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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In last month’s Ugly Object post, we explored some of my feelings about the interior decorating schemes of Roman Egyptians. But while I could not happily collect their colorfully painted god and goddess figurines, I would acquire this month’s Ugly Object in a hot second. For me, this sprang bag only just barely qualifies as something we could legitimately write about in this blog feature, and then only because it is so moth-eaten and frayed.
Made with red, green, and cream-colored wool, this bag is truly a special item. It is featured in our current exhibition, Ancient Color, because it’s so colorful. I enjoy the bold color choices, but I’m even more impressed by the many beautifully executed construction details.
In describing non-woven archaeological textiles at the Kelsey, we often use the word “sprang” to refer to looped or twisted yarn construction like we see in this bag. But unlike our “sprang” socks, which were made using a single-needle technique that is similar to knitting, this bag was made using a twisty, warp-only technique that is sort of like braiding and sort of like weaving.
This bag was made by a master sprang craftsperson. The red, green, and cream yarns interact to create complex patterns, but there are also very cool structural details that contribute to a sense of depth and ornament.
At the top of the bag — as I hope you can see in this detail of the top left corner — the yarns are bundled and held in place with twisting at top and bottom to create an openwork effect. The colored yarns are then carefully twisted to create a highly patterned border along the top edge of the bag, before the green and cream yarns begin a pattern of alternating cable-like and chevron designs.
Here is a closer look at how the green and cream yarns are gathered and twisted as one unit to create what I’m calling a cable-like effect, since this is similar in appearance (and structure) to a cable in knitting.
If we sold replicas of this bag in the Kelsey’s gift shop, I’d pick one up today. This bag is both exceptional and exceptionally fragile. It’s very rarely on view, so I encourage you to come see it for yourself now at the Kelsey!