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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I love many things about working as a conservator, but Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is not one of them. Thankfully, my colleague Carrie is quite into this activity, which is part entomology and part detective work. IPM is an important part of “preventive conservation,” a phrase that refers to the actions you can take to prevent conservation problems before they ever start. Like, for example, having your valuable library chewed up by book lice.
Once a month, Carrie collects bug traps from all around the museum and then examines them to see what critters are getting in and where they’re hanging out. We have some repeat visitors: silverfish, spiders, house centipedes…. But every now and then, look out!!! Stranger Danger! Carpet Beetle who could eat all our textiles! Wood-boring beetle who could eat up the wood! Where did they come from??!! Where are they going? How many are there? How close are they to the objects we don’t want them to eat?
These gripping questions — and more — can be asked and answered, all with the help of sticky bug traps and Carrie’s careful tracking. Yes, sometimes STEPS must be taken, and Carrie is on it. That’s IPM. Glamorous it’s not, but I’ll tell you — there’s never a dull minute here in conservation at ye olde Kelsey.
It’s back-to-school time, and town is certainly feeling lively as ~30,000 students return to campus. It’s also the harvest season here in Michigan, where it’s already starting to feel like fall. That is sort of, maybe, a decent lead-in to this month’s Ugly Object, which is … wait for it … some pieces of wheat!
Old-as-heck wheat. 1st–3rd century AD. University of Michigan excavations at Karanis, Egypt. KM 3958.
This is some bonafide archaeological grain-stuff here and, while it might not be considered a typical museum-quality artwork, I think it looks pretty amazing. According to Kelsey curator and director Terry Wilfong, wheat was the biggest and most important crop for ancient Karanis. Egypt was a major producer of grain for the Roman Empire, and Karanis had ten large granaries to store it prior to its shipment to Alexandria and then Rome. Some of this wheat’s brethren might have been eaten by emperors! But if, for some reason, it fails to impress you with its extreme ancient awesomeness, be aware that we also have garlic bulbs and a bunch of other fantastic 1,700-year-old seeds on view. Come enjoy the Kelsey’s cornucopia of ancient — if not always attractive — agricultural delights.
Last Friday we said goodbye to our first-ever summer intern in conservation, Amaris Sturm. Amaris is a graduate student in the Winterthur / University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, and has a special interest in archaeological conservation. During her two months at the Kelsey, Amaris treated twelve artifacts (many in preparation for the museum’s upcoming bicentennial exhibition), familiarizing herself with some of the “bread and butter” activities of a museum archaeological conservator. She brought thoughtfulness and skill to each of her projects, and approached each new treatment as an opportunity to learn. As is often the case with interns and fellows in the lab, we learned a great deal from her as well.
We will miss having Amaris in the lab, and wish her all the best as she moves on to her internship year at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.
This month’s Ugly Object is bound to give its competitors a run for their money. It is not much to look at, but it’s definitely worth getting to know. What exactly is it? It’s an ancient Egyptian mudbrick.
Mudbrick is a material used in building construction worldwide. It was used in antiquity and continues to be used today, from the painted mudbrick complexes of El Kurru village to my grandmother’s old ranch house in Fresno, CA. The components of mudbrick vary but usually include clay or clayey soil, sand, plant fibers and, in the case of the Kelsey brick, pieces of fired ceramic. Each brick would have been shaped, dried in the sun, and then used to build things. There are countless ancient mudbrick structures in Egypt, including the houses excavated at Karanis.
Mudbrick architectural remains at Karanis, Egypt
This mudbrick has seen better days, but it’s fun to imagine what kind of structure it might have been a part of once. Was it part of the wall of a house? A pyramid? We don’t really know. There are a number of ancient mudbrick structures still around, but (as shown by the poor condition of our brick) they can be a challenge to preserve.
Suzanne and I had a great time hosting our third annual IPCAA Conservation Workshop series. We’ve designed the workshops to give graduate students of classical archaeology hands-on experience with field conservation tools and techniques. This spring we covered ceramics conservation and preventive conservation. Students learned about agents of deterioration, ceramic lifting and reconstruction, artifact storage best practices, and much more. We hope that the students will find these preservation strategies useful as they document, excavate and analyze artifacts and structures in the field this summer!
For the past several years, I’ve spent part of the winter in the small Sudanese village of El Kurru, and every year I fall a little bit more in love with it. I work there with Kelsey Research Scientist (and Kurru dig director) Geoff Emberling on the excavation and preservation of an ancient royal cemetery. Two years ago, the Kurru project team began to deliberately focus on community engagement as a way to forge stronger links between the local community and the ancient site.
This work has evolved slowly, beginning from plans to present the site to tourists (of which there are a surprisingly large number). El Kurru is an interesting site, with a big pyramid, two beautifully painted subterranean tombs, and a large rock-cut temple. But the site is only a small part of what I love about El Kurru. I love the Sudanese friends and colleagues we have there, the beauty of the Nile, and the family we live with. Tourists to the site, sadly, enter from a desert road and never have a reason to visit the town. As we planned the site itinerary for tourists, we kept saying to ourselves — wouldn’t it be great if visitors could keep walking and go into town, down through the date palm groves, and see the Nile? What if they could drink some Sudanese coffee, hear some music, and eat Sudanese food?
Over the past two years, we’ve worked with University of Michigan colleagues to assemble focus-groups in El Kurru to explore this idea. Not only did village residents think it was good idea — an exciting idea, even — to showcase local culture, they had a clear vision for what visitors should learn about their village and what experiences make El Kurru special. Here are photos of a few.
Mohammed Ahmed Al-Makee, who is in his nineties, is one of El Kurru’s last traditional weavers. His wife dyes and spins cotton into yarn, and from this he weaves scarves, shawls, and bed coverings on a pit-loom in the courtyard of his house. He allowed my colleague Jack Cheng and I to talk with him about his work and to record the sights and sounds of his loom, which he inherited from his grandfather.
I love a good mystery, and nothing (save a really good crime novel) is better than an artifact mystery. I love the thrill of investigating an object, identifying its agents of deterioration, and nabbing those culprits one by one. I also really enjoy teaching new conservators how to use investigative tools to make their own observations. I recently spent a day looking at an object with Ellen Seidell, a U of M junior who is interning in our lab. The ceramic bowl — excavated at Karanis in 1929 — was covered with feathery white crystals, as well as a drippy, peeling surface coating. I had my suspicions as to what these were, but wanted Ellen to learn for herself how to identify unknown materials.
Left: Ceramic bowl before treatment. Right: bowl under longwave ultraviolet light.
To do this, we examined the bowl under longwave ultraviolet light. This is a useful tool not only for crime-scene investigation, but also for identifying varnishes and coatings. Ellen and I could immediately see a bright yellow luminescence on the surface. We then performed a chemical test to determine that the coating was cellulose nitrate — a material used to treat newly excavated artifacts in the 1920s and ’30s. Finally, we determined that the white crystals were salts. Water-soluble salts like these can be absorbed into artifacts during burial. Fluctuations in humidity can cause salts to crystallize and re-crystallize inside the object, which can cause damage to artifact surfaces.
So what did we do with this evidence? First, we decided to remove the salts. I felt that this would be a good experience for Ellen, since not all salty bowls have the advantage of being in a climate-controlled museum, and since monitored desalination is an important conservation skill. Next we addressed the coating, whose identity allowed us to choose an appropriate solvent for its removal — which Ellen did herself. The treatment is complete, bringing the case of the salty, peeling bowl to a close (for now).