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.
BY CHRISTOPHER RATTÉ, Director and Curator of Greek and Hellenistic Collections, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology; and Professor, Departments of Classical Studies and History of Art, University of Michigan
Favorite Artifact: Attic lekythos with funeral scene. Clay, white ground. Greece. KM 2604.
Why. I have been captivated by Greek vases ever since I was 10 or 11 years old — perhaps (although I certainly didn’t know it at the time) for the same reason that inspired Keats to write the “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: because, as the “foster child[ren] of silence and slow time,” Greek vases conjure up such vivid sensations of an ideal past.
My favorite vase in the Kelsey is a 5th-century BC oil jar known as a lekythos, made as a grave offering. Vases of this type are often decorated with scenes of men and women leaving gifts in front of tombs, and in this way they are interestingly self-referential. But what I like most about them is their draftsmanship.
This vase shows two men standing on either side of a gravestone. Both the men and the monument they flank are drawn in outline on a white background, with details such as the men’s cloaks filled in with colored paint. In many ways this is a humble object — it was produced quickly for retail sale — but that is partly what makes it so appealing. Its simple line work seems perfectly in tune both with the function of the vase and with the solemnity of the scene it depicts.
Background. White-ground lekythoi, like this one, were usually associated with funerary rituals. Produced primarily in Attica during the 5th century BC, they were placed both inside and outside graves and filled with oil as an offering to the deceased or to the gods of the underworld.
The coating of white slip and delicate drawings are often fugitive, since much of the color was added after firing. This vase shows a typical image of a tomb encircled with ribbons. One of the figures may represent the departed, the other a visitor to the grave.
Find It. Locate the ancient Greece exhibit case, which faces the wall of windows on the first floor of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing. Facing the exhibit case, turn right and walk to the end of the case, then turn left and left. You’ll be facing the end case, which holds two lekythoi, including Director Ratté’s favorite.
Learn More: Archaeology and the Cities of Asia Minor in Late Antiquity, edited by Ortwin Daly and Christopher Ratté, is available for purchase in our gift shop or online from our distributor.