Ugly Object of the Month — May 2018

By Caroline Roberts and Suzanne Davis, Conservators

For this month’s Ugly Object blog post we felt that we should pay homage to a small but significant variety of artifact: the pottery sherd. There are millions of these things out there, in the field, patiently awaiting discovery. So why the reverence? Because while pottery sherds may be irregular in shape and incomplete in form, these little dudes are often jam-packed with information. We recognize that we’re preaching to the choir, archaeological ceramicists out there, but for those who were unaware of the vast informational value of sherds, consider this month’s Ugly Object.

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KM 1980.2.39, exterior and interior views.

KM 1980.2.39 is what we would call a rim sherd, meaning that it was once part of the rim or opening of a vessel. What drew us to this particular sherd is its relief decoration, which reminds us of ornament that we’ve seen in classical architecture. But beyond this we knew little about the artifact. To learn more, we approached guest curator Chris Ratté to ask him what he thinks about the sherd:

Chris Ratté: This is ugly?! Why don’t you understand that this is a beautiful sherd?

Conservators: Well, this is not exactly fine art. But a lot of our “Ugly Objects” possess qualities that might be otherwise overlooked, such as charm or informational value.  Anyway, what can you tell us about this sherd?

Chris Ratté: The sherd comes from a mold-made Megarian bowl. The guilloche and egg-and-dart relief patterns are similar to moldings I know from architecture, such as at the temple of Apollo at Didyma.

Conservators: Cool! Can you tell us how the bowl was fabricated?

Chris Ratté: The bowl was thrown into a mold on a wheel. The relief pattern in the mold was cast from a silver vessel. The bowl itself was made in imitation of a particular type of metal vessel connected to the Egyptian king Ptolemy’s visit to Athens.* The ceramic bowls that were made from this were very popular, but were not produced for very long.

Conservators: Wow! Who knew? How was the bowl used?

Chris Ratté: For drinking. The bowl wouldn’t have had handles, and I like to imagine what it might have felt like to hold the vessel in my hands and feel the relief beneath my fingers.

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Urban Biographies guest curator Christopher Ratté.

Want to learn more about this and other diagnostic sherds? Be sure to visit the Kelsey starting August 24th to see the upcoming exhibition Urban Biographies, which will demonstrate ways in which artifacts and modern technologies are used to study ancient (and modern) cities.

*Ptolemy V Epiphanes and his son Ptolemy VI Philometer visited Athens in 182 BCE for the Panathenaic Games.

Curator Favorites

imageWhen it comes to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s collections, not all artifacts are created equal.  Some call out to us intellectually,  others emotionally. With this in mind, we asked our curators to name their favorite Kelsey Museum artifacts and why each was a favorite. This is the first in a series of seven.

BY SHARON HERBERT, Museum Director and Curator of Greek and Hellenistic Collections, University of Michigan

Favorite Artifact.  Alabastron, clay, Protocorinthian (ca. 700–650 BC), National Museum of Athens, exchange 1933. KM 10925

Why. “The still-visible incision marks and the center impression of the compass point used to make the scales connects me to the artist who made them more than 2,662 years ago. In my imagination, I can almost see the artist carefully centering the compass point into the clay.”

About Artifact.  This small oil bottle originally was decorated with a colorful pattern of small red, yellow, and black scales. The ancient paint has disappeared and all that remains of the artist’s meticulous work are incision marks outlining the scales and the center impression of the compass point used to make them.

Find It.  In the ancient Greek case (on the left-hand side in front) on the first floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.

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