Ugly Object of the Month — March 2019

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

In last month’s Ugly Object post, we explored some of my feelings about the interior decorating schemes of Roman Egyptians. But while I could not happily collect their colorfully painted god and goddess figurines, I would acquire this month’s Ugly Object in a hot second. For me, this sprang bag only just barely qualifies as something we could legitimately write about in this blog feature, and then only because it is so moth-eaten and frayed.

red and green woven bag
Sprang bag made from dyed wool. Egypt. 1st–4th century CE. H. 30 cm. KM 11666.

Made with red, green, and cream-colored wool, this bag is truly a special item. It is featured in our current exhibition, Ancient Color, because it’s so colorful. I enjoy the bold color choices, but I’m even more impressed by the many beautifully executed construction details.

In describing non-woven archaeological textiles at the Kelsey, we often use the word “sprang” to refer to looped or twisted yarn construction like we see in this bag. But unlike our “sprang” socks, which were made using a single-needle technique that is similar to knitting, this bag was made using a twisty, warp-only technique that is sort of like braiding and sort of like weaving.

This bag was made by a master sprang craftsperson. The red, green, and cream yarns interact to create complex patterns, but there are also very cool structural details that contribute to a sense of depth and ornament.

close-up of woven bag
Detail of the border of the sprang bag.

At the top of the bag — as I hope you can see in this detail of the top left corner — the yarns are bundled and held in place with twisting at top and bottom to create an openwork effect. The colored yarns are then carefully twisted to create a highly patterned border along the top edge of the bag, before the green and cream yarns begin a pattern of alternating cable-like and chevron designs.

Here is a closer look at how the green and cream yarns are gathered and twisted as one unit to create what I’m calling a cable-like effect, since this is similar in appearance (and structure) to a cable in knitting.

sprang bag detail
Detail of two “cables” in the sprang bag.

If we sold replicas of this bag in the Kelsey’s gift shop, I’d pick one up today. This bag is both exceptional and exceptionally fragile. It’s very rarely on view, so I encourage you to come see it for yourself now at the Kelsey!

Ugly Object of the Month — April 2017

CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

April’s Ugly Object isn’t an object per se. It’s a specimen — a shell — and it was excavated at Karanis during the 1924–25 field season. It’s rather small and unprepossessing. But to me this shell is a thing of beauty. Why? It is a murex shell, and was once the likely carrier of shellfish purple (or Tyrian purple), one of the most valuable dyes in antiquity. Pliny wrote at length of the Roman passion for purple, and described in detail the extraction and processing of the color from a gland found in the throat of the snail. The dye produced a range of purples from magenta to purple-black. One can imagine the vast numbers of snails that would have been needed for a dye vat large enough to color the yards and yards of textile used in the elite fashion industry of Rome. Pliny cites an observation by the 1st-century BC biographer Cornelius Nepos that a pound of dye would have sold for 100 denarii — about half of the annual salary of a professional soldier. This was some seriously valuable stuff.

Ugly_Apr

Murex snail shell KMA 3712, Graeco-Roman Egyptian galleries, Kelsey Museum

Tyrian purple, like many other natural colorants, has now been chemically synthesized. We can buy a shirt or sweater in purple or any other color today at very little expense, which makes it hard to relate to the craze that drove people to seek out the murex snail on Mediterranean beaches. I can’t think of a color today that screams “bling” the way purple did in the ancient Roman world. Can you?

You can spot the murex shell in the Graeco-Roman Egyptian galleries on the first floor of the Kelsey’s Upjohn wing.

References to the text of Pliny the Elder, The Natural History (Historia Naturalis) Book IX, Chapter 63 are from a translation by John Bostock, M.D.  London: George Bell and Sons, Covent Garden. 1890.

An open letter to ancient people

SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator of Conservation

Dear Ancient People,

I am writing this letter in response to my recent work on your textiles for the upcoming Kelsey Museum exhibit Less Than Perfect. I am writing this letter because I love you. I do. Please believe that. Your textiles are lovely. Super beautiful. But they are also frankly just crooked as heck, and they are a huge pain to exhibit because they absolutely will not hang straight. Seriously, folks, could you not sew a straight seam? Did you even try?

You guys built canals and aqueducts and enormous buildings. You kept time with complicated water clocks and annual calendars. You dyed fibers using complex chemistry and spent hours doing meticulous embroidery. But you couldn’t sew straight? Am I really supposed to believe that? Really???

I have just spent many hours of my life trying to accommodate your wackadoodle craftsmanship and show it to best advantage. This was not fun or easy. What’s past is past. I get that. There are no do-overs. But friends, if this is your A Game, it needs work. I’m just saying. When you were like, “Whatever! That’s good enough! I mean, who cares if this is perfect? Who’ll notice?” That would be me, y’all. I noticed, and I do not thank you.

Sincerely yours,

Suzanne

 

August Cons Post Photo
Exhibit preparator Scott Meier comments on my attempt to make this textile hang level. It is longer on one side than the other and has wonky seams. So yeah: It’s less than perfect.