From the Archives — December 2015

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

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. As is customary for the University of Michigan, staff at Michigan are given the week between Christmas and New Year’s day off. The Museum is preparing for this break, and the staff will shut down for behind-the-scenes business (don’t worry, the galleries will be open during the break). There is much work to do before we all go away, and much to get accomplished as we prepare for our upcoming exhibition, Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii (opening February 2016). This is a frantic time of year, as we catch up on work and projects that were set aside while working with students and classes.

Our predecessors worked hard during this time of year as well. Egypt is an extremely hot country, so the traditional dig season for many archaeologists, North American summer (when classes are no longer in session), is not ideal for excavations there. The extreme heat found in the deserts would be dangerous for the crew members on any dig. Instead, the Michigan team, as do many other projects then and now, opt for a North American winter season. Teams would arrive in Autumn, and due to the long trip to Egypt, they would stay a prolonged period of time. In many cases, the teams would be in Egypt over the holiday break, working from December (or earlier) into the new year and beyond. For the Karanis team, this meant being in Egypt, away from family, on Christmas. But they made the most of it. Pictures show decorations at the dig house as the team made their surroundings festive.

They, and the rest of the team, found other ways to keep entertained during the holiday season. And that is the focus of this month’s From the Archives. While at Karanis, the workers held a fencing contest on Christmas day (KM Neg #676). Unfortunately, our records do not indicate what year this took place, or if this happened every year, but we know that at least once in the life of the excavation, some fun was had with a fencing competition. The archives do not indicate if there was a winner, how many participated, or if this was just a random occurrence between two people having a little fun. The photographer is also unknown, though it would not be a stretch to assume George R. Swain was the man behind the camera.

Workmen fencing on Christmas Day. KM Neg #676.

On a Christmas day 90 years ago, the Karanis project team was preparing for their own holiday season just as we are today. They had decorations and games to pass the time. They were finding ways to make their current home as festive and comfortable as their permanent homes. Thousands of miles from Michigan, they just wanted the same comforts we will be enjoying soon.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Conservation Lab safety in the Zone

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Conservators in the Kelsey Museum Conservation Lab sometimes use chemicals and other potentially harmful materials to carry out treatments. Like other research laboratories at the University of Michigan, our lab must comply with OSEH health and safety regulations. This means maintaining an up-to-date inventory of chemicals and other hazardous materials, supplying a ready set of safety data sheets, and filling out a compliance log in our official lab safety “Blue Book.” This also means making sure that our emergency equipment is working properly.

Last month three members of the LSA Zone Maintenance team visited the lab to inspect our shower and eyewash station. Yep, the Kelsey lab has its very own shower. Bet you didn’t know that! However, we only use this shower if a harmful material is accidentally spilled on someone and needs to be immediately washed off. The same goes for the eyewash station. This isn’t equipment we use regularly, but it needs to be functional 24/7, because you never know when an accident could happen.

This is an inspection the guys and gals at LSA do regularly — I mean, U of M’s got a lot of labs! For our inspection, they rolled in a special bin rigged up with a spout and a shower curtain to prevent water from spraying over the entire lab (not something you want with fragile artifacts lying around). I confess I was a little nervous about it all, having witnessed another inspection resulting in an indoor deluge (this was at another museum — a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away). But needless to say our inspection went off without a hitch, and we can rest assured that our emergency equipment is up to scratch. All in a day’s work for the folks at Zone Maintenance. Thanks, guys!

LSA Zone Maintenance Team in action.

Ugly Object of the Month — December 2015

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

This month’s Ugly Object is a limestone relief sculpture of Isis-Thermouthis. Like many of our previous Ugly Objects, it’s from the site of Karanis, which was a Roman-Egyptian farming village in the Fayum Oasis. One cool thing about the ancient Egyptian religion is that the pantheon was big, and you could choose from a wide variety of locally appropriate gods and goddesses. Isis-Thermouthis is a special agrarian deity, an Isis/cobra goddess combination who was responsible for protecting the harvest. This relief was found in a house at Karanis, and scholars have speculated that items associated with Isis-Thermouthis (like sculptures of her and votive offerings to her) were originally displayed in household shrines.

Limestone relief of Isis-Thermouthis. 2nd–4th century AD. KM 25751.

Like many of our Ugly Objects, this one has seen better days. It’s burned, and few surface details remain. For comparison, have a gander at this much better-preserved Isis-Thermouthis figurine at the British Museum. You can, of course, visit Isis-Thermouthis at the Kelsey Museum. This object is on the first floor of the Upjohn Exhibit Wing, in the case devoted to University of Michigan excavations.

December marks the final month of Ugly Objects for 2015. Readers, it is therefore time to vote for Ugly Object of The Year! The earlier Uglies are linked here:

June, July, August, September, October, November

Choose your favorite, tell us in this survey, and we’ll announce the winner in January 2016.