Ugly Object of the Month — October 2018

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

Well, folks, it’s officially fall. The calendar says so, and Ann Arbor actually feels autumnal, too! So what better choice for October’s Ugly Object of the Month than one that celebrates our favorite spooky fall holiday — Halloween.

We’ve previously written about artifacts called “demon bowls” or “incantation bowls” like the one below. Have a look at that, and then …

Interior view of buff colored bowl with pseudo script and two human-like figures.
Ceramic incantation bowl. 17 cm diameter. Seleucia, 4th–7th century CE. KM 33756.

… cast your mind back to the Ghostbusters movies. Do you remember how the Ghostbusters would use energy to suck ghosts into their traps? Incantation bowls were, essentially, ancient ghost traps. If you were troubled by a ghost or demon in your house, you’d place the bowl in an area where the demon was likely to be. (Here’s a tip: they like to hang out in corners.) Or perhaps — if your motives were less pure — you might want to recruit a demon to do something for you. In this case you could use one of these bowls to trawl for a ghost elsewhere, like in a cemetery. The ghost/demon would be lured into the bowl, following the magical, spiraling inscription, and then be trapped, as you see in this example, where the evils spirit is in chains and surrounded by a ring of fire. Pretty. Nifty.

I’m hazy on both the physics of the Ghostbusters’ trap and how the magic of the incantation bowls would actually work, but I can tell you this — the demon bowls sometimes had ghost bait, and we’ve got some here at the Kelsey.

2018-10-02-Ugly_Oct_19050-web
Eggshell ghost bait from Seleucia. 4th–7th century CE. KM 19050.

It’s an inscribed eggshell. It might not look like much, but it was found in a larger ghost-trap assemblage at the site of Seleucia, Iraq. In the corner of a house, one demon bowl was placed right side up, the inscribed eggshell was placed inside, and another demon bowl was placed upside down on top of the first bowl and slightly offset (to leave room for the ghost to get inside). This set-up was designed to work like a triple containment system. Theoretically, the ghost or demon would go all the way into the shell, where it would be bound by the inscription on the shell’s exterior. Meanwhile, the two inscribed incantation bowls provided extra magical entrapment power and security (for the peace of mind a ghost-troubled homeowner needs!). Once the ghost was trapped, the eggshell could be ritually smashed to destroy the evil spirit. Ghost busted!

Ghostbusting is a cross-cultural phenomenon as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. Happy Halloween!

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Can’t get enough of that ancient magic? Check out Traditions of Magic in Late Antiquity, Gideon Bohak’s 1995 online exhibition that features many of the Kelsey’s magical artifacts. There you will find more about demon bowls, magic amulets, and — for the hands-on among you — ancient recipe-books for casting your own spells.

 

Conserving a Seleucian Incantation Bowl

BY MADELEINE NEIMAN, 2014–2015 Samuel H. Kress conservation fellow at the Kelsey Museum. During her time here, Madeleine’s work will focus on the technical analysis and treatment of objects from the Seleucia collection.

KM 31455
Incantation bowl (KM 31455) from the site of Seleucia on the Tigris. The object is a wheel-thrown, buff-colored earthenware bowl the surface of which has been painted with black pseudoscript (small lines meant to mimic Aramaic writing) and images of anthropomorphic figures.

The vessel was excavated in the 1930s from Seleucia on the Tigris, a site approximately 18 miles south of modern-day Baghdad, Iraq. Magical bowls like this one were placed in the corners of houses or under thresholds as a means to protect their owners from evil spirits. The text and images drawn served to combat demons or other supernatural beings that might harm the object’s owner. Today incantation bowls, including this one, are important for the study of ancient magical and religious practices.

Can you guess why the bowl came to the conservation lab?

How about if you compare it to another incantation bowl in the Kelsey collection?

KM 33756
Incantation bowl (KM 33756) from the site of Seleucia on the Tigris. The object was found alongside the above-pictured bowl.

Yes. That’s right. There is a thick, dark crust covering much of the interior and exterior of the bowl, and it hides the decoration on the bowl’s surface. Curators here at the Kelsey have asked the conservation lab to remove the crust so that the decoration on the surface is easier to see. Before the crust can be removed, however, conservators must figure out what this strange material is.

Based upon a close examination of the surface, we suspect the crust is most likely one of two things.

Option 1: Salts! This bowl was buried under ground for approximately 2,000 years.  During that time the porous ceramic vessel was likely exposed to groundwater containing a range of salts; chlorides, nitrates, phosphates, and sulfates are all commonly present in soil and are, as a result, often found within the fabric or on the surface of ceramics recovered from archaeological contexts. While salts typically appear as areas of white crystalline efflorescence on an artifact, they may also occur as dark, hard surface accretions similar to the material visible on the bowl.

Option 2: A modern coating. It is possible that the darkened surface is due to the application of a modern coating.  During the 1930s, when this object was excavated, archaeologists and conservators often covered artifacts with a resin or glue in an attempt to protect and strengthen surfaces. While these materials were applied with good intentions, they can alter over time in unexpected and undesirable ways. A once clear, coherent coating could become dark and brittle like the coating on the bowl.

However, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle notes, “it is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.” So … how will conservators here at the Kelsey get the data necessary to determine what is covering the bowl?

Like historians, conservators look at archival records. The Seleucia archive at the Kelsey Museum holds a range of primary source documents created by archaeologists at the time of excavation, including journals, object lists, and photographs. We will examine these documents for any clues to what the bowl looked like at the time of excavation (e.g., was the bowl’s surface dark when removed from the ground?) as well as the conservation methods that might have been used on the bowl. We will also utilize a range of scientific examination techniques available across the University of Michigan campus to study the chemical makeup of the crust.

I hope you will check back with us in the coming months as we work to uncover the surface of this bowl.