News from the Conservation Lab — Conservation Conference Season

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Spring has officially sprung here in Ann Arbor, which means that the sun is (sort of) shining, the townies are out and about, and the next American Institute for Conservation (AIC) annual meeting is just around the corner. Suzanne continues in her role as VP/ organizer-in-chief of the conference program, whose theme this year is “New Tools, Techniques and Tactics” in conservation. This year I’ve got a pretty cool job too, as I’ll be chairing a special session on research strategies in settings with limited resources (think archaeological sites, small museums, etc.). This is a topic I’ve been interested in for a while, and I was happy when it was accepted as one of six concurrent sessions that are proposed and organized each year by AIC members.

The idea of member-proposed sessions is relatively new to AIC, and a great thing about them is that they tend to cover topics that appeal to conservators who work on different materials (like objects, paintings, books and paper, textiles, etc.). Other session topics include imaging, gel cleaning, and contemporary art conservation. Conservators and scientists presenting in my session work within a range of specialties, including architecture, archaeological materials, indigenous heritage, electronic media, and preventive conservation. I’m interested in learning how these folks figured out how to conduct analysis on materials in remote areas, or adapted a well-known investigative technique to a new research question. In other words, I want to explore the penchant for problem-solving that so many conservators have, regardless of the types of objects they work on.

For any conservators reading this post, we encourage you to drop in on one of these sessions and hope to see you at AIC New England in May!

photo of daffodils
Evidence of spring outside the Kelsey!

Ugly Object of the Month — April 2019

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

This month’s Ugly Object post is inspired by, and can be found next door to, the special exhibition Ancient Color. Although not part of the exhibition per se, the object’s proximity to the exhibition has inspired some museum visitors to view it and its fragmented marble brethren in a different light. The case to the right of Ancient Color contains a group of marble fragments that were previously a part of large-scale sculpture, architectural elements, and — in the case of our Ugly Object — a fountain. They are also, at first glance, colorless.

statue fragment
Female hand holding a jug. Marble, Roman period, 1st–3rd century AD. Pozzuoli, Italy. KM 2975.

 

Take a good look at this fragment. What do you see? I see a rather creepy-looking hand (think Thing Addams) perched atop some kind of vessel. Look closer, and you might actually see traces of pigment. This is probably true for the other fragments in the case, as well as the majority of marble sculpture and architecture from the ancient Roman world. When we consider what’s missing, we begin to see these fragments in a new way — as shadows of their erstwhile complete and colorful selves. We’ve been able to verify the presence of pigments on a few marble objects on the collection using multispectral imaging and other analytical techniques (see the Bacchus head on display on the Color exhibition), and there is undoubtedly more evidence of color to discover!

Come see April’s Ugly Object on the second floor of the Kelsey’s Upjohn Exhibit Wing. And while you’re at it, check out Ancient Color, on display through May 26.

Announcing the Official Ugliest Object of 2018!

We have a surprise winner in the Ugly Object of 2018 contest! (If we’re being honest, any one of them would have been a surprise.) The bust of Serapis has won by a landslide, having received almost double the votes of any other object. Tied for second place are the sprang fragment and the box of dirt.

Congratulations, you beautiful, ugly, wonderful things. We love you all, winners and not-winners.

winning object
2018’s Ugliest Object of the Year.

From the Archives #40 — March 2019

By Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager

A recurring theme in the “From the Archives” blog posts is coming across random materials and being surprised by what turns up. Often, the archives provide a fun opportunity to learn about the history of the Kelsey’s excavations and of the museum itself. As we have shown, sometimes within those papers are random tidbits that were not expected, such as a recipe for rice.

cigar box

For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present this interesting cigar box. It is labeled “Spanera” and “Havana Cigarillos.” Of course, the Kelsey Museum would not normally collect cigar boxes — or cigars — but that’s not what we find when we look inside.

open cigar box

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When we open the box, we see that it was used for storing thirteen glass plate negatives. From an archaeological standpoint, we may be most interested in the images that show ancient Egyptian artifacts: Bes amulets, fish, various other gods and images, scarabs, and hieroglyphs. However, it is the plates that show people — people posing and having fun — that draw our attention. There is no information in the images about these objects and people. The clues to this puzzle are on the box itself.

As the reader can see, the cover of the box has some handwritten notes on it. First we see “Komter Scarabs I,” followed by “Egypt,” “Maria Luz,” and finally “Scheveningen.” “Komter” refers to Douwe Komter, a Dutch artist who ran an art dealership in Amsterdam from 1902 to 1926. “Scheveningen” is a region of The Hague, Netherlands. Added with the knowledge that Spanera was a Dutch cigar company, we see more evidence that this is all taking place in Netherlands. But how did the Kelsey come to have this box of images?

When we took a closer look at the pictures of people, we saw a familiar figure that is perhaps a clue to the source of the images. The kneeling man at the left in image 001, the face peeking out at rear center in 002, the man on the floor, at left, in 003 — all are a young Samuel Goudsmit (1902–1978), U-M professor of physics from 1927 to 1946, amateur Egyptologist, and friend to the Kelsey Museum. Goudsmit, his wife Irene, and daughter Esther have donated many beautiful and wonderful materials to the Kelsey over the years. In these photos we see Goudsmit in his early days in the Netherlands, his place of birth.

On page 6 of A Scientist Views the Past, the catalogue of a 1982 exhibition celebrating the Goudsmit collection, we find notes from Goudsmit about how in the early 1920s he was searching the art and antiquities dealers in Amsterdam for ancient Egyptian amulets. He couldn’t find any until he came across a small collection in D. Komter’s shop. Komter allowed Goudsmit to borrow the amulets to study, even though he did not purchase them. Are these the scarabs we see in the images?

These plates likely came into the Kelsey collection in 1981 with other Goudsmit donations. They have not yet been catalogued or incorporated into the archives. We will continue to research the images and try to figure out who the other people are. Unfortunately, a search for “Maria Luz” did not reveal much, as it is a common name. However, we hope to provide more information in the future. And we will of course continue to stumble upon more interesting finds like this.

 

News from the Conservation Lab — Conservation at El-Kurru, Sudan

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

Last week I returned from a few weeks of work at the site of El-Kurru, Sudan, where a project directed by Kelsey Museum research scientist Geoff Emberling explores both an ancient royal cemetery of the Napatan kings and how an archaeological research project can connect with and celebrate contemporary cultural heritage in the community surrounding it. My time at El-Kurru this year was short but productive, and below are a few of the big highlights for me.

First, I got to work with conservation architect Kelly Wong on multiple projects, including conservation planning for the El-Kurru pyramid known as Ku. 1. This included a lot of fun investigation and problem solving, as well as mixing and testing of construction mortars. Our favorite mortar formulation was then applied to a joint in the pyramid to see how it will hold up over the next year. If you’re reading this as a conservator (or a mason) and thinking, But wait, isn’t that pyramid dry masonry? Yes, it is. But we have an interesting situation where the walls are moving in response to pressure from the rubble core, thus we’re testing different methods for stabilizing the outer masonry shell.

two women mixing mortar
Conservation architect Kelly Wong (left) and I mixing test batches of mortar. Photo by Caitlin Clerkin.
Woman brushing stone blocks of pyramid
Kelly at the Ku. 1 pyramid, preparing a joint for a mortar test. Photo by Suzanne Davis.

 

Second, IPCAA student Caitlin Clerkin and I recorded a series of short videos for an upcoming Kelsey exhibition — Graffiti as Devotion along the Nile: El-Kurru, Sudan. For these, we asked people to tell us either about their favorite ancient graffito at the site, or to share something they wanted people to know about the site. Each person had something different to say, things we probably would never have heard if we hadn’t been doing these videos! Among the people we talked to were Anwar Mahajoub and Bakri Abdelmoneim, both of whom work on the El-Kurru project but are also from El-Kurru village. They talked about growing up playing soccer within sight of the ancient cemetery and how they feel about their work now, as part of the international team working to study and preserve it.

Three people at base of ruined pyramid
Filming Anwar Mahajoub and Bakri Abdelmoneim in front of the Ku. 1 pyramid. Photo by Caitlin Clerkin.
Two men
Anwar and Bakri, in a still from the video. Photo by Suzanne Davis.

 

A third thing I really enjoyed was an afternoon spent baking bread with Marwa Mahajoub, Anwar’s sister. And yes, I do consider this conservation work! If bread isn’t an important form of cultural heritage to celebrate and preserve, I don’t know what is. Marwa has worked with the project for several years, and when Anwar discovered that a group of us were interested in baking, he volunteered her to teach us how she makes the bread for their family. Happily for us, she was cool with this. Bread is a big deal in Sudan — it’s not only your main carbohydrate at each meal, it’s also your utensil. Many people don’t have ovens at home and instead buy bread at one of several town bakeries, all of which use wood-fired ovens. Fresh bread out of one of these bakeries is fantastic but, as we discovered, the bread is even more delicious when it’s baked at home.

Two women baking bread
Marwa Mahajoub supervises as I shape bread for baking. Photo by Caitlin Clerkin.
Woman baking bread
Marwa pulls freshly baked bread out of her home oven. Photo by Suzanne Davis.

Ugly Object of the Month — March 2019

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

In last month’s Ugly Object post, we explored some of my feelings about the interior decorating schemes of Roman Egyptians. But while I could not happily collect their colorfully painted god and goddess figurines, I would acquire this month’s Ugly Object in a hot second. For me, this sprang bag only just barely qualifies as something we could legitimately write about in this blog feature, and then only because it is so moth-eaten and frayed.

red and green woven bag
Sprang bag made from dyed wool. Egypt. 1st–4th century CE. H. 30 cm. KM 11666.

Made with red, green, and cream-colored wool, this bag is truly a special item. It is featured in our current exhibition, Ancient Color, because it’s so colorful. I enjoy the bold color choices, but I’m even more impressed by the many beautifully executed construction details.

In describing non-woven archaeological textiles at the Kelsey, we often use the word “sprang” to refer to looped or twisted yarn construction like we see in this bag. But unlike our “sprang” socks, which were made using a single-needle technique that is similar to knitting, this bag was made using a twisty, warp-only technique that is sort of like braiding and sort of like weaving.

This bag was made by a master sprang craftsperson. The red, green, and cream yarns interact to create complex patterns, but there are also very cool structural details that contribute to a sense of depth and ornament.

close-up of woven bag
Detail of the border of the sprang bag.

At the top of the bag — as I hope you can see in this detail of the top left corner — the yarns are bundled and held in place with twisting at top and bottom to create an openwork effect. The colored yarns are then carefully twisted to create a highly patterned border along the top edge of the bag, before the green and cream yarns begin a pattern of alternating cable-like and chevron designs.

Here is a closer look at how the green and cream yarns are gathered and twisted as one unit to create what I’m calling a cable-like effect, since this is similar in appearance (and structure) to a cable in knitting.

sprang bag detail
Detail of two “cables” in the sprang bag.

If we sold replicas of this bag in the Kelsey’s gift shop, I’d pick one up today. This bag is both exceptional and exceptionally fragile. It’s very rarely on view, so I encourage you to come see it for yourself now at the Kelsey!