News from the Conservation Lab — Conservation at El-Kurru, Sudan

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

Last week I returned from a few weeks of work at the site of El-Kurru, Sudan, where a project directed by Kelsey Museum research scientist Geoff Emberling explores both an ancient royal cemetery of the Napatan kings and how an archaeological research project can connect with and celebrate contemporary cultural heritage in the community surrounding it. My time at El-Kurru this year was short but productive, and below are a few of the big highlights for me.

First, I got to work with conservation architect Kelly Wong on multiple projects, including conservation planning for the El-Kurru pyramid known as Ku. 1. This included a lot of fun investigation and problem solving, as well as mixing and testing of construction mortars. Our favorite mortar formulation was then applied to a joint in the pyramid to see how it will hold up over the next year. If you’re reading this as a conservator (or a mason) and thinking, But wait, isn’t that pyramid dry masonry? Yes, it is. But we have an interesting situation where the walls are moving in response to pressure from the rubble core, thus we’re testing different methods for stabilizing the outer masonry shell.

two women mixing mortar
Conservation architect Kelly Wong (left) and I mixing test batches of mortar. Photo by Caitlin Clerkin.
Woman brushing stone blocks of pyramid
Kelly at the Ku. 1 pyramid, preparing a joint for a mortar test. Photo by Suzanne Davis.

 

Second, IPCAA student Caitlin Clerkin and I recorded a series of short videos for an upcoming Kelsey exhibition — Graffiti as Devotion along the Nile: El-Kurru, Sudan. For these, we asked people to tell us either about their favorite ancient graffito at the site, or to share something they wanted people to know about the site. Each person had something different to say, things we probably would never have heard if we hadn’t been doing these videos! Among the people we talked to were Anwar Mahajoub and Bakri Abdelmoneim, both of whom work on the El-Kurru project but are also from El-Kurru village. They talked about growing up playing soccer within sight of the ancient cemetery and how they feel about their work now, as part of the international team working to study and preserve it.

Three people at base of ruined pyramid
Filming Anwar Mahajoub and Bakri Abdelmoneim in front of the Ku. 1 pyramid. Photo by Caitlin Clerkin.
Two men
Anwar and Bakri, in a still from the video. Photo by Suzanne Davis.

 

A third thing I really enjoyed was an afternoon spent baking bread with Marwa Mahajoub, Anwar’s sister. And yes, I do consider this conservation work! If bread isn’t an important form of cultural heritage to celebrate and preserve, I don’t know what is. Marwa has worked with the project for several years, and when Anwar discovered that a group of us were interested in baking, he volunteered her to teach us how she makes the bread for their family. Happily for us, she was cool with this. Bread is a big deal in Sudan — it’s not only your main carbohydrate at each meal, it’s also your utensil. Many people don’t have ovens at home and instead buy bread at one of several town bakeries, all of which use wood-fired ovens. Fresh bread out of one of these bakeries is fantastic but, as we discovered, the bread is even more delicious when it’s baked at home.

Two women baking bread
Marwa Mahajoub supervises as I shape bread for baking. Photo by Caitlin Clerkin.
Woman baking bread
Marwa pulls freshly baked bread out of her home oven. Photo by Suzanne Davis.

Ugly Object of the Month — March 2019

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

In last month’s Ugly Object post, we explored some of my feelings about the interior decorating schemes of Roman Egyptians. But while I could not happily collect their colorfully painted god and goddess figurines, I would acquire this month’s Ugly Object in a hot second. For me, this sprang bag only just barely qualifies as something we could legitimately write about in this blog feature, and then only because it is so moth-eaten and frayed.

red and green woven bag
Sprang bag made from dyed wool. Egypt. 1st–4th century CE. H. 30 cm. KM 11666.

Made with red, green, and cream-colored wool, this bag is truly a special item. It is featured in our current exhibition, Ancient Color, because it’s so colorful. I enjoy the bold color choices, but I’m even more impressed by the many beautifully executed construction details.

In describing non-woven archaeological textiles at the Kelsey, we often use the word “sprang” to refer to looped or twisted yarn construction like we see in this bag. But unlike our “sprang” socks, which were made using a single-needle technique that is similar to knitting, this bag was made using a twisty, warp-only technique that is sort of like braiding and sort of like weaving.

This bag was made by a master sprang craftsperson. The red, green, and cream yarns interact to create complex patterns, but there are also very cool structural details that contribute to a sense of depth and ornament.

close-up of woven bag
Detail of the border of the sprang bag.

At the top of the bag — as I hope you can see in this detail of the top left corner — the yarns are bundled and held in place with twisting at top and bottom to create an openwork effect. The colored yarns are then carefully twisted to create a highly patterned border along the top edge of the bag, before the green and cream yarns begin a pattern of alternating cable-like and chevron designs.

Here is a closer look at how the green and cream yarns are gathered and twisted as one unit to create what I’m calling a cable-like effect, since this is similar in appearance (and structure) to a cable in knitting.

sprang bag detail
Detail of two “cables” in the sprang bag.

If we sold replicas of this bag in the Kelsey’s gift shop, I’d pick one up today. This bag is both exceptional and exceptionally fragile. It’s very rarely on view, so I encourage you to come see it for yourself now at the Kelsey!

From the Archives #39 — February 2019

By Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager

In 2018, a Registry intern worked with the archives to help assess materials and devise a plan for organization and some culling. As this intern had not previously worked with archival materials, they were encouraged to seek out the expertise of our colleagues at the Bentley Historical Library, the University of Michigan’s primary historical repository. Bentley archivist Aprille McKay advised our intern about plans for organization and creating a finding aid, and provided suggestions for disposing of non-essential or duplicated materials. At the end of the semester, the intern wrote a report along with recommendations, which the Kelsey will implement.

The Kelsey is very appreciative of Aprille’s insights into handling archival materials and archives in general. In addition to these, Aprille also brought the Kelsey gifts. In the 1990s, when Newberry Hall was undergoing renovations, we sent archival materials, including maps and photographs from the site of Karanis, Egypt, to the Bentley for safekeeping. Aprille returned these materials to us in 2018, and we’re still inventorying them to determine  how to incorporate them back into our collections.

This semester, a new intern is working with the Karanis materials, and they found an image that shows a feature in a temple wall labeled “crocodile mummy niche” (fig. 1). This excited them, and they wanted to learn more, which is why this exciting discovery is this month’s “From the Archives.”

construction details
Figure 1. “Plate VI: Construction Details.” The crocodile mummy niche is illustrated at left. Maps and Plans. Map No. 118. Kelsey Archives 5.8401.

Two temples survive at Karanis, the South Temple, which we know from an inscription was dedicated to the crocodile gods Pnepheros and Petesouchos, and the poorly preserved North Temple. The image above shows construction details of the “crocodile niche” found in an inner room of the South Temple (figs. 2 and 3). Scholars think that a crocodile mummy on a bier would have been placed in this niche. While no crocodile mummies were found in the ruins of the South Temple, crocodile bones were found in both the inner shrine (room C) and the room south of the shrine (room X) (Ali 2013, p. 50).

photo of a wall niche
Figure 2. Photograph of the crocodile niche in the north wall of room B in the South Temple. Kelsey Archives 0490.
plan of a temple
Figure 3. Plan of the South Temple. Room B is highlighted pink, the crocodile niche is outlined in red. It runs below a set of stairs. After Boak 1933, plan X.

Below is a photograph of a partial crocodile mummy resting against a stone wall of the inner sanctuary of the North Temple (fig. 4). This image is the only specific record of crocodile mummies at the site of the North Temple at Karanis, although the excavators noted the discovery of “a number of crocodile mummies” to the southwest of the temple (Boak 1933, p. 13). However, the record of objects, the list of every item found at Karanis by the University of Michigan expedition (1924–1935), does not list any crocodile mummies.

We do not know where this particular mummy wound up. It likely it went to the Cairo Museum in the division of finds, but this is by no means certain. Its location remains a mystery.

photo of a crocodile mummy in a corner
Figure 4. Part of mummified crocodile in the inner sanctuary of the North Temple at Karanis. Kelsey Archives 5.1692.

 * * * * *

Read more about the Egyptian cult of the crocodile in the chapter “The Temples and the Gods,” in Karanis: An Egyptian Town in Roman Times, by Elaine K. Gazda (2nd ed., 2004). An abridged version of this chapter, without illustrations, is available here.

References

Ali 2013 = Ali, Aida Akbar. “Karanis Crocodiles: The Egyptian Crocodile Cult at Roman Karanis.” Bachelor’s honors thesis, University of Michigan, 2013.

Boak 1933 = Boak, Arthur E. R. Karanis: The Temples, Coin Hoards, Botanical and Zoölogical Reports, Seasons 1924–31. University of Michigan Studies, Humanistic Series 30. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1933.

International Kurru Archaeological Project — Fieldwork Friday #4

End of the season and some results!

desert landscape with pyramids
Sun setting across the desert landscape from the top of Jebel Barkal, with the pyramids in the midground.

15 February 2019

By Gregory Tucker

I was hoping to submit this last blog post on my time in Sudan, sharing some of our results, as I left the country on 21 December 2018, but unfortunately some rather significant events occurred and I had to leave the country early. On the 19th and 20th of December, protests erupted across the country with various motives that I will not focus on in this post, but I encourage you to read up about these events here and here. I was on my way to Khartoum during this period and while there I was advised to stay in the hotel and to leave the country on the earliest flight possible. In the end, I had no trouble at all leaving Sudan and saw no signs of the protests or their aftermath on the streets from the hotel to the airport, and I was very glad to arrive safely back home to news from my Sudanese friends and colleagues that they were all safe and in good health. Since I left, other research projects have continued to visit Sudan, such as the Uronarti Regional Archaeology Project, although the protests have continued off and on. These protests have recently resumed after a period of relative calm and I hope that the Michigan team now in Sudan stays safe and out of trouble!

magnetometry results
The results of our survey work in December 2018 as part of the University of Michigan-led project!

In the image above, you can see the results of this season of geophysical survey and how it relates to the large Temple of Amun, visible in the left center of the image, and to the palm line to the lower right. This season of geophysics at Jebel Barkal was successful in defining a large number of archaeological features of interest, some of which are being investigated more intensively right now by other members of the project team on site. One of these is shown in more detail in the figure below, which zooms in on the center of the larger area of gray results in the larger image. What is most significant are the straight lines and right angles formed by the lighter and darker pixels, which reflect differing magnetic readings across the surface.

aerial view of magnetometry results
Results from the center of the survey area, showing rectilinear anomalies that likely define a buried structure, not visible on the surface.

More detailed results and analysis of this survey season will be published after thorough analysis, interpretation, and comparison with the excavation results. It was a fantastic field season, even with the hot weather at the beginning and the other obstacles we encountered. At times I didn’t think that we would complete everything we set out to do, but in the end we did even more than we targeted — a rare event in my experience!

selfie with archaeological ruins in background
A final selfie over the site from the top of Jebel Barkal, including the Temple of Amun in the foreground and the main survey area in the near distance to the upper left of the image.

Many thanks are due to the many people who made this fieldwork possible. First of all, I want to thank my assistants in the field, Bakri Abdelmonim and Abdelbaqi Salaheddin Mohamend, who I have worked with now for many years and whose experience and expertise make my job significantly easier. Thanks also to Sami Elamin, our NCAM (National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums of Sudan) inspector, who helped me to organize work on site as well as my day-to-day life while in Sudan, and who invited me to many social events in El Kurru and nearby towns and cities, including me as much as possible in the life of the region. Many thanks to everyone in El Kurru who welcomed me during the month of fieldwork and have always welcomed me — it feels like a home away from home when I am there. I would like to also thank our project’s overall director, Geoff Emberling (University of Michigan), for supporting my work from the very start. Hopefully we’ll make many more discoveries together. Finally, the greatest of thanks are due to Larry and Julie Bernstein for the financial support that made this work possible, we could not have done it without your generosity.

Camels on a road
Camels on the highway on the trip back to Khartoum.

Ugly Object of the Month — February 2019

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

Guess what, everyone?! We have a new exhibition going up right now: Ancient Color. Co-curated by my conservation compatriot Carrie Roberts, it features one her favorite Egyptian gods. Yes, you guessed it, HARPOCRATES RETURNS!

If you read this blog series with any regularity you will know that Carrie has a thing for Harpocrates. And it’s not because he’s really, really good-looking. Although when you know a little bit about him, you’d think he would be. Son of Isis (who we all know is gorgeous) and Horus (not bad if you’re into birds), he symbolizes the newborn sun (nice, right?). He also has magical healing and protective powers, exerted especially on behalf of women and children. This all sounds pretty great, and yet if you wanted a figurine of this god for your house (who wouldn’t?), it would look like this:

terracotta figurine of harpocrates
Painted terracotta figurine of Harpocrates. Egypt, 2nd century CE. Height 21.3 cm. KM 6947.

Yes, obviously this has seen better days. But imagine it with all the paint still on it! It would be very colorful, but would you really want to look at it every day? I know I wouldn’t, but figurines like this were very popular in Roman Egypt.

Carrie likes this figurine because she is crazy for ancient paint. But I’m not going to tell you about the traces of paint on this little guy, because that would spoil your Ancient Color exhibition experience.

I like this figurine for a different reason: it makes me contemplate two different but equally intriguing possibilities. One: that my decorative taste is very different from that of the typical Roman Egyptian. Would I have hated their interior decorating schemes? I feel like I would have, but I like to imagine what they’d have looked like, all the same. Two: that figurines like this — which were mass-produced by pressing clay into molds, firing the figurines, and then slapping on some paint (I have never seen one of these that was carefully painted) — were meaningful regardless of how they looked. The magical powers of this figurine are not dependent on beauty, in other words. Harpocrates can be messily made and slapdashily painted, and still heal your snake bites. He doesn’t have to look good to take care of business.

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Learn more about this figurine by visiting the Kelsey’s new exhibition Ancient Color, here in Ann Arbor beginning February 8, or anytime online.

 

 

 

 

From the Archives #38 — January 2019

By Sebastián Encina

Researchers from around the world often visit the Kelsey Museum, or seek out its holdings, in order to learn more about the ancient world. The archives of the Kelsey have detailed information about sites where Michigan has excavated, the artifacts discovered there, and the general timeline of occupation of the site. With new research, even legacy information plays a vital role.

For modern researchers, the archives provide a secondary benefit: learning what life was like for the excavators. Who were the they working with? Who did they hire? What were the logistics of the excavation? Where did they get their food? What visitors came through the site? Scholars ask these questions not only for curiosity’s sake, but also to recreate the circumstances under which project directors worked. Often, the researchers are working or leading a project in the same area, and are interested in seeing the similarities and differences.

The journals found in the Kelsey Archives provide an even closer look at the people behind the excavation directorship. Not only what work was occurring, but also who they visited with, who they corresponded with, what they did on their way to and from the site. For example, we have the journal that dig director Clark Hopkins kept at Seleucia on the Tigris in October–December 1936, with notes about his experiences while overseas. Reading it, we can see that he spent time at the Museum of Aleppo, where he encountered a statue of Brahma. He took notes on artifacts on display at the Palmyra Museum. There is even a detailed account of expenses he incurred while traveling, including food purchased for a train journey, nights stayed in Palmyra, and tea. He even begins the journal by noting what he plans to look for at the site when it rains (“walls of palace, theatre, walls + canal sides, etc.”).

Every once in a while, we are treated to even more amusing entries. For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present a single page from Hopkins’ October–December 1936 journal. Though much of the journal discusses work happening at the site, as well as Hopkins’ work and travels, we weren’t expecting to find this:

recipe for rice
On the right-hand page, a recipe for cooking rice, from the Seleucia journal of Clark Hopkins, 1936.

Friday Dec 18

Captain + Mrs. Modin [sp?], Mrs. Mitchell, Mr. Lampard + party visited us for lunch.
No special finds.

Recipe for cooking rice.
Brown slightly in butter.
Cook over slow fire to 2 cups of water to one cup of rice until water disappears + little holes appear in the rice.
Take off fire + cover w. napkin, the napkin touching the rice to dry it.
Better still use chicken broth instead of water to give flavor to the rice.

Being able to cook a basic meal of rice is important, and we are happy Hopkins found a recipe he could use. It is still a welcome surprise to find when researching the finds of Seleucia, the architecture and the temples.

As one reads through any archive, they will undoubtedly find surprises. This will likely not be the last time we find a recipe from long ago in the Kelsey Archives, nor will it be the last random non-archaeological thing we encounter. This makes our work all the more exciting. We never know what we will read next.