Ugly Object of the Month — March 2017

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator

Are any of you readers out there a Girl Scout? I was a Girl Scout, and I’ve still got my sash hanging in a closet somewhere, covered with a pretty decent number of badges. For those who are unaware, a Girl Scout earns a badge when they learn a new skill or visit a cool place (like a museum). The most memorable badge experience I had was learning how to safely use a pocket knife. Although not quite as compact as today’s modern, Scout-wielded pocket knives, this month’s Ugly Object reminds me of all that is good about a micro tool kit. You’ve got your rings (in this case iron and two smaller bronze rings), attached to which are various picks and what looks like a pair of tweezers. I mean, what self-respecting Scout (or ancient person) would ever journey into the splinter-infested wilderness without tweezers? We’re pretty sure that this set was used for medical purposes, and I can just picture something like this hanging from someone’s belt alongside keys and a wallet chain (ok, maybe not the wallet chain). Whoever it was that possessed this handy tool kit had the right idea: always be prepared.

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Bronze and iron tool kit. KM 1485a–g.

You can catch a glimpse of this ugly but handy artifact in The Art and Science of Healing: From Antiquity to the Renaissance until April 30, and after that you can find it in the healing and beauty case in the 2nd floor galleries.

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.

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!

Ugly Object of the Month — October 2016

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator

It’s October, folks, and that means the season of decorative gourds and dressing up in festive costumes is upon us. This is partly why I chose this ceramic figurine of Harpocrates as October’s Ugly Object.

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Ceramic Harpocrates figurine, with intact ground and paint layers. 2nd–3rd century AD. KM 6449.

Who, you might ask, is Harpocrates? He was a deity worshipped in Ptolemaic Egypt, a child version of the sun god Horus. This ceramic figurine bears many of Harpocrates’ signature traits, such as a finger raised to his mouth, the double crown and crescent moon, and a garland. This figurine is also probably one of many identical ceramics produced for mass consumption.  But what’s really cool, to me, is what’s going on the surface: this Harpocrates is seriously decked out in a variety of well-preserved paint colors, which include black, pink, red, yellow, and blue. Equally cool is the likelihood that other ceramics like this one, many of which retain no polychromy at all, were just as colorful.

While documenting the figurine I thought it might be worth doing some technical imaging of the pigments, to get a preliminary idea of what they could be. The longwave ultraviolet luminescence (UVL) image revealed that the pink garland is likely made of rose madder pigment, and the visible-induced infrared luminescence (VIL) image showed traces of Egyptian blue pigment on the structure next to Harpocrates, as well as on his crown. The remaining colors are likely iron-based earth pigments, and the black carbon-based. Other techniques that could help us confirm these results include XRF or FTIR spectroscopies, the first of which (like imaging) is non-invasive.

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Left: UVL image showing orange autofluorescence of madder in the garland. Right: VIL image showing luminescent Egyptian blue stripes to the right of the figure, as well as in the crown.

This highly colorful Harpocrates will be on display at the Kelsey starting February 10, 2017, as part of the upcoming special exhibition The Art of Science and Healing: From Antiquity to the Renaissance, curated by Pablo Alvarez.