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.
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.
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.