News from the Conservation Lab — Class is in session!

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

 I love the start of the academic year, and much of my day-to-day work in the fall is focused on prepping objects for classes. As part of our mission as a teaching and research institution, we offer students a high level of access to the Kelsey collection, and a number of university classes visit the Kelsey each semester. Some of these classes opt in to an object handling session, where students can pick up and examine accessioned artifacts.

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Objects from the Kelsey’s teaching collection on deck for training.

Part of my job is to make sure objects are stable enough for students to handle, and to train new staff and graduate students in how to safely handle objects themselves. I take particular joy in demoing how NOT to do something — nonchalantly waving around a modern kylix from our teaching collection by his broken handle, for example. Another part of my job is to examine and, if needed, treat objects that have been selected for handling by a class. Right now I’m looking at coins for a class focused on visual culture from the ancient Middle East. They are fascinating. Some were minted locally in Syria and Parthia, while others are made from bronze alloys I haven’t encountered before, such as orichalcum. I learn something new each time I look at objects for a new class, and it’s fulfilling to know that the students will, too.

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Sestertius with laureate and cuirassed bust of Elagabalus (emperor of Rome from 218 to 222), minted in Rome, AD 220. Possibly orichalcum. KM 1991.2.683.

From the Archives #46 — September 2019

By Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager

This September, researchers from the University of Lecce (Italy) working at the site of Dimé (Soknopaiou Nesos) in Egypt visited the Kelsey Museum. Professor Paola Davoli and team (Bruno Bazzani, Stefania Alfarano, Clementina Caputo) returned to work with the collections from Michigan’s excavations at Dimé in 1931. On this visit, the researchers spent two weeks measuring, drawing, photographing, and studying artifacts from the site. They looked at furniture, beads, sandals, lithics, sculpture, figurines, and a number of other artifact types.

This was the team’s second time in Ann Arbor to work with materials from Dimé. In 2017, Davoli and team visited the Kelsey to look through the archival materials from the excavation. This includes maps, drawings, photographs, and other files that help the current Dimé project better understand work undertaken at the site previously. At that time, Professor Arthur Verhoogt hired two Michigan undergraduates, Bianca Gallina and Josiah Olah, to digitize the Dimé archives to assist the Lecce team’s work. Bianca and Josiah helped the Kelsey organize, identify, catalog, and digitize a great number of items from the archives, which will prove to be beneficial for years to come.

For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present a taste of the work Bianca and Josiah accomplished. Like in Karanis, the Dimé excavation team took detailed notes of the architecture at the site, noting topographic measurements. While there were many drawings made, we present those of an oven found at the site, in house I 107. Ovens were not rare at the sites, but not every home had one. With these drawings, we learn the basic construction of a Roman-era Egyptian oven, its size, and potential uses. We also see the handiwork of the person who, in 1931, drew this for their own research and also for those who followed. 

Though Michigan’s excavation at Dimé occurred back in 1931, the work still has plenty to inform research today. The Dimé team from Lecce continues to mine the Kelsey archives for information, and plenty of other researchers will use this material for other projects. We don’t know yet what those requests will look like, so we do our best to protect this collection and make it accessible to all who want to use it.

Below: Drawings of features from House I 107 in Dimé (Soknapaiou Nesos), Egypt.

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Ugly Object of the Month — September 2019

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

To celebrate the opening of the special exhibition Graffiti as Devotion Along the Nile: El-Kurru, Sudan, I’ve chosen a particular group of graffiti for this month’s Ugly Object post. The graffiti of El-Kurru were created by ancient pilgrims to the site’s Kushite temple and pyramid. Images of animals, textiles, boats, and people were carved into the surfaces of the structures’ sandstone columns and blocks, along with hundreds of cupules — or holes — of varying size. This blogroll is all about embracing the seemingly underwhelming, so it felt only natural to take a closer look at these mysterious holes.

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Pictorial and cupule graffiti on a column drum from the temple at El-Kurru. Image courtesy of Suzanne Davis.

The same qualities that make Kurru sandstone so difficult to preserve — it is soft and readily disintegrates into sand — made it ideal for stone collecting. Suzanne and Geoff, who curated the exhibition, believe that pilgrims wanted to take a piece of the powerful temple structure with them as they continued on their journey. I can picture someone rotating a knife into the column surface while a pile of powder grows in their hand. This debris apparently brought protection or healing to whoever possessed it, which helps explain why the temple columns are so … holy.  Apparently, a lot of people wanted a piece of that Kurru magic!

Come see Graffiti as Devotion at the Kelsey Museum through March 29, 2020.

From the Archives #45 — August 2019

Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager

It is August, when students and faculty are beginning their return to Ann Arbor for the new academic year. Soon all these people will settle into the familiar routine of classes and meetings and deadlines. It will all be different, and yet still the same.

During their time away, these people were off scattered about the globe. They were studying, excavating, visiting with colleagues, and advancing their research. However, during their summer, they took the time to find moments for themselves. To vacation, to enjoy the various locations where they found themselves. To live where they had traveled.

Many of the archival photographs the Kelsey Museum possesses were taken by University of Michigan people, such as Easton Kelsey, E. E. Peterson, but primarily by George R. Swain. These photos show the work they were undertaking in locations such as Antioch, or Karanis, or Carthage. However, not all the photographs in the archives are of buildings, artifacts, or of U-M people at work.

For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present a single roll of photographs taken in 1919 when George Swain was traveling for work. He turns his attention to the city he finds himself in, Istanbul. No longer simply photographing the work they are doing, he captures moments in the city, random events, interesting scenes. We see a train, the boats along the Golden Horn, people on the Galata Bridge, and an umbrella mender working on the street.

In those days, there were no digital cameras or cell phones to capture these views. Instead, Swain was using the equipment he brought with him. Most “professional” photographs were captured with a view camera using glass plates. These were heavy and cumbersome to carry. Swain also carried a smaller Kodak that used film. This was used for additional photographs, not the professional ones of artifacts and architecture, but everything or anything else. That choice is captured in the archival numbers given to these photographs (KS for Kodak Swain, KP for Kodak Peterson, KK for Kodak Kelsey, depending on who was using the camera at the time). For these, the “43” refers to the arbitrary film roll number assigned. At the time, rolls of film only had 12 frames. Swain knew he was limited in how many photographs he could take before he ran out of film.

The first frame of this roll, KS043.01, is, unfortunately, missing from the archives, so there is no image to show. However, we do have Swain’s notes, and thus know he captured the following: “Dining car with all the metal letters removed to get brass in the war presumably.”

Years from now, current students and researchers will go through their collection of photographs from their travels in the summer of 2019. Not everything was work-related, and memories will be rekindled of the adventures they went on this year.

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“The Galata Bridge, looking toward Pera.” KS043.12.

News from the Conservation Lab — August 2019

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation and Co-Curator of Graffiti as Devotion along the Nile: El-Kurru, Sudan

Friends, we’ve got big news at the Kelsey — a large portion of the river Nile has come to our special exhibition gallery. It’s been re-created by our amazing exhibition team, Scott Meier and Eric Campbell, as have a bunch of life-size columns modeled after those found in the El-Kurru funerary temple. It’s all happening as we finish the final touches on our next special exhibiton, Graffiti as Devotion along the Nile, just in time for the opening on August 23.

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View of the Kelsey’s special exhibition gallery as installation of Graffiti as Devotion along the Nile progresses. Note the Nile meandering through the right foreground.

This photo shows the relative calm before the storm, since beautiful photographic panels and all kinds of other stuff — including a representation of the ram-headed Kushite god Amun — are going in soon. Although Amun is associated with the sun and with creation, he seems intense and kind of scary and I’m not sure I would enjoy meeting him in person. That said, I think he’s going to look great in our gallery. If you can’t visit in person, check back on our website soon because the online version of the exhibition, built by web guru Julia Falkovitch-Khain, will go live as the in-gallery version opens.

My exhibition co-curator Geoff and I are also really looking forward to our graffiti symposium, which will be held here at the Kelsey on September 20. Yesterday we met with the symposium respondent, artist Jim Cogswell, for a fascinating preview of his thoughts.

And of course, we hope to see you on September 5 at our kick-off event at the Trotter Multicultural Center, where Geoff and I will give attendees a behind-the-scenes look at the El-Kurru graffiti project.

New Kelsey Museum publication hot off the press

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The cover of the Kelsey’s latest publication, Graffiti as Devotion along the Nile and Beyond.

If you want a sneak peek into our upcoming exhibition Graffiti as Devotion along the Nile: El-Kurru, Sudan, which opens to the public on Friday, August 23, you can’t do better than to download the free PDF of the exhibition catalog and get reading.

Chapter one outlines the history of ancient Kush and provides some historical and archaeological context for the graffiti at El-Kurru. Then, seven richly illustrated essays by international scholars explore the phenomenon of graffiti in ancient and Christian-era Sudan, as well as an overview of Nubian rock art and a look at graffiti at Pompeii.

Some questions that are tackled in this book include:

  • What the heck, Meroitic pilgrims. Why are you eating the temple? (chapter 2)
  • Man, some people really love to carve pictures of boats. A whole lotta boats. (chapter 3)
  • Can’t we just rebury it all? Really, it’s for the best. (chapter 4)
  • Beneseg, it would have been great if in the graffito you left on the church wall in Banganarti you could have gone into a little more biographical detail and expanded on your personal ambitions and especially your trip to Nubia from France instead of just saying hi to the Archangel Rafael, thanks. (chapter 6)
  • Were “rock gong” concerts more like Chopin’s nocturnes or an Iggy Pop show? (chapter 7)
  • Graffito 1: Dude, did you see that gladiator match?! Graffito 2: OMG bro, that was off the chain!! (chapter 8)

While not exactly a fluffy summer beach read, Graffiti as Devotion is nonetheless written to engage non-specialist readers. And anyway, there are a lot of pictures. So go ahead! You’ve got nothing to lose! Download the PDF (did we mention that it’s free?) and have a look.

The book itself is a handsome paperback and will soon be available for purchase through our distributor, ISD. Better yet, come to the Kelsey and pick up a copy at our gift shop. While you’re here, stop in and take a stroll through the exhibition.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Graffiti as Devotion along the Nile and Beyond

Table of Contents

List of Contributors
Overview Map
Timeline of Kush and Nubia
List of Abbreviations
Foreword. “Graffiti in Ancient Kush and Medieval Nubia: An Introduction,” by Geoff Emberling and Suzanne Davis

  1. “A Cultural History of Kush: Politics, Economy, and Ritual Practice,” by Geoff Emberling
  2. “Graffiti at El-Kurru: The Funerary Temple,” by Suzanne Davis and Geoff Emberling
  3. “Boat Graffiti on the El-Kurru Pyramid,” by Bruce Beyer Williams
  4. “Conservation and Documentation of Graffiti at El-Kurru,” by Suzanne Davis
  5. “Figural Graffiti from the Meroitic Era on Philae Island,” by Jeremy Pope
  6. “Discourses with the Holy: Text and Image Graffiti from the Pilgrimage Churches of Saint Raphael the Archangel in Banganarti, Sudan,” by Bogdan Żurawski
  7. “An Overview of Nubian Rock Art in the Region of the 4th and 5th Cataracts,” by Fawzi Hassan Bakhiet
  8. “Graffiti at Pompeii, Italy,” by Rebecca Benefiel

Epilogue. “Hajj Paintings in El-Araba and El-Ghabat, Egypt: A Photo Essay,” by Ayman Damarany
Catalog of Selected Graffiti from El-Kurru, by Suzanne Davis, Geoff Emberling, and Bruce Beyer Williams

Ugly Object of the Month — August 2019

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

My survey of the Kelsey’s stone collection has proven to be a rich source of material for our Ugly Object blog roll. Stone can be durable, which is why we build with it and why so many ancient structures remain. But like many things that seem tough, stone has a less visible softer side. Sedimentary stones, especially, can break down over time into fuzzy, diminished forms of their former selves, which is what has happened to the stela fragment featured here.

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Limestone funerary stela incised with a symbol of Tanit. 12.3 x 7.4 cm. Punic period. Carthage, Tunisia. KM 84.

Although the artifact’s surface is scuffed and weathered, we can still make out a triangular, incised female form. This unassuming figure is a symbol the Punic goddess Tanit, a deity worshipped in Carthage and who appears in many forms of ancient North African material culture. The Tanit symbol is simple but powerful, and redeems this otherwise lackluster fragment of limestone, which can be seen on display in the Roman Provinces gallery of the Upjohn exhibit wing.