Ugly Object of the Month — February 2018

BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator of Conservation

Last month’s Ugly Object skated perilously close to downright attractiveness, so you will be delighted to see us getting back to our roots in February, with a truly hideous creature.

Ugly_Feb 2018
Earthenware “sphinx.” AD 1890–1898, Michigan, United States. UMMAA 21492.T.

This bizarre-looking bird-thing, which is trying to pass itself off as a sphinx, if you can believe that, is especially special to me because Francis Kelsey himself was moved to comment on it. It’s a nineteenth-century fake, made in Michigan, and it and its brethren were so freakin’ weird and caused such a fuss that the University of Michigan acquired some of them (google “Soper Frauds” — or better yet, come read about them at the Kelsey). In a 1908 article for the journal American Anthropologist, Kelsey wrote,

The interest of the spurious relics to which I have the pleasure of inviting your attention is, in last analysis, more psychological than archeological; so novel are their designs and so crude the workmanship that an archeologist of training in any field could hardly fail to recognize at a glance their true character.

Nicely said, Professor Kelsey!

These forgeries do not represent a high point in Michigan’s state history, but they are really very ugly and make for a great story, which is what we love here in our ugly object blogging. I like how this one — which, again, is supposed to be a sphinx — looks like a cross between a turkey and gargoyle. It has a particularly hilarious facial expression that seems to convey both surprise and confusion, which is probably how a lot of archaeologists felt when they saw it for the first time. Come see it for yourself now in the exhibition Excavating Archaeology @ U-M: 1817–2017, open through May 2018. A virtual version of the exhibition lives on the Kelsey website in perpetuity.

 

From the Archives 26 — January 2018

BY SEBASTIÁN ENCINA, Collections Manager

Excavating Archaeology continues here at the Kelsey Museum. The exhibition showcases numerous, but not all, archaeological projects the University of Michigan has been involved with since 1817. With this exhibition, curators Terry Wilfong and Carla Sinopoli show how U-M has sent researchers all  around the world, highlight important discoveries made by Michigan staff, faculty, and students, and discuss what these discoveries  meant  for the future of archaeology at Michigan.

In 1931, the University of Michigan was quite busy with archaeological endeavors. There were projects at Seleucia (Iraq), Dimé (Soknapaiou Nesos), Karanis (both Egypt), and Sepphoris (Israel). By this time, teams had already been to Carthage (Tunisia) and Pisidian Antioch (Turkey), and were a few years from excavating Terenouthis (Egypt).

The excavation at Sepphoris was a short one, lasting only two months. According to Susan Alcock and Lauren Talalay in their book In the Field: The Archaeological Expeditions of the Kelsey Museum (Ann Arbor, 2006), the finds from the site were impressive, though found in so little time. They cite a water system, a theater, and a villa as some of the results of Leroy Waterman’s work at the site.

Today, 40 artifacts excavated by the University of Michigan at Sepphoris are on long-term loan to the museum at Zippori National Park, the national preserve currently found at the  site. Because of Michigan’s time there, albeit brief, researchers who study Sepphoris continue to visit the Kelsey, physically and virtually, to study our collections and archives. For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present a few photographs taken during that 1931 season. These images are quite special. Glass plate negatives from early projects are often no longer with us, but the Sepphoris archive still contains all the original glass negatives. . . They  have all been printed, and some of the prints, as can be seen, were mounted into an album.

In the photographs, we see the site under excavation. We see the staff and workers. We see a site that has undergone  great changes in nearly 90 years. Our archives continue to educate all the people still working at and visiting the site, and will continue to do so for the next 200 years.

 

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Photos and a photo album from the excavations at Sepphoris, 1931. Some are mounted in a photo album.

 

From the Archives 25 — November 2017

BY SEBASTIÁN ENCINA, Collections Manager

Excavating Archaeology, the Kelsey Museum’s latest exhibition, is still open and available for viewing in the Ed and Mary Meader Gallery now through the end of the academic year (May 27, 2018). On display are two centuries worth of artifacts and archival materials associated with both the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropological Archaeology (UMMAA). This assemblage of diverse historical items was acquired from 19th-century collecting expeditions as well as from rigorous scientific excavations of the 20th and 21st centuries, and highlights the University of Michigan’s strong presence in the emerging field of archaeology since its founding in 1817. Visitors to Excavating Archaeology will see artifacts from the Philippines, United States, North Africa, South America, and Asia. And this is just a taste! There is so much more, but we did not have space to show everything.

Francis W. Kelsey played a significant role in a number of excavations associated with the Kelsey Museum. In the early 1920s, Kelsey acquired funding to initiate Michigan-sponsored excavations at three ancient sites: Karanis, Egypt; Antioch, Turkey; and Carthage, Tunisia. Kelsey already had experience at Carthage; on a visit to that site in 1893 as part of a voyage through the Mediterranean region, he made his first purchase of ancient artifacts. These would become the seeds of the Kelsey Museum collection (the very first object registered, KM 1, a lamp fragment, was among those purchased). It was to Carthage that he returned in 1924 to further his studies of the ancient world.

For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present archival materials associated with the excavations at Carthage. We have some telegrams Kelsey sent and received concerning the excavation of the site. With our modern cellular phones and emails and instant chatting capabilities, the telegram may seem very antiquated, but in Kelsey’s time it was the fastest way to communicate with people far away. We also have some drawings of the site, and a letter to Kelsey from the associate general director of excavations, Byron Khun de Prorok. We present only the first page here as a teaser, but it serves to show how part of an archivist’s work is to decipher handwriting. With practice, we may become familiar with a certain individual’s penmanship, but that doesn’t always make reading the letters any easier.

The University of Michigan has had much experience conducting excavations around the world, and will continue to have a presence for years to come. It is on us, we who work with the archives, to excavate that archaeology in order to inform future projects.

 

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Kelsey Museum archival collections associated with the excavations at Carthage, 1924

Ugly Object of the Month — July 2017

By Amaris Sturm, Visiting Graduate Student in Conservation

Were Bigfoot’s ancestors Egyptian? This heavy hunk of dirt-covered limestone might just provide the answer. July’s Ugly Object is an Egyptian foot impression, excavated in Karanis in 1928. Karanis is located in modern Kom Aushim, and was previously an agricultural town in its earliest days. Archeologists from the University of Michigan excavated the ancient site from 1924 to 1935. This Karanis artifact consists of a limestone block with a large (58 x 25 cm) foot impressed on the surface, appearing as if someone had stepped through wet concrete.

Karanis Foot
Limestone “Bigfoot” imprint. KM 25878

Although I like the idea that an ancient Bigfoot made its mark in Egypt, this “impression” was more likely cut into the limestone, with chisel marks throughout the surface. Although it is not entirely clear how this literal “big foot” was used, why it was produced, or even how it may have been originally displayed, it does shed some light on ancient foot afflictions with a lovely bit of foot fungus. In actuality, this inactive biological activity is likely from the object’s time outdoors or in uncontrolled environments. Any way you look at it, this size 26 foot yields more questions than answers and proves that a simple object can evoke tall tales and thoughtful steps toward understanding our history.

Can the next clue to finding Bigfoot be found in the Kelsey galleries come October? Perhaps, but you can decide for yourself: this foot will be in the upcoming bicentennial exhibition, Excavating Archaeology at the University of Michigan, on view at the Kelsey Museum from October 18, 2017 through May 27, 2018.