Ugly Object of the Month — February 2019

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

Guess what, everyone?! We have a new exhibition going up right now: Ancient Color. Co-curated by my conservation compatriot Carrie Roberts, it features one her favorite Egyptian gods. Yes, you guessed it, HARPOCRATES RETURNS!

If you read this blog series with any regularity you will know that Carrie has a thing for Harpocrates. And it’s not because he’s really, really good-looking. Although when you know a little bit about him, you’d think he would be. Son of Isis (who we all know is gorgeous) and Horus (not bad if you’re into birds), he symbolizes the newborn sun (nice, right?). He also has magical healing and protective powers, exerted especially on behalf of women and children. This all sounds pretty great, and yet if you wanted a figurine of this god for your house (who wouldn’t?), it would look like this:

terracotta figurine of harpocrates
Painted terracotta figurine of Harpocrates. Egypt, 2nd century CE. Height 21.3 cm. KM 6947.

Yes, obviously this has seen better days. But imagine it with all the paint still on it! It would be very colorful, but would you really want to look at it every day? I know I wouldn’t, but figurines like this were very popular in Roman Egypt.

Carrie likes this figurine because she is crazy for ancient paint. But I’m not going to tell you about the traces of paint on this little guy, because that would spoil your Ancient Color exhibition experience.

I like this figurine for a different reason: it makes me contemplate two different but equally intriguing possibilities. One: that my decorative taste is very different from that of the typical Roman Egyptian. Would I have hated their interior decorating schemes? I feel like I would have, but I like to imagine what they’d have looked like, all the same. Two: that figurines like this — which were mass-produced by pressing clay into molds, firing the figurines, and then slapping on some paint (I have never seen one of these that was carefully painted) — were meaningful regardless of how they looked. The magical powers of this figurine are not dependent on beauty, in other words. Harpocrates can be messily made and slapdashily painted, and still heal your snake bites. He doesn’t have to look good to take care of business.

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Learn more about this figurine by visiting the Kelsey’s new exhibition Ancient Color, here in Ann Arbor beginning February 8, or anytime online.

 

 

 

 

Ugly Object of the Month — November 2016

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator

This month’s Ugly Object is a familiar character — assuming you know your Romano-Egyptian child deities. That’s right folks, Harpocrates is back. Only this time, he’s taken the form of a baby bust.

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Terracotta bust of Harpocrates. KM 6461.

The bust was found in one of the ancient houses of Karanis in 1926, and I have to say, it’s really captured my fancy.  I love many things about this Harpocrates. First and foremost is that it’s a bust. You see a lot of marble portraits in this format, but it’s cool to see this miniaturized and translated into terracotta (very meta). I also love the shaved head with the intricate side lock (a Harpocrates signifier, but also — dare I say it? — very edgy!).  And finally, I love the face. To me it’s a curious cross between a sweet baby face and a wise old sage, not unlike the strange depictions of the baby Jesus we sometimes see in medieval panel paintings.

You can see this version of Harpocrates in The Art and Science of Healing starting February 10. I’m sorry to report that the colorful Harpocrates featured in October will not be going on display after all. But there will be many other fascinating artifacts on view, including medical manuscripts, amulets to ward off sciatica and stomachache, and more. Definitely come check it out!

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.

image_01-oct
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.

image_02-oct

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.