Ugly Object of the Month — September 2018

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

As our readers know, this blog series celebrates all the not-exactly-fine-art items in our beloved archaeology museum. A big focus of our collection (and our ongoing research and teaching) is daily life in the ancient world, but another big area of focus for our museum is centered on excavation-based research and teaching. Our current exhibition, Urban Biographies, Ancient and Modern, celebrates this, with a very cool look at three of the Kelsey’s current field projects, each focused on an ancient city, AND a special focus on the methods archaeologists use to study ancient cities. Detroit, our closest big, urban neighbor, provides a contemporary comparison.

In the Detroit area of the exhibition, you can see a lot of great stuff, including videos of Detroit residents talking about their neighborhoods, urban farmers talking about Detroit’s modern-day farms, and an urban archaeologist from Wayne State University talking about the archaeology and history of the city.

In this part of the show, you can also see a giant block of … wait for it … DIRT.

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Soil sample taken from the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm in Detroit’s North End.

Yes, this big case of dirt is our Ugly Object of the month. I love this block of dirt because it is exactly like the vertical soil samples archaeologists use to study different occupation levels at archaeological sites, including active cities like Detroit, except it’s way better because it’s a lot bigger than the small-diameter core samples archaeologists usually use. I like being able to see the different levels and kinds of dirt, including — all the way at the bottom — sand from an ancient lakebed. Other layers tell different stories, like a layer with chunks indicating construction materials and a very old trash dump.

I’m an avid gardener, and I live in hope that one day the dirt in my back garden will tell me an interesting story, like this big block of soil does. So far, I have found one tiny toy car and a marble. Maybe I’m not going deep enough ….

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Urban Biographies, Ancient and Modern will be on view at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology through January 6, 2019.

 

 

 

Join the Conversation about the Museum’s Latest Special Exhibition!

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On August 24 the Kelsey Museum’s latest special exhibition, Urban Biographies, Ancient and Modern, opened to the public. It will be on display until January 8, 2019. An online version of the exhibition will remain available on the Kelsey website even after the museum show closes. 

The exhibition features Kelsey-sponsored archaeological research at Gabii in Italy, Olynthos in Greece, and Notion in Turkey and compares these ancient cities with modern Detroit. Comments on both the exhibition and the website are very welcome.

What does the concept of an “urban biography” mean to you? What do you think we can learn by comparing past and present? What are some of the details of the biography of your hometown, or of another city you know well? Please leave a comment in the “Leave a Reply” box at the bottom of this page.

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.