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.

Ugly Object of the Month — December 2018

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

This month’s Ugly Object is, at first glance, pretty unrecognizable. Its outline suggests a bust format, and one can start to make out a head, the folds of robe, locks of shoulder-length hair, a beard and other facial features. While I personally couldn’t make heads or tails of who this figure is, a trained eye (namely, Kelsey director Terry Wilfong) can spot specific details that reveal that this somewhat diminished bust is in fact a deity —specifically, the Graeco-Egyptian god Serapis. Serapis was worshiped in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt and elsewhere in the Roman empire as a cult deity. Like most gods, Serapis wore many hats: he was seen as an oracle, a consort to Isis, a hybridization of the bull deity Apis and Osiris, and a figure associated with the underworld.

wooden bust of Egyptian god Serapis
Wooden bust of Serapis decorated with gesso, bole, and gold leaf. H: 10.2 cm. Roman period, late 2nd to early 3rd century CE. KM 4655.

How do we know that this particular wooden bust is Serapis? A major clue is in the wooden dowel at the top of the figure’s head, which originally held a grain basket in place. The thick, shoulder-length hair is another Serapis signature. The decorative surface is pretty patchy, but the losses happen to reveal how the figure was made. A carved wood base was coated with a thick layer of gesso. A layer of red clay (called bole) was painted onto the gesso, and a final layer of gold leaf was applied on top. The bole would have allowed the gilding to be burnished and smoothed to a lustrous sheen, which would have made this Serapis super shiny. This is fitting, considering that the bust likely started out as an element of bling on a piece of furniture.

Come visit our shiny Serapis, on display in the Karanis House on the first floor of the Upjohn Exhibit wing! And see if you can spot other Graeco-Roman Egyptian deities elsewhere in the Kelsey galleries.