folks, it’s officially fall. The calendar says so, and Ann Arbor actually feels autumnal, too! So what better choice for October’s Ugly Object of the Month than one that celebrates our favorite spooky fall holiday — Halloween.

We’ve previously written about artifacts called “demon bowls” or “incantation bowls” like the one below. Have a look at that, and then …

Interior view of buff colored bowl with pseudo script and two human-like figures.
Ceramic incantation bowl. 17 cm diameter. Seleucia, 4th–7th century CE. KM 33756.

… cast your mind back to the Ghostbusters movies. Do you remember how the Ghostbusters would use energy to suck ghosts into their traps? Incantation bowls were, essentially, ancient ghost traps. If you were troubled by a ghost or demon in your house, you’d place the bowl in an area where the demon was likely to be. (Here’s a tip: they like to hang out in corners.) Or perhaps — if your motives were less pure — you might want to recruit a demon to do something for you. In this case you could use one of these bowls to trawl for a ghost elsewhere, like in a cemetery. The ghost/demon would be lured into the bowl, following the magical, spiraling inscription, and then be trapped, as you see in this example, where the evils spirit is in chains and surrounded by a ring of fire. Pretty. Nifty.

I’m hazy on both the physics of the Ghostbusters’ trap and how the magic of the incantation bowls would actually work, but I can tell you this — the demon bowls sometimes had ghost bait, and we’ve got some here at the Kelsey.

2018-10-02-Ugly_Oct_19050-web
Eggshell ghost bait from Seleucia. 4th–7th century CE. KM 19050.

It’s an inscribed eggshell. It might not look like much, but it was found in a larger ghost-trap assemblage at the site of Seleucia, Iraq. In the corner of a house, one demon bowl was placed right side up, the inscribed eggshell was placed inside, and another demon bowl was placed upside down on top of the first bowl and slightly offset (to leave room for the ghost to get inside). This set-up was designed to work like a triple containment system. Theoretically, the ghost or demon would go all the way into the shell, where it would be bound by the inscription on the shell’s exterior. Meanwhile, the two inscribed incantation bowls provided extra magical entrapment power and security (for the peace of mind a ghost-troubled homeowner needs!). Once the ghost was trapped, the eggshell could be ritually smashed to destroy the evil spirit. Ghost busted!

Ghostbusting is a cross-cultural phenomenon as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. Happy Halloween!

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Can’t get enough of that ancient magic? Check out Traditions of Magic in Late Antiquity, Gideon Bohak’s 1995 online exhibition that features many of the Kelsey’s magical artifacts. There you will find more about demon bowls, magic amulets, and — for the hands-on among you — ancient recipe-books for casting your own spells.

 

From the Archives 34 — September 2018

By Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager

Every summer, members of the Kelsey Museum community travel to Italy to participate in a number of projects. Many excavate at the site of Gabii (one of three sites currently featured in the exhibition Urban Biographies). Some work for the American Academy in Rome. A few work at Sant’Omobono. Some students do all of these things, all while doing their own research.

For many students, their first time visiting Rome must include some of the highlights, including seeing the Coliseum. This structure has been a destination for tourists and scholars for a long time — long before tourism was big business. Back in the 1800s, traveling was expensive and tedious and took a long time. There were no planes, so getting to Europe from the United States required a long voyage by ship. In addition, not many people had the funds to engage in long-distance travel. For these reasons, tourism did not happen on the scale it does today.

For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present a photograph showing the Coliseum as it looked back in 1885. Images such as this one were taken by professional photographers who would package several photographs together and sell them to schools or scholars or churches. They’d come in series, such as “View of Rome” and “View of the Holy Land/Palestine” and “Views of Greece.” People bought these photographic souvenirs in order to show their students, congregation members, and friends back home what Europe looked like.

Sepia image of the interior of the Coliseum, Rome.
1885 photograph of the Coliseum in Rome, labeled with the caption “ROMA – Interno dell’Anfiteatro Flavio o Colosseo.” KM 1961.7.1071.

However, the image of the Coliseum depicted on the obverse (front) is not the focus for this month’s post. Instead, we flip the image over to discover the following:

Cursive handwriting on yellowed paper.
Kelsey’s handwritten notes on the back of the Coliseum photo.

 

R10.                                                            3928

Colosseum, interior view, 1885.

On the difference between Roman and English ruins, see Hawthorne ‘French and Italian Notebooks,’ small ed. (Boston) pp. 54–55.

On the Colisseum:

Gibbon, ‘History of Rome,’ last chapter
Madame de Staël, ‘Corinne,’ book iv, chap. 4.
Byron, ‘Manfred,’ first part of last scene.
     ”     , ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimages,’ stanzas 128–145.
Bowden, ‘Percy Bysshe Shelley,’ vol ii, pp. 245, 246.
Hawthorne, ‘Marble Faun,’ chap. 17
Dickens, ‘Pictures from Italy,’ Peterson’s (Philadelphia) edition, p. 430.
Hare, ‘Walks in Rome,’ vol. 1.
Gregorovius, ‘Geschichte der Stadt Rom.’
Dyer, ‘The City Rome.’
Parker, ‘Archaeology of Rome – The Flavian Ampitheater.’

F.W. Kelsey

Here we have a handwritten note from Francis W. Kelsey himself, namesake of the Kelsey Museum. Not only is Kelsey sharing his comments and thoughts about this image and the Coliseum itself, but he is also giving us vital information. To people who work in archives, learning a particular person’s handwriting is a big key in deciphering other archival materials. Here, we see and can now learn to recognize Kelsey’s penmanship (though it does change as Kelsey ages). Now whenever we find unattributed notes in the archives, we can compare them to this signed note. If they match, we can safely say it is Kelsey’s note we found. And from that, we can start piecing together dates, context, and perhaps even the people being discussed.

Kelsey likely did not think of this as he made this annotation on the back of this photograph. To him, this was just a good location to make a note that would be useful to others. His concern was more for the scholarly aspect of the note rather than the archival one.

Archivists are routinely making discoveries when working in the archives, and they get to know the people captured in those archives. From their notes, we know what kind of workers they were, where they vacationed, about their relationships with family and colleagues, and their general thoughts about the world. Deciphering someone’s handwriting is a big tool for us, as it helps us piece together the archives and, often, people’s lives. We learn so much more about them from the tiny little memories they left than they ever could have imagined.

September’s News from the Conservation Lab — Emergency Preparedness

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.

spiral bound pamphlet and yellow hard hat