I stumbled across this month’s Ugly Objects while compiling a list of stone artifacts in the Kelsey collection. The Kelsey Museum has over 5,000 artifacts that are classified as stone, which include everything from marble sarcophagi to tiny carnelian beads. Among this trove of artifacts made of rock, the two toadstool-shaped objects pictured here stood out to me.
I looked them up in our database and learned that these objects are Dynastic Egyptian earplugs made of alabaster. My initial thought was, naturally, Wow …these surely must be the world’s oldest-known earplugs!! However, when I ran down to the gallery to make sure they were on display — they are — their labels describe them as ear studs. If so, these would seem to resemble the chunky variety of ear stud/plug worn by body-jewelry enthusiasts today. I’m fascinated by objects that clearly had a specific purpose at some time, and yet manage to puzzle us now. It makes me wonder what people in a thousand years will think when they discover all of our earbuds, nose rings, Fitbits, and aviator shades.
Come see if you can spot these plugs/studs for yourself! You’ll find them in the Dynastic Egyptian cases on the first floor of the Kelsey’s Upjohn Exhibit Wing.
It is June, and many students at U-M have graduated, or have at least completed their courses for the academic year. Soon, local schools will be letting out as well, and thus will summer truly begin. For many, this is the time to find fun and entertaining things to do with friends and family. Festivals will pop up throughout the country, and county fairs will have rides available for children and adults alike.
This desire for fun is not limited to American students and families. People across time and throughout the world seek out such amusements. For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present an example of people creating their own entertainment.
In the mid-1920s, a team of University of Michigan archaeologists lived in Egypt as they undertook the excavation of the site of Karanis. The team’s photographer, George R. Swain, would often turn his camera on the locals to capture life in the Fayum region, where Karanis is situated. It is for this reason that candid photographs of animals, neighbors, and people playing and attending weddings dot the collection of photographs of the buildings and artifacts uncovered at the site. It is these photographs of daily life that add color to the Kelsey’s archival record of the Karanis excavations and gives us a glimpse into the lives of people in the Fayum region in the early 20th century.
KM 0150 is one photograph in a series of images that are largely unattributed and undated. It shows us a glimpse into the local preparations for the festivities of the Moulid, or Mawlid, the observed birth of the Prophet. Swain’s note for the photograph reads, “A native ferris wheel for the Moulid at Qasr Raswan.” Though it does not look exactly like a Ferris wheel as we might imagine one, the concept is the same, albeit on a smaller scale. This image shows us the kind of fun people were creating for themselves in Egypt in the 1920s. People were riding, spinning around, enjoying themselves. The children in the photograph are smiling.
As summer commences, many of us will seek out similar thrills. Whatever form the fun takes, the joy is universal, transcending time and space.
In 2018, a Registry intern worked with the archives to help assess materials and devise a plan for organization and some culling. As this intern had not previously worked with archival materials, they were encouraged to seek out the expertise of our colleagues at the Bentley Historical Library, the University of Michigan’s primary historical repository. Bentley archivist Aprille McKay advised our intern about plans for organization and creating a finding aid, and provided suggestions for disposing of non-essential or duplicated materials. At the end of the semester, the intern wrote a report along with recommendations, which the Kelsey will implement.
The Kelsey is very appreciative of Aprille’s insights into handling archival materials and archives in general. In addition to these, Aprille also brought the Kelsey gifts. In the 1990s, when Newberry Hall was undergoing renovations, we sent archival materials, including maps and photographs from the site of Karanis, Egypt, to the Bentley for safekeeping. Aprille returned these materials to us in 2018, and we’re still inventorying them to determine how to incorporate them back into our collections.
This semester, a new intern is working with the Karanis materials, and they found an image that shows a feature in a temple wall labeled “crocodile mummy niche” (fig. 1). This excited them, and they wanted to learn more, which is why this exciting discovery is this month’s “From the Archives.”
Two temples survive at Karanis, the South Temple, which we know from an inscription was dedicated to the crocodile gods Pnepheros and Petesouchos, and the poorly preserved North Temple. The image above shows construction details of the “crocodile niche” found in an inner room of the South Temple (figs. 2 and 3). Scholars think that a crocodile mummy on a bier would have been placed in this niche. While no crocodile mummies were found in the ruins of the South Temple, crocodile bones were found in both the inner shrine (room C) and the room south of the shrine (room X) (Ali 2013, p. 50).
Below is a photograph of a partial crocodile mummy resting against a stone wall of the inner sanctuary of the North Temple (fig. 4). This image is the only specific record of crocodile mummies at the site of the North Temple at Karanis, although the excavators noted the discovery of “a number of crocodile mummies” to the southwest of the temple (Boak 1933, p. 13). However, the record of objects, the list of every item found at Karanis by the University of Michigan expedition (1924–1935), does not list any crocodile mummies.
We do not know where this particular mummy wound up. It likely it went to the Cairo Museum in the division of finds, but this is by no means certain. Its location remains a mystery.
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Read more about the Egyptian cult of the crocodile in the chapter “The Temples and the Gods,” in Karanis: An Egyptian Town in Roman Times, by Elaine K. Gazda (2nd ed., 2004). An abridged version of this chapter, without illustrations, is available here.
Digital photography has made documenting our lives a much easier endeavor. Now, anyone with a cell phone can capture almost any moment with photos and even movies. Digital photography has become ubiquitous, and sharing these files becomes increasingly more feasible.
Archaeologists are using this tool more and more on their excavations, and even the Kelsey Museum has gone fully digital. The Kelsey used to insist on film photography when documenting its collections, but greater access to storage space and proper archival methods for digital photography has paved the way for this change.
The same option was not available, obviously, to those who came before us. George R. Swain, University of Michigan photographer from 1913 to 1947, had to use the methods available to him at the time. This meant taking his wood view camera with him on his travels through the Mediterranean, along with hundreds of glass plates. These plates were heavy, and he often needed help carrying them (often his son provided this service).
His view camera was not Swain’s only tool in the field. In the 1920s, easier means of photography were available, though they were of lesser quality. Thanks to the innovations of George Eastman, film photography had become popular. Film rolls were small and easy to carry, but one was limited by the number of frames on each roll, and the photographer couldn’t see what they captured until later, when the film was developed. Swain carried a film camera, likely a Kodak (the model is lost to us), and often he had others do the same. He would take meticulous notes about who shot what, when, and where. These notes are reflected in our current records.
The Kodak shots often captured scenes that are less formal but equally as important. The glass slides were reserved for artifacts and excavations; the Kodak captured everything else, including people, humorous moments, animals, and anything else happening during the excavations and travels.
For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present one roll of Swain’s film that reflects this. In April 1920, only 98 years ago, Swain and company traveled to Dimé, in the Fayum region of Egypt, likely on a reconnaissance mission to see where Michigan could excavate in years to come. Dimé was eventually excavated, but was not one of the original projects of the 1924 season. In this roll, we see what Swain encountered during this trip. People holding fish. The train and the train station. Farmers working the fields. A village scene. Dr. Askren posing. Hiking over the sands.
Fortunately for us, making this kind of trip is easier now without having to haul so much photography equipment (though we are lost without an energy source). Swain did not have the luxury, but we are thankful for the work he did to capture these moments.
Image KS175_01: April 27, 1920; George R. Swain; Dimay trip. “Looking back toward the shore as we started out to cross the lake.”
Image KS175_08: April 28, 1920; George R. Swain; “Station and people at El Lahoun station.”
Image KS175_03: April 27, 1920; George R. Swain; Dimay trip. “Hiking over the sands to Dimay. Porter first, then Professor [Francis W.] Kelsey.”
Image KS175_10: April 28, 1920; George R. Swain; “Typical village and palm trees by a canal.”
Image KS175_02: April 27, 1920; George R. Swain; Dimay trip. “Dr. Askren standing by clump of old reeds in the sand, not far from the lake, as we started for Dimay.”
Image KS175_09: April 28, 1920; George R. Swain; “Man with string of fish, with several native bystanders. At El Lahoun station.”
Image KS175_04: April 27, 1920; George R. Swain; Dimay trip. “Dr. Askren standing by a spherical boulder, on the way from the lake to Dimay.”
Image KS175_06: April 28, 1920; George R. Swain; “Engine and part of train of the Fayoum Light Railway.”
Image KS175_11: April 28, 1920; George R. Swain; “Winnowing grain on a threshing floor, village with scattered palms in the background.”
Image KS175_12: April 28, 1920; George R. Swain; “Another threshing scene — beans, bullocks and a drag.”
Image KS175_05: April 27, 1920; George R. Swain; Dimay trip. “Looking toward Lake Moeris, from the dock, on our return from Dimay.”
Image KS175_07: April 28, 1920; George R. Swain; “Small group by a station of the railway — typical costumes.”
This month’s Ugly Object is one of ancient Egypt’s niftiest, most all-purpose and off-the-chain gods: the god of war, but also of childbirth, fertility, sexuality, and humor, he was also known as a protector of the household. He’s never the tallest or best-looking guy in the room, but he’s one of our very favorites — he’s Bes.
This particular Bes figurine looks (take your pick) like a gremlin or an ewok, or one of many other creatures one might find in the Nordic fairy-tale woods. The way he’s manufactured also makes him look kind of like a gummy bear. No matter, folks! Beauty isn’t everything, and Bes is up to the job. See him yourself – he’s on view at the Kelsey starting February 10, as part of the special exhibitionThe Art and Science of Healing: From Antiquity to the Renaissance.
It’s October, folks, and that means the season of decorative gourds and dressing up in festive costumes is upon us. This is partly why I chose this ceramic figurine of Harpocrates as October’s Ugly Object.
Who, you might ask, is Harpocrates? He was a deity worshipped in Ptolemaic Egypt, a child version of the sun god Horus. This ceramic figurine bears many of Harpocrates’ signature traits, such as a finger raised to his mouth, the double crown and crescent moon, and a garland. This figurine is also probably one of many identical ceramics produced for mass consumption. But what’s really cool, to me, is what’s going on the surface: this Harpocrates is seriously decked out in a variety of well-preserved paint colors, which include black, pink, red, yellow, and blue. Equally cool is the likelihood that other ceramics like this one, many of which retain no polychromy at all, were just as colorful.
While documenting the figurine I thought it might be worth doing some technical imaging of the pigments, to get a preliminary idea of what they could be. The longwave ultraviolet luminescence (UVL) image revealed that the pink garland is likely made of rose madder pigment, and the visible-induced infrared luminescence (VIL) image showed traces of Egyptian blue pigment on the structure next to Harpocrates, as well as on his crown. The remaining colors are likely iron-based earth pigments, and the black carbon-based. Other techniques that could help us confirm these results include XRF or FTIR spectroscopies, the first of which (like imaging) is non-invasive.
Left: UVL image showing orange autofluorescence of madder in the garland. Right: VIL image showing luminescent Egyptian blue stripes to the right of the figure, as well as in the crown.
BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator of Conservation, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
This month’s Ugly is a hideous but sweet little specimen: the ripped sleeve of a child’s tunic. It looks pretty bad. It’s the kind of raggy little thing which, if you found it in your house, you’d probably throw away. And in fact, that seems to be what happened: when University of Michigan excavated Karanis, Egypt, in the 1920s, the team found this in the ancient town’s street.
This grotty little rag will soon be featured in the exhibit Less Than Perfect, on view at the Kelsey August 26, 2016, through January 8, 2017. The exhibit explores three themes: failed perfection, deliberate imperfection, and — my favorite — restoring perfection. The sleeve occupies this latter category, because of the elbow patch designed to extend the life of the garment.
Was the sleeve ever perfect? This seems debatable to me, but its seamstress did take care to make it attractive. The rolled hem is nicely finished with an overcast stitch in a contrasting red thread, and the elbow patch or applique (originally twice as big as what remains today) has an interesting woven design in blue and cream.
Today, of course, the wool has yellowed, the sleeve is ripped, the seams have failed, and half the original patch is missing altogether, as is the rest of the tunic. But I can imagine that someone treasured it for a long time, before finally giving up on the garment and throwing the remains in the street. Come see this cute-ugly bit of ancient detritus for yourself!