Ugly Object of the Month — January 2020

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

It’s January, the fresh new month of a brand new year and — in this case — a whole new decade. Official entry into the ’20s mostly makes me want to drink Prohibition-era cocktails, but many people make more healthful resolutions at this time of year. For example, to improve fitness or lose weight. If this is you, maybe you’ve decided to motivate yourself by upgrading some of the items in your gym bag. Enter this month’s Ugly Object, an aryballos, a small oil bottle that was a key item in the ancient Greek athlete’s grooming routine.

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Ceramic aryballos with traces of pigment. 700–650 BCE, National Museum of Athens, 1933 exchange. KM 10925.

aryballos

After a workout, an athlete used the oil from the flask during bathing. A cord could be passed through the hole in the top of the handle so that the bottle could be carried hanging from the wrist, or hung up at the baths (painted vases from ancient Greece show both scenarios). These little jugs also sit well on a flat surface. The opening in the top is small, too, with a wide neck to help prevent accidental spillage of one’s fancy, perfumed oil.

 

Today this little bottle looks functional but plain, but that’s only because it’s been around for 2,000+ years and has lost some of its pizzazz. Back in the day, it would have been a very snazzy addition to one’s gym kit. The potter used a compass to carefully inscribe the surface with a pattern of small scales, which were then painted red, black, and yellow. Colorful and stylish, this would have been a great item to motivate you to finish your workout.

 

This object is also a favorite of former Kelsey Museum director Sharon Herbert, who wrote a blog entry about it here if you’d like to read more, and you can see it for yourself in the ancient Greece case in our first-floor galleries. Although your plastic shower gel bottle is probably looking pretty sad to you now (sorry), I wish you the best for a happy and healthy new year.

Ugly Object of the Month — May 2018

By Caroline Roberts and Suzanne Davis, Conservators

For this month’s Ugly Object blog post we felt that we should pay homage to a small but significant variety of artifact: the pottery sherd. There are millions of these things out there, in the field, patiently awaiting discovery. So why the reverence? Because while pottery sherds may be irregular in shape and incomplete in form, these little dudes are often jam-packed with information. We recognize that we’re preaching to the choir, archaeological ceramicists out there, but for those who were unaware of the vast informational value of sherds, consider this month’s Ugly Object.

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KM 1980.2.39, exterior and interior views.

KM 1980.2.39 is what we would call a rim sherd, meaning that it was once part of the rim or opening of a vessel. What drew us to this particular sherd is its relief decoration, which reminds us of ornament that we’ve seen in classical architecture. But beyond this we knew little about the artifact. To learn more, we approached guest curator Chris Ratté to ask him what he thinks about the sherd:

Chris Ratté: This is ugly?! Why don’t you understand that this is a beautiful sherd?

Conservators: Well, this is not exactly fine art. But a lot of our “Ugly Objects” possess qualities that might be otherwise overlooked, such as charm or informational value.  Anyway, what can you tell us about this sherd?

Chris Ratté: The sherd comes from a mold-made Megarian bowl. The guilloche and egg-and-dart relief patterns are similar to moldings I know from architecture, such as at the temple of Apollo at Didyma.

Conservators: Cool! Can you tell us how the bowl was fabricated?

Chris Ratté: The bowl was thrown into a mold on a wheel. The relief pattern in the mold was cast from a silver vessel. The bowl itself was made in imitation of a particular type of metal vessel connected to the Egyptian king Ptolemy’s visit to Athens.* The ceramic bowls that were made from this were very popular, but were not produced for very long.

Conservators: Wow! Who knew? How was the bowl used?

Chris Ratté: For drinking. The bowl wouldn’t have had handles, and I like to imagine what it might have felt like to hold the vessel in my hands and feel the relief beneath my fingers.

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Urban Biographies guest curator Christopher Ratté.

Want to learn more about this and other diagnostic sherds? Be sure to visit the Kelsey starting August 24th to see the upcoming exhibition Urban Biographies, which will demonstrate ways in which artifacts and modern technologies are used to study ancient (and modern) cities.

*Ptolemy V Epiphanes and his son Ptolemy VI Philometer visited Athens in 182 BCE for the Panathenaic Games.