Ugly Object of the Month — December 2018

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

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.

wooden bust of Egyptian god Serapis
Wooden bust of Serapis decorated with gesso, bole, and gold leaf. H: 10.2 cm. Roman period, late 2nd to early 3rd century CE. KM 4655.

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.

My Favorite Artifact

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 ANN VAN ROSEVELT, Adjunct Research Scientist Emeritus, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Her learned background includes a BA in classical studies in English from Vassar College and three MA degrees in classical studies, museum procedures, and classical archaeology from the University of Michigan. Associated with the Kelsey for nearly 50 years, currently as a volunteer docent.

Sculpture of a Lion
Sculpture of a lion.

Favorite Artifact: Sculpture of a lion. Limestone. Roman period (1st–4th century AD). Karanis, Egypt. KM 25785. U-M Excavations, 1924–1935.

Why. “This lion’s rather human profile reminds me of movie director Alfred Hitchcock! It looks a little like a cartoon character. It’s a comfortably sized lion and not frightening. There probably weren’t free-ranging lions in Egypt during the Coptic period, so I can’t help but wonder if the sculptor was using a sphinx for a model?”

About Artifact: One of many sculptures that University of Michigan archaeologists uncovered at Karanis during its 1924–1935 excavations, this sculpture of a lion appeared in Curator Elaine Gazda’s 1978 Kelsey exhibition Guardians of the Nile: Sculptures from Karanis in the Fayum (c. 250 BC–AD 450).

Background. According to Kelsey curator T. G. Wilfong, Karanis was a town in Egypt’s Fayum region, founded around 250 BC to house a population meant to work newly reclaimed agricultural land. It was a farming community with a diverse population and a complex material culture that lasted for hundreds of years after its foundation. Ultimately abandoned by its inhabitants and partly covered by the encroaching desert, Karanis eventually proved to be an extraordinarily rich archaeological site, yielding thousands of artifacts and texts on papyrus that provide a wealth of information about daily life in the Roman-period Egyptian town.

The University of Michigan excavated at Karanis from 1924 to 1935, and during these seasons the Egyptian government granted nearly 45,000 of the artifacts discovered to the University of Michigan. Along with extensive archival records and photographs of the excavation, the Karanis material forms one of the major components of the collection of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.

Find It. On the first floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing, look for the statue of the seated priest near the stairway to the second floor. You’ll find the sculpture of a lion in the exhibit case right behind the seated priest on the left.

Learn More. A number of books about U-M’s Karanis excavations are available in our Gift Shop, or online from ISD, including: Karanis: An Egyptian Town in Roman Times; Discoveries of the University of Michigan Excavation to Egypt (1924-1935), edited by Elaine K. Gazda with new preface and updated bibliography by T. G. Wilfong.

Curator Favorites

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. To that end, we asked our curators to name their favorite Kelsey artifact or object. Here is the fourth in a series.

Seated Dignitary from Karanis, Egypt
Seated dignitary from Karanis, Egypt.

BY T. G. WILFONG, Curator of Graeco-Roman Egyptian Collections, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, and Professor of Egyptology, University of Michigan

Favorite Artifact: “Statue of a Priest.” Black basalt. AD 50–100. Karanis, Egypt. KM 8218.

Why. It’s hard to resist this statue: it’s a lively example of how Egyptian art adapted and survived into the Roman period. Although this isn’t a portrait, we get a vivid sense of the anonymous priest that this statue represents. With his smiling, eager expression, our priest seems ready to get off his seat, while the monumental quality of the statue attests to the endurance of Egyptian culture into Roman times. I never get tired of looking at this statue.

About Artifact. This statue was found in a courtyard near the South Temple by the University of Michigan’s 1928 expedition at the ancient site of Karanis (modern Kom Aushim). It represents a very late manifestation of traditional Egyptian style, all the more valuable because of its archaeological content.

Although classically Egyptian in its formality and frontal, symmetrical orientation, the statue’s proportions are not those of classical ancient Egyptian art. Its pose and monumentality hark back to the Old Kingdom but do not reflect the earlier canon of proportions. For example, the head and ears are bigger than one would expect.

The figure wears not only a traditional Egyptian short kilt but also a sash across his chest. The shaved head and costume indicate a priest, and he would have served the cult of two crocodile gods of the South Temple, Pnepheros and Petesouchos. The priest would have participated in the daily cult activities of the temple and its periodic festivals, and he may even have been involved in oracles delivered by the crocodile gods or the mummification of actual crocodiles as votive offerings.

Background. This statue has a number of parallels from elsewhere in Egypt’s Fayum region; a similar statue from Soknopaiou Nesos (modern Dimé) very closely resembles this example. Most of these statues are inscribed, some in Greek and some in Egyptian Demotic.

The Kelsey’s statue itself would have had an inscription on its base but was left unfinished: minor detailing work on the figure was not done, and the base and back pillar remain rough, in preparation for an inscription that was never written. Therefore, we do not know the name of our Karanis priest and can only guess about the specifics of his titles and duties from what is known generally about priests of his time.

“Statue of a Priest” anchored a special 2013 Kelsey exhibition: “Karanis Revealed, Part II.”

Find It. Fittingly, “Statue of a Priest” sits serenely (perhaps contemplating the day’s temple activities) in its own exhibit case on the first floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Look for it between the Graeco-Roman Egyptian case and the stairway leading up to the Roman galleries.

Check out Wilfong’s new book, Life, Death, and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt: The Djehutymose Coffin in the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.