Ugly Object of the Month — September 2019

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

To celebrate the opening of the special exhibition Graffiti as Devotion Along the Nile: El-Kurru, Sudan, I’ve chosen a particular group of graffiti for this month’s Ugly Object post. The graffiti of El-Kurru were created by ancient pilgrims to the site’s Kushite temple and pyramid. Images of animals, textiles, boats, and people were carved into the surfaces of the structures’ sandstone columns and blocks, along with hundreds of cupules — or holes — of varying size. This blogroll is all about embracing the seemingly underwhelming, so it felt only natural to take a closer look at these mysterious holes.

carved graffiti on a sandstone column
Pictorial and cupule graffiti on a column drum from the temple at El-Kurru. Image courtesy of Suzanne Davis.

The same qualities that make Kurru sandstone so difficult to preserve — it is soft and readily disintegrates into sand — made it ideal for stone collecting. Suzanne and Geoff, who curated the exhibition, believe that pilgrims wanted to take a piece of the powerful temple structure with them as they continued on their journey. I can picture someone rotating a knife into the column surface while a pile of powder grows in their hand. This debris apparently brought protection or healing to whoever possessed it, which helps explain why the temple columns are so … holy.  Apparently, a lot of people wanted a piece of that Kurru magic!

Come see Graffiti as Devotion at the Kelsey Museum through March 29, 2020.

Ugly Object of the Month — August 2019

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

My survey of the Kelsey’s stone collection has proven to be a rich source of material for our Ugly Object blog roll. Stone can be durable, which is why we build with it and why so many ancient structures remain. But like many things that seem tough, stone has a less visible softer side. Sedimentary stones, especially, can break down over time into fuzzy, diminished forms of their former selves, which is what has happened to the stela fragment featured here.

fragment of rock with etched shape of a woman.
Limestone funerary stela incised with a symbol of Tanit. 12.3 x 7.4 cm. Punic period. Carthage, Tunisia. KM 84.

Although the artifact’s surface is scuffed and weathered, we can still make out a triangular, incised female form. This unassuming figure is a symbol the Punic goddess Tanit, a deity worshipped in Carthage and who appears in many forms of ancient North African material culture. The Tanit symbol is simple but powerful, and redeems this otherwise lackluster fragment of limestone, which can be seen on display in the Roman Provinces gallery of the Upjohn exhibit wing.

Ugly Object of the Month — July 2019

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

I stumbled across this month’s Ugly Objects while compiling a list of stone artifacts in the Kelsey collection. The Kelsey Museum has over 5,000 artifacts that are classified as stone, which include everything from marble sarcophagi to tiny carnelian beads. Among this trove of artifacts made of rock, the two toadstool-shaped objects pictured here stood out to me.

two mushroom-shaped alabaster earplugs
Alabaster earplugs (studs?) from Saqqara, Egypt. Each is about 2 cm tall. New Kingdom (1570–1070 BCE). KM 24273 and 24274

I looked them up in our database and learned that these objects are Dynastic Egyptian earplugs made of alabaster. My initial thought was, naturally, Wow … these surely must be the world’s oldest-known earplugs!! However, when I ran down to the gallery to make sure they were on display — they are — their labels describe them as ear studs. If so, these would seem to resemble the chunky variety of ear stud/plug worn by body-jewelry enthusiasts today. I’m fascinated by objects that clearly had a specific purpose at some time, and yet manage to puzzle us now. It makes me wonder what people in a thousand years will think when they discover all of our earbuds, nose rings, Fitbits, and aviator shades.

Come see if you can spot these plugs/studs for yourself! You’ll find them in the Dynastic Egyptian cases on the first floor of the Kelsey’s Upjohn Exhibit Wing.

Ugly Object of the Month — June 2019

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

June’s Ugly Object is a stela from Terenouthis, a Roman Egyptian city whose necropolis was excavated by the University in the mid-1930s. This might be a somewhat controversial pick for our blog roll, seeing as the stela is, in its way, actually quite beautiful. Finley Hooper, author of a catalog of stelae from Terenouthis, Funerary Stelae from Kom Abou Billou (Ann Arbor: Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, 1961), calls it “one of the most pleasing in the entire group” of stelae discovered at the site. These are high marks given that more than two hundred of these objects exist!

Roman funerary stela
Limestone funerary stela with black, white, red, and pink pigment. Roman period (late 2nd–early 4th century CE), Terenouthis, Egypt. U-M Excavations, 1935. KM 21052.

I’ve looked at quite a few of these grave markers myself, and I’d have to agree that this one is special. The man and his architectural surrounds are carefully carved, as are the attending Anubis figures. There is a lot of pigment left on the surface, and the details captured in paint are quite interesting. There are flesh tones, a variety of surface details on the columns, and a fringed shroud that hangs over the figure’s upraised arms. Hooper’s translation of the stela’s Greek inscription gives the name of the deceased (Nemesion) his age (about 24 years old) and his date of death (Hathur 6). Elements of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian religious practice converge in this stela, making it an important object of Roman Egyptian material culture. At the same time, it remains a very personal token of remembrance that makes me think about who this young man was and what life was like for him.

This stela will be on display in the Kelsey’s temporary exhibit space as part of Ancient Color’s extended run through July 28. Come and see it for yourself!

Guest Post! Creepy (Ugly) Object — May 2019

This month’s Ugly Object was selected by Matthew Spunar, who keeps a watchful eye over the Kelsey galleries as a member of the Museum’s security staff. Matthew and his colleagues in Security spend many hours with the artifacts that are on display, and they notice when something changes, or moves, or in this case, seems to be looking back …

By Matthew Spunar, Kelsey Museum Security Officer

It is a few hours after closing at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. No staff or visitors remain in the building. As I walk through the second-floor galleries, I pass by the Roman Architecture display case. I feel as if someone — or something — is watching me. I glance over and see a small marble head. It appears to be looking at me. I look away, only to glance back. It is still looking at me. I quickly walk away, leaving the second floor at a fearful pace.

It sounds like a scene from the movie Night at the Museum. Well, actually, it is closing rounds for a security officer at a museum — the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. The artifact that was looking at me is labeled “Head of a Little Boy.” But I refer to it as “Creepy Baby Head.”

As a museum security officer, you spend a lot of time in the exhibit galleries. You notice certain objects that seem to draw your attention. I am intrigued by the number of marble heads — only heads — within the galleries. For me, one in particular stands out. It is the Creepy Baby Head.

Museum gallery

Museum case

Marble head of a little boy.
Marble “Head of a Little Boy.” Roman period, 2nd–3rd century A.D. Kelsey Museum purchase, 1976. KM 1976.2.1.

The artifact is a marble head of a little boy from the Roman empire, dating from the 2nd to 3rd century A.D. It may have been part of a child’s sarcophagus, adding to its creepy nature. The artifact resembles a cupid but has both child- and adult-like features. The face has full cheeks and lips. The hair is waived and combed back. The eyes are blank, with no defined optical features. However, these eyes can look at you.

So the next time you are at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, check out item #6 in the Roman Architecture case, labeled “Head of a Little Boy.” Look at it for a while, then walk away.  See if you feel like you are being watched.  If you do, you will know why I call this artifact the Creepy Baby Head.

 

 

 

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.