Ugly Object of the Month — January 2020

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

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.

small ceramic jug
Ceramic aryballos with traces of pigment. 700–650 BCE, National Museum of Athens, 1933 exchange. KM 10925.


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.

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.

Attic lekythos with funeral scene. KM 2604.
Attic lekythos with funeral scene. KM 2604.

BY CHRISTOPHER RATTÉ, Director and Curator of Greek and Hellenistic Collections, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology; and Professor, Departments of Classical Studies and History of Art, University of Michigan

Favorite Artifact: Attic lekythos with funeral scene. Clay, white ground. Greece. KM 2604.

Why. I have been captivated by Greek vases ever since I was 10 or 11 years old — perhaps (although I certainly didn’t know it at the time) for the same reason that inspired Keats to write the “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: because, as the “foster child[ren] of silence and slow time,” Greek vases conjure up such vivid sensations of an ideal past.

My favorite vase in the Kelsey is a 5th-century BC oil jar known as a lekythos, made as a grave offering. Vases of this type are often decorated with scenes of men and women leaving gifts in front of tombs, and in this way they are interestingly self-referential. But what I like most about them is their draftsmanship.

This vase shows two men standing on either side of a gravestone. Both the men and the monument they flank are drawn in outline on a white background, with details such as the men’s cloaks filled in with colored paint. In many ways this is a humble object — it was produced quickly for retail sale — but that is partly what makes it so appealing. Its simple line work seems perfectly in tune both with the function of the vase and with the solemnity of the scene it depicts.

Background. White-ground lekythoi, like this one, were usually associated with funerary rituals. Produced primarily in Attica during the 5th century BC, they were placed both inside and outside graves and filled with oil as an offering to the deceased or to the gods of the underworld.

The coating of white slip and delicate drawings are often fugitive, since much of the color was added after firing. This vase shows a typical image of a tomb encircled with ribbons. One of the figures may represent the departed, the other a visitor to the grave.

Find It. Locate the ancient Greece exhibit case, which faces the wall of windows on the first floor of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing. Facing the exhibit case, turn right and walk to the end of the case, then turn left and left. You’ll be facing the end case, which holds two lekythoi, including Director Ratté’s favorite.

Learn More: Archaeology and the Cities of Asia Minor in Late Antiquity, edited by Ortwin Daly and Christopher Ratté, is available for purchase in our gift shop or online from our distributor.

Curator Favorites

imageWhen it comes to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s collections, not all artifacts are created equal.  Some call out to us intellectually,  others emotionally. With this in mind, we asked our curators to name their favorite Kelsey Museum artifacts and why each was a favorite. This is the first in a series of seven.

BY SHARON HERBERT, Museum Director and Curator of Greek and Hellenistic Collections, University of Michigan

Favorite Artifact.  Alabastron, clay, Protocorinthian (ca. 700–650 BC), National Museum of Athens, exchange 1933. KM 10925

Why. “The still-visible incision marks and the center impression of the compass point used to make the scales connects me to the artist who made them more than 2,662 years ago. In my imagination, I can almost see the artist carefully centering the compass point into the clay.”

About Artifact.  This small oil bottle originally was decorated with a colorful pattern of small red, yellow, and black scales. The ancient paint has disappeared and all that remains of the artist’s meticulous work are incision marks outlining the scales and the center impression of the compass point used to make them.

Find It.  In the ancient Greek case (on the left-hand side in front) on the first floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.