From the Archives #50 — January 2020

By Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager

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. 

ancient threshold
5.1790: “Rolls of papyrus as found in a hollow threshold of a door between rooms D and E of house 5026,” Karanis. Photo by George R. Swain.
pot being excavated from dirt
5.3342: Coin Hoard 12 from Karanis. Pot (29-F28H-a), inside which were coins (29-F28H-Ax50), as found. Photo by George R. Swain.

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.

Plaster cast of victim of Vesuvius.
2003.05.0014: Pompeii, “Cadavere di donna.” Unknown photographer.

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.

Photo of Acropolis at Athens
KK267: “Acropolis. East end of the Parthenon.” Photo by Easton T. Kelsey, ca. 1920s.
photograph of Athens with Mount Lycabettus in distance
KS209.02: “Acropolis. Modern Athens and Lycabettus from the Acropolis.” Photo by George R. Swain, ca. 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.

News from the Conservation Lab — Pretty in Pink

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

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.

small terracotta hand and arm

Marble sculpture fragment KM 1931.441 from Seleucia with pink pigment between fingers and inside elbow.

sculpture fragment under two different kinds of light
Visible and ultraviolet-induced luminescence (UVL) images of KM 1931.441 showing orange-pink luminescence of rose madder.

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.

small headless terracotta statuette with pink painted necklace
Marble sculpture fragment KM 1931.15 from Seleucia with pink-colored necklace.
stone with pink pigment
Remnants of pink paint on the surface of KM 21107, a limestone funerary stela from Terenouthis.

Announcing the Official Ugliest Object of 2019!

The votes are in!

Your voices have been heard loud and clear and the Ugliest Object of 2019 is …

CREEPY BABY HEAD BY A LANDSLIDE!

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!!)

graph

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.

IPCAA Alum Diana Ng to Speak at the Humanities Institute

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.

A Vote for the Ugliest Object is a Vote for Humanity!

I’m not naming any names, but it seems like some people think it’s an ok idea to threaten cultural treasures.

We here at the Kelsey thumb our collective nose at this appalling notion.

All remnants of human history — from awe-inspiring edifices to the cringe-inducing array of weirdos that are our beloved “Ugly Objects” — are worthy of respect and protection.

By casting a vote for your favorite Ugly Object of 2019, you are proclaiming your love of our shared human past. A vote for the Ugliest Object is a vote for humanity!

Make your voice heard! Vote now!

Voting ends on January 15 and the winner will be announced shortly thereafter.

 

Ugly Object of the Month — January 2020

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

It’s January, the fresh new month of a brand new year and — in this case — a whole new decade. Official entry into the ’20s mostly makes me want to drink Prohibition-era cocktails, but many people make more healthful resolutions at this time of year. For example, to improve fitness or lose weight. If this is you, maybe you’ve decided to motivate yourself by upgrading some of the items in your gym bag. Enter this month’s Ugly Object, an aryballos, a small oil bottle that was a key item in the ancient Greek athlete’s grooming routine.

small ceramic jug
Ceramic aryballos with traces of pigment. 700–650 BCE, National Museum of Athens, 1933 exchange. KM 10925.

aryballos

After a workout, an athlete used the oil from the flask during bathing. A cord could be passed through the hole in the top of the handle so that the bottle could be carried hanging from the wrist, or hung up at the baths (painted vases from ancient Greece show both scenarios). These little jugs also sit well on a flat surface. The opening in the top is small, too, with a wide neck to help prevent accidental spillage of one’s fancy, perfumed oil.

 

Today this little bottle looks functional but plain, but that’s only because it’s been around for 2,000+ years and has lost some of its pizzazz. Back in the day, it would have been a very snazzy addition to one’s gym kit. The potter used a compass to carefully inscribe the surface with a pattern of small scales, which were then painted red, black, and yellow. Colorful and stylish, this would have been a great item to motivate you to finish your workout.

 

This object is also a favorite of former Kelsey Museum director Sharon Herbert, who wrote a blog entry about it here if you’d like to read more, and you can see it for yourself in the ancient Greece case in our first-floor galleries. Although your plastic shower gel bottle is probably looking pretty sad to you now (sorry), I wish you the best for a happy and healthy new year.

From the Archives #49 — December 2019

By Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager

In December, many of us spend a lot of time at local stores perusing goods that we think would make great gifts for our loved ones. We spend hours trying to find the perfect gift, the item that shows how we think about those we care about, whether they are close to us or far away.

For this month’s “From the Archives,” we go one hundred years back in time, to December 1919, to find a University of Michigan staff member far from home but doing the same thing — going to shops and markets, perhaps to find souvenirs to send back home to Michigan. In 1919 and 1920, U-M photographer George R. Swain accompanied Francis Kelsey on an expedition through Europe and the Mediterranean region. Their goal was to document classical sites as well as to identify sites that might have potential for future excavations.

Here we present seven images taken by Swain in Istanbul — or Constantinople, as it was referred to then (some photo captions refer to the area of “Stamboul”). While traveling, Swain photographed not only archaeological artifacts, sites, and structures, nor did he focus solely on collections at other museums. Almost everywhere he went, Swain turned the camera around to his surroundings, to the people in the area, offering us a glimpse into life in those countries at that time.

The photos shown here cover a time period of 20 days, from 5 December to 24 December 1919. Swain captures life at several shops and businesses in Istanbul. We see a person fixing umbrellas. A cobbler’s shop. A busy corner at the bazaar. Bread and fruit for sale. All the shopping Swain chose to capture.

These photographs allow us to see what the city was like one hundred years ago. People who visit Istanbul now will notice many similarities, but also many differences. The bazaar, though altered, remains. Maybe some of those same shops are still there! And the sentiment is the same. People going about doing their shopping, purchasing items they need, or gifts for friends and family. Now in 2019, we continue doing the same.

Black and white photo of an Istanbul market, 1919
“The umbrella mender sitting on the sidewalk on a typical street.” 5 December 1919. KS043.4.
Black and white photo of an Istanbul market, 1919
“Shop where they pressed the Turkish tabbooses or fezes.” 9 December 1919. (With the passing of the fez, this was a vanished industry by 1927.) KS046.10.
Black and white photo of an Istanbul market, 1919
“A tiny cobbler’s shop by the street in Stamboul.” 9 December 1919. KS046.11.
Black and white photo of an Istanbul market, 1919
“A busy corner near the Egyptian bazaar.” 9 December 1919. KS047.9.
Black and white photo of an Istanbul market, 1919
“Crowd of people by the booths of the Egyptian bazaar.” 9 December 1919. KS047.11.
Black and white photo of an Istanbul market, 1919
“Bread for sale.” 24 December 1919. KS052.7.
Black and white photo of an Istanbul market, 1919
“Scene in a fruit market.” 24 December 1919. KS052.11.