Ugly Object of the Month — January 2017

By SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator of Conservation

We’re getting off to a rather late start with the Ugly Object this month — I was so excited about voting for 2016’s Ugly of Object the Year* that I almost forgot to pick an inaugural object for 2017!

Well, better late than never, folks, because this one is a winner. It’s a slingshot pellet and man, is it ugly. No need to elaborate on how ugly, because I think it’s pretty obvious. You can see it on view at the Kelsey starting next month as part of the exhibition The Art and Science of Healing: From Antiquity to the Renaissance.

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Lead slingshot pellet. Roman period. Rome. Gift of Esther van Deman, 1938. KM 6677d.

This little beauty is featured in a part of the exhibition that discusses medicine for the Roman army. Back in the day, this is the kind of thing that might end up embedded in your body after combat (and then have to be extracted by a surgeon). Ugh!

* Vote for 2016’s Ugly Object of the Year HERE!

Ugly Object of the Month — October 2015

BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator for Conservation, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

October’s Ugly Object has a nickname in the conservation lab: Scary Hair. When Scary Hair was excavated at the site of Karanis in Egypt, the excavators classified it as the head of a rag doll. But based on other similar objects from Karanis, this might not be the head; it might be the whole doll.

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“Scary Hair” the rag doll, front view. Wool, mud, hair. 2nd–4th century AD. KM 7512.

Scary Hair is about 10 cm long and is made of scraps of three different wool fabrics, plus mud and hair. Is it actually a doll? It could be, but what about the SCARY HAIR? And the mud? Could this doll, maybe, have been used for nefarious magic instead of play? Like a voodoo-type way to curse your mean neighbor? Curses! I don’t know.

I do know that this object looks kind of yucky, what with the hair and the mud. At the same time, the yuck factor is what makes it so special. Two-thousand-year-old hair! How cool is that? Whose hair is it? What about the mud?! What is the mud for? Is it for shaping the hair?

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“Scary Hair” rag doll, back view.

The little scraps of fabric are also kind of cool. Scary Hair’s blue hoodie is a type of fabric construction called “sprang.” Sprang fabric is like a knit, in that it’s stretchy, but it predates the invention of knitting. Sprang is made entirely with warp threads in a technique that’s sort of like braiding.

We’re especially into Scary Hair right now because we have a new graduate intern in the conservation lab, Janelle Batkin-Hall, and she has a research interest in — guess what? — hair artifacts! Janelle is working with us while she completes her graduate degree in conservation at SUNY Buffalo. We hope to feature Janelle’s work on our hairy dolls in future (yes, Scary Hair has friends). In the meantime, please come see Scary Hair for yourself. It’s located in the “toys” drawer, just like last month’s Ugly Object. This drawer is in the first floor case focused on Kelsey Museum excavations; if you’re standing and facing the black basalt statute of the seated dignitary, it’s the case directly behind the statue.

Docent Favorites

BY JEAN MERVIS, Volunteer Docent, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan

Favorite Artifact. Statue of a young girl. Marble. End of 4th century BC. Greece. KM 1979.5.1.

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Why. “It’s thought that this statue honors the goddess Artemis, who was the daughter of the all-powerful Greek god Zeus and mistress of animals. Initially, this sculpture caught my attention because I thought it was pretty, especially the dress and its draping. I liked the figure’s stance with its slightly outstretched foot, and how the dress drapes over that foot.

“But as I read more about it — in a 1982 article by former Kelsey Museum director John Pedley — I learned about the arkteia, an ancient Greek ceremony held every five years to honor Artemis.

“During the ceremony, according to Pedley, young girls holding torches danced around her altar, mimes represented Artemis in the act of hunting, and young girls between the ages of five and ten wearing characteristic crocus yellow chitons and bear masks (arktoi) also took part.

“That’s when this statue of a young girl really came alive for me, as I found myself actually visualizing the young girls dancing back in 450 BC!”

About Artifact. This statue is believed to be the first example of Greek sculpture in marble brought to Ann Arbor by the University of Michigan. The best information about it comes from John Griffiths Pedley, Professor Emeritus of Classical Archaeology, in his article, “A Fourth-Century Greek Statue in Ann Arbor.”

Pedley writes:

The head, now lost, was worked separately, and set into a deep cavity. The arms are also gone, both being broken just below the shoulder, though traces of the right hand and the angle of the shoulder show that the arm was held straight down with the hand against the drapery by the right thigh, while the angle of the upper left arm and left shoulder suggest the possibility that the left arm was bent at the elbow to join a mass of drapery collected at the side of the figure. … The figure stands with weight on the left leg and the right, free leg, placed laterally and drawn somewhat back. The left leg is invisible beneath the drapery, though the toe of the shod foot protrudes beyond the hem of the folds. The bent right knee shown frontally is detectable beneath the folds of the cloth, with right foot turned somewhat outward. Neither heel is visible at the back. She wears the high-girt chiton with shoulder straps and buttoned sleeves ….

The Kelsey Museum acquired the sculpture, purchased with funds contributed by the Kelsey Museum Associates (now Members), from the Swiss market in 1979.

Background. According to Pedley, the east coast of Attica was famous in antiquity for the sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron. The sanctuary stands near a river between Marathon and Cape Sunion, directly opposite Athens to the west. Origins and details of the arkteia festival ceremony are obscure, he wrote, but seem to center on a myth that told of the killing of the bear sacred to Artemis. This sacrilege was to be atoned for, or made right, at the festival by daughters of leading Athenians playing the bear, or arktos. The arkteia ceremony was part of the great Brauronia festival, which included chariot races and musical contests.

Find It. On the first floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing, find the Greek exhibit case, which faces the windows. To the right of the case, the statue of a young girl stands in a trio of sculptures out in the open. She also faces the windows.

Learn More. John Griffiths Pedley, “A Fourth-Century Greek Statue in Ann Arbor,” Bulletin of the University of Michigan Museums of Art and Archaeology 5 (1982): 6–11.

From the Archives — September 2015

BY SEBASTIÁN ENCINA, Museums Collections Manager, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Welcome to the inaugural blog post for the series “From the Archives,” where we will present special finds from the Kelsey Museum archives. Besides the magnificent collection of art and artifacts held by the museum, we also have a rich archival collection that is full of surprises. The archives help support the collections and the mission of the museum by documenting the institution’s past and activities. The archives house a vast collection of photographs, maps from excavations, correspondence and journals, the papers of individual collectors, even 16-mm silent film. Several lifetime’s worth of research and work occupy this space.

For our initial post, we dig far back, to 1893. Everyone begins somewhere, including our namesake, Professor Francis Willey Kelsey. Though our exhibition A Man of Many Parts showcased Kelsey’s early years in upstate New York and at the University of Rochester, the Kelsey archives only go as far back as 1893, when a newly hired young professor at the University of Michigan traveled to Italy to further his research. Kelsey worked with Pompeii scholar and specialist August Mau, a German art historian who wrote several renowned books on the site.

In 1893, Kelsey began collecting artifacts that would find their way back to Michigan and eventually be deposited at the Kelsey Museum. It was then that he visited Carthage and picked up a lamp fragment that would become Kelsey accession number 1, currently on display in the permanent galleries. That seed would usher in an era of collecting for Michigan that carried on over a century, forming the core of the Museum’s art and artifacts. As we look back on the numerous names that have formed the Kelsey collections, it is important to remember the young man who helped foster that collecting culture at Michigan.

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Francis Kelsey and his circle at Pompeii, 1893. Kelsey is circled in red.

This photograph was “discovered” recently in the archives, as it had not been previously catalogued. Though we do not know who the photographer was, we do know this photo and others in the same series belonged, in some way, to Kelsey. His unique handwriting is found on the envelope holding this photo, and on many other photographs in the series. For this reason, these photos are called the Kelsey series and use the numbers he assigned. This particular picture is numbered Kelsey 132 II. Kelsey captioned it and two others like it “Pompeii. Dr. Mau and the ‘Giro’.”

The remaining photos in the Kelsey series show Mau and Mau’s wife, views of Pompeii, and other sites around the Mediterranean during Kelsey’s 1893 sojourn. They are all glass, quite fragile, as photography at that time, before the introduction of the original Kodak, was all accomplished using large cameras with glass plate negatives.

Ugly Object of the Month — September 2015

BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator for Conservation, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

This month’s ugly object is one of my absolute favorites in the collection. To be clear — it’s not one of my favorite ugly objects, it’s one of my favorite Kelsey objects, period. What is it? What a great question. I think it’s a pig? I’m not 100% sure what it depicts, to be honest, but it’s a small toy animal made from unfired clay. It was excavated at Karanis, which was a Roman farming village in Egypt.

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Miniature toy animal, clay, 2nd–4th century AD, KM 26395.

I like this object for so many reasons. First, I like what it says about the University of Michigan and its devotion to detail in archaeological investigation. Karanis was excavated in the 1920s and ’30s, and at that time it was unusual for most excavators to save this kind of evidence. Most archaeologists at the time, especially in Egypt, were primarily interested in beautiful and impressive items. The Kelsey Museum team, however, saved everything. Even tiny, seemingly unimportant bits, like this little toy. It’s described in the excavation’s records as “Toy, small mud animal.”

I also like this “small mud animal” because it connects me to the past. When I look at it, I can imagine a child playing outside, 2,000 years ago. Funny-looking toys made by kids seem to be a universal thing. Most of us have made them at some point, and those of us who are now grownups are often on the receiving end of such things. Little everyday items like this clay pig (or cow, or whatever) make me think about how — despite all our fancy technology — a lot hasn’t changed in the past few millennia. Toys help me imagine life long ago, and points of entry into the past are important for everyone. How do you know where you want to go, or what you want to do as a society, if you don’t know where you’ve been?

Looking at this toy helps me on a personal level as well. It says to me, “Many civilizations have risen and fallen since I was made. Your life is short. Live it well.” Finally, this small mud animal reminds me of one of my favorite people, my brother Matthew, with whom I made toys just like this with mud from the creek that ran behind our house.

The toy doesn’t show to best advantage in the photo, so I encourage you to come in and see it for yourself. It’s on view in the first-floor permanent gallery, inside one of the drawers. If you are standing and facing the front of the black statue of a seated dignitary, it’ll be in the case directly behind the statute. Ask a Kelsey staff member if you can’t find it!

Identifying pottery in the field: Sad Handle Ware at Omrit

BY CAITLIN CLERKIN, PhD student in the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan

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Pottery reading in the Omrit registry.

One step in studying pottery involves identifying what archaeologists call wares. The term “ware” refers to a particular way of preparing the fabric (the material that makes up the vessel: clay, natural mineral inclusions, added temper) to create a specific range of shapes or forms. This kind of grouping is defined by a combination of characteristics of production process, material, and shape/appearance. (See here for another definition of ware, and other terms associated with studying ceramics.)

I spent the first three weeks of June studying excavated pottery at the Omrit Settlement Excavation Project. Omrit is a site in northern Israel’s Upper Galilee, set at the foothills of the Hermon Range; it is the location of a Roman temple and a late Roman settlement (on which the current excavation focuses). I work with one of the project directors, Dr. Jennifer Gates-Foster (UM/IPCAA alumna!), of UNC-Chapel Hill, on the excavated pottery: as part of our work, we sort, identify, and record the different wares we find in each excavated unit (as well as a range of other data about the pottery). This means both identifying known wares and keeping an eye out for shared characteristics amongst sherds of unknown fabric or wares. Sometimes, with enough reoccurrence, these groups of unidentified sherds become identifiable as a new ware; sometimes, we add to what we know about previously identified wares when we spot new shapes or characteristics.

At Omrit, we aim for total recovery of cultural materials. To this end, the excavators sift all excavated dirt (pouring it through 1/4-inch mesh screens). The resulting volume of pottery is large (I don’t yet have final tally for 2015, but, in the 2014 season, we “read”—sorted, analyzed, and recorded—48,678 sherds, and 848.33 kg of pottery, plus part of a backlog from 2013), which is absolutely wonderful for the data set but can sometimes lead to what I call “sherd shock.” While in the midst of a sherd shock fit this season, I came across this diagnostic sherd:

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Sad Handle Ware?

“Diagnostics” are what we call rims, bases, and handles of ceramic vessels: examination of these pieces can usually help us identify what the larger vessel shape or type was. Given a reasonably sized piece of a rim, ceramics specialists can usually identify the sherd as coming from a bowl rather than a jar. Additionally, rim shape can tell us what kind of a bowl a given sherd once belonged to. For example, the photo below shows, from a single context, 32 rims of a single type of bowl (with a very distinctive rim) called a “Banias bowl,” named for a nearby site where the bowl type was first identified. (I call this quantity a Banias Bowl Bonanza.) Having a small portion of each rim (as seen in the photo) is enough to identify the type of bowl.

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A Banias bowl bonanza!

Anyway, back to that funny diagnostic sherd (in the photo with the pink 5-cm scale): that sherd is a vessel handle. But what kind was it? It seemed very strange, and it was not a handle shape that was familiar to me from published literature on the region.

Through consultation with other archaeologists at Omrit, such as field director Dr. Ben Rubin of Williams College (also a UM/IPCAA alumnus!), we determined that, while the handle looked oddly like a finger, a more appropriate name for the group to which this strange, unknown handle belonged would be “Sad Handle Ware” (because it was the saddest looking handle we had ever seen).

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Not Sad Handle Ware → Hawarit Ware!

Closer examination of the handle’s fabric and surface treatment ultimately allowed me to identify it as Hawarit Ware, a cooking ware produced at a kiln (at modern Khirbat el-Hawarit) just up the slopes of Mt. Hermon from Omrit. Hawarit Ware is our main cooking ware at late Roman Omrit and is the group to which most of our cooking pots, casserole pots, and many other vessels belong. This shape was unfamiliar, but everything else about it matched Hawarit Ware. So much for a new ware! (Alas, I will never be famous for identifying Sad Handle Ware … because it is not a Thing.) This funny little handle, however, was a reminder that we sometimes come across new vessel shapes in known wares — and that our examination of pottery at Omrit will do more than just tell us about activity, consumption, and chronology at Omrit; it will also feed back into the pool of knowledge about ceramics in the region, adding to what is known about local and regional ceramics for ceramic specialists after us.

Ugly Object of the Month — August 2015

BY CARRIE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

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Above, hawk mummy #1. Below, hawk mummy #2.

This month’s ugly object is a double feature! (Or creature feature, depending on how you look at it.) Here we have two not-so-lovely, but oh-so fascinating, Egyptian hawk mummies. While neither of these mummies is beautiful per se, they are perfect examples of the ancient Egyptian practice of animal worship. Certain animals were sacred to the Egyptians, and hawks and falcons were closely tied to the sun god Horus. Animal mummies such as these were often left at temples as an offering to the deity residing there. I like this intriguing pair because while they each appear to be mummified birds, one of these mummies is not necessarily like the other.

To meet the demand for mummy offerings, stalls were set up outside the temple where worshipers could buy animal mummies. Sometimes the supply of animal remains couldn’t keep up with the demand, leading to somewhat “shady” practices. It was not uncommon for mummies purported to represent one animal to be composed of … well, other things. Some of you might remember the dog mummy featured in the recent Kelsey Museum exhibition Death Dogs: The Jackal Gods of Ancient Egypt. Looking closely at an X-ray of the mummy, KMA Associate Research Scientist Richard Redding was able to identify a number of bones — none of which belonged to a dog.

Our two hawk mummies are similar in shape and color. They are similarly prepared—each wrapped in linen and treated with resin. But only one reveals what’s going on inside. The beak and eyes of hawk mummy number one peek through its wrappings, as if to say — see? Genuine article, folks! No ibis bones here!

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Detail of the hawk’s conspicuous face and head.

Hawk mummy number two has no such pretentions; there is no visible beak to show the customer they are getting the real deal. Back then, buyers would have had to depend on the word of the vendor and shape of the wrappings. Today, ethical considerations prevent us from physically peeling back the wrappings to discover what animal lies beneath. Only an x-ray, or CT scan, can shed light on the true identity of mummy number two.

What do you think? Hawk … or faux hawk?

Come see the hawk mummies for yourselves! They are currently on display in the exhibition Passionate Curiosities: Collecting in Egypt and the Near East, 1880s–1950s, until November 29 at the Kelsey.