From the Archives 19 — 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.

Ugly Object of the Month — April 2017

CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

April’s Ugly Object isn’t an object per se. It’s a specimen — a shell — and it was excavated at Karanis during the 1924–25 field season. It’s rather small and unprepossessing. But to me this shell is a thing of beauty. Why? It is a murex shell, and was once the likely carrier of shellfish purple (or Tyrian purple), one of the most valuable dyes in antiquity. Pliny wrote at length of the Roman passion for purple, and described in detail the extraction and processing of the color from a gland found in the throat of the snail. The dye produced a range of purples from magenta to purple-black. One can imagine the vast numbers of snails that would have been needed for a dye vat large enough to color the yards and yards of textile used in the elite fashion industry of Rome. Pliny cites an observation by the 1st-century BC biographer Cornelius Nepos that a pound of dye would have sold for 100 denarii — about half of the annual salary of a professional soldier. This was some seriously valuable stuff.

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Murex snail shell KMA 3712, Graeco-Roman Egyptian galleries, Kelsey Museum

Tyrian purple, like many other natural colorants, has now been chemically synthesized. We can buy a shirt or sweater in purple or any other color today at very little expense, which makes it hard to relate to the craze that drove people to seek out the murex snail on Mediterranean beaches. I can’t think of a color today that screams “bling” the way purple did in the ancient Roman world. Can you?

You can spot the murex shell in the Graeco-Roman Egyptian galleries on the first floor of the Kelsey’s Upjohn wing.

References to the text of Pliny the Elder, The Natural History (Historia Naturalis) Book IX, Chapter 63 are from a translation by John Bostock, M.D.  London: George Bell and Sons, Covent Garden. 1890.

Artifact investigation

CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator

I love a good mystery, and nothing (save a really good crime novel) is better than an artifact mystery. I love the thrill of investigating an object, identifying its agents of deterioration, and nabbing those culprits one by one. I also really enjoy teaching new conservators how to use investigative tools to make their own observations. I recently spent a day looking at an object with Ellen Seidell, a U of M junior who is interning in our lab. The ceramic bowl — excavated at Karanis in 1929 — was covered with feathery white crystals, as well as a drippy, peeling surface coating. I had my suspicions as to what these were, but wanted Ellen to learn for herself how to identify unknown materials.

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Left: Ceramic bowl before treatment. Right: bowl under longwave ultraviolet light.

To do this, we examined the bowl under longwave ultraviolet light. This is a useful tool not only for crime-scene investigation, but also for identifying varnishes and coatings. Ellen and I could immediately see a bright yellow luminescence on the surface. We then performed a chemical test to determine that the coating was cellulose nitrate — a material used to treat newly excavated artifacts in the 1920s and ’30s. Finally, we determined that the white crystals were salts. Water-soluble salts like these can be absorbed into artifacts during burial. Fluctuations in humidity can cause salts to crystallize and re-crystallize inside the object, which can cause damage to artifact surfaces.

So what did we do with this evidence? First, we decided to remove the salts. I felt that this would be a good experience for Ellen, since not all salty bowls have the advantage of being in a climate-controlled museum, and since monitored desalination is an important conservation skill. Next we addressed the coating, whose identity allowed us to choose an appropriate solvent for its removal — which Ellen did herself. The treatment is complete, bringing the case of the salty, peeling bowl to a close (for now).

Ugly Object of the Month — February 2017

SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator of Conservation

This month’s Ugly Object is one of ancient Egypt’s niftiest, most all-purpose and off-the-chain gods: the god of war, but also of childbirth, fertility, sexuality, and humor, he was also known as a protector of the household. He’s never the tallest or best-looking guy in the room, but he’s one of our very favorites — he’s Bes.

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Faience Bes figurine. 1st–3rd century AD. University of Michigan excavations at Karanis, Egypt. KM 25979.

This particular Bes figurine looks (take your pick) like a gremlin or an ewok, or one of many other creatures one might find in the Nordic fairy-tale woods. The way he’s manufactured also makes him look kind of like a gummy bear. No matter, folks! Beauty isn’t everything, and Bes is up to the job. See him yourself – he’s on view at the Kelsey starting February 10, as part of the special exhibition The Art and Science of Healing: From Antiquity to the Renaissance.

From the Archives — December 2016

BY SEBASTIÁN ENCINA, Museum Collections Manager

When December comes around, faculty, staff, and students often scurry away from Ann Arbor in order to spend time with their friends and family for the holidays. Campus becomes a bit quieter, the lines at the cafes are short and manageable. People relax for a bit before beginning all over again in January.

The excavations at Karanis in the 1920s and 1930s functioned a bit differently. Excavations in Egypt are best when scheduled for non-summer months, in order to better deal with the climate (summer months in north Africa can be brutally hot!). For example, our current project at Abydos often goes in early spring. The Karanis team members were aware of this factor, and prepared for the situation. Excavations took place in late Autumn and early Winter, meaning the crew would be there over the holiday break and New Year’s. Though some family accompanied them overseas, the extended family was not there.

The staff of the Karanis project tried to make the camp as close to “home” as possible. This would include having some extra family along with them. A part of many families is the inclusion of furry children, the dogs and cats that help round out a home. For this month’s “From the Archives,” we are presenting a selection of some of these furry friends, the mascots that kept staff company during the long days and months in Egypt.

The Kelsey Museum has often showcased Plupy, a dog named after a popular series of dog stories. But there were other animals there as well. There were the cats that were allowed to roam around catching mice, including Topsy. There was also the water donkey. Plupy and Gyp were the primary dogs of camp.

The publication Karanis Revealed showcased some of these animals, even featuring the picture of Gyp chasing Topsy up a flag pole.

This holiday, as you try to keep warm, the Kelsey Registry extends the warmest holiday wishes to you and your pets. The need and desire to keep furry friends by our sides is one we have witnessed for a long time. Even in a temporary living space like the camp at Karanis, there was this need for having an extended family nearby.

 

 

 

Ugly Object of the Month — December 2016

SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator of Conservation

Hello, readers! How are you? I ask because a lot of people I know are feeling tired and stressed. The academic term is ending. Some people have to take a lot of exams, other people have to grade a lot of exams. If you’re a graduate student, you might be doing both. What about your plans for the winter break? All set? Well, that’s great. I’m very pleased for you. Sadly, some of us have not been so organized and now we are really regretting it.

What’s the solution? I’ll tell you, although you might’ve already guessed. Yes, it IS once again time to invite relaxation and happiness into your life by contemplating an ancient, ugly object. Some people might call this kind of activity “procrastination,” but those are not people we care to know at the moment. So enough jibber jabber, let’s get to it.

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Clay figurine of a woman. 3rd–4th century AD. Karanis, Egypt. KM 7525.

I know I say this about every Ugly Object, but this one is really the best. When it was excavated in 1928 in Karanis, Egypt, the excavators described it as a “roughly made mud figurine, small,” and categorized it as a toy. The last bit might not be true, but the rest checks out. The object is made of unfired clay, it’s burned, and it’s broken. Not the best-looking figurine on the block, in other words, but it is surprisingly detailed and well-crafted for something made of mud. It fits easily in the palm of your hand and has a hairdo reminiscent of Bart Simpson’s. The breasts and necklace are carefully delineated, as is decoration around the navel. And, although you can’t see it in this photo, shoulder blades have been modeled on the back.

Was it really a toy? Today, scholars think not. Former IPCAA student Drew Wilburn has studied this figurine as evidence of magic at Karanis, and he writes that it was most likely used as part of a love spell. Although the suggestion is that this spell was compulsive in nature (you know, a spell to make someone fall in love with you), the exact details of the figurine’s use are not easy to determine.

The bottom line, for me, is that it was created in the service of love. Somebody loved somebody else, and wanted it to be reciprocal. We don’t know how things worked out for our ancient, lovelorn friend but, in his or her memory, we can take a few minutes today and in the days that come to send love to people we care about. Thankfully, we don’t need a spell, or a burned mud figurine. Because let’s be honest — it would be hard to top the perfection of this one. Also, now we have texting and Snapchat.

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!

From the Archives — September 2016

BY SEBASTIÁN ENCINA, Museum Collections Manager, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

The Kelsey Museum’s newest exhibition, Less Than Perfect, is now open to the public and available for viewing. With this show, curator Professor Carla Sinopoli has demonstrated how not everything we collect at a museum, and not everything left behind in archaeology, are beautiful works of art. Instead, archaeologists often find wasters, mistakes, errors. Rather than dispose of them as of little value, archaeologists collect these to learn more about the production method, about the people who left them behind, and about so much more.

Less Than Perfect has three themes running throughout the gallery: Failed Perfection; Deliberate Imperfection; Restoring Perfection. Each theme has a number of examples from antiquity (and also ones not so old) that speak to the topic. Many of these come from the Kelsey collections, while the rest are borrowed from the University of Michigan’s Museum of Art and Museum of Anthropological Archaeology.

The materials from the Kelsey collections came from various sources. Some, such as the ushabti, are from archaeological excavations conducted by the University of Michigan in the 1920s and 1930s. Others were collected by private collectors. The postcard image of the glass vessels in a row, showing various states of “imperfection,” come from Egypt, but were not found through digging. Instead, these were collected by Dr. David Askren. The glass shows how mistakes happened during production. Many of these may have been left unsold due to their flaws. Others may have been sold, or put up for sale, perhaps at a discount. Do these show the mistakes of a professional, or the learning curve for an apprentice?

Though they were not collected through controlled excavations, the objects do teach us about production, materiality, and aesthetic appeals of the people who made and collected such items. It is important to have these in a museum, and show them to the public that art is not just what is beautiful, and we don’t learn only through the pristine pieces.

Francis Kelsey was keen on gathering a collection of artifacts for educational purposes here in Ann Arbor. He was not so interested in the perfect item, but the wide range that taught the breadth of history. When he could not make the purchases himself, he relied on surrogates, such as Dr. Askren.

Dr. Askren was a missionary and doctor living in Fayoum, Egypt, where Karanis is located. Askren served as a confidante for Kelsey, and a man on the ground at Karanis. Kelsey listened to Askren on matters taking place at Karanis, but also as a connection to dealers and people in the area. Askren was hired as doctor for the Karanis dig, but he held a more intricate role on the project.  In their 2015 book and exhibition, Passionate Curiosities, Drs. Lauren Talalay and Margaret Root discuss the relationship between Askren and Kelsey.

Talalay and Root learned about Askren and his dealings by spending copious amount of time in the archives of the Kelsey, as well as in the Bentley Library and other repositories. The archives provide an opportunity for us to not only learn about the collections and where they originated, but  also give us a glimpse into the people who did the collecting. Askren is not just a name in the files from whence a portion of our collections came from, but an actual person with a family and history. By spending time in the files, a more complete image of that person comes forth. For this month’s From the Archives, we present Dr. David Askren, along with his wife and children on the steps of their home in Egypt. This gives us an image of a man who was crucial to the collections of the Kelsey, not only with his own collecting, but his service to Kelsey and E.E. Peterson, Karanis director. Askren connected the men to locals, was instrumental in the day-to-day handling of Karanis, and served as a colleague of Kelsey’s on important matters.
The archives are often sources for much discovery. We go in expecting to find the history of the museum and its collections. We count on the archives to hold maps, and journals, and excavation notes. And then we find some personal histories. We learn about the names that dot the letters and journals and newspaper clippings. We learn about their connections to the Kelsey Museum, and all they did for the institution. A more complete story emerges, one that shows the reach of the Museum its connections throughout the world.

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Dr. David L. Askren, Mrs. Askren, and their six children, on the steps at the entrance to their house, Medinet-el-Fayum, Egypt. (George R. Swain, April 29, 1920, Medinet-el-Fayum, Egypt)
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Glass vessels, 400–700 BC. Gift of David Askren. KM 5073, KM 5077, KM 5069, KM 5070, KM 5076, KM 5075 (Image by Randal Stegmeyer, March 21, 2016, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA).

Ugly Object of the Month — August 2016

BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator of Conservation, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

 

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Woolen sleeve from a child’s tunic. 2nd–4th century AD. KM 13995.

 

This month’s Ugly is a hideous but sweet little specimen: the ripped sleeve of a child’s tunic. It looks pretty bad. It’s the kind of raggy little thing which, if you found it in your house, you’d probably throw away. And in fact, that seems to be what happened: when University of Michigan excavated Karanis, Egypt, in the 1920s, the team found this in the ancient town’s street.

This grotty little rag will soon be featured in the exhibit Less Than Perfect, on view at the Kelsey August 26, 2016, through January 8, 2017. The exhibit explores three themes: failed perfection, deliberate imperfection, and — my favorite — restoring perfection. The sleeve occupies this latter category, because of the elbow patch designed to extend the life of the garment.

Was the sleeve ever perfect? This seems debatable to me, but its seamstress did take care to make it attractive. The rolled hem is nicely finished with an overcast stitch in a contrasting red thread, and the elbow patch or applique (originally twice as big as what remains today) has an interesting woven design in blue and cream.

Today, of course, the wool has yellowed, the sleeve is ripped, the seams have failed, and half the original patch is missing altogether, as is the rest of the tunic. But I can imagine that someone treasured it for a long time, before finally giving up on the garment and throwing the remains in the street. Come see this cute-ugly bit of ancient detritus for yourself!