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.

 

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.