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.

Investigating color on a Roman-Egyptian mummy portrait

by Caroline Roberts, Conservator

This week a team from the Detroit Institute of Arts conservation department traveled to the Kelsey to take a closer look at one of our Fayum mummy portraits. The portrait is normally on display in the Dynastic Egypt gallery and is dated to the Roman period of Egypt (79–110 AD). The woman featured in the portrait is clearly of means, as her gold earrings and necklace, colorful gems, and purple robe indicate. We were curious to learn more about the colorants that were used to paint her portrait and to look for painting details that have become harder to see over time.

Christina Bisulca, conservation scientist at the DIA, brought along a portable spectrometer to identify pigments on the painting. She found evidence of pigment mixtures in multiple areas of the portrait, including the flesh tones, the oval gem at the center of the woman’s pendant, and the drapery of the robe. It appears that the various shades of purple in the robe were likely created by mixing and laying blue and red pigments and dyes, for example. Further analysis is needed to verify these results.

Aaron Steele, the DIA conservation department’s imaging specialist, brought along their powerful infrared camera to see if underdrawing might have been used to sketch the sitter before paint was applied. Although underdrawing was not immediately visible, details of curls along the hairline and sectioning of the woman’s hair could be seen in the infrared images. Details of paint application next to the woman’s face are also much more visible in the infrared. I also had the chance to capture ultraviolet images and produce infrared false color images which provide good information on the distribution of certain pigments (including rose madder and Egyptian blue) over the surface.

We look forward to learning more about the Fayum portrait over the next year and to featuring the results in an upcoming Kelsey exhibition about color in the Roman world. Many thanks to our friends at the Detroit Institute of Arts for their support of this project!

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!