From the Archives — November 2015

BY SEBASTIÁN ENCINA, Museum Collections Manager, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Thanksgiving is upon us, and many of us will be flying or driving to see our families in other parts of the country. Highways will be congested and traffic slows down to a crawl at toll booths and highway gas stations. Often times, during these seasonal road trips so many of us venture out on, the price of gas rises to meet demand. “Isn’t there another way to do this?” we wonder.

This debate on alternative energy has been a focus for a number of years on the political landscape. What may be surprising to some people is that this debate is not new. Arguments for different energy sources have been with us for over a century. Early cars ran on both electricity and gas, with gas winning out in the early days.

This month’s “From the Archives” showcases a chance find in the archives. The materials stored at the Kelsey relate to the collections and business of the museum, which includes newspaper articles from the Detroit News written about museum/university matters. In 1924, the University of Michigan set out on several projects: Antioch (Turkey), Carthage (Tunisia), and Karanis (Egypt). The finds at Antioch proved to be exciting enough for the Detroit News to devote a large portion of their newspaper to the project. And, rightfully so, someone decided to save a copy of this for the records of the dig, where it then became a part of the history of the museum.

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Detroit News, Sunday, 21 September 1924, p. 12.

While the original intent of the newspaper clipping was to save the history of this archaeological excavation, often such mementos wind up sharing with the modern audience other bits of history. Below the finds of Antioch we see an image of famous American inventor Thomas Edison. The Wizard of Menlo Park is quoted discussing alternate sources of energy. “Why Worry About Coal? Asks Edison; Says Sun and Sea Will Do Its Work.” Even as far back as the 1920s, people like Thomas Edison lauded alternative energy, cleaner than coal and an endless supply. He speaks as if it is a given, an obvious solution to the problems facing society.

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Detail of article on Edison from the Detroit News, Sunday, 21 September 1924, p. 12.

The push for alternative energies, with solar panels going on homes and high-end electric cars hitting the roads, seems to be a modern solution to a century-old problem. The truth is, this debate has been ongoing for much longer. Even America’s Inventor weighed in on the discussion, suggesting it was obvious and easy to harness wind and sun. It is interesting to think what the world would look like now if more attention was given to Edison and his recommendations were followed.

The clipping presents us with a fun aspect of archives. Historians and archivists often go through archival materials looking for specific bits of information. While perusing things such as newspapers, they come across random facts, stories, and articles that were not the focus at the time, but present such interesting history that could easily be overlooked. The past is made even more accessible and fuller, showing us all aspects of past lives. And to think, even more stories await us in the Kelsey archives!

Ugly Object of the Month — November 2015

BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator for Conservation, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

The choice of this month’s ugly object was inspired by an upcoming exhibit at the Kelsey Museum. The exhibit, Less Than Perfect, is curated by Carla Sinopoli, along with a team of undergraduate students, and it uses art and archaeological objects to explore the ideas of failure and imperfection. Dr. Sinopoli, professor of Anthropology, curator of Asian Archaeology and Ethnology at the U-M’s Museum of Anthropological Archaeology, and the director of U-M’s Museum Studies Program (and she still finds time to create thought-provoking exhibits!), presented the object selections for Less Than Perfect to our exhibition production team in October.  In her presentation she included a little guy like this one.

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Faience ushabti, 2nd–4th century AD. KM 92399

You can probably see why an object like this faience ushabti is a good candidate for an exhibit about imperfection and failure. The face is smushed, and the glaze did not form well. Egyptian faience is made from a paste of ground sand or quartz mixed with various other components. It could be molded like Play-Doh (this figurine is mold-made) and then fired. If the composition of the paste was right and it was fired well, a faience object would develop a uniform, glassy, blue-green surface. But there are many places in the process where things can go wrong and, for many ushabtis, production wasn’t perfect.

This didn’t seem to matter to the ancient Egyptians, who conceived ushabtis as an answer to pesky household needs in the afterlife. These figures would magically make your bread, brew your beer, and do your housework. (Wouldn’t you like one now? Before you’re dead?) The functionality of the ushabti was not, apparently, dependent on how good it looked.

You can see this ushabti in the Kelsey’s permanent galleries, in the case focusing on Ptolemaic Egyptian burial practice. See the map below, where X marks the spot.

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Then, if you like this ushabti, turn around and walk a few steps to the case on Dynastic Egypt. Pull open the top drawer on the right to experience ushabtis in bulk. As the label in the drawer states, quantity mattered more than quality when it came to ushabtis. These figurines might not look perfect, but they were still perfectly good.