Ugly Object of the Month — August 2019

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

My survey of the Kelsey’s stone collection has proven to be a rich source of material for our Ugly Object blog roll. Stone can be durable, which is why we build with it and why so many ancient structures remain. But like many things that seem tough, stone has a less visible softer side. Sedimentary stones, especially, can break down over time into fuzzy, diminished forms of their former selves, which is what has happened to the stela fragment featured here.

fragment of rock with etched shape of a woman.
Limestone funerary stela incised with a symbol of Tanit. 12.3 x 7.4 cm. Punic period. Carthage, Tunisia. KM 84.

Although the artifact’s surface is scuffed and weathered, we can still make out a triangular, incised female form. This unassuming figure is a symbol the Punic goddess Tanit, a deity worshipped in Carthage and who appears in many forms of ancient North African material culture. The Tanit symbol is simple but powerful, and redeems this otherwise lackluster fragment of limestone, which can be seen on display in the Roman Provinces gallery of the Upjohn exhibit wing.

From the Archives #44 — July 2019

By Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager

A very common occurrence in archives is coming across mysteries that have no answers. It is frustrating for those of us working with these materials to not have any idea what we have stumbled across. Or who these people are. Or what this photograph is depicting. More frustrating is knowing that for some of these matters, there will never be an answer.

Even with materials very familiar to us, such mysteries pop up. Though we have spent many years working with the maps, journals, and photographs from the Karanis excavations, there are still some items that leave us puzzled. One such example is a series of drawings of artifacts excavated at Karanis. The drawings are in color in order to capture the full nature of the artifacts, a necessity in the days before color photography.

The drawings themselves are not the mysteries. We know what artifacts are depicted; most are here at the Kelsey Museum. Instead, the mystery is who drew them. They are signed by “Joslin” and dated 1929, but no first name, no affiliation, no other identifying information is given. The 1929 Karanis excavation team included several architects and artists, but nothing else in our archives was associated with “Joslin.”

In 2015, the Kelsey Museum received an email from Nancy Joslin Kaleel saying her grandfather was an architecture student at U-M who went to Karanis with the U-M team in 1929. She and her son Calvin were visiting Ann Arbor and were interested in seeing anything relating to Joslin at the Kelsey Museum. We invited Nancy and Calvin to view these files and during their visit, Nancy revealed that Joslin was actually Frederick Burr Joslin, an architect who designed homes in Detroit. Mystery solved.

Nancy recently returned to the Kelsey, bringing more family members who were interested in seeing F. B. Joslin’s work and learning about the Kelsey and the excavations at Karanis. For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present a few of Joslin’s drawings and a photo of his family members each holding a drawing.

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five people holding drawings
Members of Frederick Burr Joslin’s family holding images he drew at Karanis. Left to right: Caroline Kaleel holding the toy horse, David Page holding the seated priest, Dr. Judith Joslin-Page holding the bronze cupid, Nancy Joslin Kaleel holding the censer, and Mosa Kaleel holding the wall painting.

It was an absolute pleasure hosting the family at the Kelsey Museum and spending an afternoon with them. They were a delight to have, and we learned so much more about Joslin than we previously knew. Nancy and Judith, who are sisters, say they have many of their grandfather’s belongings, so perhaps we will continue to learn about Joslin’s time at Karanis. What they find may wind up being a future “From the Archives” blog post.

News from the Conservation Lab — Stone Survey!

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

This summer I’m embarking on a condition survey of the Kelsey’s stone collection, a big project both in scope and in terms of artifact size. As I mentioned in our latest Ugly Object post (ancient earplugs!) the Kelsey’s stone collection is wide-ranging, including everything from tiny steatite scarabs to massive column drums the size of tree trunks. My survey will focus on the larger-scale artifacts and will include vessels, sculpture, and architectural elements made of stone. My goals are to identify which of these artifacts are most in need of conservation intervention, and in the process learn what I can about past stone conservation treatments.

woman with clipboard
Carrie examines stone artifacts in the Kelsey’s collections storage.

The project is a continuation of previous condition surveys conducted by Suzanne Davis, Claudia Chemello, and LeeAnn Barnes Gordon. Their work serves as a valuable baseline for how the Kelsey’s stone artifacts might have changed over the past ten years. Gordon’s research also revealed information about how newly excavated stone was treated at the Roman-Egyptian site of Terenouthis. In the early twentieth century, archaeological chemist Alfred Lucas introduced polymeric materials to archaeologists’ conservation toolkit. Among these was Duco cement, a cellulose nitrate adhesive that was applied to many of the stelae discovered at Terenouthis in order to prevent rapid surface deterioration following excavation. The Duco coating has, however, started to deteriorate, compromising the very surfaces it was meant to protect. Information about historic conservation treatments, along with new condition rankings, will help me develop preservation and treatment plans for the most at-risk stone artifacts at the Kelsey.

stone stela in situ.
Limestone stela during excavation at Terenouthis, Egypt. Kelsey Museum Photo Caption Database.

Ugly Object of the Month — July 2019

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

I stumbled across this month’s Ugly Objects while compiling a list of stone artifacts in the Kelsey collection. The Kelsey Museum has over 5,000 artifacts that are classified as stone, which include everything from marble sarcophagi to tiny carnelian beads. Among this trove of artifacts made of rock, the two toadstool-shaped objects pictured here stood out to me.

two mushroom-shaped alabaster earplugs
Alabaster earplugs (studs?) from Saqqara, Egypt. Each is about 2 cm tall. New Kingdom (1570–1070 BCE). KM 24273 and 24274

I looked them up in our database and learned that these objects are Dynastic Egyptian earplugs made of alabaster. My initial thought was, naturally, Wow … these surely must be the world’s oldest-known earplugs!! However, when I ran down to the gallery to make sure they were on display — they are — their labels describe them as ear studs. If so, these would seem to resemble the chunky variety of ear stud/plug worn by body-jewelry enthusiasts today. I’m fascinated by objects that clearly had a specific purpose at some time, and yet manage to puzzle us now. It makes me wonder what people in a thousand years will think when they discover all of our earbuds, nose rings, Fitbits, and aviator shades.

Come see if you can spot these plugs/studs for yourself! You’ll find them in the Dynastic Egyptian cases on the first floor of the Kelsey’s Upjohn Exhibit Wing.

From the Archives #43 — June 2019

By Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager

It is June, and many students at U-M have graduated, or have at least completed their courses for the academic year. Soon, local schools will be letting out as well, and thus will summer truly begin. For many, this is the time to find fun and entertaining things to do with friends and family. Festivals will pop up throughout the country, and county fairs will have rides available for children and adults alike.

This desire for fun is not limited to American students and families. People across time and throughout the world seek out such amusements. For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present an example of people creating their own entertainment.

In the mid-1920s, a team of University of Michigan archaeologists lived in Egypt as they undertook the excavation of the site of Karanis. The team’s photographer, George R. Swain, would often turn his camera on the locals to capture life in the Fayum region, where Karanis is situated. It is for this reason that candid photographs of animals, neighbors, and people playing and attending weddings dot the collection of photographs of the buildings and artifacts uncovered at the site. It is these photographs of daily life that add color to the Kelsey’s archival record of the Karanis excavations and gives us a glimpse into the lives of people in the Fayum region in the early 20th century.

Group of people around and on a homemade Ferris wheel.
“A native ferris wheel for the Moulid at Qasr Raswan.” Photograph by George R. Swain, 1920s. KM 0150.

KM 0150 is one photograph in a series of images that are largely unattributed and undated. It shows us a glimpse into the local preparations for the festivities of the Moulid, or Mawlid, the observed birth of the Prophet. Swain’s note for the photograph reads, “A native ferris wheel for the Moulid at Qasr Raswan.” Though it does not look exactly like a Ferris wheel as we might imagine one, the concept is the same, albeit on a smaller scale. This image shows us the kind of fun people were creating for themselves in Egypt in the 1920s. People were riding, spinning around, enjoying themselves. The children in the photograph are smiling.

As summer commences, many of us will seek out similar thrills. Whatever form the fun takes, the joy is universal, transcending time and space.

News from the Conservation Lab — June 2019

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

Most of the students and faculty have vacated Ann Arbor for the summer break, but it’s always busy here in the Kelsey’s conservation lab! This month we’re hard at work on all kinds of things.

My main work this month is to finish a book and an exhibition with my colleague Geoff Emberling. Focused on ancient graffiti at the site where we work in Sudan (El-Kurru), these projects have been fun. We’ve learned a lot by working on the book, and the exhibition has been an interesting exercise in how to share the story of El-Kurru and its graffiti with people who will probably never travel there.

Many exhibitions can display objects from a far-away archaeological site to tell a story, but in our case, we can’t transport the El-Kurru pyramid and funerary temple to Ann Arbor (although we can try to fake it). So it’s been a big challenge not only for us but for Scott Meier and Eric Campbell, our Kelsey colleagues who are responsible for the exhibition design, installation, and graphics.

man at computer
Kelsey assistant exhibition designer Eric Campbell enhancing a photo of a graffito from El-Kurru for inclusion in the upcoming exhibition.

Ugly Object of the Month — June 2019

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

June’s Ugly Object is a stela from Terenouthis, a Roman Egyptian city whose necropolis was excavated by the University in the mid-1930s. This might be a somewhat controversial pick for our blog roll, seeing as the stela is, in its way, actually quite beautiful. Finley Hooper, author of a catalog of stelae from Terenouthis, Funerary Stelae from Kom Abou Billou (Ann Arbor: Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, 1961), calls it “one of the most pleasing in the entire group” of stelae discovered at the site. These are high marks given that more than two hundred of these objects exist!

Roman funerary stela
Limestone funerary stela with black, white, red, and pink pigment. Roman period (late 2nd–early 4th century CE), Terenouthis, Egypt. U-M Excavations, 1935. KM 21052.

I’ve looked at quite a few of these grave markers myself, and I’d have to agree that this one is special. The man and his architectural surrounds are carefully carved, as are the attending Anubis figures. There is a lot of pigment left on the surface, and the details captured in paint are quite interesting. There are flesh tones, a variety of surface details on the columns, and a fringed shroud that hangs over the figure’s upraised arms. Hooper’s translation of the stela’s Greek inscription gives the name of the deceased (Nemesion) his age (about 24 years old) and his date of death (Hathur 6). Elements of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian religious practice converge in this stela, making it an important object of Roman Egyptian material culture. At the same time, it remains a very personal token of remembrance that makes me think about who this young man was and what life was like for him.

This stela will be on display in the Kelsey’s temporary exhibit space as part of Ancient Color’s extended run through July 28. Come and see it for yourself!