A student’s perspective

BY PAIGE DE RUE, Kelsey Registry Intern and Major in Classical Archaeology and Anthropology

This past fall semester has been truly an exciting experience since I was provided with the awesome opportunity to work as an intern for the Kelsey Registry. Having experience working with a paleontological museum collection, I was familiar with some basic collections etiquette, but nothing could have prepared me for how thrilled I was to be working with archaeological material- my field of interest and study. My first day as an intern, I was a little intimidated to be working in such a pristine and restricted environment. However, I adjusted to this new environment just fine and focused my attention more on working with the collections, which was the best part of the internship of course! Working hands-on with the artifacts, I was often responsible for pulling objects needed for research or class use and returning them to their permanent location once they were no longer needed. I did an inventory of a couple cabinets and assisted with condition reports for a portion of loaned artifacts. Sometimes my help was needed for class visits to assist in watching the objects and ensuring their proper handling by students. This internship also taught me how vital a database system is to such a large collection. The database is essential for finding any artifact in the collection. It keeps track of temporary and permanent locations, gives you a history of where the artifacts have been in the past, and so much more.

A project I completed by the end of the semester involved reorganizing a portion of the collection in permanent storage. This project required extensive planning before any physical movement could take place in order to ensure a manageable project and safe handling of artifacts in drawers. I helped the collection become more consolidated and easily accessible by combining worked bone artifacts into one cabinet. I feel very proud to know that I have helped the future of the collection and that I was able to reorganize some artifacts in such a way that makes them better accessible for researchers, class use, and the conservators.

Without this internship experience, I do not think my long-term career goals would be the same as of today. The Kelsey Registry has shown me that I thoroughly enjoy working with archaeological collections in the museum setting versus working with archaeological material in the field. In my future, I hope to be working with museums collections and I know I will forever be thankful for my great experience as an intern here at the Kelsey!



Low-tech adhesive testing for Egyptian polychrome limestone

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

One of my favorite conservation activities is researching practical solutions to complex condition problems. Example problem: how to stabilize flaky, powdery paint on deteriorating Egyptian limestone artifacts. The solution? Some kind of adhesive. But which kind would work best in an outdoor environment on salt-laden painted stone?

To figure this out I took a look at published information on the treatment of painted Egyptian limestone sculpture and wall paintings. There’s a lot of information out there on this topic, and I wanted to see for myself how some of the adhesives tested by conservators and scientists performed on a painted, salty limestone surface. The Kelsey Conservation Lab has limited equipment for this type of research, although we often partner up with labs that do (check back with the Kelsey blog for an upcoming post on our collaboration with UM’s Aerospace Engineering Department). One thing I could do in-house was to create mockups of the problem surface to approximate how each adhesive might perform in situ.


Creating mockups that accurately represent the materials and conditions of an ancient paint surface required some creativity. I used travertine tiles as a base, and soaked half of them in a solution of sodium chloride, or halite. This type of salt is present in much of the soil in Egypt, and has been shown to have an impact on adhesive performance. Stone was often covered with a “preparation” layer (or layers) of plaster before paint was applied, so I applied Plaster of Paris to each tile. I then applied a layer of red ochre in gum Arabic — a plant-derived binder used in ancient Egyptian wall painting — with a high pigment-to-gum ratio representing the often diminished state of ancient binders on polychrome limestone. A section of each material — stone, plaster, and paint — was left visible on each mockup.

I applied five different adhesives to the tiles, leaving a number of them untreated as a control. I recorded their working properties, absorption, and resulting color changes, and then placed them outside to see how the adhesives fare in an exposed environment on both salty and un-salty mockups. From this low-tech experiment I hope to determine, from a practical angle, which adhesive to use on artifacts both at the Kelsey Museum and in field settings.

From the Archives — June 2016

Apologies for the tardiness of this post …

BY SEBASTIÁN ENCINA, Museum Collections Manager, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Though the summer months see a drop in university class visits to the Kelsey, the museum is by no means less busy when classes are not in session. Researchers who are students and professors here at Michigan, or at other universities around the world, take a break from their teaching responsibilities and make their way to the field and museums to continue their research. The Kelsey hosts a fair number of these scholars. Projects we did not have time for during the academic year are saved for the slower summer months.

As to be expected, the site of Karanis garners much attention from researchers. Every year we have numerous people come to study our collections on this Graeco-Roman site, or the archives that still contain a depth of information waiting to be revealed. This summer is no different, as Karanis has been the focus of an ongoing trial investigation by a group of Michigan scholars. Headed by Dr. Arthur Verhoogt (Classics) and Dr. David Stone (Kelsey Museum), a team has been assembled to determine what it would take to finally digitize, in a controlled and consistent manner, the entirety of Karanis holdings. This includes all the artifacts excavated at Karanis and brought to Michigan, but also all the maps, and archives, and photographs. Over the years, we’ve digitized some of the items, but only specific ones and only as requested.

This team, which also included graduate students Alexandra Creola (IPCAA), Caitlin Clerkin (IPCAA), and Lizzie Nabney (Classics), undergraduate students Emily Lime (Classics) and Mollie Fox (History of Art), professors Brendan Haug (Classics) and Laura Motta (Kelsey Museum), staff Sebastián Encina (Kelsey Museum) and Monica Tsuneishi (Papyrology), has decided to approach the site in a new manner. Previous research and publications have focused on material types. We have publications on the coins of Karanis, or the pottery, or papyrus. Instead, Drs. Stone and Verhoogt want to look at the context of the finds. How did the papyrus relate to coins found within the same space? What does a figurine found alongside a spindle whorl tell us about the inhabitants of house C56?

Over the past two months, students Mollie and Emily have been busy finding, cataloguing, and digitizing items from two contexts, C65 and C137. The team decided to focus on these two structures as they seemed of great interest due to their contents, and also because for a two-month trial project, looking at anything more would have been impossible. Mollie and Emily spent time going through the archives and identifying materials that related to these two structures (one house and one granary). They were then pulled, entered into a project-specific database, and eventually scanned or photographed. Among these was a 32-foot-long map that showed a cross section of Karanis which we are excited to finally have scanned!

The project was generously supported by the Michigan Humanities Collaboratory, an endeavor funded by the Office of the Provost that seeks to bring together people from separate departments to work together towards a single goal. Several projects were funded for this summer term, including this Kelsey-Classic-Papyrology project. We hope to turn this trial period into a much bigger one, where the entirety of Karanis materials are digitized and made available to researchers freely. By doing so, researchers can approach the materials in their own way, without hindrance. At the conclusion of the two year project, we will have a better understanding on what we have here in Ann Arbor, a web portal will be in place for ease of research, and there may be publications and an exhibition. While students continue to digitize and catalogue, graduate students and faculty will analyze the materials to make better sense of the spaces and what is possible with what we have on hand.

While it is easy to get excited about what the future will hold, there is equal buzz about what has been found already. Mollie and Emily have scanned the 32-foot map, which is amazing, but they have also found photographs and archival materials we have not seen since the 1930s. There has been closer inspection into the artifacts, what they tell us about the citizens of Karanis, and the decorations found on objects and on walls. A sample of these is shared here, so that we can look anew at a place we members of the Kelsey community know so well, yet we continue to find new ways to see it.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.


This summer has proven to be busy in the Kelsey Registry. This project has meant a steady stream of people in the office every day. Every computer is occupied, every free space taken up by archives or artifacts. But this busy-ness has generated an energy and excitement about what we can do with Karanis. There are endless possibilities, and we will keep busy this summer thinking about those and working to make them a reality.

Check out the Karanis Collaboratory website for more information about the project: http://sites.lsa.umich.edu/karanis-collaboratory/

RTI at Kurru!

JANELLE BATKIN-HALL, Graduate Intern in Conservation

I’ve just returned from a fantastic six-week fieldwork experience at the El Kurru archaeological site in North Sudan. There, Kelsey conservator Suzanne Davis and I documented ancient figural and geometric graffiti in a funerary temple at the site. Each day, Suzanne and I would make our way through a maze of mudbrick alleys to the edge of the village, where the funerary temple and several royal burial tombs and pyramids are located in the desert.

We photographed  the graffiti using a process called reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) (fig. 1). RTI is an excellent technique for documentation because each pixel records surface texture in addition to color. Since sandstone is subject to ongoing disintegration and loss, the resulting RTI images provide an excellent record of the graffiti’s current condition, as well as a highly detailed image of the column’s surface texture.

Figure 1. Conservators Suzanne Davis (left) and Janelle Batkin-Hall performing RTI imaging at El Kurru. (photo by Walter de Winter)

The Kurru graffiti were documented using highlight image capture where the camera remains fixed and a portable flash is moved at intervals which create a dome of light over the surface.  In a single photo sequence of one object (or in this case, graffito), approximately 48 digital images are taken. Two reflective black spheres are also fixed within the image frame, and the reflection of the flash on these spheres allows the processing software to calculate the light direction for each image. The resulting images are combined with software, resulting in a single file. In this file, the viewer can move the light source across the surface in order to examine the surface details and topography from any angle (fig. 2).  As a result of using this technique, 64 “new” ancient graffiti were positively identified and additional surface details became visible. In a couple of instances, a graffito was initially misidentified. For example, in 2015 a particular graffito was identified as an arrow. After performing RTI, it was clearly a human figure.

Figure 2. Screen capture of bull graffito using CHI’s RTIViewer software.

For me, this was a great experience because I was able to use a technique I recently learned in graduate school. Being able to apply it onsite and share the results with our colleagues was very rewarding.


Writing a dissertation on the archaic Forum Boarium

BY ANDREA BROCK, PhD candidate in the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan

“Every journey begins with one step.” — my mom

dissertation station
My at-home workspace, complete with furry dissertation buddy.

Enough with the background reading and procrastinating. This fall semester marked the official start of my dissertation, in written form at least. I feel like I’ve been working on this project for a decade already (although three years is more realistic). My dissertation is centered on my fieldwork at the Sant’Omobono Project in Rome. Specifically, I am interested in reconstructing the environment and topography of the archaic Forum Boarium. After returning from Rome at the end of the summer, I wrote a long to-do list of my intended accomplishments for the upcoming semester. A major part of that list was to write the opening chapters of my dissertation.

Although the primary goal was always hanging over my head, for weeks I couldn’t even begin to think about the dissertation. First there were conference abstracts that needed to be submitted, then countless grant proposals that needed to be dealt with if I had any hope of supporting my fieldwork in 2015, then just another book that I needed to read, then a meeting with my advisor, then some data crunching, then writing the conference papers … and so it goes. By the time the day came when I had nothing else to do, I just stared at my computer screen. An entire day wasted doing nothing but sitting in front of my computer! It is incredibly daunting to write the first sentence of such an intimidatingly long task. Upon lamenting (read: procrastinating) to my mom, she offered the true, albeit corny, words of encouragement above. I finally realized that I couldn’t avoid it any longer and started typing.

The main strategy that helped me get started on my first dissertation chapter was to write an extensive outline first. That way, I was able to get all of my thoughts on paper without having to worry about constructing vaguely coherent prose. This outline included the abundant references, which I would ultimately need to put into footnotes. After discussing the outline with the applicable committee member — and fortunately getting her approval — I was able to write more freely and quickly. I still encountered days where my momentum slowed, but I tried to keep the task in perspective. Each day was just focused on a particular section of a particular chapter. And each chapter isn’t so different from a seminar term paper, right? And I knocked those out tons of times as a pre-candidate, so why be intimidated by my dissertation? Well, that thought process worked for me at least. The semester is nearing an end and that long to-do list I wrote has been largely completed. Now, I just need to repeat the process next semester, and the semester after that, and the semester after that. But first, a break!


“We do not follow maps to buried treasure, and ‘X’ never, ever, marks the spot” — Indiana Jones

a pile of open books and a laptop on a carpeted floor.

BY JENNY KREIGER, PhD student, U-M Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology

When I teach my students about archaeology, I find that many of them have vague ideas about what archaeologists do. This is especially true for those parts of archaeology that do not take place in the trenches: the reading, writing, thoughtful discussions, and detective work that happen elsewhere. Some archaeologists (myself included) do the majority of their work in paper and ink rather than dirt and potsherds, and this side of archaeology is its own sort of adventure.

I began a new phase in my adventure this year: my dissertation. Right now I am preparing for what I hope will be several months of research abroad in the fall, split between Naples and Rome. My work deals with catacombs (underground cemeteries) in the major cities of late antique Italy, particularly the economic systems that helped produce these complex sites and the artifacts in them. While in Italy, I will spend my time examining archives, museum collections, and catacomb sites, but before I go, I need to build a good foundation for my research. So for now, I am reading about the sites I will visit, collecting inscriptions and other texts that tell parts of the catacombs’ story, and designing ways to organize and analyze the data I will gather. It may seem like slow going now, but all of this will help me make the most of my time in the field.