Ugly Object of the Month — December 2019

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

This month’s Ugly Object is a recurring character. I’ll give you some clues: he’s short, bearded, and has prominent ears. He looks a little grumpy, but deep down he’s a really good guy. He’ll go to bat for you in times of need — especially if you’re an expectant mom or a young child.

By now I’m sure you’ve figured out who I’m talking about. He’s the one and only Bes!

terracotta figurine of Bes
Terracotta figurine of Bes. Roman Egypt (Fayum), 1st–2nd century CE. Height: 21.7 cm. Museum purchase (David Askren, 1925). KM 4960.

The terracotta Bes featured this month was pointed out to me in the galleries by Scott Meier, who heads the Kelsey’s exhibition department. Scott knows the collection well, and when I asked him what he thought of this particular Bes he remarked, “It is beautiful in its ugliness.” I couldn’t agree more. Sure, this Bes is missing an ear and a chunk of his feathered crown has popped off, and I dare anyone who isn’t a scholar of Graeco-Roman Egypt to identify the lumpy thing he’s holding in his hands (I checked our database, where it’s described as a club or some sort of instrument). But despite these issues, the object is undeniable in its Bes-ness. Like most Bes figurines, this one faces forward. He looks you straight in the eye as if to say, “Yeah, I’m Bes, and I’m bringing some power to this situation, whatever it might be. So get used to it!” Bes is direct. I like that. He is definitely the sort of deity I would want in my corner.

Come pay Bes a visit at the Kelsey. You’ll find him in our first-floor galleries, across from the Karanis house case.

From the Archives #46 — September 2019

By Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager

This September, researchers from the University of Lecce (Italy) working at the site of Dimé (Soknopaiou Nesos) in Egypt visited the Kelsey Museum. Professor Paola Davoli and team (Bruno Bazzani, Stefania Alfarano, Clementina Caputo) returned to work with the collections from Michigan’s excavations at Dimé in 1931. On this visit, the researchers spent two weeks measuring, drawing, photographing, and studying artifacts from the site. They looked at furniture, beads, sandals, lithics, sculpture, figurines, and a number of other artifact types.

This was the team’s second time in Ann Arbor to work with materials from Dimé. In 2017, Davoli and team visited the Kelsey to look through the archival materials from the excavation. This includes maps, drawings, photographs, and other files that help the current Dimé project better understand work undertaken at the site previously. At that time, Professor Arthur Verhoogt hired two Michigan undergraduates, Bianca Gallina and Josiah Olah, to digitize the Dimé archives to assist the Lecce team’s work. Bianca and Josiah helped the Kelsey organize, identify, catalog, and digitize a great number of items from the archives, which will prove to be beneficial for years to come.

For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present a taste of the work Bianca and Josiah accomplished. Like in Karanis, the Dimé excavation team took detailed notes of the architecture at the site, noting topographic measurements. While there were many drawings made, we present those of an oven found at the site, in house I 107. Ovens were not rare at the sites, but not every home had one. With these drawings, we learn the basic construction of a Roman-era Egyptian oven, its size, and potential uses. We also see the handiwork of the person who, in 1931, drew this for their own research and also for those who followed. 

Though Michigan’s excavation at Dimé occurred back in 1931, the work still has plenty to inform research today. The Dimé team from Lecce continues to mine the Kelsey archives for information, and plenty of other researchers will use this material for other projects. We don’t know yet what those requests will look like, so we do our best to protect this collection and make it accessible to all who want to use it.

Below: Drawings of features from House I 107 in Dimé (Soknapaiou Nesos), Egypt.

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Ugly Object of the Month — July 2019

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

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.

two mushroom-shaped alabaster earplugs
Alabaster earplugs (studs?) from Saqqara, Egypt. Each is about 2 cm tall. New Kingdom (1570–1070 BCE). KM 24273 and 24274

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.

From the Archives #43 — June 2019

By Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager

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.

Group of people around and on a homemade Ferris wheel.
“A native ferris wheel for the Moulid at Qasr Raswan.” Photograph by George R. Swain, 1920s. KM 0150.

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.

From the Archives #39 — February 2019

By Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager

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.”

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Figure 1. “Plate VI: Construction Details.” The crocodile mummy niche is illustrated at left. Maps and Plans. Map No. 118. Kelsey Archives 5.8401.

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).

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Figure 2. Photograph of the crocodile niche in the north wall of room B in the South Temple. Kelsey Archives 0490.
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Figure 3. Plan of the South Temple. Room B is highlighted pink, the crocodile niche is outlined in red. It runs below a set of stairs. After Boak 1933, plan X.

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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Figure 4. Part of mummified crocodile in the inner sanctuary of the North Temple at Karanis. Kelsey Archives 5.1692.

 * * * * *

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.

References

Ali 2013 = Ali, Aida Akbar. “Karanis Crocodiles: The Egyptian Crocodile Cult at Roman Karanis.” Bachelor’s honors thesis, University of Michigan, 2013.

Boak 1933 = Boak, Arthur E. R. Karanis: The Temples, Coin Hoards, Botanical and Zoölogical Reports, Seasons 1924–31. University of Michigan Studies, Humanistic Series 30. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1933.

From the Archives 29 — April 2018

BY SEBASTIAN ENCINA, Collections Manager

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.

Ugly Object of the Month — February 2017

SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator of Conservation

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.

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Faience Bes figurine. 1st–3rd century AD. University of Michigan excavations at Karanis, Egypt. KM 25979.

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 exhibition The Art and Science of Healing: From Antiquity to the Renaissance.