Ugly Object — July

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

I’m going to open this month’s Ugly Object blog post by echoing a sentiment expressed by many of our readers: beauty (or lack thereof) is in the eye of the beholder, and not every Ugly Object is ugly to everyone. In fact, “ugly” is not the first word I would use to describe July’s pick, a small jug (or juglet) in the form of the head of Dionysus.

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Ceramic juglet in the form of the head of Dionysus. Roman, 1st century BCE. KM 6542.

When I gaze into this vessel’s mold-formed visage, the first thought that enters my mind is actually, “How cool is that?” Perhaps this comes from the fact that I am a huge fan of things that look like other things but function as the simple thing that they are. There are other examples of this in the Kelsey collection (many of them ceramic, a material so easily pressed into any shape), my favorite being a little date-shaped vessel that’s got all the wrinkly impressions of the desiccated fruit. This juglet’s maker took it a step further in creating a vessel that embodies in both form and modeling the square-jawed masculinity (and rather surly expression) of Dionysus. Who wouldn’t have enjoyed pouring wine straight from the head of the god of wine himself? Or eating fish off a fish plate, only to discover an illusion of more fish in the decorative scheme of the dish underneath? Perhaps I am too easy to please, but these clever little details never fail to delight me.

The Dionysus juglet will be traveling to Dearborn next spring, where you can see it on display at the Alfred Berkowitz Gallery at University of Michigan-Dearborn. Be sure to pay the juglet a visit if you are there!

Ugly Object – June

by Caroline Roberts, Conservator

This month’s Ugly Object will be featured in the new Kelsey in Focus case, a rotating exhibit space that will highlight some of the Kelsey Museum’s hidden collections. The first In Focus installment features a trio of ceramic duck figurines from Seleucia on the Tigris, a site just under 20 miles south of modern Baghdad that was excavated by the University of Michigan between 1927 and 1937. The duck fragment that’s made our list bears a remarkable likeness to the real thing; I live near a creek and as such share my habitat with a number of these aquatic birds, so I consider myself a fair judge of the high quality of this remaining fragment of duck. Even so, back when it was made this was not a one-of-a-kind object. It was created from a two-part mold, evidenced by a seam that bisects the duck’s face. Even more interesting: one of the duck’s nostrils is “clogged,” seemingly because it was not fully scooped out like the other nostril after casting. These little artifacts of the manufacturing process are fascinating, as is the question of how many of these ducks were made and what they were used for. Look closely and you can see traces of paint in the duck’s eyes and nostrils, and an ancient repair adhesive on its neck. Someone clearly valued this duck enough to stick its head back on when it broke.

Come visit the Kelsey in Focus case on the first floor of the Upjohn exhibit wing, next to the elevator.

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Head of a ceramic duck figure from Seleucia on the Tigris, Iraq. 2nd century AD. KM 2018.1.104.

Ugly Object of the Month – May

By Caroline Roberts and Suzanne Davis, Conservators

For this month’s Ugly Object blog post we felt that we should pay homage to a small but significant variety of artifact: the pottery sherd. There are millions of these things out there, in the field, patiently awaiting discovery. So why the reverence? Because while pottery sherds may be irregular in shape and incomplete in form, these little dudes are often jam-packed with information. We recognize that we’re preaching to the choir, archaeological ceramicists out there, but for those who were unaware of the vast informational value of sherds, consider this month’s Ugly Object.

KM 1980.2.39 is what we would call a rim sherd, meaning that it was once part of the rim or opening of a vessel. What drew us to this particular sherd is its relief decoration, which reminds us of ornament that we’ve seen in classical architecture. But beyond this we knew little about the artifact. To learn more, we approached guest curator Chris Ratté to ask him what he thinks about the sherd:

Chris Ratté: This is ugly?! Why don’t you understand that this is a beautiful sherd?

Conservators: Well, this is not exactly fine art. But a lot of our “Ugly Objects” possess qualities that might be otherwise overlooked, such as charm or informational value.  Anyway, what can you tell us about this sherd?

Chris Ratté: The sherd comes from a mold-made Megarian bowl. The guilloche and egg-and-dart relief patterns are similar to moldings I know from architecture, such as at the temple of Apollo at Didyma.

Conservators: Cool! Can you tell us how the bowl was fabricated?

Chris Ratté: The bowl was thrown into a mold on a wheel. The relief pattern in the mold was cast from a silver vessel. The bowl itself was made in imitation of a particular type of metal vessel connected to the Egyptian king Ptolemy’s visit to Athens.* The ceramic bowls that were made from this were very popular, but were not produced for very long.

Conservators: Wow! Who knew? How was the bowl used?

Chris Ratté: For drinking. The bowl wouldn’t have had handles, and I like to imagine what it might have felt like to hold the vessel in my hands and feel the relief beneath my fingers.

Want to learn more about this and other diagnostic sherds? Be sure to visit the Kelsey starting August 24th to see the upcoming exhibition Urban Biographies, which will demonstrate ways in which artifacts and modern technologies are used to study ancient (and modern) cities.

*Ptolemy V Epiphanes and his son, Ptolemy VI Philometer visited Athens in 182 BCE for the Panathenaic Games.

 

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KM 1980.2.39, exterior and interior views
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Urban Biographies Co-Curator Christopher Ratté

 

Ugly Object – April

By Caitlin Clerkin, PhD candidate in the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology

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Bone figurine with pigment. 6.5 x 1.3 cm. 150 BCE–200 CE. University of Michigan excavations at Seleucia, Iraq. KM 16200.

Is the end of the school year getting you concerned? Are you worried that this winter will NEVER end? Are you stressing about the summer heat and humidity to come? Well, whatever they are about, you and your worries have NOTHING on our ugly friend this month, because he has been worried for around 1,900 years.

This anxious-looking anthropomorphic figurine is from Seleucia on the Tigris, an ancient city located in modern-day Iraq. The University of Michigan excavated Seleucia in the 1920s and ’30s and found a whole bunch of these worried carved-bone guys (among lots of other things — check out the Seleucia cases in the permanent galleries). Our friend here is pretty schematic looking, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t communicate BIG emotions.

Look at those eyes! They might not have had headlights in 1st and 2nd century CE Seleucia, but if they had, the local gazelles would have probably looked like this when caught in the path of a speeding cart. Look at that mouth! It is definitely saying “MEEP!” Look at those little clothespin-like legs! Those legs are not going to carry him anywhere — no escape is possible! No wonder he is so worried. So, buck up, blog-reading friend! This little fellow is going to be worried way longer than you are.

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Bone figurine. 7.1 x 1.3 cm. 150 BCE–200 CE. University of Michigan excavations at Seleucia, Iraq. KM 16182.

Go visit this figurine on the ground floor of Upjohn Exhibit Wing, where it has some equally expressive buddies, including a ready-to-brawl, angry, cock-eyed fellow (shown below — see its angry eyebrows and ready stance? Don’t mess with it!). Maybe you can soothe their worries a little by beaming affirming messages at their ugly little heads. But I’m not sure it is going to help: they have made those faces so long that I think they are stuck that way….

 

 

Ugly Object – March

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Kelsey Museum Conservator

Greetings, Ugly Object fans! This month’s featured artifact is not really an object. It is, rather, a somewhat unseemly chunk of … any ideas? Here’s a clue: it is a thing greater than the sum of its parts. It is made up of large fragments of yellow marble, tufa, and travertine embedded in a gray pozzolan/lime mortar. In other words, it’s a mixture of aggregate and cement, which are the necessary ingredients for — you guessed it — Roman concrete! This particular fragment of concrete was brought to Michigan in 1901 by none other than Francis Kelsey, undoubtedly for the benefit of his students. Our records say that it is in fact a piece of wall core from the Diocletian baths in Rome. That is quite a pedigree!

Although this chunk is not much to look at, it is an example of a pretty remarkable form of Roman construction technology. You can visit this and other artifacts of Roman construction on the second floor of the Kelsey Museum’s Upjohn Exhibit Wing.

 

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Concrete fragment, KMA 2373.

Ugly Object of the Month – February

BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator of Conservation

Last month’s ugly object skated perilously close to downright attractiveness, so you will be delighted to see us getting back to our roots in February, with a truly hideous creature.

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Earthenware “sphinx.” AD 1890–1898, Michigan, United States. UMMAA 21492.T.

This bizarre-looking bird-thing, which is trying to pass itself off as a sphinx, if you can believe that, is especially special to me because Francis Kelsey himself was moved to comment on it. It’s a nineteenth century fake, made in Michigan, and it and its brethren were so freakin’ weird and caused such a fuss that the University of Michigan acquired some of them (google “Soper Frauds” — or better yet, come read about them at the Kelsey). In a 1908 article for the journal American Anthropologist , Kelsey wrote,

The interest of the spurious relics to which I have the pleasure of inviting your attention is, in last analysis, more psychological than archeological; so novel are their designs and so crude the workmanship that an archeologist of training in any field could hardly fail to recognize at a glance their true character.

Nicely said, Professor Kelsey!

These forgeries do not represent a high point in Michigan’s state history, but they are really very ugly and make for a great story, which is what we love here in our ugly object blogging. I like how this one — which, again, is supposed to be a sphinx — looks like a cross between a turkey and gargoyle. It has a particularly hilarious facial expression that seems to convey both surprise and confusion, which is probably how a lot of archaeologists felt when they saw it for the first time. Come see it for yourself now in the exhibition Excavating Archaeology @ U-M: 1817–2017, open through May 2018.