Conserving a dog skull

BY MADELEINE NEIMAN, 2014–2015 Samuel H. Kress conservation fellow at the Kelsey Museum

This past Friday marked the opening of our new exhibition at the Kelsey: Death Dogs: The Jackal Gods of Ancient Egypt. My favorite object in the exhibition is a desiccated dog skull excavated from Karanis, a Roman-period village in Egypt. Here at the conservation lab we have affectionately named the skull Kalbi, or “my dog” in Arabic.

While he is not the prettiest specimen, the conservator in me is amazed by Kalbi’s phenomenal state of preservation. Large portions of the dog’s skin were preserved by the arid desert environment at Karanis. Even his eyelids and nose remain! Today, I thought I would share with you the challenges of displaying Kalbi, as well as how we overcame those challenges.

Challenge 1: The dried skin covering the skull is extremely fragile. Skin is composed of a network of collagen fibers — chains of amino acids that are spiraled together to form fibrils that, in turn, bundle together to form fibers. As the skin covering the skull dried, the fibers shrank and stuck together, causing it to become brittle and cracked. In several locations along the edges, the delicate skin was in danger of completely falling off.

Solution 1: Cracks in the skin were stabilized by gluing small pieces of Japanese tissue beneath the cracks. The tissue acts like a splint; it bridges/reinforces splits in the skin and secures loose pieces in place.

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Gluing Japanese tissue mends under cracks in the skin.

Challenge 2: Several of the teeth had fallen out of the dental aveoli — the small voids in the jaw that hold the roots of the teeth. While we could easily secure the teeth in place with a small amount of adhesive, figuring out their correct anatomical location was trickier.

Solution 2: For assistance, we turned to Richard Redding, a Kelsey Research Scientist and zooarchaeologist (specialist in archaeological faunal remains). Richard determined the proper placement of each tooth, and we glued them into place.

Challenge 3: We needed to find a way to put the head back together. The dog’s head came to the lab in two pieces; without muscles to hold them together, the skull and jaw had separated. Unfortunately, the fragile teeth and delicate skin along the lower jaw meant that the skull could not safely rest on top of the jaw.

Solution 3: A mount. The creation of mounts is typically the domain of our talented exhibition preparator Scott Meier. When objects are particularly fragile, however, Scott and the conservation staff collaborate. In this case, we combined forces to create a mount that would allow the skull to float above the jaw, giving the appearance of a complete head without allowing the two pieces to touch. Scott made a raised support using a carved wood block and brass dowels. To the top of the wood block, I attached carved pieces of ethafoam, which keyed into raised areas along the base of the cranium, locking it into place. With the skull held above, the jaw could be slid into place below. Each piece is separately supported, but Kalbi’s head appears complete.

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Kalbi on display at the Kelsey Museum.

As you can see, the preparation of objects for exhibition is a team effort! We hope you will come by to visit Kalbi and all of the other artifacts on display in Death Dogs: The Jackal Gods of Ancient Egypt.

My Favorite Artifact

When it comes to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s collections, not all artifacts are created equal. Some call out to us intellectually, others emotionally.

BY ANN VAN ROSEVELT, Adjunct Research Scientist Emeritus, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Her learned background includes a BA in classical studies in English from Vassar College and three MA degrees in classical studies, museum procedures, and classical archaeology from the University of Michigan. Associated with the Kelsey for nearly 50 years, currently as a volunteer docent.

Sculpture of a Lion
Sculpture of a lion.

Favorite Artifact: Sculpture of a lion. Limestone. Roman period (1st–4th century AD). Karanis, Egypt. KM 25785. U-M Excavations, 1924–1935.

Why. “This lion’s rather human profile reminds me of movie director Alfred Hitchcock! It looks a little like a cartoon character. It’s a comfortably sized lion and not frightening. There probably weren’t free-ranging lions in Egypt during the Coptic period, so I can’t help but wonder if the sculptor was using a sphinx for a model?”

About Artifact: One of many sculptures that University of Michigan archaeologists uncovered at Karanis during its 1924–1935 excavations, this sculpture of a lion appeared in Curator Elaine Gazda’s 1978 Kelsey exhibition Guardians of the Nile: Sculptures from Karanis in the Fayum (c. 250 BC–AD 450).

Background. According to Kelsey curator T. G. Wilfong, Karanis was a town in Egypt’s Fayum region, founded around 250 BC to house a population meant to work newly reclaimed agricultural land. It was a farming community with a diverse population and a complex material culture that lasted for hundreds of years after its foundation. Ultimately abandoned by its inhabitants and partly covered by the encroaching desert, Karanis eventually proved to be an extraordinarily rich archaeological site, yielding thousands of artifacts and texts on papyrus that provide a wealth of information about daily life in the Roman-period Egyptian town.

The University of Michigan excavated at Karanis from 1924 to 1935, and during these seasons the Egyptian government granted nearly 45,000 of the artifacts discovered to the University of Michigan. Along with extensive archival records and photographs of the excavation, the Karanis material forms one of the major components of the collection of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.

Find It. On the first floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing, look for the statue of the seated priest near the stairway to the second floor. You’ll find the sculpture of a lion in the exhibit case right behind the seated priest on the left.

Learn More. A number of books about U-M’s Karanis excavations are available in our Gift Shop, or online from ISD, including: Karanis: An Egyptian Town in Roman Times; Discoveries of the University of Michigan Excavation to Egypt (1924-1935), edited by Elaine K. Gazda with new preface and updated bibliography by T. G. Wilfong.

Looking for non-elites at Gabii

BY J. TROY SAMUELS, Ph.D. student, University of Michigan Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology

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Me, at right, looking for non-elites (and numerous other things) at Gabii with Dr. Marilyn Evans (ICCS). Photo courtesy of the Gabii Project Facebook page.

As a student in the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology moving from the coursework phase of my time at U-M toward the dissertation-writing phase, I had the opportunity this summer for preliminary research in my dissertation topic: non-elites in Republican central Italy. Archaeology has long been a discipline associated with the material of elite lifestyle. It has often been far easier to attract interest with a fancy temple or golden ornament than with the potentially mundane trappings of non-elite life. Because of this, non-elites in the ancient world have, in general, received considerably less attention than their elite compatriots. While this imbalance has been changing over the past half century, there is still (thankfully for me) much work to be done.

My current research focuses on a major lacuna for studies of this important group: the early and middle Republican period (roughly speaking, the early 4th century through the early 1st century BCE) in central Italy. Non-elites are not the only poorly understood topic for this period; this has always been a bit of an archaeological terra incognita (the typical example for this lack of information being mid-Republican Rome itself, where Augustan and later imperial building projects have largely obscured the city’s “teenage” years). However, new research has begun to expand our understanding of life during this formative phase of the Roman state. The University of Michigan excavations at Gabii have been leading the way in these discoveries, uncovering Republican habitation on a scale hitherto unseen (for more, see my earlier blog post/associated links). However, as much of this activity is elite in appearance, the non-elites at Gabii remain enigmatic.

This past summer, while excavating at Gabii, I have made a conscious effort to promote the study of the city’s non-elite population. This has taken both a research-based and a pedagogical form. It is important to question what exactly we mean by elite: is it a value judgment based on the quality of material or craftsmanship? Is it based on our assumptions about life in Republican Italy? While I do not have (nor do I believe there is) an easy answer to this question, it has been productive reformulating this in as many ways as possible. It has also, I hope, been productive in challenging the students working at Gabii, making them question the material they are excavating. In doing so, they can begin to consider the less visible, possibly non-elite, individuals involved in the production, consumption, and distribution of the artifacts we discovered. This summer has proved highly productive, and I hope that my continuing research will help problematize and further bring to the forefront these sometimes invisible yet crucially important participants in Roman life.

My Favorite Artifact

When it comes to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s collections, not all artifacts are created equal. Some call out to us intellectually, others emotionally. We wondered, “Which artifacts move our staff?”

 BY KATHRYN (KATE) CARRAS, Entrance Monitor, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan. A self-confessed “fiberholic” with two degrees in textile studio art from Eastern Michigan University, in her spare time Carras spins, knits, weaves, crochets, embroiders, and knits dolls from her own patterns. She is currently learning rug-hooking and Japanese braiding (kumihimo).

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Fragment of woven wool tapestry.

Favorite Artifact. Small fragment of woven wool tapestry. Roman period (1st–4th century AD). Karanis, Egypt. KM 10534.

Why. “I first saw this textile fragment when I worked on a Karanis textile cataloging project for former Kelsey curator Thelma Thomas. The image — which may be a lion or some other creature — looks more like something out of a Pac-Man game. As a spinner and weaver, I appreciate all the textiles in the museum, but this little cartoon character is special.”

About Artifact. This small tapestry fragment features the motif of an animal that appears about to eat a red/purple object. The design is somewhat oval with an outer ring of yellow crested wave motif on the red/purple backgrounds.

The ancient weaver used light brown wool for the warp (set of vertical threads) and the weft (set of horizontal threads), along with a lighter yellow, red/purple, and blended yarn of red/purple and blue. Although the weft in the plain brown weave shows damage on the fragment’s edges, the colors remain vivid and still show luster.

This piece was one of approximately 3,700 textile fragments excavated by University of Michigan archaeologists during their 1924–1935 Karanis expeditions. Historic textiles from the Roman period and later antiquity are rare in many parts of the world, but Egypt’s dry climate fortunately preserved great quantities of them.

Background. Museum namesake Professor Francis W. Kelsey began a series of excavations in Egypt that were intended to find artifacts and documents in an archaeological context to illustrate daily life in the Greek and Roman world. These excavations began with the site of Karanis (modern Kom Aushim), extensive ruins of an abandoned town of the Greek and Roman periods. The University of Michigan spent eleven seasons at Karanis, where the team unearthed a wealth of material of everyday life. Thousands of these objects were given to the University by the Egyptian government, and the artifacts are now housed at the Kelsey and the papyri at the Papyrology Collection at the University of Michigan Library.

Find It. Currently not on exhibit, this fragile textile is protected in our climate-controlled collections storage. Scholars should contact Kelsey Collections Manager Sebastián Encina at sencina@umich.edu for further information.

Learn More. The book Textiles from Karanis, Egypt, in the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology: Artifacts of Daily Life, by Thelma K. Thomas, is available for purchase in our gift shop or online from our distributor, ISD.

Curator Favorites

When it comes to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s collections, not all artifacts are created equal. Some call out to us intellectually, others emotionally. To that end, we asked our curators to name their favorite Kelsey artifact or object. Here is the fourth in a series.

Seated Dignitary from Karanis, Egypt
Seated dignitary from Karanis, Egypt.

BY T. G. WILFONG, Curator of Graeco-Roman Egyptian Collections, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, and Professor of Egyptology, University of Michigan

Favorite Artifact: “Statue of a Priest.” Black basalt. AD 50–100. Karanis, Egypt. KM 8218.

Why. It’s hard to resist this statue: it’s a lively example of how Egyptian art adapted and survived into the Roman period. Although this isn’t a portrait, we get a vivid sense of the anonymous priest that this statue represents. With his smiling, eager expression, our priest seems ready to get off his seat, while the monumental quality of the statue attests to the endurance of Egyptian culture into Roman times. I never get tired of looking at this statue.

About Artifact. This statue was found in a courtyard near the South Temple by the University of Michigan’s 1928 expedition at the ancient site of Karanis (modern Kom Aushim). It represents a very late manifestation of traditional Egyptian style, all the more valuable because of its archaeological content.

Although classically Egyptian in its formality and frontal, symmetrical orientation, the statue’s proportions are not those of classical ancient Egyptian art. Its pose and monumentality hark back to the Old Kingdom but do not reflect the earlier canon of proportions. For example, the head and ears are bigger than one would expect.

The figure wears not only a traditional Egyptian short kilt but also a sash across his chest. The shaved head and costume indicate a priest, and he would have served the cult of two crocodile gods of the South Temple, Pnepheros and Petesouchos. The priest would have participated in the daily cult activities of the temple and its periodic festivals, and he may even have been involved in oracles delivered by the crocodile gods or the mummification of actual crocodiles as votive offerings.

Background. This statue has a number of parallels from elsewhere in Egypt’s Fayum region; a similar statue from Soknopaiou Nesos (modern Dimé) very closely resembles this example. Most of these statues are inscribed, some in Greek and some in Egyptian Demotic.

The Kelsey’s statue itself would have had an inscription on its base but was left unfinished: minor detailing work on the figure was not done, and the base and back pillar remain rough, in preparation for an inscription that was never written. Therefore, we do not know the name of our Karanis priest and can only guess about the specifics of his titles and duties from what is known generally about priests of his time.

“Statue of a Priest” anchored a special 2013 Kelsey exhibition: “Karanis Revealed, Part II.”

Find It. Fittingly, “Statue of a Priest” sits serenely (perhaps contemplating the day’s temple activities) in its own exhibit case on the first floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Look for it between the Graeco-Roman Egyptian case and the stairway leading up to the Roman galleries.

Check out Wilfong’s new book, Life, Death, and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt: The Djehutymose Coffin in the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.