Curator Favorites

When it comes to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s collections, not all artifacts are created equal. Some call out to us intellectually, others emotionally. To that end, we asked our curators to name their favorite Kelsey artifact or object. Here is the sixth in a series.

BY LAUREN E. TALALAY, Curator Emerita and Research Associate (retired Associate Director and Curator for Academic Outreach), Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, Adjunct Associate Professor, The University of Michigan

 Favorite Artifact: Amphora by the Berlin Painter. Clay, Attic Red Figure (ca. 480 BC). Common Fund purchase 1977. KM 1977.7.1

Amphora by the Berlin Painter
Amphora by the Berlin Painter.

Why. The amphora’s aesthetics as well as its subject matter. The simple beauty, wonderful color, rich black background, and elegantly drawn people move me. I love the way the painter has given us two individuals focused only on each other. It’s a poignant moment frozen in time of a warrior going off to battle or returning from war. Although the topic’s roots go back to antiquity, we can still relate to the difficult issues of war in our time. While it is hard to see, there is also a shield behind the warrior that was incised by the artist but never painted. It makes me wonder why the artist never finished it.

About Artifact. The painter of this amphora, who like many other Athenian vase painters never signed his name, can be recognized by his style on more than 300 vessels, some of which are among the most beautiful surviving examples of red-figure pottery. He is called the “Berlin Painter” after his masterpiece now in Berlin (Antikensammlung). His simple, elegant composition often “spotlights” one or two figures against the dark background.

The scene on this side is most likely one of sacrifice, with the young warrior setting off to or returning from battle. Facing the youth is a woman who may be his wife. The warrior holds a spear; an incised, but never painted, shield is faintly visible behind and to the left of him. The reverse depicts an old man with a staff, perhaps the warrior’s father. The young man also holds a vessel, which, however, seems to be the wrong kind for a libation or sacrifice scene.

Background. In scenes of this nature, figures are more often painted holding a non-footed vessel called a phiale. The piece may have been incorrectly restored before it arrived at the Kelsey. The Kelsey Museum purchased the Berlin Painter amphora through Bruce McAlpine of Bruce and Ingrid McAlpine Ancient Art, London dealers. It was part of the ex-collection of Lord Belper of Nottingham, England.

Find It.  First, locate the ancient Greece exhibit case on the first floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. This exhibit case faces the wall of windows. While standing in front, look toward the right-hand end of the exhibit case where the artifact sits.

Two Talalay books — In the Field: Archaeological Expeditions by the Kelsey Museum, coauthored by Lauren E. Talalay, and Prehistorians Round the Pond, coedited by Lauren E. Talalay — are available in our gift shop.

3D Gabii: (Re)excavating the Past

BY MATT NAGLAK, PhD student, U-M Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology

3D image of an excavated wall at Gabii.

One of the major problems of excavation is its innately destructive nature. Once a layer of dirt is excavated or a stone is removed, it cannot be put back. It is therefore vitally important to obtain all the information possible not only about the layer itself but also its relationship to all the layers around it. Unfortunately, it is not always possible for an archaeologist to know in advance what information is going to be needed to understand the site as a whole. Often no one realizes that significant information has been lost until the excavation is finished and analysis has begun.

In the past, the only way to combat this problem was to take photographs and detailed notes. The Kelsey and IPCAA projects at Gabii and Sant’Omobono, Italy, however, are using new technology to create 3D photomodels of layers that will in a sense let us “reexcavate” the site after the actual digging is finished, recovering valuable data and relationships otherwise lost. One of my jobs on the site of Gabii is to take pictures and then create the 3D models for each of the trenches. Then we are able to look again at the surface of a layer in all its detail, almost as if it had never been removed in the first place. With the click of a mouse we can excavate a trench again or reinsert earlier layers, moving in either direction through time in a way never before possible. This ability has proven invaluable to how we understand the results of excavation and is sure to be a staple of future archaeological work. I am very excited to return to Gabii this summer to continue this innovative work!

From El Kurru to Ann Arbor: Q&A from the Field

BY GEOFF EMBERLING, Assistant Research Scientist, Kelsey Museum

I received a nice note from Julie Donnelly, who teaches at Clague Middle School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her 6th-grade students had a bunch of really good questions about the dig and about living in a village in Sudan. It turns out that 6th graders are pretty smart! I’m going to try to answer their questions in several posts over the next week or two.

One group of questions was about life in the village.

Is El Kurru considered to be *modern*? For instance, do people have cell phones, furniture, and computers?
Do they have grocery stores?
Is there a citywide call to prayer, and, if so, how does it affect your team and their work schedule?


There are maybe 1,000 people living in El Kurru village (nobody seems to know for sure). The village is modern in some ways. There are four shops on the main street, including Waleed’s grocery store (above), the barber shop where I got my haircut, and a coffee shop that would amaze you — a woman making the delicious local coffee called jebena on coals that rest on the floor, which is sand. So, not a lot of businesses, but there are a few. People drop by the grocery store all day long . . . women sometimes feel more comfortable shopping through a window on the side of the store rather than going inside.

Nearly everyone here has a cell phone . . . one feature they enjoy is an ability to play the radio out loud on their phone while we are all working in the excavation. In fact, Sudanese went from having a pretty minimal wired phone network to a complete mobile phone network in a very short period of time in the last ten years or so, and it is changing everything about working and living in Sudan.

And yes, there are mosques in the village, and we hear calls to prayer throughout the day (with loud calls to prayer starting at 5:45 a.m.!). The person who gives the call to prayer is called a muezzin, and we all have our favorite ones. This is one of the more observant Muslim places I’ve worked, and many people in the village go to the mosque to pray five times a day.

What is a typical work day for your team?
Do you ever take a day off to rest?


We live in a house in the village — here’s a photo of the outer courtyard, which is really a nice place to have a cup of tea in the afternoon, and we do a lot of work here too as you can see.

It gets light here around 7 a.m. We get ready, have our tea and coffee, and start work at 8 a.m. We have hired around 70 local men to help with the excavation, and most of them prefer to work from 8 to 2 even though it gets hot here in the afternoon (it’s recently been between 95 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the afternoons).

We eat according to a Sudanese schedule: “breakfast” is a big meal at 11 a.m., and we have “lunch” a bit late for Sudan, at about 6 p.m. They would normally have dinner at 9:30 or so, but we are all too tired, so we have just two main meals. We eat a local, organic, and mostly vegetarian diet — lots of fava beans (called fuul), eggs, tomatoes, and cucumbers, sometimes pancakes with savory sauces, and bread with everything. And we eat Sudanese style, with our right hand, mostly using little pieces of bread to scoop up the food. My personal favorite is the sweet spaghetti they serve with every meal — hard to eat with your hand!

We work six days per week, with Fridays off. We are a pretty active group, though, so we sometimes catch up on work on Fridays, and sometimes drive off to visit other sites in the area, which is important for us.

Conservation for Seleucia Show, Part 2

BY BRITTANY DOLPH, Graduate Conservation Intern, UCLA/Getty Conservation Program

Last month, I discussed the documentation aspects of conservation, especially as it pertained to our preparation of objects for the exhibition Life in Miniature: Identity and Display at Ancient Seleucia on the Tigris. Often, when time allows, conservation research can contribute technical information about objects, revealing how the artifact was made and even how it was used during its “life.” Furthermore, technical data aid us in making treatment decisions later on. Though we didn’t have the chance to do additional chemical analysis for this particular exhibition, we used different types of imaging techniques to get as much information as possible. And using different kinds of light in different ways for gathering information is ideal because it allows us to avoid taking samples. For example, a visual assessment can reveal seams, showing us that the miniature ceramic figurine below was made in two separate clay pieces before being joined together and fired.

This ceramic figurine, photographed from the rear, shows a seam running along the contour of the left side from bottom to top. Fingerprints are visible along the seam as well, where the maker attempted to bridge the sides by pushing the clay over.

A look through a simple binocular microscope can show tool marks that provide clues to how an object was made. For example, a stone figurine could have been roughly cut to size using a chisel or claw, then carved with final tools, and perhaps filed to create a smoother surface. In other cases, microscopy can reveal the remnants of pigment applied to a surface. In addition, condition problems such as micro-cracks, spots of metal corrosion, and many other issues are identified.

Conservators also often flash ultraviolet irradiation (sometimes incorrectly referred to as light) onto the surface of objects. Different materials react differently to the UV, so that we can often tell where additional materials have been applied by the color, strength, and opacity of their fluorescence or lack thereof. It can be especially helpful for finding previously applied conservation or repair materials.

Visual assessment . . . microscopy . . . UV . . . what do we do with all of this information? It helps to us to make decisions — which, it turns out, is a big part of the job! The first step is to decide whether or not even to treat an object. If we decide that treatment is necessary, we then have to decide how to go about it and what materials to use.

Next month, we’ll take a look at examples of treatments — and situations where we might decide not to treat at all.