Conservators wield some impressive photo-processing skills, in no small part because of the extensive photographic documentation we do in our work. We use our image-processing skills for research purposes, too.
Right now I’m taking multispectral photos of limestone funerary stelae from the Roman Egyptian city of Terenouthis so that I can begin to characterize the pigments that were used to paint them. Pigments reflect, absorb, and/or luminesce ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light in characteristic ways, but capturing a good image of these photo-chemical responses can be challenging.
Love is in the air, gentle readers. It’s February, and St. Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. Maybe you’re hoping to receive something special from your significant other, or maybe you’re hoping your love life will receive a boost this month. Either way, we’ve got the object for you: it’s Eros on a pyxis, and he’s bringing a gift. What could be better?
Exactly what’s happening with Eros in this scene is a little unclear. You would think that the Greek God of Love and Sex would have it made, but on this pyxis it looks like that’s not the case. For one, he doesn’t have any feet. Granted, Eros does not actually need feet, because he has wings. But still. It just seems lazy on the painter’s part. You can paint giant wings and a truly freakish hipbone but you can’t bother to put ankles and feet on those legs? Come on.
Two, Eros appears to be holding a cushioned stool as he flies up on some poor, unsuspecting woman, and she really doesn’t look into it. Maybe she truly doesn’t want the stool, or maybe the painter hasn’t accurately captured the spirit of the moment.
The woman could be Psyche or, you know, not. The Eros / Pysche thing is complicated and — once again — the painter of this pyxis is not giving us a lot to go on. Why would Psyche / unknown woman want flown-in furniture? Maybe she ordered it on Amazon and instead of delivering it by drone, they sent Eros instead?
The woman is standing in front of what looks like a dovecote, which might mean something. Or not. My husband, who is 100% an expert (but not in this), says this could be some sort of guest / host situation. As in, the woman has come to visit — wandering through the wilderness and passing by a dovecote, as one so often does in the wilderness — and when she gets to Eros’ place, he’s like, “Heeeyyy, Psyche! Come on in! Have this stool. Get comfy!”
With her upraised arm, she could be saying, “Eros, thank god I made it through the insane wilderness where I was nearly pecked to death by half-domesticated doves! I seriously need that stool, and please bring wine.” Or she could be like, “Gah! Get back! Why is this crazy bird-person flying up on me?! I barely made it out of that dove situation alive!”
Who can say.
What I can say is that I love this object. If the Kelsey decided to hold an auction, I would buy this in a hot second. And then I would use it to serve candy hearts. “Will you be my Valentine?” I think this is what Eros is trying to say with his imperfectly painted body and odd, furniture-gifting situation. Let’s hope his lady love, whoever she is, is saying yes.
Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Cathy Person, along with the work of conservators Suzanne Davis and Caroline Roberts and registrar Michelle Fontenot, the Kelsey Museum has kept rather busy over the last few years with class visits to the Museum. Every semester, hundreds of students come through to view our displays, speak with the staff, and learn about museum work. On top of that, the Kelsey Museum provides an added benefit to students: the opportunity to handle ancient artifacts associated with their classes. Students and instructors from Classics, History of Art, Middle East Studies, English, History, German, and a slew of other departments are routinely visiting and getting to work with our collections. This likely would have made Francis Kelsey happy, as he began collecting in order to give students the opportunity to see firsthand the items that they were reading about in their books.
The students who get to work with artifacts have the distinct pleasure of handling some rare artifacts, and some very old ones as well. The Kelsey brings out ceramics such as ancient Greek and Roman amphorae, fish plates, and kylikes, textiles, mold-made figurines and lamps, papyri, cartonnage mummy masks, stelae, Latin inscriptions, glass vessels, amulets, and many coins, among many other types of artifacts. The items are chosen for specific classes, so students can better grasp the lessons being taught.
More and more, the Kelsey is also making its archives available for these classes as well. For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present a selection of archival photographs that were used for instruction during the past year. In this group, we see photographs from Egypt, Italy, and Greece. Created by three photographers — George R. Swain, Easton T. Kelsey, and an unidentified photographer — the images show various aspects of archaeology: artifact remains, architecture, landscape, as well as the human toll of disaster.
Photos 5.1790 and 5.3342, both taken by Swain, give the viewer a glimpse of finds from Karanis, Egypt. These are often used to demonstrate how people in Karanis, as elsewhere in the world and through time, would hoard and hide their belongings. 5.1790 shows letters written on papyri hidden underneath a threshold. Image 5.3342 shows a pot that contained a hoard of coins. Perhaps the person who hid it intended to return and collect the coins for later use.
Photograph 2003.05.0014 was taken by a professional photographer, probably as part of a series that could be sold as a souvenir. These photo collections (Views of Italy, Views of Egypt, etc.) were common in the 1800s, when traveling was not as easy as it is today. This particular photograph demonstrates the destruction and devastation wrought by Mt. Vesuvius when it erupted in 79 AD and covered various cities in towns in southern Italy, including Pompeii, where this photograph was created.
KK267 and KS209.02 are views of Athens and the Acropolis. They were taken by Easton Kelsey, son of Francis Kelsey, and George Swain, respectively, in the 1920s.
The Kelsey Museum provides opportunities for students and other visitors to see not only artifacts, but also the papers, maps, and photographs we also care for. These materials are here for study, as research is not artifact-based only. We have hosted a number of classes that have looked at non-artifact collections, and we expect more to come in the future. Those students will have a deeper experience as a result.
I’ve been spending a lot of quality time in collections storage lately and have noticed something curious: an abundance of pink! Namely, ancient pink pigment. Why is this so interesting? Because the pink most frequently used in the ancient Mediterranean was made of madder root, a plant-based dye that was used to color textiles as well as a pigment on objects.
Like other organic pigments, rose madder is highly light sensitive and prone to fading. The occurrence of rose madder on so many artifacts in the collection surprises me, given what we know about its fugitive nature. Rose madder also has a unique chemical property that causes it to luminesce, or glow, an orange-pink color when exposed to ultraviolet light. A quick look with a UV LED flashlight can help confirm whether or not the pink on an object is madder.
Marble sculpture fragment KM 1931.441 from Seleucia with pink pigment between fingers and inside elbow.
Despite its tendency to fade, I am finding pink on everything from terracotta figurines to marble sculpture to limestone grave markers. I’m also finding it in different hues and on different decorative elements, from flesh tones to jewelry to architecture. It turns out pink is everywhere at the Kelsey, and it is pretty fascinating.
Whether you all truly find this object to be the ugliest of all those presented this year, or you just wanted to appease it so it won’t come after you next, the numbers don’t lie: Creepy Baby Head netted 44 of the 93 votes cast. (This is a huge number for us; the fame of the Ugliest Object competition is spreading. Tomorrow, THE WORLD!!)
The runners up were so far behind that we won’t even bother mentioning them. CBH is in a class of its own.
Come experience for yourself the chilling effect of being in the same room with this eerie disembodied head. It’s still in our Roman Architecture display case on the second floor. Because, frankly, none of us want to make it mad by taking it off display.
Tomorrow at 12:30 pm, IPCAA alum Diana Y. Ng will speak on the topic of “The Roman-period Theater as Cognitive Microecology: Setting, Seating, and Costume.” This FellowSpeak talk examines the Roman-period theater as a cognitive ecology, one that supported and engaged different modes of thinking and learning by its occupants during nondramatic, civic and political gatherings.
Diana received her BA in classics and fine arts from New York University and her PhD in classical art and archaeology from the IPCAA program at the University of Michigan. She remains a frequent collaborator with the Kelsey Museum, and we encourage you to go see her speak tomorrow. Find all the details here.