To celebrate the opening of the special exhibition Graffiti as DevotionAlong 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.
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!
It is August, when students and faculty are beginning their return to Ann Arbor for the new academic year. Soon all these people will settle into the familiar routine of classes and meetings and deadlines. It will all be different, and yet still the same.
During their time away, these people were off scattered about the globe. They were studying, excavating, visiting with colleagues, and advancing their research. However, during their summer, they took the time to find moments for themselves. To vacation, to enjoy the various locations where they found themselves. To live where they had traveled.
Many of the archival photographs the Kelsey Museum possesses were taken by University of Michigan people, such as Easton Kelsey, E. E. Peterson, but primarily by George R. Swain. These photos show the work they were undertaking in locations such as Antioch, or Karanis, or Carthage. However, not all the photographs in the archives are of buildings, artifacts, or of U-M people at work.
For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present a single roll of photographs taken in 1919 when George Swain was traveling for work. He turns his attention to the city he finds himself in, Istanbul. No longer simply photographing the work they are doing, he captures moments in the city, random events, interesting scenes. We see a train, the boats along the Golden Horn, people on the Galata Bridge, and an umbrella mender working on the street.
“Dining car with the metal letters in place, at least at the top.” KS043.02.
“The coat of arms, apparently, of the sleeping car company.” KS043.03.
“The umbrella mender sitting on the sidewalk on a typical street.” KS043.04.
“Typical view on one of the modern streets. At this time, signs in French were allowed.” KS043.05.
In those days, there were no digital cameras or cell phones to capture these views. Instead, Swain was using the equipment he brought with him. Most “professional” photographs were captured with a view camera using glass plates. These were heavy and cumbersome to carry. Swain also carried a smaller Kodak that used film. This was used for additional photographs, not the professional ones of artifacts and architecture, but everything or anything else. That choice is captured in the archival numbers given to these photographs (KS for Kodak Swain, KP for Kodak Peterson, KK for Kodak Kelsey, depending on who was using the camera at the time). For these, the “43” refers to the arbitrary film roll number assigned. At the time, rolls of film only had 12 frames. Swain knew he was limited in how many photographs he could take before he ran out of film.
No caption. Another view on the Golden Horn, to show number of small sailing craft. KS043.06.
“Up the Golden Horn from the Galata Bridge, ferry steamer in the foreground.” KS043.07.
“Another view on the Golden Horn, to show number of small sailing craft.” KS043.08.
“Down stream from the Galata Bridge.” KS043.09.
The first frame of this roll, KS043.01, is, unfortunately, missing from the archives, so there is no image to show. However, we do have Swain’s notes, and thus know he captured the following: “Dining car with all the metal letters removed to get brass in the war presumably.”
“Up the Golden Horn, to show multitude of sailing craft.” KS043.10.
“View toward Pera and the Galata Tower.” KS043.11.
Years from now, current students and researchers will go through their collection of photographs from their travels in the summer of 2019. Not everything was work-related, and memories will be rekindled of the adventures they went on this year.
By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation and Co-Curator of Graffiti as Devotion along the Nile: El-Kurru, Sudan
Friends, we’ve got big news at the Kelsey — a large portion of the river Nile has come to our special exhibition gallery. It’s been re-created by our amazing exhibition team, Scott Meier and Eric Campbell, as have a bunch of life-size columns modeled after those found in the El-Kurru funerary temple. It’s all happening as we finish the final touches on our next special exhibiton, Graffiti as Devotion along the Nile, just in time for the opening on August 23.
This photo shows the relative calm before the storm, since beautiful photographic panels and all kinds of other stuff — including a representation of the ram-headed Kushite god Amun — are going in soon. Although Amun is associated with the sun and with creation, he seems intense and kind of scary and I’m not sure I would enjoy meeting him in person. That said, I think he’s going to look great in our gallery. If you can’t visit in person, check back on our website soon because the online version of the exhibition, built by web guru Julia Falkovitch-Khain, will go live as the in-gallery version opens.
My exhibition co-curator Geoff and I are also really looking forward to our graffiti symposium, which will be held here at the Kelsey on September 20. Yesterday we met with the symposium respondent, artist Jim Cogswell, for a fascinating preview of his thoughts.
And of course, we hope to see you on September 5 at our kick-off event at the Trotter Multicultural Center, where Geoff and I will give attendees a behind-the-scenes look at the El-Kurru graffiti project.
Chapter one outlines the history of ancient Kush and provides some historical and archaeological context for the graffiti at El-Kurru. Then, seven richly illustrated essays by international scholars explore the phenomenon of graffiti in ancient and Christian-era Sudan, as well as an overview of Nubian rock art and a look at graffiti at Pompeii.
Some questions that are tackled in this book include:
What the heck, Meroitic pilgrims. Why are you eating the temple? (chapter 2)
Man, some people really love to carve pictures of boats. A whole lotta boats. (chapter 3)
Can’t we just rebury it all? Really, it’s for the best. (chapter 4)
Beneseg, it would have been great if in the graffito you left on the church wall in Banganarti you could have gone into a little more biographical detail and expanded on your personal ambitions and especially your trip to Nubia from France instead of just saying hi to the Archangel Rafael, thanks. (chapter 6)
Were “rock gong” concerts more like Chopin’s nocturnes or an Iggy Pop show? (chapter 7)
Graffito 1: Dude, did you see that gladiator match?! Graffito 2: OMG bro, that was off the chain!! (chapter 8)
While not exactly a fluffy summer beach read, Graffiti as Devotion is nonetheless written to engage non-specialist readers. And anyway, there are a lot of pictures. So go ahead! You’ve got nothing to lose! Download the PDF (did we mention that it’s free?) and have a look.
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.
A very common occurrence in archives is coming across mysteries that have no answers. It is frustrating for those of us working with these materials to not have any idea what we have stumbled across. Or who these people are. Or what this photograph is depicting. More frustrating is knowing that for some of these matters, there will never be an answer.
Even with materials very familiar to us, such mysteries pop up. Though we have spent many years working with the maps, journals, and photographs from the Karanis excavations, there are still some items that leave us puzzled. One such example is a series of drawings of artifacts excavated at Karanis. The drawings are in color in order to capture the full nature of the artifacts, a necessity in the days before color photography.
The drawings themselves are not the mysteries. We know what artifacts are depicted; most are here at the Kelsey Museum. Instead, the mystery is who drew them. They are signed by “Joslin” and dated 1929, but no first name, no affiliation, no other identifying information is given. The 1929 Karanis excavation team included several architects and artists, but nothing else in our archives was associated with “Joslin.”
In 2015, the Kelsey Museum received an email from Nancy Joslin Kaleel saying her grandfather was an architecture student at U-M who went to Karanis with the U-M team in 1929. She and her son Calvin were visiting Ann Arbor and were interested in seeing anything relating to Joslin at the Kelsey Museum. We invited Nancy and Calvin to view these files and during their visit, Nancy revealed that Joslin was actually Frederick Burr Joslin, an architect who designed homes in Detroit. Mystery solved.
Nancy recently returned to the Kelsey, bringing more family members who were interested in seeing F. B. Joslin’s work and learning about the Kelsey and the excavations at Karanis. For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present a few of Joslin’s drawings and a photo of his family members each holding a drawing.
It was an absolute pleasure hosting the family at the Kelsey Museum and spending an afternoon with them. They were a delight to have, and we learned so much more about Joslin than we previously knew. Nancy and Judith, who are sisters, say they have many of their grandfather’s belongings, so perhaps we will continue to learn about Joslin’s time at Karanis. What they find may wind up being a future “From the Archives” blog post.
This summer I’m embarking on a condition survey of the Kelsey’s stone collection, a big project both in scope and in terms of artifact size. As I mentioned in our latest Ugly Object post (ancient earplugs!) the Kelsey’s stone collection is wide-ranging, including everything from tiny steatite scarabs to massive column drums the size of tree trunks. My survey will focus on the larger-scale artifacts and will include vessels, sculpture, and architectural elements made of stone. My goals are to identify which of these artifacts are most in need of conservation intervention, and in the process learn what I can about past stone conservation treatments.
The project is a continuation of previous condition surveys conducted by Suzanne Davis, Claudia Chemello, and LeeAnn Barnes Gordon. Their work serves as a valuable baseline for how the Kelsey’s stone artifacts might have changed over the past ten years. Gordon’s research also revealed information about how newly excavated stone was treated at the Roman-Egyptian site of Terenouthis. In the early twentieth century, archaeological chemist Alfred Lucas introduced polymeric materials to archaeologists’ conservation toolkit. Among these was Duco cement, a cellulose nitrate adhesive that was applied to many of the stelae discovered at Terenouthis in order to prevent rapid surface deterioration following excavation. The Duco coating has, however, started to deteriorate, compromising the very surfaces it was meant to protect. Information about historic conservation treatments, along with new condition rankings, will help me develop preservation and treatment plans for the most at-risk stone artifacts at the Kelsey.