Hello, blog readers. I hope you are happy, healthy, and staying safe. This past week felt like about six, huh? It did to me. Work has changed at the Kelsey, as it has at many workplaces around the world. A small example — I usually work here:
And now I’m working here:
It’s a little bit different. Not least because my cat feels that humans in the home should equal very frequent snacks for cats. He’s like, “Look lady, we both know you’re sitting right by the treats cupboard. Would it kill you to serve more snacks? All you’re doing is sitting there like a lump. Look alive and give me more of those #$@%! fish crunchies already!”
Conservators’ main job is to preserve cultural heritage for the future, so it’s reasonable to wonder how I’m doing it from a small corner of my kitchen while trying to ignore Flash Kitty. Truthfully, I’m doing conservation-adjacent work, as are most of my colleagues around the country. Here’s a sample of things I’ll be doing over the next few weeks:
Recording guest lectures about conservation for colleagues’ classes
Taking professional development webinars and online courses
Writing up research into publishable journal articles
Preparing grant applications
Planning future projects
Catching up on all the professional reading and newly published research I usually only barely have time to skim
Other conservators I know are recording the oral histories of senior colleagues, writing up treatment and research protocols, and contributing to conservation-focused wiki entries.
It’s also kind of a stressful time right now. Many of us are either at high-risk of serious complications from COVID-19 or have loved ones who are. So please follow public health advice in order to conserve yourselves and those who are more vulnerable than you are. AND there are things you can do to preserve your mental health and reduce stress. Below are the activities I find most useful.
Exercising: walking outside, jumping rope, doing yoga or high-intensity body weight exercises at home.
Relaxing: UCLA’s mindfulness awareness research center has free guided meditations I like, here.
Connecting with friends and family: I’m not normally a big fan of talking on the phone, but I’m learning to like it now!
Making stuff with my (carefully washed) hands: conservators will be the first to tell you how satisfying it is to do hand work; we do it for our jobs and most of us love it and miss it if we’re away from it too long. Now might be a good time to take up a handicraft or invest time in one you’ve already got going. There are lots of online videos if you want to learn something new and supplies can be ordered, probably even from your local shops.
Conservators wield some impressive photo-processing skills, in no small part because of the extensive photographic documentation we do in our work. We use our image-processing skills for research purposes, too.
Right now I’m taking multispectral photos of limestone funerary stelae from the Roman Egyptian city of Terenouthis so that I can begin to characterize the pigments that were used to paint them. Pigments reflect, absorb, and/or luminesce ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light in characteristic ways, but capturing a good image of these photo-chemical responses can be challenging.
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.
Marble sculpture fragment KM 1931.441 from Seleucia with pink pigment between fingers and inside elbow.
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.
As an archaeological conservator I know that, sometimes, you need to travel to where the work is. This was on my mind last month when I found myself flying back and forth across central campus, between our lab at the Kelsey Museum and the Electron Microbeam Analysis Laboratory (or EMAL). EMAL is a shared access research space within the Earth and Environmental Science Department, and it’s home to a range of instruments used for materials analysis.
I had a clear mission: to identify the composition of modern architectural limes and mortars from Sudan. Suzanne acquired the samples during the 2019 El-Kurru field season, with the goal of determining whether they were safe for use in architectural conservation at the two Sudanese archaeological sites where a Kelsey team is working.
I used x-ray diffraction and scanning electron microscopy to identify the unknown materials, processes that involve careful sample preparation, instrument setup, and data interpretation. It was time well spent since we now know that some of these materials contain gypsum, which poses risks to archaeological stone. This kind of information is crucial for informed conservation decision-making in the field, and will help shape architectural treatment and preservation plans for the El-Kurru and Gebel Barkal heritage sites.
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.