Ugly Object of the Month — August 2016

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

 

Ugly_August
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.

Ugly_June_01
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.

Ugly_June_02

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!

Ugly Object of the Month — May 2016

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

This month’s Ugly Object, a flute, is in honor of my mother, who is a lifelong flute player. May is her birthday month, and she has been playing the flute (and piccolo) for approximately sixty years this month.

Flutes are some of the very earliest musical instruments, and the Kelsey has several. This one is made of bone and it would have been played by blowing into the end. It was discovered in 1929 in a temple at Karanis, Egypt.

 

 

It is obviously not fancy, but it’s nice to think about people enjoying the music it made so long ago. You can see it on the first floor of the Kelsey Museum, in the case devoted to University of Michigan excavations (see the map below). It can be found in the bottom drawer of that case. If flutes are your thing, you can see another one in the Karanis House area (Graeco-Roman Egypt Gallery) by exploring the drawers.

 

map with flute

 

Ugly Object of the Month – February

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

Our galleries are closed at the beginning of this month as we install a major exhibit from Pompeii, Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero. So I’m taking this opportunity to feature a favorite Kelsey ugly object that is rarely on view: an ancient dirty sock. In the photo below, you see the part of the sock that would cover your toes and the front part of your foot (the heel and ankle are missing).

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Knitted Sock. Wool. 2nd – 4th c AD. KM 22558.

The sock was excavated at Karanis, Egypt, during the University of Michigan’s 1928 field season. This object is hideous, accessible (who doesn’t have daily experience with dirty socks?), and interesting. It’s obviously old, stained, and worn, with a large hole in one toe. But it’s also a very cool, very early form of knitting called single-needle knitting or nålebinding.

I could tell you more about this technique, but why not try it yourself by making your very own ancient-Egyptian-style sock? The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London did this in 2009 and 2010, in an experimental archaeology project called “Sock It!” Scholars used ancient techniques to recreate a pair of socks just like this one. Click here to read their blog about the project, and here for instructions and a pattern to do it yourself. February is a great month to make yourself a cozy pair of ancient ugly socks!

Ugly Object of the Month — January 2016

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

This month’s Ugly Object is, well, not as ugly as it could be. As fish go, there are certainly more attractive examples, but for an archaeological artifact made from lead? This is in great shape! We really like it! We chose it for you because, although our galleries are closed for a major exhibit installation, you can go see this little guy in person, right across the street in the Hatcher Graduate Library. He is moonlighting, along with four of his Kelsey friends, in a special exhibition curated by our colleague, papyrologist Brendan Haug.

Ugly_Jan
Lead fish amulet. Islamic. KM 80685.

 

The exhibit, From Christianity to Islam: Egypt between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, looks at Egypt’s transition from Romano-Byzantine antiquity to the Islamic Middle Ages. It opens on January 18th and is on view through May 4th. You can see in the Hatcher Graduate Libraries 7th floor exhibit space. You can find address, parking, and other location info here.

Did you remember to vote for 2015’s Ugly Object of The Year?! If not, get to it! Follow this link to cast your vote. The earlier Uglies are linked here:

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