From the Archives #24

BY SEBASTIAN ENCINA, Collections Manager, Kelsey Museum

This year, the University of Michigan is celebrating its bicentennial. Founded originally in Detroit in 1817, the University has enjoyed a tremendous history. In that time, the staff, faculty, and students have achieved a great deal, with much to be proud of and to showcase.

Among that storied history are all the archaeological projects the University has undertaken in the last 200 years. The University of Michigan, through its archaeological programs, has been around the world multiple times, visiting fantastic sites in far off countries. It is these projects that are now the focus of our most recent exhibition, Excavating Archaeology @ U-M: 1817-2017. The exhibition is now open to the public, here at the Kelsey Museum. Through this exhibition, we display artifacts gathered together by University of Michigan archaeologists. Some of those objects are from the Kelsey Museum collections, while others are on loan from the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology.

The University still has excavations in some of the countries exhibited in the galleries, but these days, countries like Egypt do not permit artifacts to leave the country.  Instead, researchers must visit these countries in order to study artifacts in local or national museums and storage magazines. But this was not always the case. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, when Michigan first went to places such as Karanis, these countries often permitted scholars to bring artifacts back to Michigan. This is how the Kelsey Museum formed much of its collections.

For this month’s From the Archives, we present records of how the decision was made about which objects would be kept in Egypt and which would be sent to Michigan. The Egyptian government had antiquities staff working with Michigan staff on the excavations. When artifacts were accumulated, they were brought together and arranged according to type (coins, wood objects, ceramics, papyri, etc.). They were then photographed.  Looking over the photographs, the antiquities staff member marked with red Xs which ones were to be kept in the country, leaving the rest to be sent to Michigan. Look closely at some of these photographs and you can still see a red “X” on some of the objects.

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These black and white photographs were later bound into thick books and stored in our archives.  Recently, an intern and I carefully took these books apart and made color scans of the photographs to preserve this valuable information.  In addition to information about what objects went where, these photographs are often the only image we have of certain artifacts.

The Kelsey Museum possesses a long history of archaeological excavations, many of which have been highlighted in this blog. Now, thanks to Professors Terry Wilfong and Carla Sinopoli, these and many other excavations are now available for viewing in our latest exhibition.

Ugly Object of the Month – September

BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator of Conservation

It’s back-to-school time, and town is certainly feeling lively as ~30,000 students return to campus. It’s also the harvest season here in Michigan, where it’s already starting to feel like fall. That is sort of, maybe, a decent lead-in to this month’s ugly object which is…wait for it…some pieces of wheat!

 

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Wheat. 1st – 3rd c AD. University of Michigan excavations at Karanis, Egypt. 3958.

 

This is some bonafide archaeological grain-stuff here and, while it might not be considered a typical museum-quality artwork, I think it looks pretty amazing. According to Kelsey Curator and Director Terry Wilfong, wheat was the biggest and most important crop for ancient Karanis. Egypt was a major producer of grain for the Roman Empire, and Karanis had ten large granaries to store it prior to its shipment to Alexandria and then Rome. Some of this wheat’s brethren might have been eaten by emperors! But if, for some reason, it fails to impress you with its extreme ancient awesomeness, be aware that we also have garlic bulbs and a bunch of other fantastic 1,700 year-old seeds on view. Come enjoy the Kelsey’s cornucopia of ancient – if not always attractive – agricultural delights.

News from the Conservation Lab: A Fond Farewell

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Last Friday we said goodbye to our first-ever summer intern in conservation, Amaris Sturm. Amaris is a graduate student in the Winterthur / University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, and has a special interest in archaeological conservation. During her two months at the Kelsey, Amaris treated twelve artifacts (many in preparation for the Museum’s upcoming Bicentennial exhibition), familiarizing herself with some of the “bread and butter” activities of a museum archaeological conservator.  She brought thoughtfulness and skill to each of her projects, and approached each new treatment as an opportunity to learn. As is often the case with interns and fellows in the lab, we learned a great deal from her as well.

We will miss having Amaris in the lab, and wish her all the best as she moves on to her internship year at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

Thank you Amaris!

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Amaris removes an old coating from a copper alloy dish
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One of Amaris’s treatment projects: a reconstructed ceramic vessel from Karanis

 

Ugly Object – August

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

This month’s ugly object is bound to give its competitors a run for their money. It is not much to look at, but it’s definitely worth getting to know. What exactly is it? It’s an ancient Egyptian mudbrick.

Mudbrick is a material used in building construction worldwide. It was used in antiquity and continues to be used today, from the painted mudbrick complexes of El Kurru village to my grandmother’s old ranch house in Fresno, CA. The components of mudbrick vary but usually include clay or clayey soil, sand, plant fibers and, in the case of the Kelsey brick, pieces of fired ceramic. Each brick would have been shaped, dried in the sun, and then used to build things. There are countless ancient mudbrick structures in Egypt, including the houses excavated at Karanis.

This mudbrick has seen better days, but it’s fun to imagine what kind of structure it might have been a part of once. Was it part of the wall of a house? A pyramid? We don’t really know. There are a number of ancient mudbrick structures still around, but (as shown by the poor condition of our brick) they can be a challenge to preserve.

You can find out more about the Kelsey’s ancient mudbricks in our exhibition Excavating Archaeology at the University of Michigan, on view starting October 18.

 

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KMA 1971.2.226
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Mudbrick architectural remains at Karanis, Egypt

Ugly Object – July

BY AMARIS STURM, Visiting Graduate Student in Conservation

Were Bigfoot’s ancestors Egyptian? This heavy hunk of dirt-covered limestone might just provide the answer. July’s ugly object installment is an Egyptian foot impression, excavated in Karanis in 1928. Karanis is located in modern Kom Aushim, and was previously an agricultural town in its earliest days. Archeologists from the University of Michigan excavated the ancient site from 1924-1935. This Karanis artifact consists of a limestone block with a 58 cm long by 25 cm wide foot impressed on the surface, appearing as if someone had stepped through wet concrete.

Although I like the idea that an ancient Bigfoot made its mark in Egypt, this “impression” was more likely cut into the limestone, with chisel marks throughout the surface. Although it is not entirely clear how this literal “big foot” was used, why it was produced, or even how it may have been originally displayed, it does shed some light on ancient foot afflictions with a lovely bit of foot fungus. In actuality, this inactive biological activity is likely from the object’s time outdoors or in uncontrolled environments. Any way you look at it, this size 26 foot yields more questions than answers and proves that a simple object can evoke tall tales and thoughtful steps towards understanding our history.

Can the next clue to finding Bigfoot be found in the Kelsey galleries come October? Perhaps, but you can decide for yourself: this foot will be in the upcoming bicentennial exhibition, “Excavating Archaeology at the University of Michigan,” on view at the Kelsey Museum from October 18, 2017 through May 27, 2018.

Karanis Foot
KM 25878

 

Ugly Object of the Month – June

CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Can an object be both elegant and ugly? I believe it can. Take this month’s ugly object, a broom,  for instance. This broom was found in a house at Karanis, Egypt, and we can pretty easily guess what it was used for. I like the broom for its simple, effective (even elegant?) design. To me, it looks like someone gathered a bunch of palm stems and mashed up the ends to create bristles. Voila! Insta-brush. Someone then lined up the stems and secured the group by passing a palm rope over and under each stem. Two additional ropes were used to gather the stems together into a bundle that could be held in your hand or tied around a wooden handle. Pretty neat! Another thing I want to point out about the broom is that it’s got a swishy tail (so to speak). Whether this is from use or age or something else is unclear, but I like how it makes the broom look like it could glide across the floor without any human help, like something out of Fantasia.

The broom will be featured in the upcoming exhibition Jim Cogswell Cosmogonic Tattoos, opening June 2. Artist and Professor Jim Cogswell drew inspiration for his window vinyl installation from Kelsey artifacts, including this broom. See if you can spot it in the exhibition or on the windows of the Kelsey!

 

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From the Archives — April 2017

BY SEBASTIÁN ENCINA, Museum Collections Manager

Around the world, the Kelsey Museum is known as the home for the excavations at Karanis, which the University of Michigan conducted between 1924 and 1935. The collections and archives from this expedition continue to fascinate us, and they provide a wealth of information we continue to revisit through many projects. Scholars from everywhere look to the collections, both artifacts and archives, to further research and our understanding of Egypt under Roman power. Here in Ann Arbor, the collections play an important role with classes and exhibitions.

When Francis Kelsey was finding funding for the Karanis expedition, he was actually initiating a fund to excavate at multiple locations. In 1924, U-M went to Karanis, as well as Antioch and Carthage. These latter two sites turned out to have single-season excavations, as the focus was placed on Karanis due to its rich artifact and papyrological finds. U-M stayed there through 1935, when finally excavations were completed. However, the team did not excavate only at Karanis during this time, as they ventured to other sites while in Egypt. In 1931, the team went to Soknapaiou Nesos (Dimé), and in 1935 they excavated at Terenouthis. Each of these also turned out to be a single-season excavation due to a number of reasons.

Since 1931, the Kelsey has still housed the archives and artifacts from Dimé. Not nearly as plentiful as Karanis, it still provides a wealth of information for archaeologists working at Dimé today. These archives were deposited within the papers of the Karanis Expeditions, not even separated into their own collections. Because of the tremendous attention paid to Karanis, the Dime archives are not as often studied.

Over the past academic year, Classics professor Arthur Verhoogt made an effort to focus on Dimé again. Prof. Verhoogt worked with two UROP students, Bianca Gallina and Josiah Olah, to revisit this collection, study what they could within the Kelsey as well as Bentley Historical Library. The two students scoured the letters, papers, drawings, and maps, and made note of what they found that would be useful to researchers.

For this month’s From the Archives, we present some of the items they digitized. Much like Karanis, the excavations at Dime resulted in some impressive maps. These will likely look familiar to some readers, as the style and look of these maps are similar to those from Karanis. The maps include triangulation points, cross sections, and overview of the excavation site. Having these on hand will assist us in understanding the work carried out at Dime nearly 90 years ago. This is even more important to our colleagues who continue working at the site. This Spring term, the students will continue digitizing more archival materials, including house drawings. In Autumn, the Dime excavators will visit Ann Arbor to further research the materials housed here. By then, we hope to have everything digitized to provide even greater access.