Ugly Object of the Month — September 2017

BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator of Conservation

It’s back-to-school time, and town is certainly feeling lively as ~30,000 students return to campus. It’s also the harvest season here in Michigan, where it’s already starting to feel like fall. That is sort of, maybe, a decent lead-in to this month’s Ugly Object, which is … wait for it … some pieces of wheat!

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Old-as-heck wheat. 1st–3rd century AD. University of Michigan excavations at Karanis, Egypt. KM 3958.

This is some bonafide archaeological grain-stuff here and, while it might not be considered a typical museum-quality artwork, I think it looks pretty amazing. According to Kelsey curator and director Terry Wilfong, wheat was the biggest and most important crop for ancient Karanis. Egypt was a major producer of grain for the Roman Empire, and Karanis had ten large granaries to store it prior to its shipment to Alexandria and then Rome. Some of this wheat’s brethren might have been eaten by emperors! But if, for some reason, it fails to impress you with its extreme ancient awesomeness, be aware that we also have garlic bulbs and a bunch of other fantastic 1,700-year-old seeds on view. Come enjoy the Kelsey’s cornucopia of ancient — if not always attractive — agricultural delights.

Ugly Object of the Month — March 2016

BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator for Conservation, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Our current special exhibition, Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero, features objects from the Villa Oplontis, one of the big Roman villas near Pompeii, Italy. Most of the objects are on loan to us from Italy, and let’s face it — they are gorgeous. But don’t worry, because when you start to swoon from the beauty, the Kelsey can apply smelling salts; we have some fantastically ugly objects from the same part of Italy.

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Iron hoe blade. Roman period, 1st century AD. KM 1948.

 

This one, a hoe blade, is one of my favorites. Roman villas were farm houses. Yes, some of them were very fancy farmhouses (witness Oplontis), but farming was occurring! Then and now, the grain for our daily bread does not grow itself. On the second floor of the Kelsey near the top of the stairs, you can see a variety of Roman farming implements, including this hoe. It is a large, industrial-sized hoe, much larger than my little garden hoe (although the Romans had small ones, too). A lot of the original metal is lost, but you can see some details. For example, at the top you can see the where the metal starts to curve upward — this is where the wood handle would have attached. You can also see how the sides start to curve in near the top, giving the hoe a shape sort of like a flat shovel blade. The chunks you see on this blade are little rocks that got stuck in the mineralized corrosion layer that formed while the blade was underground for almost 2,000 years.

If you feel like the Romans lived in a world apart, which is how it can seem if you imagine only the people who lived in fancy houses like Oplontis, take a few steps and reconnect with the reality of this hoe. If you are a gardener, you can also think about this when you turn your garden over for early spring planting (maybe this very month!); your springtime chore is one that has been performed by people for millennia.