The stone condition survey is well underway, and I am just floored by the richness and variety of the Kelsey’s stone collection. We’ve got limestone that is packed full of shell fossils (fig. 1), alabaster that has weathered in a way that it looks like a sea sponge … and, best of all, so much of the material comes from sites that were excavated by the University of Michigan. If I had to choose the most exciting artifacts I’ve encountered so far, it would be those from Karanis, Seleucia, and Terenouthis. I’m a self-professed ancient color geek, and an incredible number of these objects still have pigment preserved.
Take the Karanis stone. I’ve seen hefty jar bases that have traces of pigment and ground still in place, and a libation altar decorated with a vivid orange-red pigment (red lead?) barely visible under a thick layer of burial dirt. At least half of the Seleucia sculptures I’ve examined have traces of pink pigment, including one with a highly detailed painted necklace. I’ve spent years studying the Terenouthis funerary stelae, and even these continue to surprise me. I spotted blue-green pigment on a well-preserved stela that I am eager to investigate further (fig. 2).
In addition to revealing the extent of surface decoration on the Kelsey’s collection of stone, the survey is also helping me determine which artifacts are in need of treatment or rehousing. It’s amazing to me how much there is to learn from objects in the collection even now, in some cases nearly ninety years after their discovery.
I love the start of the academic year, and much of my day-to-day work in the fall is focused on prepping objects for classes. As part of our mission as a teaching and research institution, we offer students a high level of access to the Kelsey collection, and a number of university classes visit the Kelsey each semester. Some of these classes opt in to an object handling session, where students can pick up and examine accessioned artifacts.
Part of my job is to make sure objects are stable enough for students to handle, and to train new staff and graduate students in how to safely handle objects themselves. I take particular joy in demoing how NOT to do something — nonchalantly waving around a modern kylix from our teaching collection by his broken handle, for example. Another part of my job is to examine and, if needed, treat objects that have been selected for handling by a class. Right now I’m looking at coins for a class focused on visual culture from the ancient Middle East. They are fascinating. Some were minted locally in Syria and Parthia, while others are made from bronze alloys I haven’t encountered before, such as orichalcum. I learn something new each time I look at objects for a new class, and it’s fulfilling to know that the students will, too.
By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation and Co-Curator of Graffiti as Devotion along the Nile: El-Kurru, Sudan
Friends, we’ve got big news at the Kelsey — a large portion of the river Nile has come to our special exhibition gallery. It’s been re-created by our amazing exhibition team, Scott Meier and Eric Campbell, as have a bunch of life-size columns modeled after those found in the El-Kurru funerary temple. It’s all happening as we finish the final touches on our next special exhibiton, Graffiti as Devotion along the Nile, just in time for the opening on August 23.
This photo shows the relative calm before the storm, since beautiful photographic panels and all kinds of other stuff — including a representation of the ram-headed Kushite god Amun — are going in soon. Although Amun is associated with the sun and with creation, he seems intense and kind of scary and I’m not sure I would enjoy meeting him in person. That said, I think he’s going to look great in our gallery. If you can’t visit in person, check back on our website soon because the online version of the exhibition, built by web guru Julia Falkovitch-Khain, will go live as the in-gallery version opens.
My exhibition co-curator Geoff and I are also really looking forward to our graffiti symposium, which will be held here at the Kelsey on September 20. Yesterday we met with the symposium respondent, artist Jim Cogswell, for a fascinating preview of his thoughts.
And of course, we hope to see you on September 5 at our kick-off event at the Trotter Multicultural Center, where Geoff and I will give attendees a behind-the-scenes look at the El-Kurru graffiti project.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.