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.