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.

Ugly Object of the Month — October 2016

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator

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.

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Ceramic Harpocrates figurine, with intact ground and paint layers. 2nd–3rd century AD. KM 6449.

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.

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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.

This highly colorful Harpocrates will be on display at the Kelsey starting February 10, 2017, as part of the upcoming special exhibition The Art of Science and Healing: From Antiquity to the Renaissance, curated by Pablo Alvarez.

Ugly Object of the Month — August 2016

BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator of Conservation, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

 

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Woolen sleeve from a child’s tunic. 2nd–4th century AD. KM 13995.

 

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!

 

 

Low-tech adhesive testing for Egyptian polychrome limestone

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

One of my favorite conservation activities is researching practical solutions to complex condition problems. Example problem: how to stabilize flaky, powdery paint on deteriorating Egyptian limestone artifacts. The solution? Some kind of adhesive. But which kind would work best in an outdoor environment on salt-laden painted stone?

To figure this out I took a look at published information on the treatment of painted Egyptian limestone sculpture and wall paintings. There’s a lot of information out there on this topic, and I wanted to see for myself how some of the adhesives tested by conservators and scientists performed on a painted, salty limestone surface. The Kelsey Conservation Lab has limited equipment for this type of research, although we often partner up with labs that do (check back with the Kelsey blog for an upcoming post on our collaboration with UM’s Aerospace Engineering Department). One thing I could do in-house was to create mockups of the problem surface to approximate how each adhesive might perform in situ.

 

Creating mockups that accurately represent the materials and conditions of an ancient paint surface required some creativity. I used travertine tiles as a base, and soaked half of them in a solution of sodium chloride, or halite. This type of salt is present in much of the soil in Egypt, and has been shown to have an impact on adhesive performance. Stone was often covered with a “preparation” layer (or layers) of plaster before paint was applied, so I applied Plaster of Paris to each tile. I then applied a layer of red ochre in gum Arabic — a plant-derived binder used in ancient Egyptian wall painting — with a high pigment-to-gum ratio representing the often diminished state of ancient binders on polychrome limestone. A section of each material — stone, plaster, and paint — was left visible on each mockup.

I applied five different adhesives to the tiles, leaving a number of them untreated as a control. I recorded their working properties, absorption, and resulting color changes, and then placed them outside to see how the adhesives fare in an exposed environment on both salty and un-salty mockups. From this low-tech experiment I hope to determine, from a practical angle, which adhesive to use on artifacts both at the Kelsey Museum and in field settings.

From the Archives — June 2016

Apologies for the tardiness of this post …

BY SEBASTIÁN ENCINA, Museum Collections Manager, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Though the summer months see a drop in university class visits to the Kelsey, the museum is by no means less busy when classes are not in session. Researchers who are students and professors here at Michigan, or at other universities around the world, take a break from their teaching responsibilities and make their way to the field and museums to continue their research. The Kelsey hosts a fair number of these scholars. Projects we did not have time for during the academic year are saved for the slower summer months.

As to be expected, the site of Karanis garners much attention from researchers. Every year we have numerous people come to study our collections on this Graeco-Roman site, or the archives that still contain a depth of information waiting to be revealed. This summer is no different, as Karanis has been the focus of an ongoing trial investigation by a group of Michigan scholars. Headed by Dr. Arthur Verhoogt (Classics) and Dr. David Stone (Kelsey Museum), a team has been assembled to determine what it would take to finally digitize, in a controlled and consistent manner, the entirety of Karanis holdings. This includes all the artifacts excavated at Karanis and brought to Michigan, but also all the maps, and archives, and photographs. Over the years, we’ve digitized some of the items, but only specific ones and only as requested.

This team, which also included graduate students Alexandra Creola (IPCAA), Caitlin Clerkin (IPCAA), and Lizzie Nabney (Classics), undergraduate students Emily Lime (Classics) and Mollie Fox (History of Art), professors Brendan Haug (Classics) and Laura Motta (Kelsey Museum), staff Sebastián Encina (Kelsey Museum) and Monica Tsuneishi (Papyrology), has decided to approach the site in a new manner. Previous research and publications have focused on material types. We have publications on the coins of Karanis, or the pottery, or papyrus. Instead, Drs. Stone and Verhoogt want to look at the context of the finds. How did the papyrus relate to coins found within the same space? What does a figurine found alongside a spindle whorl tell us about the inhabitants of house C56?

Over the past two months, students Mollie and Emily have been busy finding, cataloguing, and digitizing items from two contexts, C65 and C137. The team decided to focus on these two structures as they seemed of great interest due to their contents, and also because for a two-month trial project, looking at anything more would have been impossible. Mollie and Emily spent time going through the archives and identifying materials that related to these two structures (one house and one granary). They were then pulled, entered into a project-specific database, and eventually scanned or photographed. Among these was a 32-foot-long map that showed a cross section of Karanis which we are excited to finally have scanned!

The project was generously supported by the Michigan Humanities Collaboratory, an endeavor funded by the Office of the Provost that seeks to bring together people from separate departments to work together towards a single goal. Several projects were funded for this summer term, including this Kelsey-Classic-Papyrology project. We hope to turn this trial period into a much bigger one, where the entirety of Karanis materials are digitized and made available to researchers freely. By doing so, researchers can approach the materials in their own way, without hindrance. At the conclusion of the two year project, we will have a better understanding on what we have here in Ann Arbor, a web portal will be in place for ease of research, and there may be publications and an exhibition. While students continue to digitize and catalogue, graduate students and faculty will analyze the materials to make better sense of the spaces and what is possible with what we have on hand.

While it is easy to get excited about what the future will hold, there is equal buzz about what has been found already. Mollie and Emily have scanned the 32-foot map, which is amazing, but they have also found photographs and archival materials we have not seen since the 1930s. There has been closer inspection into the artifacts, what they tell us about the citizens of Karanis, and the decorations found on objects and on walls. A sample of these is shared here, so that we can look anew at a place we members of the Kelsey community know so well, yet we continue to find new ways to see it.

 

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This summer has proven to be busy in the Kelsey Registry. This project has meant a steady stream of people in the office every day. Every computer is occupied, every free space taken up by archives or artifacts. But this busy-ness has generated an energy and excitement about what we can do with Karanis. There are endless possibilities, and we will keep busy this summer thinking about those and working to make them a reality.

Check out the Karanis Collaboratory website for more information about the project: http://sites.lsa.umich.edu/karanis-collaboratory/

Ugly Object of the Month — June 2016

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

This month’s Ugly Object, a blown-glass vessel from the Fayum region of Egypt, wasn’t meant to be ugly. If you look past its flaws, you’ll notice the vessel’s attractive shape and the carefully applied strand of glass that spirals around its neck. It actually could have been quite pretty, had not an unfortunate accident befallen it during manufacture.

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Glass vessel KM 5073, from the Fayum.

I can imagine the moment when it happened: the glassmaker had just transferred the vessel onto a pontil (the metal rod used to shape the glass) and was working on finishing the neck. Somewhere in the transfer, or in the process of wrapping the strand of glass around the neck, the glassmaker’s sleeve or glove might have grazed the surface of the vessel, sticking to the soft, semi-molten glass and tugging it out of plane. The moment is captured in the twisted, pinched deformity that marks the vessel still. This vessel isn’t alone — the Kelsey is home to a number of flawed glass vessels. Together they give an impression of the speed of manufacture that produced thousands of objects like these. A mistake or two would probably have been considered run-of-the-mill.

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This vessel and its flawed friends will be featured in Carla Sinopoli’s upcoming exhibition Less Than Perfect, opening at the Kelsey Museum on August 26. Be sure to pay them a visit!