June’s News from the Conservation Lab: Conference Crunch Time!

by Caroline Roberts, Conservator

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.

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One of many ocean views from the Getty Center.
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Amaris Sturm and Suzanne Davis at the conservation graduate programs reunion in Houston.

 

Ugly Object of the Month — May 2018

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.

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KM 1980.2.39, exterior and interior views.

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.

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Urban Biographies guest curator Christopher Ratté.

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.

January’s News from the Conservation Lab: Let’s Destroy Stuff!

By SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator of Conservation

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.

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Bob Spence, engineering technician in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, prepares to crush a sample of sandstone from El Kurru.

 

Ugly Object of the Month — January 2018

Happy New Year, Kelsey Blog readers! What better way to begin 2018’s Ugly Object series than with a seriously cute cat coffin? This creative work of bilateral symmetry once held the remains of a mummified cat. The feline shape and decorative elements are charming (just look at those eyes! and the suggestion of a mane around the face…), but what I love most about this coffin is the surprise that comes with discovering that it opens side to side instead of top to bottom. As a result, the coffin’s base is effectively the cat’s seat, and the resulting form is upright, alert, and lifelike. The coffin is displayed closed, so it’s hard to appreciate the fact that, except for a couple of attached ears, its halves are carved from a single, hollowed cut of wood. Wood was a precious commodity in Egypt, so this coffin was nothing to sneeze at. This would have been a fitting enclosure for a creature so closely linked to the divine.

You can see this coffin and other feline-themed artifacts in the Graeco-Roman Egypt gallery of the Upjohn Exhibit Wing.

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Cat mummy coffin, Roman period, 1st–2nd c. AD, Wood, plaster, paint, glass, 36 cm high, 9.5 cm wide, said to be from Saqqara, Egypt. Department of Antiquities purchase, 1935, KM 88775. Photos by Randal Stegmeyer.

 

 

 

 

Ugly Object of the Month — December 2017

BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Associate Curator of Conservation

Hello, readers. Yes, it’s the best time of the month once again, the time to set aside all worries and cares and indulge, for a few brief moments, in the blissful pleasure of contemplating a truly ugly archaeological object. In honor of this time of the year — when there are a lot bird-related references in American culture (turkey at Thanksgiving, doves and partridges around Christmas) — we have a bird-shaped object for December.

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Askos. Etruscan. KM 1977.4.1.

 

This is an askos, or — in not-Greek — a small pitcher that might have been used for wine or oil. It is, sort of, shaped like a bird. I think it is supposed to be shaped like a bird, at any rate. Although … the head also sort of looks like a sheep head to me…. To be fair, I would be pretty excited if I were working on an excavation and we found a cool animal-shaped vessel like this. But like many archaeological objects, this one has had a hard time. Leaving aside the weird head shape, it’s missing a lot of its original painted decoration, there are some old breaks, and we also have some splotchy mildew staining.

To make things extra special for you, the image I’ve chosen is an old one from our archives. You just don’t see this kind of color combination in archaeological object photography anymore, sadly. Now it’s all about correct color registration and “picking up the mid-tones.” In contrast, this images says to me, “I’m ancient, sure, but baby, I’ve still got it.” Come see this colorful character for yourself — it’s on view in the Kelsey’s first-floor Etruscan case.

Ugly Object of the Month — November 2017

BY SUZANNE DAVIS and CARRIE ROBERTS, Conservators

In a world that’s constantly changing, where nothing feels secure and each day brings fresh disappointment, there is one thing you can always count on: ugly objects. These special creatures, who have survived for centuries, if not millennia, continue to delight us with their ill-favored appearances and sheer indifference to political events and world news.

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Fragment of a dolphin. Roman, 32 x 22 x 16 cm. KM 3050.

 

This month’s featured object is a prime example. This grotty bit of dolphin has taken a pickaxe blow or three to the head, sadly. Once part of a fountain, hundreds of years of gushing water have eroded his snout. His pectoral fins are mere nubs, and crusty bits of accretion cling to his cheek and sides. The dorsal fin has been reduced to a sad lump. And yet, this dolphin not only survives but retains his quintessential dolphinness, charming us with his bulbous forehead, squinty eyes, funky nostril, and torpedo-shaped body. Come see this fantastic aquatic mammal for yourself; it’s on view on the second floor of the Upjohn Exhibit Wing.

Ugly Object of the Month — October 2017

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator

Happy decorative gourd season, folks! In celebration of fall, my favorite time of year, I’d like to feature an object made of my favorite material: stone. Some conservators like glass and ceramics, others like basketry and plant materials. For me, it’s all about stuff made from those vast mineral aggregates of igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rock.

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Marble floor fragment from St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. KM 29651.

 

This month’s Ugly Object looks, to me, like a fragment of calcareous stone, probably marble. Its label suggests that it was once part of the floor of St. Peters’ Basilica in Rome. (Imagine that!) If true, how did this chunk of marble get from there to here? The first clue is in the label. It’s a red-and-white hand-written dealer sticker with a cute dotted border. When I spotted it I immediately thought of a label I had seen on another architectural fragment in the collection, the latter one supposedly found at the Theater of Ephesus. It turns out that these two chunks of stone are related. Both were acquired by a wealthy businessman, J.D. Candler of Livonia, sometime in the late 19th century. Candler acquired a number of stone, fresco, and other architectural fragments during his overseas travels, and his son D.W. Candler later gave them to the Kelsey. Separated as they are from their original contexts (by way, no doubt, of some questionable early antiquities dealing), Candler’s fragments and others like them provide useful physical evidence of ancient building materials and technology.

You can learn more about the floor fragment from St. Peters’ in Excavating Archaeology at the University of Michigan, 1817–2017 starting October 18th at the Kelsey. And if you’re a stone nut like me, be sure to check out the drawers beneath the Roman Construction case on the second floor for some impressive stone architectural fragments.