I’ve been spending a lot of quality time in collections storage lately and have noticed something curious: an abundance of pink! Namely, ancient pink pigment. Why is this so interesting? Because the pink most frequently used in the ancient Mediterranean was made of madder root, a plant-based dye that was used to color textiles as well as a pigment on objects.
Like other organic pigments, rose madder is highly light sensitive and prone to fading. The occurrence of rose madder on so many artifacts in the collection surprises me, given what we know about its fugitive nature. Rose madder also has a unique chemical property that causes it to luminesce, or glow, an orange-pink color when exposed to ultraviolet light. A quick look with a UV LED flashlight can help confirm whether or not the pink on an object is madder.
Marble sculpture fragment KM 1931.441 from Seleucia with pink pigment between fingers and inside elbow.
Despite its tendency to fade, I am finding pink on everything from terracotta figurines to marble sculpture to limestone grave markers. I’m also finding it in different hues and on different decorative elements, from flesh tones to jewelry to architecture. It turns out pink is everywhere at the Kelsey, and it is pretty fascinating.
The stone condition survey is well underway, and I am just floored by the richness and variety of the Kelsey’s stone collection. We’ve got limestone that is packed full of shell fossils (fig. 1), alabaster that has weathered in a way that it looks like a sea sponge … and, best of all, so much of the material comes from sites that were excavated by the University of Michigan. If I had to choose the most exciting artifacts I’ve encountered so far, it would be those from Karanis, Seleucia, and Terenouthis. I’m a self-professed ancient color geek, and an incredible number of these objects still have pigment preserved.
Take the Karanis stone. I’ve seen hefty jar bases that have traces of pigment and ground still in place, and a libation altar decorated with a vivid orange-red pigment (red lead?) barely visible under a thick layer of burial dirt. At least half of the Seleucia sculptures I’ve examined have traces of pink pigment, including one with a highly detailed painted necklace. I’ve spent years studying the Terenouthis funerary stelae, and even these continue to surprise me. I spotted blue-green pigment on a well-preserved stela that I am eager to investigate further (fig. 2).
In addition to revealing the extent of surface decoration on the Kelsey’s collection of stone, the survey is also helping me determine which artifacts are in need of treatment or rehousing. It’s amazing to me how much there is to learn from objects in the collection even now, in some cases nearly ninety years after their discovery.
Spring has officially sprung here in Ann Arbor, which means that the sun is (sort of) shining, the townies are out and about, and the next American Institute for Conservation (AIC) annual meeting is just around the corner. Suzanne continues in her role as VP/ organizer-in-chief of the conference program, whose theme this year is “New Tools, Techniques and Tactics” in conservation. This year I’ve got a pretty cool job too, as I’ll be chairing a special session on research strategies in settings with limited resources (think archaeological sites, small museums, etc.). This is a topic I’ve been interested in for a while, and I was happy when it was accepted as one of six concurrent sessions that are proposed and organized each year by AIC members.
The idea of member-proposed sessions is relatively new to AIC, and a great thing about them is that they tend to cover topics that appeal to conservators who work on different materials (like objects, paintings, books and paper, textiles, etc.). Other session topics include imaging, gel cleaning, and contemporary art conservation. Conservators and scientists presenting in my session work within a range of specialties, including architecture, archaeological materials, indigenous heritage, electronic media, and preventive conservation. I’m interested in learning how these folks figured out how to conduct analysis on materials in remote areas, or adapted a well-known investigative technique to a new research question. In other words, I want to explore the penchant for problem-solving that so many conservators have, regardless of the types of objects they work on.
For any conservators reading this post, we encourage you to drop in on one of these sessions and hope to see you at AIC New England in May!
Last week I returned from a few weeks of work at the site of El-Kurru, Sudan, where a project directed by Kelsey Museum research scientist Geoff Emberling explores both an ancient royal cemetery of the Napatan kings and how an archaeological research project can connect with and celebrate contemporary cultural heritage in the community surrounding it. My time at El-Kurru this year was short but productive, and below are a few of the big highlights for me.
First, I got to work with conservation architect Kelly Wong on multiple projects, including conservation planning for the El-Kurru pyramid known as Ku. 1. This included a lot of fun investigation and problem solving, as well as mixing and testing of construction mortars. Our favorite mortar formulation was then applied to a joint in the pyramid to see how it will hold up over the next year. If you’re reading this as a conservator (or a mason) and thinking, But wait, isn’t that pyramid dry masonry? Yes, it is. But we have an interesting situation where the walls are moving in response to pressure from the rubble core, thus we’re testing different methods for stabilizing the outer masonry shell.
Second, IPCAA student Caitlin Clerkin and I recorded a series of short videos for an upcoming Kelsey exhibition — Graffiti as Devotion along the Nile: El-Kurru, Sudan. For these, we asked people to tell us either about their favorite ancient graffito at the site, or to share something they wanted people to know about the site. Each person had something different to say, things we probably would never have heard if we hadn’t been doing these videos! Among the people we talked to were Anwar Mahajoub and Bakri Abdelmoneim, both of whom work on the El-Kurru project but are also from El-Kurru village. They talked about growing up playing soccer within sight of the ancient cemetery and how they feel about their work now, as part of the international team working to study and preserve it.
A third thing I really enjoyed was an afternoon spent baking bread with Marwa Mahajoub, Anwar’s sister. And yes, I do consider this conservation work! If bread isn’t an important form of cultural heritage to celebrate and preserve, I don’t know what is. Marwa has worked with the project for several years, and when Anwar discovered that a group of us were interested in baking, he volunteered her to teach us how she makes the bread for their family. Happily for us, she was cool with this. Bread is a big deal in Sudan — it’s not only your main carbohydrate at each meal, it’s also your utensil. Many people don’t have ovens at home and instead buy bread at one of several town bakeries, all of which use wood-fired ovens. Fresh bread out of one of these bakeries is fantastic but, as we discovered, the bread is even more delicious when it’s baked at home.
Greetings, earthlings! Suzanne and I have just returned from two professional conference journeys — and boy, are we tired! The conference I attended was at the Getty Villa, located in beautiful Pacific Palisades, California. The hilltop replica Villa of the Papyri and ocean view beyond served as scenic backdrops for a conference focused on the study of Roman Egyptian mummy portraits. (Sadly, I have no photos from the Villa itself, only the one below from the Getty Center — also beautiful!) The talks were wide-ranging, from discussions about portrait workshops and artists’ materials to imaging techniques and binding media analyses. My own talk explored changes in the green pigment palette during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, while looking at a group of painted shrouds as case studies. The conference brought together mummy portrait enthusiasts from around the world, and planted all kinds of new research ideas in my head. If you are wondering, How can I get my hands on the post prints? — fear not! They’ll be published online in fall 2019.
Suzanne attended the American Institute for Conservation’s 46th Annual Meeting in Houston, Texas. I say attended, but really, Suzanne was program chair and in effect the mastermind behind the conference’s academic program. The theme this year, Material Matters, explored the impact of material studies and issues of materiality on conservation principles and practice. One member-proposed session featured papers that discussed the preservation of cultural heritage through the transfer and transmission of materials and information from one medium to another. In a joint objects-architecture specialty group session Suzanne gave a talk about the preservation of ancient graffiti at El Kurru, Sudan. Suzanne’s research has also just been published in the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, which you can read here. I think we both agree that while a conference is a great opportunity to share research and catch up with colleagues, nothing beats a good old-fashioned peer-reviewed publication for getting new information out there.
By Caroline Roberts and Suzanne Davis, Conservators
For this month’s Ugly Object blog post we felt that we should pay homage to a small but significant variety of artifact: the pottery sherd. There are millions of these things out there, in the field, patiently awaiting discovery. So why the reverence? Because while pottery sherds may be irregular in shape and incomplete in form, these little dudes are often jam-packed with information. We recognize that we’re preaching to the choir, archaeological ceramicists out there, but for those who were unaware of the vast informational value of sherds, consider this month’s Ugly Object.
KM 1980.2.39 is what we would call a rim sherd, meaning that it was once part of the rim or opening of a vessel. What drew us to this particular sherd is its relief decoration, which reminds us of ornament that we’ve seen in classical architecture. But beyond this we knew little about the artifact. To learn more, we approached guest curator Chris Ratté to ask him what he thinks about the sherd:
Chris Ratté: This is ugly?! Why don’t you understand that this is a beautiful sherd?
Conservators: Well, this is not exactly fine art. But a lot of our “Ugly Objects” possess qualities that might be otherwise overlooked, such as charm or informational value. Anyway, what can you tell us about this sherd?
Chris Ratté: The sherd comes from a mold-made Megarian bowl. The guilloche and egg-and-dart relief patterns are similar to moldings I know from architecture, such as at the temple of Apollo at Didyma.
Conservators: Cool! Can you tell us how the bowl was fabricated?
Chris Ratté: The bowl was thrown into a mold on a wheel. The relief pattern in the mold was cast from a silver vessel. The bowl itself was made in imitation of a particular type of metal vessel connected to the Egyptian king Ptolemy’s visit to Athens.* The ceramic bowls that were made from this were very popular, but were not produced for very long.
Conservators: Wow! Who knew? How was the bowl used?
Chris Ratté: For drinking. The bowl wouldn’t have had handles, and I like to imagine what it might have felt like to hold the vessel in my hands and feel the relief beneath my fingers.
Want to learn more about this and other diagnostic sherds? Be sure to visit the Kelsey starting August 24th to see the upcoming exhibition Urban Biographies, which will demonstrate ways in which artifacts and modern technologies are used to study ancient (and modern) cities.
*Ptolemy V Epiphanes and his son Ptolemy VI Philometer visited Athens in 182 BCE for the Panathenaic Games.
Here in the Kelsey Conservation Lab, we started the New Year right by totally destroying a few things. Don’t worry — they weren’t from an ancient artifact or building! For conservation work at the Kelsey’s excavation in El Kurru, Sudan, we wanted to know how much weight the local sandstone bedrock could bear. Enter Bob Spence, from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, who helped me perform compression or breaking strength tests on samples of the sandstone — by which I mean Bob graciously performed the tests, and I watched the samples be slowly pulverized. A good time was had by all, except maybe the sandstone.