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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
Can an object be both elegant and ugly? I believe it can. Take, for instance, this month’s Ugly Object — a broom. This broom was found in a house at Karanis, Egypt, and we can pretty easily guess what it was used for. I like the broom for its simple, effective (even elegant?) design. To me, it looks like someone gathered a bunch of palm stems and mashed up the ends to create bristles. Voila! Insta-brush. Someone then lined up the stems and secured the group by passing a palm rope over and under each stem. Two additional ropes were used to gather the stems together into a bundle that could be held in your hand or tied around a wooden handle. Pretty neat! Another thing I want to point out about the broom is that it’s got a swishy tail (so to speak). Whether this is from use or age or something else is unclear, but I like how it makes the broom look like it could glide across the floor without any human help, like something out of Fantasia.
The broom will be featured in the upcoming exhibitionJim Cogswell Cosmogonic Tattoos, opening June 2. Artist and Professor Jim Cogswell drew inspiration for his window vinyl installation from Kelsey artifacts, including this broom. See if you can spot it in the exhibition or on the windows of the Kelsey!
When it comes to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s collections, not all artifacts are created equal. Some call out to us intellectually, others emotionally.
BY RICHARD REDDING, Research Scientist, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology; principal investigator on archaeological projects in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia; Chief Operating Officer and Chief Research Officer of Ancient Egyptian Research Associates. Redding works in Giza, Egypt, during dig season.
Favorite Artifact: The Coffin of Djehutymose. Mummiform coffin of the priest Djehutymose. Wood, plaster, and paint. Saite period (26th Dynasty, 685–525 BC).
Why: “This coffin is both elegant and beautiful and offers human solutions to natural events such as the sun rising each day after the darkness of night. For example, see the goddess Nut painted on the interior of the coffin lid with a red sun disk on her mouth, which she swallows every night and to which she gives birth (the red disk at her feet) every morning.”
About Artifact: It dates to the Saite period, an era of great artistic revival in ancient Egypt. Texts on the coffin identify its owner as a man named Djehutymose, a priest of the falcon god Horus and the “Golden Goddess” Hathor, and give the names of his parents, Nespakhered (also a priest) and Taro (“The Lady of the House.”)
The coffin, carved to represent the mummy of Djehutymose, is covered with magical spells from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead and images of protective gods and goddesses. In this way, the identification of Djehutymose with Osiris is reinforced, and he is provided with multiple levels of protection against the perils of the afterlife as well as appropriate spells for the successful continuation of life in the world of the dead. The coffin represents a microcosm of the afterworld and the eternity that Djehutymose expects to enjoy.
Lid Exterior: Djehutymose’s face is green in imitation of the god of the dead, Osiris; the color symbolizes regeneration and rebirth. His false beard is characteristic of Osiris; his collar with falcon-headed terminals is another symbol of rebirth. His name reinforces his personal identity throughout the texts on the coffin. The goddess Isis, wife of Osiris, spreads her wings protectively over Djehutymose’s feet. A snake encircles the entire coffin lid, its tail and head meeting above Djehutymose’s feet. This circled snake symbolizes protection and eternity.
Lid Interior: The sky goddess Nut spreads her wings protectively over Djehutymose’s chest. Nut’s crown is a sun disk containing her name, and she holds powerful ankh (life) symbols in her outstretched hands. The two eyes of Horus (wedjat) symbolizing protection and rejuvenation are confronted on either side of her head.
Base Exterior: Protective texts from the Book of the Dead and processions of gods and goddesses line the sides of the coffin.
Base Interior: The goddess Imentet magically embraced Djehutymose’s mummy as it lay in the coffin.
Background: For much of Egyptian history, the bodies of the dead were placed in coffins, which often bore texts giving the names, titles, and parentage of the deceased, as well as religious texts for provisioning, protection, and regeneration in the afterlife.
“Fashioned nearly 2,600 years ago, the Djehutymose coffin has made a complicated journey into the present. In the intervening centuries, the coffin was separated from Djehutymose’s mummy, now lost. Within the last hundred years, Djehutymose’s coffin traveled far beyond the imaginings of the ancient Egyptians: from Egypt to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Donated to the University of Michigan in 1906, the coffin was long on display at the Kalamazoo Public Museum before it returned to Ann Arbor in 1989,” according to the Kelsey publication, Life, Death, and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt: The Djehutymose Coffin.
Although the mummy of Djehutymose is long lost, the coffin has a large modern-day following on Facebook’s Mummy Djehutymose, with 3,892 followers to date, and on Twitter’s @Djehutymose with 3,650 followers). Through Twitter, Djehutymose converses regularly with three ancient Egyptian mummies:
@KVMMUMMY from Kalamazoo Valley Museum in Michigan;
@LASMummy from Louisiana Arts & Science Museum in Baton Rouge, Louisiana;
@MummyDjedi at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and
@RockaroundCroc, a crocodile mummy at the British Museum in London, UK.
Find: Look for the coffin of Djehutymose in a prominent exhibit case in the middle of the first floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. The coffin stands tall and open, with the interiors of the lid and base facing visitors. Exteriors of the lid and base can also be viewed from the back of the exhibit.
Learn More:Life, Death, and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt: The Djehutymose Coffin in the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, by T. G. Wilfong, available in our gift shop or online.
When it comes to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s collections, not all artifacts are created equal. Some call out to us intellectually, others emotionally.
BY DAWN JOHNSON, Associate Director, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan.
Favorite Artifact: Hawk mummy. Ptolemaic period (332 BC–AD 100). Egypt (Bayview Collection). KM 1971.2.182
Why. “I saw this hawk mummy on my first tour of the museum’s collections in storage. A different hawk mummy is on display in our permanent collections that I also like. But I’m a very visual person, so this hawk mummy’s distinctive beak profile and vigilant turn of head formed a beautiful line that caught my eye immediately. The linen bandages seem to wrap around its head like a cloak.
The hawk’s intelligence and keen visual ability equip it to be a kind of ‘avian foodie!’ As a ‘foodie’ myself, I admire its skillful and intelligent approach to hunting at night for exactly the perfect meal, not settling for just any sustenance. Really, I think of them as the sophisticated diners of the avian world.”
Background. One distinctive feature of Egyptian religion is the association of gods with animals. Temples often featured animal cults, in which an animal was revered as a symbol of a particular god. Animal cult centers, such as the temples of crocodile gods at Karanis and Soknopaiou Nesos, became pilgrimage and tourist destinations, with cemeteries where cult animals would be mummified and buried as offerings. Greek and Roman visitors were baffled by what they saw as animal worship in Egypt but failed to understand the complex relationship between god and animal in Egyptian thought. Animal cults had roots in Egyptian prehistory and survived well after the introduction of Christianity into Egypt; the last known animal cult in Egypt was active up to AD 340, and others may have persisted longer.
Find It. Currently, this particular hawk mummy is not on public exhibit. Scholars may inquire for more information from Museum Collections Coordinator Sebastián Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org.
However, another hawk mummy is on exhibit on the first floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing. To find it, look for the statue of the seated priest near the stairway to the second floor. From there, go left one exhibit case. Then turn right to face the case. It’s in the lower third of the exhibit.
When it comes to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s collections, not all artifacts are created equal. Some call out to us intellectually, others emotionally. We wondered, “Which artifacts move our staff?”
BY TUNICIA ROSS, Custodian, Plant, Buildings and Ground Services, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan. A 24-year employee of the university and mother of two, Ross has been taking care of the Kelsey for the past two years.
Favorite Artifact: Mummy of a child. Human body, cloth, resin, wood. Roman period (1st century AD). Fayum region (?), Bay View Collection 1971. KM 1971.2.179.
Why. When I thought about ancient times before I came to the Kelsey, I imagined adults living then, not children. So the mummy of a child was very eye-catching to me when I first saw it. As I cleaned the glass (Plexiglas) panel in front of the exhibit, I realized it was not just an ancient mummy. But a real child who had lived more than 2,000 years ago. As a mother, I connected immediately.
After two years at the Kelsey, this child mummy still draws me. It also draws a lot of children! Museum rules caution visitors against touching any exhibits, but children leave more fingerprints on the child mummy’s viewing glass than any other exhibit case (except for the Djehutymose coffin).
This means I am often at the child mummy’s side, cleaning the glass. To clean Plexiglas, we use a special cleaner that doesn’t leave scratches. I first spray cleaner onto a cotton cloth before using it to wipe off fingerprints. We never spray cleaner directly onto museum glass because some exhibit panels have open spaces between them. If we sprayed directly, the cleaner would squirt between the open spaces and damage ancient artifacts.
One of my position’s perks is the opportunity to catch up with ancient history as I work. And when the curators and staff work on a new exhibition, it’s kind of exciting to see their preparations and the artifacts up close before the opening.
About Artifact. The anonymous child mummy probably dates to the early Roman period (1st century AD). We know nothing of the circumstances of its burial or discovery. The mummy came to the Kelsey from the former Bay View Collection, where it had been since the 1890s.
This mummy is displayed with pottery from roughly the same period (from the U-M excavation at Terenouthis, Egypt) to approximate what the burial — perhaps made in a pit grave — might have originally contained. In doing so, we hope to have struck a balance between respecting the wishes of ancient Egyptians while accommodating visitors’ interest in learning from this mummy.
In 2002, an undergraduate engineering student undertook a project that led to a new investigation of this mummy through CT scan, undertaken at the University of Michigan Hospital. The resulting images revealed the enormous amount of linen used to bandage the small child’s body, a wooden framework used to stabilize the body during embalming, possible postmortem damage of the skull, and the surprising fact that the child’s left hand had six fingers.
The CT scan images were further used to construct a virtual 3D model of the body beneath the bandages and an actual polymer resin model of the mummy skull. The technology has allowed scholars to investigate this mummy in a non-destructive and respectful manner.
Background. The anonymous child’s mummy hints at the sometimes harsh realities of life in ancient Egypt: child mortality was high, and children who did survive lived in a world that could be dangerous. Many artifacts from the University of Michigan excavations in Egypt (1924–1935), including dolls, toys, and images, show aspects of children’s lives: how they looked, dressed, played, ate, and learned — and died.
Find It. Look first for the Djehutymose coffin in the center of the first floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. While facing the coffin, turn slightly to the left, then slightly to the right. Now walk straight back to the wall where you’ll find a discreet glass panel built into the wall behind which the mummy of a child rests in a simulated cave burial.