I’ve been spending a lot of quality time in collections storage lately and have noticed something curious: an abundance of pink! Namely, ancient pink pigment. Why is this so interesting? Because the pink most frequently used in the ancient Mediterranean was made of madder root, a plant-based dye that was used to color textiles as well as a pigment on objects.
Like other organic pigments, rose madder is highly light sensitive and prone to fading. The occurrence of rose madder on so many artifacts in the collection surprises me, given what we know about its fugitive nature. Rose madder also has a unique chemical property that causes it to luminesce, or glow, an orange-pink color when exposed to ultraviolet light. A quick look with a UV LED flashlight can help confirm whether or not the pink on an object is madder.
Marble sculpture fragment KM 1931.441 from Seleucia with pink pigment between fingers and inside elbow.
Despite its tendency to fade, I am finding pink on everything from terracotta figurines to marble sculpture to limestone grave markers. I’m also finding it in different hues and on different decorative elements, from flesh tones to jewelry to architecture. It turns out pink is everywhere at the Kelsey, and it is pretty fascinating.
Whether you all truly find this object to be the ugliest of all those presented this year, or you just wanted to appease it so it won’t come after you next, the numbers don’t lie: Creepy Baby Head netted 44 of the 93 votes cast. (This is a huge number for us; the fame of the Ugliest Object competition is spreading. Tomorrow, THE WORLD!!)
The runners up were so far behind that we won’t even bother mentioning them. CBH is in a class of its own.
Come experience for yourself the chilling effect of being in the same room with this eerie disembodied head. It’s still in our Roman Architecture display case on the second floor. Because, frankly, none of us want to make it mad by taking it off display.
Tomorrow at 12:30 pm, IPCAA alum Diana Y. Ng will speak on the topic of “The Roman-period Theater as Cognitive Microecology: Setting, Seating, and Costume.” This FellowSpeak talk examines the Roman-period theater as a cognitive ecology, one that supported and engaged different modes of thinking and learning by its occupants during nondramatic, civic and political gatherings.
Diana received her BA in classics and fine arts from New York University and her PhD in classical art and archaeology from the IPCAA program at the University of Michigan. She remains a frequent collaborator with the Kelsey Museum, and we encourage you to go see her speak tomorrow. Find all the details here.
It’s January, the fresh new month of a brand new year and — in this case — a whole new decade. Official entry into the ’20s mostly makes me want to drink Prohibition-era cocktails, but many people make more healthful resolutions at this time of year. For example, to improve fitness or lose weight. If this is you, maybe you’ve decided to motivate yourself by upgrading some of the items in your gym bag. Enter this month’s Ugly Object, an aryballos, a small oil bottle that was a key item in the ancient Greek athlete’s grooming routine.
After a workout, an athlete used the oil from the flask during bathing. A cord could be passed through the hole in the top of the handle so that the bottle could be carried hanging from the wrist, or hung up at the baths (painted vases from ancient Greece show both scenarios). These little jugs also sit well on a flat surface. The opening in the top is small, too, with a wide neck to help prevent accidental spillage of one’s fancy, perfumed oil.
Today this little bottle looks functional but plain, but that’s only because it’s been around for 2,000+ years and has lost some of its pizzazz. Back in the day, it would have been a very snazzy addition to one’s gym kit. The potter used a compass to carefully inscribe the surface with a pattern of small scales, which were then painted red, black, and yellow. Colorful and stylish, this would have been a great item to motivate you to finish your workout.
This object is also a favorite of former Kelsey Museum director Sharon Herbert, who wrote a blog entry about it here if you’d like to read more, and you can see it for yourself in the ancient Greece case in our first-floor galleries. Although your plastic shower gel bottle is probably looking pretty sad to you now (sorry), I wish you the best for a happy and healthy new year.
In December, many of us spend a lot of time at local stores perusing goods that we think would make great gifts for our loved ones. We spend hours trying to find the perfect gift, the item that shows how we think about those we care about, whether they are close to us or far away.
For this month’s “From the Archives,” we go one hundred years back in time, to December 1919, to find a University of Michigan staff member far from home but doing the same thing — going to shops and markets, perhaps to find souvenirs to send back home to Michigan. In 1919 and 1920, U-M photographer George R. Swain accompanied Francis Kelsey on an expedition through Europe and the Mediterranean region. Their goal was to document classical sites as well as to identify sites that might have potential for future excavations.
Here we present seven images taken by Swain in Istanbul — or Constantinople, as it was referred to then (some photo captions refer to the area of “Stamboul”). While traveling, Swain photographed not only archaeological artifacts, sites, and structures, nor did he focus solely on collections at other museums. Almost everywhere he went, Swain turned the camera around to his surroundings, to the people in the area, offering us a glimpse into life in those countries at that time.
The photos shown here cover a time period of 20 days, from 5 December to 24 December 1919. Swain captures life at several shops and businesses in Istanbul. We see a person fixing umbrellas. A cobbler’s shop. A busy corner at the bazaar. Bread and fruit for sale. All the shopping Swain chose to capture.
These photographs allow us to see what the city was like one hundred years ago. People who visit Istanbul now will notice many similarities, but also many differences. The bazaar, though altered, remains. Maybe some of those same shops are still there! And the sentiment is the same. People going about doing their shopping, purchasing items they need, or gifts for friends and family. Now in 2019, we continue doing the same.
As an archaeological conservator I know that, sometimes, you need to travel to where the work is. This was on my mind last month when I found myself flying back and forth across central campus, between our lab at the Kelsey Museum and the Electron Microbeam Analysis Laboratory (or EMAL). EMAL is a shared access research space within the Earth and Environmental Science Department, and it’s home to a range of instruments used for materials analysis.
I had a clear mission: to identify the composition of modern architectural limes and mortars from Sudan. Suzanne acquired the samples during the 2019 El-Kurru field season, with the goal of determining whether they were safe for use in architectural conservation at the two Sudanese archaeological sites where a Kelsey team is working.
I used x-ray diffraction and scanning electron microscopy to identify the unknown materials, processes that involve careful sample preparation, instrument setup, and data interpretation. It was time well spent since we now know that some of these materials contain gypsum, which poses risks to archaeological stone. This kind of information is crucial for informed conservation decision-making in the field, and will help shape architectural treatment and preservation plans for the El-Kurru and Gebel Barkal heritage sites.