This month’s Ugly Object is, at first glance, pretty unrecognizable. Its outline suggests a bust format, and one can start to make out a head, the folds of robe, locks of shoulder-length hair, a beard and other facial features. While I personally couldn’t make heads or tails of who this figure is, a trained eye (namely, Kelsey director Terry Wilfong) can spot specific details that reveal that this somewhat diminished bust is in fact a deity —specifically, the Graeco-Egyptian god Serapis. Serapis was worshiped in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt and elsewhere in the Roman empire as a cult deity. Like most gods, Serapis wore many hats: he was seen as an oracle, a consort to Isis, a hybridization of the bull deity Apis and Osiris, and a figure associated with the underworld.
How do we know that this particular wooden bust is Serapis? A major clue is in the wooden dowel at the top of the figure’s head, which originally held a grain basket in place. The thick, shoulder-length hair is another Serapis signature. The decorative surface is pretty patchy, but the losses happen to reveal how the figure was made. A carved wood base was coated with a thick layer of gesso. A layer of red clay (called bole) was painted onto the gesso, and a final layer of gold leaf was applied on top. The bole would have allowed the gilding to be burnished and smoothed to a lustrous sheen, which would have made this Serapis super shiny. This is fitting, considering that the bust likely started out as an element of bling on a piece of furniture.
Come visit our shiny Serapis, on display in the Karanis House on the first floor of the Upjohn Exhibit wing! And see if you can spot other Graeco-Roman Egyptian deities elsewhere in the Kelsey galleries.
By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation, with Kelsey Director Terry Wilfong
This month for the Ugly Object blog, we’re featuring an object chosen by Kelsey Museum director Terry Wilfong for the new Kelsey in Focus case in our Upjohn Exhibition Wing. To learn about this special object, I interviewed Terry, who is also the Kelsey’s curator of Graeco-Roman Egyptian Collections.
* * * * *
Suzanne:Hi, Terry! The new Kelsey in Focus case features three ostraka, or pottery sherds with writing on them. Can you tell us what this is about? Why would someone have written on a potsherd? Terry: In ancient Egypt, papyrus and parchment were relatively scarce commodities, but broken potsherds were easily available. Using a potsherd to write something, like a letter or a tax receipt, was a good way to reuse a common, inexpensive material.
Suzanne:Ostraka, in my opinion, are not the most aesthetically pleasing objects in the world (which is why they’re being featured in this blog), but some people really like them. Is it fair to say you’re one of these people? What can you tell us about the attractions of ostraka? Terry: I am one of these people! My dissertation research focused on women’s lives in 7th–8th-century Egypt, and one of the main ways I studied this was by reading a set of excavated ostraka from a site called Medinet Habu. Unlike “official” documents, which were written on papyrus or parchment and tended to focus on the lives of elite men, the ostraka from this site were less formal and documented much more about the lives of women.
You are right that ostraka are not good-looking in the way we usually think of museum objects, but that’s what I like about them! They come in different shapes and colors, and they often show a lot of wear. They’re also usually hard to read, since you have to decipher someone’s handwriting at the same time you’re contending with the unique shape of the potsherd. Ostraka are challenging, but very cool.
Suzanne:Of the three ostraka being featured in the Kelsey in Focus case, which one is your favorite and why? And can you tell us something about the text? Terry: My favorite of these is a literary text by “Severus,” as the ostraka identifies the author. It’s interesting for many reasons — it is written on limestone, the handwriting is beautiful, the contents are unusual, and “Severus” was probably an author known locally in Egypt. To learn more about the text (and the language it’s written in), be sure to read my article in the upcoming Kelsey Newsletter (Fall 2018). I don’t want to give everything away in this post ….
Suzanne:Fair enough. We will look forward to your article! What is one thing you think everyone should know about this important class of non-art objects? Terry: Beauty isn’t everything! Ostraka are written on throwaway pieces of pottery and stone, but if you want to know about the daily lives of ancient people, they’re wonderful — they contain lists, letters, receipts, and contracts. They’re like the email of Graeco-Roman Egypt: pure gold for anyone studying ancient lives.
* * * * *
Come see this ostrakon for yourself! The Kelsey in Focus case is located on the first floor of the Kelsey Museum, on your right as you enter the galleries from the gift shop.
Well, folks, it’s officially fall. The calendar says so, and Ann Arbor actually feels autumnal, too! So what better choice for October’s Ugly Object of the Month than one that celebrates our favorite spooky fall holiday — Halloween.
… cast your mind back to the Ghostbusters movies. Do you remember how the Ghostbusters would use energy to suck ghosts into their traps? Incantation bowls were, essentially, ancient ghost traps. If you were troubled by a ghost or demon in your house, you’d place the bowl in an area where the demon was likely to be. (Here’s a tip: they like to hang out in corners.) Or perhaps — if your motives were less pure — you might want to recruit a demon to do something for you. In this case you could use one of these bowls to trawl for a ghost elsewhere, like in a cemetery. The ghost/demon would be lured into the bowl, following the magical, spiraling inscription, and then be trapped, as you see in this example, where the evils spirit is in chains and surrounded by a ring of fire. Pretty. Nifty.
I’m hazy on both the physics of the Ghostbusters’ trap and how the magic of the incantation bowls would actually work, but I can tell you this — the demon bowls sometimes had ghost bait, and we’ve got some here at the Kelsey.
It’s an inscribed eggshell. It might not look like much, but it was found in a larger ghost-trap assemblage at the site of Seleucia, Iraq. In the corner of a house, one demon bowl was placed right side up, the inscribed eggshell was placed inside, and another demon bowl was placed upside down on top of the first bowl and slightly offset (to leave room for the ghost to get inside). This set-up was designed to work like a triple containment system. Theoretically, the ghost or demon would go all the way into the shell, where it would be bound by the inscription on the shell’s exterior. Meanwhile, the two inscribed incantation bowls provided extra magical entrapment power and security (for the peace of mind a ghost-troubled homeowner needs!). Once the ghost was trapped, the eggshell could be ritually smashed to destroy the evil spirit. Ghost busted!
Ghostbusting is a cross-cultural phenomenon as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. Happy Halloween!
* * * * *
Can’t get enough of that ancient magic? Check out Traditions of Magic in Late Antiquity, Gideon Bohak’s 1995 online exhibition that features many of the Kelsey’s magical artifacts. There you will find more about demon bowls, magic amulets, and — for the hands-on among you — ancient recipe-books for casting your own spells.
As our readers know, this blog series celebrates all the not-exactly-fine-art items in our beloved archaeology museum. A big focus of our collection (and our ongoing research and teaching) is daily life in the ancient world, but another big area of focus for our museum is centered on excavation-based research and teaching. Our current exhibition, Urban Biographies, Ancient and Modern, celebrates this, with a very cool look at three of the Kelsey’s current field projects, each focused on an ancient city, AND a special focus on the methods archaeologists use to study ancient cities. Detroit, our closest big, urban neighbor, provides a contemporary comparison.
In the Detroit area of the exhibition, you can see a lot of great stuff, including videos of Detroit residents talking about their neighborhoods, urban farmers talking about Detroit’s modern-day farms, and an urban archaeologist from Wayne State University talking about the archaeology and history of the city.
In this part of the show, you can also see a giant block of … wait for it … DIRT.
Yes, this big case of dirt is our Ugly Object of the month. I love this block of dirt because it is exactly like the vertical soil samples archaeologists use to study different occupation levels at archaeological sites, including active cities like Detroit, except it’s way better because it’s a lot bigger than the small-diameter core samples archaeologists usually use. I like being able to see the different levels and kinds of dirt, including — all the way at the bottom — sand from an ancient lakebed. Other layers tell different stories, like a layer with chunks indicating construction materials and a very old trash dump.
I’m an avid gardener, and I live in hope that one day the dirt in my back garden will tell me an interesting story, like this big block of soil does. So far, I have found one tiny toy car and a marble. Maybe I’m not going deep enough ….
* * * * *
Urban Biographies, Ancient and Modern will be on view at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology through January 6, 2019.
This month’s Ugly Object takes the cake for being both incredibly interesting and really, really ugly. What exactly is this rather scraggly looking textile fragment? We’re not entirely sure, although its report suggests that it might have once been part of a cap.
This bit of cap — discovered at Karanis, Egypt — was made using a technique called sprang or nålebinding, an ancient precursor to knitting in which loops of yarn are interlinked using a single needle. Are you a yarn enthusiast or experimental archaeologist and want to try the technique for yourself? Check out Suzanne’s 2016 blog post about an ugly sprang sock, which features links to pages detailing how to knit/link your own ancient sock.
There are other cool things about this sprang fragment, one being its color. We suspect it could be an organic red dye, although analysis would be needed to confirm this. Rose madder, a red colorant derived from the processed roots of the madder plant, was used frequently as a pigment in Roman Egypt and might have been used to color our cap frag. Another cool thing is the black overcast stitches that run along one edge. These could very well be part of the cap’s original construction, or perhaps an ancient repair.
This and other less frequently seen Karanis textiles will be on display in the upcoming Kelsey exhibition Ancient Color, opening February 8, which explores the sources, uses, and scientific investigation of color in the Roman world.
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.
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!
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.