The Kelsey Blog – Behind the Scenes at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Events Roundup

The Kelsey is bringing you some interesting and fun virtual events to wrap up October. Follow the links for more information, and remember to keep an eye on our website events calendar to stay abreast of the latest happenings.

Thursday, October 28, 6 PM
Hybrid FAST Lecture | The Greek Colonization of Southern Italy: A Multi-Scalar Approach to Cultural Encounters

Our speaker for this hybrid in-person and virtual lecture is Giulia Saltini Semerari, a research affiliate of the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropological Archaeology (UMMAA). Dr. Saltini Semerari’s research seeks to harness the Mediterranean’s rich archaeological record to reconstruct and model diverse aspects of cultural contact. In particular, she is interested in understanding how small and large-scale socioeconomic dynamics affect long-term fluctuations in connectivity.
Physical Attendance Location: Classics Library (2175 Angell Hall)
Virtual Attendance Location: Zoom Meeting ID: 984 5928 9799 // Passcode: 706013

Friday, October 29, Noon
Museums at Noon | At the Intersection of Time and Culture: Reflections on Researching Ancient Sculpture in the Present-day Louvre

IPCAA’s very own Zoe Ortiz will discuss the ancient site of Gabii, the sculptures that once stood there, and their journey to the Louvre. (Registration is required to attend this Zoom webinar.)

Saturday, October 30, 2 PM
Virtual Saturday Sampler | Spooky, Weird, and Magical: Halloween with the Kelsey

This tour explores a variety of objects in the Kelsey through the lens of Halloween. We’ll look at animals, mummies, funerary inscriptions, headless sculptures, and more from the ancient Middle East, Greece, Egypt, and Rome. 

Ugly Object of the Month — October 2021

By Laurel Fricker, IPCAA grad student 

If you’re still looking for a Halloween costume, I have one for you! This month’s Ugly Object is a stylized Late Roman clay female figurine just waiting to be adapted into a costume. With her outstretched arms, she is interpreted to be an orant. The orans pose is a gesture of prayer often seen in Roman, Byzantine, and Christian art.

Female orant figurine made of painted clay. Height: 13 cm. Late Roman period, 4th–5th c. AD. Excavated at Karanis, Egypt, 1925. KM 3768.

She is a human figurine in the most simplified sense: she has arms, stubby little outstretched things that end abruptly; legs, which start midway down her torso and are only separated by a small yellow-painted channel; and pointed feet. Her head is a flattened half-circle that is connected to her body with a thick neck—which happens to be the same width as the rest of her torso! Most of the features on her face and the rest of her body are painted on, except for her pinched beak-nose and her two knobby breasts. In addition, there is a hole on each side of her head, presumably for earrings that have since been lost.

The painted details are both this figure’s saving grace and a point of comedy. The figurine appears to have been painted all over with a base white paint (calcite-based) with details added in black (carbon-based), red (ochre), and yellow (ochre) paints. Because of the preserved pigments, we can see that she is wearing some sort of red and black headband. However, she is also wearing a painted-on amulet somewhat counter-intuitively below her breasts. Her eyes are hastily drawn simple black circles with a dot in the middle, but one overlaps with her nose and the other is cut off by the black outline of the headband. She seems to be wearing some sort of clothing (at least pants?), indicated by the red bands outlined with black that run down the middle of each leg. Does she have a mouth? It’s hard to say. The trio of black, red, and black lines painted horizontally across her neck could be part of her garment and would accord best with how her clothing is drawn on her legs, but this all makes for a very interesting outfit that sports a gaping hole across her chest (some sort of reverse crop top?). It’s a good thing this figurine hails from Karanis, Egypt, because her attire does not seem to offer much coverage or warmth!

Although she was hastily constructed by hand and seemingly painted with little care, she holds a special place in my heart. Her stubby arms, knobby breasts, and beak-nose are just so silly. To make her into your costume, find a white body- or jumpsuit, grab some red, black, and yellow paint and a couple of brushes, and get to work! Add some costume jewelry—necklace and earrings—and you are good to go.

Wish you had been there when Vesuvius erupted? Pittsburgh feels you.

Hey, history nerds! For those of you who are within driving distance of Pittsburg and are itching to take a road trip, the Carnegie Science Center has an exhibition currently on view about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

With over 180 objects on loan from the Naples National Archaeological Museum and an “immersive 4D eruption theater” that uses CGI imagery, surround sound, vibrations, and special effects to bring Mount Vesuvius to life “with startling reality,” Pompeii: The Exhibition seems like it might be worth the price of admission.

Or, for a less bombastic experience, you could come to the Kelsey and sit in the calming quiet of our Villa of the Mysteries room.

If you decide to make the trip, let us know what you think about the exhibit!

Join us on YouTube for a Scribal Snacks Cook-Along!

Today is International Archaeology Day and to celebrate, the Kelsey has produced an archaeology-themed cooking demonstration. Scribal Snacks offers a tasty exploration of two of the world’s oldest writing systems: Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mesopotamian cuneiform. Cook along with Kelsey Museum Community and Youth Educator Mallory Genauer as she creates sugar cookie ushabtis and cuneiform lentil tablets. Head to the Kelsey website to download and print the recipe sheet, materials list, and helpful resources about hieroglyphs and cuneiform. When you’re ready, navigate to the Kelsey YouTube channel to watch the video and cook along with Mallory. Have fun creating your scribal snacks, and be sure to share photos of your cookie creations using the tag #EatYourWords!

Hungry for more? The Digital Resources playlist on our YouTube channel has many bite-sized videos about aspects of the ancient world, including Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mesopotamian cuneiform.

New Podcast Interview and TED-Ed Animated Video from Geoff Emberling

Kelsey Associate Research Scientist Geoff Emberling has been busy! He’s featured on the October 7 episode of the podcast Tides of History, hosted by historian Patrick Wyman. In the 42-minute interview, Geoff talks about the long and fascinating history of Kush, the contentious nature of previous archaeological research in Sudan, how he came to work in the region, and his projects at El-Kurru and Jebel Barkal.

Geoff also served as the academic consultant for a TED-Ed video about Kush. Published on earlier this month, the beautifully illustrated video short outlines the rise and fall of this ancient African civilization.

From the Archives #70

By Sebastián Encina, Collections Manager

There are many skills that come in handy when one decides to be an archivist. An understanding of subject matter is beneficial, as it allows the archivist to understand the collection they care for, how to best organize it, and how researchers will access and use the information. Having a good memory is also a benefit to the archivist, as questions often come years apart. On top of all this, an archivist should be well organized.

One aspect of being a good archivist is often not taught or discussed: the ability to decipher handwriting. Archives are composed of a wide variety of materials: typed letters, drawn maps, photographs, and, of course, handwritten letters. They are written in a number of languages, using regional vocabularies, and often not written very neatly. Archivists spend a good amount of time trying to understand what word someone was using or distinguishing a cursive ‘l’ from a cursive ‘e’ and still not fully understand what the person has written.

For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present a selection of letters written by George Robert Swain in 1926 as he traveled to Europe and Egypt. Swain is writing to his family, affectionately referred to as “My Dear People.” On the first page, Swain speaks about heading out, traveling with U-M President C.C. Little, and securing visas to enter France, Italy, and Egypt (at $10 per). In these letters, Swain also speaks of Ned, Swain’s son Edwin L. Swain, who accompanied the elder Swain on these travels. On the first day in New York City, George and Ned meandered through the aquarium and took in the feature film Ben Hur after dinner (“I am inclined to think is the most amazing film I ever saw” [sic]). On the second day, they visited the Museum of Natural History. Through his letters, which almost act as a journal, Swain recounts nearly every aspect of their trip. At the close of letter 2, Swain adds the postscript, “I suppose my next letter will be from France,” indicating that they are off to Europe. Swain signs each letter as “Daddy.”

The letters begin Friday, March 5, 1926, and continue through Sunday, August 15, 1926. There are close to 200 pages of letters with information bursting out the seams. It takes a while to become accustomed to a particular person’s handwriting, but it doesn’t make it easier to read. However, once the words become legible, we see the affection Swain had for his family, and we learn about the adventures he and Ned were able to enjoy. We see how Swain’s travels correspond with the excavations, where they were each day, and what was happening on those days. We learn not only aspects of the archaeological trip, but also about life in the 1920s. What was happening in the world that was affecting them and those they were surrounded by?

There is so much to learn from the materials found within an archive if only we are able to read them. Over time, archivists become familiar with the people they read about, the vocabulary they use, and their penmanship. It can take a long time to eventually breeze through a letter as if it was one’s own handwriting, but once we can, it opens up a whole new world for us to encounter.

A selection of letters from George R. Swain to his family, March 1926.

Events Roundup

We hope you can join us for one or more of these upcoming events offered by the Kelsey Museum.

Thursday, September 30 | 6:00 PM | Hybrid FAST Lecture | “The Archaeology of Western Anatolia, ca. 1200–133 BCE,” by Christopher Ratté

Our speaker for this hybrid in-person and live-streamed FAST event is IPCAA core faculty member Dr. Chris Ratté, whose lecture is entitled “The Archaeology of Western Anatolia, ca. 1200–133 BCE.” His research focuses on the role played by the built environment, from individual monuments to regional settlement patterns, in the articulation of social and cultural identity, especially in regions on the peripheries of the Greek and Roman worlds.

Physical Attendance Location: Classics Library (2175 Angell Hall)
Virtual Attendance Location: Zoom Meeting ID: 977 7669 0432, Passcode: 747615

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Friday, October 1 | Noon | Flash Talk |“Once Upon a Time, There Was a River: The Environmental History of the Tiber Valley before Rome, from the Neolithic to the Iron Age,” by Laura Motta

Due to a bad internet connection, this Flash Talk could not take place in July as originally scheduled. We apologize for any inconvenience and hope you can join us on October 1 for a do-over!

It is entrenched in much of the historical and archaeological literature that the success of Rome was due to its favorable location along the major river in peninsular Italy. Is this assumption true? Indeed, we know little about the natural settings of the Tiber before it was encroached upon and urbanized during the late Republic and Imperial periods, creating an “eternal” image of the landscape. Recent investigations have instead revealed important changes in the local vegetation and a very dynamic fluvial environment, possibly affected by tectonic episodes, between 5,000 and 3,000 years ago.

Kelsey Museum Flash Talks are 15-minute Zoom lectures by Kelsey curators, staff members, researchers, and graduate students talking about their recent research or current projects. Each presentation is followed by 15 minutes of Q&A. Flash Talks are free and open to all visitors. They take place at noon on the first Friday of every month.

Join us via Zoom at:
Meeting ID: 965 5105 2011
Passcode: Kelsey

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Saturday, October 18 | 2:00 PM | Virtual Saturday Sampler Tour | What Is Archaeology? (Family Event)

Celebrate International Archaeology Day with the Kelsey Museum as we explore the question, What is archaeology? Have you ever wondered how archaeologists reconstruct the past just by looking at the artifacts they find? Join us for this family-friendly virtual tour to learn about the archaeology of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome!

Join us via Zoom!

Welcome, 2021–2022 IPCAA students!

The fall semester is in full swing here at U-M. Now that we’ve all hit our stride, let’s meet the incoming cohort of IPCAA students.

Lauren Alberti

Lauren Alberti graduated magna cum laude with her BA in anthropology and classical studies at the University of New Mexico. She received an MA in classics with an emphasis in classical archaeology and a certificate in geographic information science at the University of Arizona. While in this program, she investigated the exclusivity of the Mycenaean state-sponsored feast by analyzing the built environment of potential feasting locales. Lauren also received an MA in comparative literature and cultural studies at the University of New Mexico. For this thesis, she explored Greek sympotic drinking behavior contextualized within the concept of the metron. Lauren has participated in archaeological projects in Greece, Italy, Ireland, and the American Southwest. She is also a collaborator for the WebAtlas of Ceramic Kilns in Ancient Greece. Her research interests include the sociopolitical implications of communal drinking events, sympotic poetry (particularly archaic Greek), identity construction and manipulation, and GIS.

Caroline Everts

Caroline Everts received her BA at Union College, New York, in 2019, with a double major in classics and anthropology. Graduating with honors, her undergraduate thesis examined the connections between burial practices and social identity in early Iron Age Greece as evinced through grave goods. During the spring of 2018, she studied at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome. In 2021, Caroline earned her MA in classical art and archaeology from the University of Colorado Boulder. She has excavated the children’s cemetery on Astypalaia, as well as completed fieldwork in Italy at Aeclanum and worked with pottery from the Suburban Baths at Pompeii. Caroline’s research interests include the use of spatial and visual narratives, their connections to social identity, and their relationship within structures, particularly as shown through domestic architecture in the provinces.

Abigail Staub

Abigail Staub earned her BA in archaeology and art history with a Latin minor from the University of Virginia in 2020. During her time at UVA, she conducted a multi-year, independent research project focused on cult spaces across Pompeian industries that resulted in the creation of a comprehensive database of shrine niches and religious paintings in Pompeian commercial spaces. This ultimately culminated in a distinguished major thesis, for which she earned high honors. During her time in Charlottesville, she also worked as an education intern at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Australian Art Collection and was employed as a museum assistant and docent at the Fralin Museum of Art. After the completion of her BA, she earned a post-baccalaureate certificate in classical studies from the College of William & Mary (2021). Abigail has completed a research assistantship in Pompeii (2018) and has excavated with the University of Michigan’s Gabii Project as a field school participant (2019). Her research interests include liminal identities in the Roman world (such as laborers, enslaved peoples, the elderly, and women), personal religion, and the materiality of domestic space. She is also passionate about museum pedagogy and accessibility of information to those outside the field of classics.


A hearty welcome to you all! We’re looking forward to getting to know you better and following your academic progress here at Michigan.

News from the Conservation Lab — It’s Fall, Y’all

By Suzanne Davis

Campus is hopping with students and faculty here in A2, and I have to say—it’s pretty fun. Our Wolverine community is doing great on vaccinations and masking, and the energy from having everyone back together is inspiring. Meanwhile, here in the conservation lab, lots of projects are either continuing or just getting started.

A new(ish) project I’m especially excited about is the Kelsey’s Jebel Barkal Archaeological Project, which is gearing up for a 2022 winter field season in Sudan after being grounded during 2021. We have several generous sponsors for this work, including the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, which will be funding conservation work at the site through a large Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation grant. If you’d like to learn more, please visit our brand new website, which I and several of my colleagues have been developing over the past month. I encourage you to sign up for the Jebel Barkal blog and stay tuned, since we’re working on adding other social media.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that we luuuuv fall around here. Luckily for us, it’s the autumnal equinox and the weather has turned right on schedule—from 80 degrees and sunny to 60 degrees and raining like crazy. We’re putting on sweaters and re-reading Colin Nissan’s McSweeney’s essay on decorative gourds. I’m not going to link it, because the language is too fruity for a family-friendly blog, but if you already know and love it, now is officially the time to get reacquainted.

Image by Janelle Batkin-Hall.

Ugly Object of the Month | September 2021

By Caroline Roberts and Suzanne Davis

Fragment of a wall painting from Karanis, Egypt, first–fifth centuries CE. KM 26982.

This small and funky fragment of wall painting—excavated at Karanis in 1924—is part of our lab’s technical color research project. What exactly does it show, you might ask? Good question. We knew we were looking at fleshy bits of a human, but we spun this sucker around and around trying to guess what bits. Suzanne thought it was an arm (with an elbow joint) and an archaeologist friend thought it was a leg. Annoyingly, the ancient painter did not define the anatomy well enough for us to make a clear determination based on the joint in question. In the end, however, we decided our archaeology buddy (shout-out to Craig Harvey!) was right, based on … wait for it … the garment we see on display here.

What is obviously a highly fashionable couture cloak is draped luxuriously behind the figure, and the way this falls makes more sense for a leg than an arm. This lovely pale pink garment is lined in blue-gray, with black detailing along the seam of the lining. Seen against the pink of the outer fabric, the lining looks almost purple. And here is where the color research comes in.

The pink is rose madder, but what is the blue-gray-almost purple color? When we imaged (MSI) and analyzed (XRF) it, we discovered that it doesn’t contain Egyptian blue. This isn’t totally surprising, since the color doesn’t much resemble Egyptian blue (which tends to be more greenish), but how did the painter get this shade? The color contains iron and titanium, and it turns out that the black lines in this fragment are also from a paint rich in titanium and iron. So the black pigment isn’t a typical carbon-based black, but—whatever it is (and we have a good guess about this, actually)—it’s probably being used to create the purplish/bluish cloak lining.

Bottom line, this pigment could be what’s known as “optical blue,” a mixture of calcite and black pigment. Alternatively, the fragment could be from a later but still extremely cool period where people were wearing awesome cloaks. Excavation records link the fragment to a wall in a room in a house dating to the first–fifth centuries CE, however, so we’re still believing it’s ancient. But we will need to bring in other forms of analysis (possibly FTIR) to pin down exactly what pigment we’re seeing here.

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