Ugly Object of the Month — February 2018

BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator of Conservation

Last month’s Ugly Object skated perilously close to downright attractiveness, so you will be delighted to see us getting back to our roots in February, with a truly hideous creature.

Ugly_Feb 2018
Earthenware “sphinx.” AD 1890–1898, Michigan, United States. UMMAA 21492.T.

This bizarre-looking bird-thing, which is trying to pass itself off as a sphinx, if you can believe that, is especially special to me because Francis Kelsey himself was moved to comment on it. It’s a nineteenth-century fake, made in Michigan, and it and its brethren were so freakin’ weird and caused such a fuss that the University of Michigan acquired some of them (google “Soper Frauds” — or better yet, come read about them at the Kelsey). In a 1908 article for the journal American Anthropologist, Kelsey wrote,

The interest of the spurious relics to which I have the pleasure of inviting your attention is, in last analysis, more psychological than archeological; so novel are their designs and so crude the workmanship that an archeologist of training in any field could hardly fail to recognize at a glance their true character.

Nicely said, Professor Kelsey!

These forgeries do not represent a high point in Michigan’s state history, but they are really very ugly and make for a great story, which is what we love here in our ugly object blogging. I like how this one — which, again, is supposed to be a sphinx — looks like a cross between a turkey and gargoyle. It has a particularly hilarious facial expression that seems to convey both surprise and confusion, which is probably how a lot of archaeologists felt when they saw it for the first time. Come see it for yourself now in the exhibition Excavating Archaeology @ U-M: 1817–2017, open through May 2018. A virtual version of the exhibition lives on the Kelsey website in perpetuity.