My Favorite Artifact

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.

BY CATHERINE PERSON, Educational and Academic Outreach Coordinator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan. New to the Kelsey last year, Catherine received her PhD in archaeology from Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, Pa.

Conical glass lamp
Conical glass lamp in stand from Karanis, Egypt.

Favorite Artifact: Conical glass lamp in wooden stand. Glass and wood. Roman period (1st–4th century AD). Karanis, Egypt. KM 5929 (lamp), KM 3632 (stand).

Why. “I like this piece for its aesthetics. I’m attracted to the combination of materials, the glass and the carved wood, as well as the dots of blue on the glass mirroring the circles that march up the legs of the stand. I also like the versatility of the piece: it could be used for lighting but also for something else, such as a drinking vessel or a dice cup for gambling. You can see a similar glass lamp that was used that way in another exhibit case here. In a museum filled with labels, it’s good to remember that, like today, things in the ancient world were not always one-dimensional.”

About Artifact: According to Kelsey publication Karanis: An Egyptian Town in Roman Times, the number of wooden reading stands found in the U-M excavations of 1924–35 indicates that literacy, while by no means universal, had been attained by more than a few.

In the dark rooms of Karanis houses, light was provided for reading by various kinds of lamps. Conical lamps such as this one were probably set into tripod holders or suspended on ropes or chains. These lamps, many of which were found at Karanis, would have been filled entirely with oil or with water covered by a thin layer of oil. When ignited the oil would have given a muted but adequate light.

The sheer volume of glass discovered in Karanis, over twice as much as at any other single site in Egypt, has led to the assumption that glass was manufactured at Karanis. No definitive evidence was recovered, however, to prove that it was made locally.

Background. Museum namesake Professor Francis W. Kelsey began a series of excavations in Egypt that were intended to find artifacts and documents in an archaeological context to illustrate daily life in the Greek and Roman world. These excavations began with the site of Karanis (modern Kom Aushim), extensive ruins of an abandoned town of the Greek and Roman periods.

The Karanis excavations uncovered hundreds of homes containing thousands of objects. Much of this material attests to the domestic lives of the people — from this material we know what people ate, worked at, read, and how they lived.

The University of Michigan spent eleven seasons at Karanis, where the team unearthed a wealth of material of everyday life. Thousands of these objects were given to the University by the Egyptian government, and the artifacts are now housed at the Kelsey and the papyri in the Papyrus Collection at the University Library .

Find It. On the first floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing, look for the seated priest near the stairway to the second floor. Facing the statue, turn left, walk toward a trio of female sculptures, then turn left again. You should be facing the three Karanis household exhibit cases. The conical glass lamp in stand is in the right-hand exhibit.

 Learn More. A number of books about U-M’s Karanis excavations are available in our gift shop, or online, including:

  • Karanis: An Egyptian Town in Roman Times: Discoveries of the University of Michigan Excavation to Egypt (1924–1935), edited by Elaine K. Gazda with new preface and updated bibliography by T. G. Wilfong. Purchase online here.
  • Karanis Revealed: Discovering the Past and Present of a Michigan Excavation in Egypt, edited by T. G. Wilfong with the assistance of Andrew W. S. Ferrara. Purchase online here.
  • In the Field: The Archaeological Expeditions of the Kelsey Museum, edited by Lauren E. Talalay and Susan Alcock. Purchase online here.

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