Ugly Object of the Month — February 2019

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

Guess what, everyone?! We have a new exhibition going up right now: Ancient Color. Co-curated by my conservation compatriot Carrie Roberts, it features one her favorite Egyptian gods. Yes, you guessed it, HARPOCRATES RETURNS!

If you read this blog series with any regularity you will know that Carrie has a thing for Harpocrates. And it’s not because he’s really, really good-looking. Although when you know a little bit about him, you’d think he would be. Son of Isis (who we all know is gorgeous) and Horus (not bad if you’re into birds), he symbolizes the newborn sun (nice, right?). He also has magical healing and protective powers, exerted especially on behalf of women and children. This all sounds pretty great, and yet if you wanted a figurine of this god for your house (who wouldn’t?), it would look like this:

terracotta figurine of harpocrates
Painted terracotta figurine of Harpocrates. Egypt, 2nd century CE. Height 21.3 cm. KM 6947.

Yes, obviously this has seen better days. But imagine it with all the paint still on it! It would be very colorful, but would you really want to look at it every day? I know I wouldn’t, but figurines like this were very popular in Roman Egypt.

Carrie likes this figurine because she is crazy for ancient paint. But I’m not going to tell you about the traces of paint on this little guy, because that would spoil your Ancient Color exhibition experience.

I like this figurine for a different reason: it makes me contemplate two different but equally intriguing possibilities. One: that my decorative taste is very different from that of the typical Roman Egyptian. Would I have hated their interior decorating schemes? I feel like I would have, but I like to imagine what they’d have looked like, all the same. Two: that figurines like this — which were mass-produced by pressing clay into molds, firing the figurines, and then slapping on some paint (I have never seen one of these that was carefully painted) — were meaningful regardless of how they looked. The magical powers of this figurine are not dependent on beauty, in other words. Harpocrates can be messily made and slapdashily painted, and still heal your snake bites. He doesn’t have to look good to take care of business.

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Learn more about this figurine by visiting the Kelsey’s new exhibition Ancient Color, here in Ann Arbor beginning February 8, or anytime online.

 

 

 

 

Ugly Object of the Month — January 2019

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

We’re kicking off the New Year with what I wager will be a top contender for the 2019 Ugly Object of the Year. This Etruscan (likely votive) bronze statuette from the late 4th–early 2nd century BCE was cast from a mold, so there were probably a number of them in circulation around that time. Can you identify the figure? Hint: what he lacks in musculature he makes up for in telltale attributes, such as the lion’s pelt draped over his left arm.

bronze statuette
Front and back views of a bronze statuette of Herakles. Etruria, Italy, late 4th-early 2nd century BCE. H. 8.5 cm. KM 91834.

That’s right folks — this is none other than Herakles, son of Zeus, paragon of strength and masculinity. I love this particular rendering of Herakles for a number of reasons. First, it reminds me of a certain stop-motion animated character so much that I find myself wanting to call it Gumby Herakles (which I promise I won’t). Second, it flies in the face of hyper-masculine depictions we so often see of Herakles. It’s got a lithe stylization no doubt typical of the time and place it was made but which I find kind of cool and modern. Third, it makes me think about the person who purchased and offered the votive statuette in the hope of achieving some particular outcome. Did this little Herakles work his magic for this individual? I’d like to think so.

Come see Herakles and his companion statuettes in the Etruscan and Southern Italy case, on the first floor of the Kelsey Museum’s Upjohn Exhibit wing.

Ugly Object of the Month — December 2018

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

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.

wooden bust of Egyptian god Serapis
Wooden bust of Serapis decorated with gesso, bole, and gold leaf. H: 10.2 cm. Roman period, late 2nd to early 3rd century CE. KM 4655.

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.

Ugly Object of the Month — November 2018

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.

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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.

white limestone with lines of Coptic written in black ink.
Coptic ostrakon written by “Severus.” Ink on limestone. 7th c. AD. 15 x 9.5 cm. KM 25120.

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.

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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.

Interested in learning more about Coptic writings? Check out Written Culture of Christian Egypt: Coptic Manuscripts from the University of Michigan Collection in the Audubon Room of U-M’s Hatcher Graduate Library. This exhibition is curated by visiting scholars Alin Suciu and Frank Feder and is on view November 12th through February 17th, 2019.

Ugly Object of the Month — October 2018

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

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.

We’ve previously written about artifacts called “demon bowls” or “incantation bowls” like the one below. Have a look at that, and then …

Interior view of buff colored bowl with pseudo script and two human-like figures.
Ceramic incantation bowl. 17 cm diameter. Seleucia, 4th–7th century CE. KM 33756.

… 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.

2018-10-02-Ugly_Oct_19050-web
Eggshell ghost bait from Seleucia. 4th–7th century CE. KM 19050.

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!

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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.

 

Ugly Object of the Month — September 2018

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

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.

glass case full of soil, straw on top.
Soil sample taken from the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm in Detroit’s North End.

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 ….

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Urban Biographies, Ancient and Modern will be on view at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology through January 6, 2019.