BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator for Conservation, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
This month’s ugly object is one of my absolute favorites in the collection. To be clear — it’s not one of my favorite ugly objects, it’s one of my favorite Kelsey objects, period. What is it? What a great question. I think it’s a pig? I’m not 100% sure what it depicts, to be honest, but it’s a small toy animal made from unfired clay. It was excavated at Karanis, which was a Roman farming village in Egypt.
I like this object for so many reasons. First, I like what it says about the University of Michigan and its devotion to detail in archaeological investigation. Karanis was excavated in the 1920s and ’30s, and at that time it was unusual for most excavators to save this kind of evidence. Most archaeologists at the time, especially in Egypt, were primarily interested in beautiful and impressive items. The Kelsey Museum team, however, saved everything. Even tiny, seemingly unimportant bits, like this little toy. It’s described in the excavation’s records as “Toy, small mud animal.”
I also like this “small mud animal” because it connects me to the past. When I look at it, I can imagine a child playing outside, 2,000 years ago. Funny-looking toys made by kids seem to be a universal thing. Most of us have made them at some point, and those of us who are now grownups are often on the receiving end of such things. Little everyday items like this clay pig (or cow, or whatever) make me think about how — despite all our fancy technology — a lot hasn’t changed in the past few millennia. Toys help me imagine life long ago, and points of entry into the past are important for everyone. How do you know where you want to go, or what you want to do as a society, if you don’t know where you’ve been?
Looking at this toy helps me on a personal level as well. It says to me, “Many civilizations have risen and fallen since I was made. Your life is short. Live it well.” Finally, this small mud animal reminds me of one of my favorite people, my brother Matthew, with whom I made toys just like this with mud from the creek that ran behind our house.
The toy doesn’t show to best advantage in the photo, so I encourage you to come in and see it for yourself. It’s on view in the first-floor permanent gallery, inside one of the drawers. If you are standing and facing the front of the black statue of a seated dignitary, it’ll be in the case directly behind the statute. Ask a Kelsey staff member if you can’t find it!