This month’s Ugly Object takes the cake for being both incredibly interesting and really, really ugly. What exactly is this rather scraggly looking textile fragment? We’re not entirely sure, although its report suggests that it might have once been part of a cap.
This bit of cap — discovered at Karanis, Egypt — was made using a technique called sprang or nålebinding, an ancient precursor to knitting in which loops of yarn are interlinked using a single needle. Are you a yarn enthusiast or experimental archaeologist and want to try the technique for yourself? Check out Suzanne’s 2016 blog post about an ugly sprang sock, which features links to pages detailing how to knit/link your own ancient sock.
There are other cool things about this sprang fragment, one being its color. We suspect it could be an organic red dye, although analysis would be needed to confirm this. Rose madder, a red colorant derived from the processed roots of the madder plant, was used frequently as a pigment in Roman Egypt and might have been used to color our cap frag. Another cool thing is the black overcast stitches that run along one edge. These could very well be part of the cap’s original construction, or perhaps an ancient repair.
This and other less frequently seen Karanis textiles will be on display in the upcoming Kelsey exhibition Ancient Color, opening February 8, which explores the sources, uses, and scientific investigation of color in the Roman world.
It’s July, a time when the country gathers together to celebrate the independence of the United States. The days leading up to and following the 4th of July are filled with patriotic images. These include the flag, depictions of Uncle Sam, fireworks, and, of course, the eagle. A long-standing symbol of America, the eagle has been used in a number of depictions over the years. We see it on coins, on stamps, on posters, in toys, in movies, even at the grocery store and at restaurants. It is a proud symbol, one that carries much weight and meaning.
The eagle as a symbol of power has a long tradition in other cultures, one that goes back thousands of years. It is often depicted as the bird of Zeus, the king of gods in ancient Greek culture, where we see it in a variety of forms, including textiles and figurines. The Romans carried it forward with their depictions of Jupiter. The power of Jupiter equaled the power of Rome, and where the Romans traveled so did eagle imagery. It appeared on coins, figurines, military paraphernalia, and sculptures.
For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present a few images of eagle sculptures found by the University of Michigan’s 1924 expedition to Antioch of Pisidia, in modern-day central west Turkey.
These carved relief blocks are from the frieze of a monumental arch located at the entrance of the city. It was built by the people of Antioch and dedicated to the emperor Hadrian and his wife Sabina in commemoration of Hadrian’s tour through Asia Minor in AD 129. The arch would have presented a monumental welcome to the emperor as he entered the city.
Established as a Roman colony under Augustus in 25 BC, Pisidian Antioch was the oldest and most strategically important of the Roman colonies in Pisidia, but by the Hadrianic period it was only one among many prosperous cities in Asia Minor. Civic competition among cities within Roman provinces was fierce; a visit by the emperor was a prestigious event that could raise a city’s stature in relation to its neighbors and within the imperial administration.
The form and decorative program of the Arch of Hadrian and Sabina contains numerous references to another monumental structure in Antioch, the Arch of Augustus, erected in 2 BC during a period of intense imperial investment in the city. “Creating a new version of the [Arch of Augustus] at the very entrance to the city and dedicating it to Hadrian would announce the city’s dedication to the emperor” (Ossi 2011, 101).
So as we celebrate this 4th of July, we can remember how, nearly two thousand years ago, the people of Antioch, a mixture of Phrygians, Greeks, and Romans, employed the eagle — the very symbol of America’s hard-won independence from British rule — to strengthen their ties to the imperial power of Rome.
For more about the archaeological expedition to Pisidian Antioch, the viewer is invited to visit Building a New Rome: The Imperial Colony of Pisidian Antioch. In this online version of the special exhibition, held at the Kelsey Museum in 2006, curator Elaine Gazda and her team make use of archival materials to present Antioch in new and refreshing ways. The exhibition catalog of the same title is available for purchase.
Ossi, Adrian J. 2011. “The Arch of Hadrian and Sabina at Pisidian Antioch: Imperial Associations, Ritual Connections, and Civic Euergetism,” in Elaine K. Gazda and Diana Y. Ng, eds., Building a New Rome: The Imperial Colony of Pisidian Antioch (25 BC–AD 700), pp. 85–108. Kelsey Museum Publications 5. Ann Arbor: The Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.
I recently returned from a few weeks of work at one of the Kelsey Museum’s excavations — the site of Notion in Turkey. Notion is a beautiful, rugged, and windswept site on promontory jutting into the Aegean Sea, and it’s interesting from a research perspective because it preserves an entire city, albeit at ground level.
For the past three years, I’ve been working with Notion team to assess the site’s condition and the ongoing risks to its long-term preservation in order to develop a sustainable plan for its conservation. Conservation planning at Notion is interesting and challenging for many reasons. One is that the city is built from a few stone types that have inherent problems (translation: the stone is falling apart). Another is that Notion is poised to develop — and be conserved — in a way that’s uncommon for an archaeological site. Because the site has remained almost untouched, it preserves a large stretch of pristine coastline and is home to quintessential Mediterranean ecosystems. Unlike many archaeological tourism destinations in Turkey, Notion provides an opportunity for something closer to ecotourism, a type of sustainable tourism designed to benefit local communities at the same time that it encourages conservation and enjoyment of the natural environment. This poses a special conservation challenge: How can the site be preserved in ways that are unobtrusive and retain the value of its natural as well as archaeological features?
To give you a view into some of the difficult decision-making around this, here is one small example, focused on oregano. Yes, this star of summer cookery plays a major role at Notion! Notion’s wild oregano is incredibly powerful; it makes the site smell amazing, it’s attractive, and people come from all around the region to harvest it. But … it’s also a pesky condition risk to our falling-apart stone. It grows particularly well inside the blocks of the Temple of Athena. Not around them. In them. The oregano is literally breaking them apart.
So the question becomes, which is more important? The temple? The oregano? Thankfully it grows in other places on the site, too, so if we decide to remove it at the temple, we won’t doom this herb to destruction (but I secretly think the oregano from the Temple of Athena is the best on the site). At the moment, the Notion team is still in the planning phase for excavation and conservation, so we’re not yet ripping this herb out wholesale. We do, however, occasionally harvest small amounts for our own use, and I will leave you with one recipe for it — a cocktail created by the conservation and site management team at Notion. Enjoy!
I’m going to open this month’s Ugly Object blog post by echoing a sentiment expressed by many of our readers: beauty (or lack thereof) is in the eye of the beholder, and not every Ugly Object is ugly to everyone. In fact, “ugly” is not the first word I would use to describe July’s pick, a small jug (or juglet) in the form of the head of Dionysus.
When I gaze into this vessel’s mold-formed visage, the first thought that enters my mind is actually, “How cool is that?” Perhaps this comes from the fact that I am a huge fan of things that look like other things but function as the simple thing that they are. There are other examples of this in the Kelsey collection (many of them ceramic, a material so easily pressed into any shape), my favorite being a little date-shaped vessel that’s got all the wrinkly impressions of the desiccated fruit. This juglet’s maker took it a step further in creating a vessel that embodies in both form and modeling the square-jawed masculinity (and rather surly expression) of Dionysus. Who wouldn’t have enjoyed pouring wine straight from the head of the god of wine himself? Or eating fish off a fish plate, only to discover an illusion of more fish in the decorative scheme of the dish underneath? Perhaps I am too easy to please, but these clever little details never fail to delight me.
The Dionysus juglet will be traveling to Dearborn next spring, where you can see it on display at the Alfred Berkowitz Gallery at University of Michigan-Dearborn. Be sure to pay the juglet a visit if you are there!