BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
This demon bowl, which was excavated by the University of Michigan in the 1930s, now resides in the Kelsey Museum. It comes from the ancient city of Seleucia, which is located not far from Baghdad along the Tigris River. If you look closely at the bowl, you can see that the inside is covered in rows of what looks like text, as well as four line-drawn figures. These are demons (hence the title “demon bowl”) and they reveal the function of the bowl: to trap demons.
Unfortunately, the bowl has a dark gypsum crust which obscures these super cool and creepy demons. Fortunately, we know there are ways to see though the crust, and Madeleine Neiman, who worked as a Samuel H. Kress Conservation Fellow in the Kelsey conservation lab during the 2014–15 academic year, spearheaded a project to investigate the bowl. This included looking at the bowl with infrared reflected (IRR) imaging.
IRR is a technique used by conservators to reveal difficult-to-read painted inscriptions, or drawings under paint layers. The Detroit Institute of Arts Conservation Department has its very own Goodrich SWIR infrared camera. The SWIR’s capture range surpasses that of the modified DSLR camera we use for IRR at the Kelsey, and Madeleine found that infrared light at this higher range could pass through the bowl’s darkened crust. So we packed up the bowl and drove to Detroit to see what we could see.
The Goodrich camera was able to reveal the bowl’s inscription, thanks to the IR transparency of the gypsum crust and the heavy IR absorption of the inscription. The result is a higher visual contrast between the inscription and the surrounding ceramic, making it easier to read. Okay, actually “reading” it is hard to do, given that the inscription is not real script! But you get the picture. What I found fascinating is the high level of detail revealed in the images of demons on the bowl, including flames, raised arms, and scary faces. These unique characteristics are all the more visible thanks to the power of infrared light.
I’d like to thank our DIA colleagues Aaron Steele and Aaron Burgess for taking the time to capture these images, as well as Madeleine Neiman for helping us uncover the demons who have been hiding underneath that dark (and scary) crust!