Greetings Earthlings! We have another feature from our NEH-sponsored Color research project this month—another Isis Aphrodite! This time she has taken the form of a small-but-mighty polychrome figurine from Karanis. Our graduate assistant Laurel Fricker did some sleuthing and discovered that this may be an Isis Aphrodite Anasyromene, or Aphrodite lifting up her skirt. Hers isn’t exactly a skirt—more like a robe—and it is painted purple. Purple paint is a source of intrigue to scientists. You could produce it in a lot of different ways, by combining a variety of red, pink, blue, and black pigments. Sorting these mixtures out can present a challenge when investigating purple on artifacts. The purple on this Aphrodite is one of only two instances of this color we’ve found on a painted object from Karanis. It’s a mixture of rose madder and another unidentified pigment—we’re still working on figuring this out.
Having studied over 100 objects from Karanis and Terenouthis, it’s interesting that we’ve found such a small number of purple-painted pieces (only three total!). Not sure what this means yet, but stay tuned!
Welcome, dear readers, to Ugly Object of the Month Halloween edition (cue the spooky organ music)! I’ve been sharing a lot of ancient panel paintings with you folks lately, and I hope you’re ready for more…
because this month’s object is, indeed, a painted wood panel from Karanis, Egypt (cue the maniacal laughter)!
Can you make out the (dare I say?) spooky lady emerging from this panel’s aged, discolored paint layer? You may be wondering… who is this mysterious figure? If you can’t tell looking at the object under visible light, take a look at the infrared reflectance image below. The woman is clad in a diaphanous robe, jewels, and a conical crown, all of which suggest that she is a goddess—probably Aphrodite. In Roman Egypt, Aphrodite and Isis were often worshipped as a single deity, and her potency took on aspects of both goddesses: fertility, childbirth, but also rebirth. Which makes this lady more magical than mysterious.
Discerning readers, are you worried about getting a regular, reliable dose of Kelsey Museum Uglies each month? We feel you, and we promise to do better. Things have just been extra exciting around here with the start of the fall term, which is the first, real, full-on, in-person, students-everywhere, what-the-heck-happened-to-Ann Arbor, and is-it-a-home-football-weekend-again? kind of term in three years. We used to do this every year, but thanks to COVID we’re out of practice, and it’s been nuts. Thankfully, you can relax and enjoy a belated Ugly right now!
This month, my top pick is more of a historical than archaeological object, and actually it’s more of a building than an object, and you might disagree that it was ugly (I do – I liked it). But look–if it wasn’t ugly before, it sure is now. It is the Fleming Administration Building, once a cool modernist gem, now a giant hole in the ground.
The Fleming Administration Building was designed by the famous modernist architect Alden B. Dow, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. Dow, who was based in Midland, Michigan, also designed 18 other buildings in Ann Arbor (five on the U-M campus). The Fleming building was built in 1964, before the civil rights demonstrations at U-M, but a myth arose that the fortress-like building had been purpose-built to foil protestors. In truth, Dow’s arrangement of vertical and horizontal bands of limestone, with windows of varying sizes arranged in a grid, were meant to make the otherwise blocky brick façade more interesting. Fans of the Dutch modernist painter Piet Mondrian will note the similarities to Mondrian’s work.
Yet while I enjoyed looking at this building, it was reportedly miserable to work in, and it was also falling apart, with bits of the brick veneers popping off and creating hazards for passersby. So this September, the building was deconstructed. Not demolished, but deconstructed; pulled apart bit by bit, very carefully, because it is located near a dormitory, a plaza, the student union, the parking garage where I park, and a bunch of frequently trafficked sidewalks. The deconstruction was fascinating, gripping the entire central campus community. So even though I didn’t want the building to be torn down, morbid fascination glued me to the spectacle. Please enjoy my amateur snapshots, and you can see official U-M photography here and read more about the building’s history here and here.
Caroline Roberts, Conservator, and Leslie Schramer, Editor
Greetings, Ugly fans! How is it already September?? Time has no meaning anymore … but luckily, we have our Ugly Object blogroll to keep us centered.
We have a special treat for you today. That’s right, it’s a DOUBLE UGLY since, whether you noticed or not in the mad days of the bygone summer, we sort of failed to post July’s Ugly Object.
Though separated by time and distance, these two Uglies have a few things in common. A) They are arguably NOT so ugly, and B) they are not what they appear to be. Let’s meet them, shall we?
The first object is a painted portrait of a woman that was purchased by David Askren, a colleague of Francis Kelsey’s who worked as a physician at the United Presbyterian Hospital in Asyut, Egypt, in the early 20th century. The portrait (along with two similar portraits purchased by Askren at the same time), is now believed to be a modern forgery.
Thanks to our new NEH–funded XRF spectrometer, we now know more about the paint materials that were used to create this portrait—and it seems to confirm what our curators have long suspected. We found the elements barium, iron, lead, nitrogen, sulfur, and zinc in the background and in the woman’s hair and robe, as well as cobalt in the blue beads of her necklace. These are consistent with barium sulfate, cobalt blue, and zinc white—pigments that were introduced in the 18th and 19th centuries.
We can learn a lot from forgeries like this one. For one thing, it demonstrates how the demand for Egyptian antiquities in Europe and the US drove some ethically dubious practices, from the production of fakes to the commodification of real artifacts, in the early 20th century. It also provides comparative physical evidence—pigments we would expect to see in a forgery from this time period—that can help us better separate authentic ancient portraits from fakes. Empirical evidence is key, my friends.
And speaking of fakes, check out this little guy. Looks pretty nice, right? Like a beautiful, polished sample of giallo di Sienna, I bet you were thinking.
You’ve been pranked! It’s not giallo di Sienna at all. It’s not even stone!! It’s a piece of plaster that’s been painted to look like stone! Because, why not? Why cut and polish a piece of relatively common stone when you could sacrifice many hours and possibly your eyesight adding painstakingly realistic details of veining and color to a rectangle of plaster with no apparent function other than to look pretty?
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m a big fan of art for art’s sake. I’m just saying.
This little curiosity was given to the Kelsey Museum in the late 19th century. According to its Kelsey Museum accession record, it once belonged to a “Miss Wanere,” who gave it to the Kelsey on January 10, 1896. We don’t know where she got it, or why she had it. But evidently, she thought it belonged in a museum of antiquities.
We don’t know a lot about this particular piece, but if you’re interested in the biographies of chunks of stone in the Kelsey Museum, you happen to be in luck. The Kelsey has over 700 pieces of ancient stone (yes, I’m aware that virtually all stone is ancient. No lectures, please.) fragments from various quarries and archaeological sites around the Mediterranean. Most were gathered (picked up, purchased, found) by Francis Kelsey himself, who liked them for teaching demonstrations. Others were donated by friends and acquaintances who no doubt knew of Kelsey’s penchant for old rocks of a decorative or architectural nature. All 700+ of these stone fragments (and this one stone look-alike) have been carefully studied by Michigan-affiliated scholars J. Clayton Fant, Leah E. Long, and Lynley McAlpine, who have written a nice little book about them. The illustrated catalogue, which is currently in production here at the Kelsey, focuses on archaeological context and object biographies, following each piece from its creation to eventual deposition in the Kelsey Museum.
We look forward to the day when we can announce the publication of this catalogue. In the meantime, you can come to the Kelsey and see a sampling of these marble fragments in person. They are on the second floor, tucked away in the drawers beneath the Roman Construction case.
The Kelsey gallery cases are filled with ancient artifacts from the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions, with more artifacts available to the public in drawers below the cases. A visitor might be overwhelmed if their goal is to experience every object on display! The objects in the gallery, however, represent a small portion of the collections at the Kelsey due to the limitations of display space. The remainder of our over 100,000 object collection resides in collections storage.
There are numerous reasons why certain objects remain in storage, but their potential for research and adding to our knowledge of the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East is not one of them. Researchers from all over the world travel to Ann Arbor to study the collection, each researcher approaching the objects with unique questions about the people who created, owned, and used the objects. In July 2022, researcher Dr. Francois Blondel from the University of Geneva spent several weeks at the Kelsey collecting tree-ring data from wooden objects excavated in Egypt that date to the Roman period (1st century BCE–5th century CE).
Using a binocular microscope and measuring table, Dr. Blondel measured the distance between tree rings observed on the wooden objects (including KM 88723, featured in June’s Ugly Object blog). With each press of a button to record the measurement, software, connected to the measuring table, creates (or draws) the growth curve of the wood (or its growth pattern) as it goes along. The resulting curve characterizes all the variations of ring widths in these ancient artifacts crafted from ancient trees. Dr. Blondel repeated this process at least three times with each object to obtain the most complete sequence possible and also to compensate for possible measurement errors due to the lack of ring legibility on some complex objects. This data will then be compared to a database of tree-ring measurements and interpreted by Dr. Blondel in a future academic paper to help date the objects. This process of using the growth rings of trees to date objects is called dendrochronology.
We look forward to what his research uncovers about the ancient world and its people, and how the objects in our collections contribute to his findings!
The Kelsey Conservation lab has been in operation since the 1970s—thanks to former director John Pedley, who launched the conservation department here at the Kelsey—and some of our equipment likewise dates back a few decades. Our old binocular microscope may very well go back that far and has served us well over the years, allowing us to clean coins, count threads, and identify any number of salt encrustations. But this summer, we decided that the time had finally come to replace it. In its place we now have a Leica S9i stereomicroscope, and I am admittedly geeking out over it. The new ‘scope has an extendable arm that will allow us to perch the instrument over large objects, as well as a built-in camera, so we can simultaneously examine objects and visualize what we’re looking at in real-time on our laptops.
Last week I used our new microscope to capture the chunky orpiment particles that are embedded in this yellow(ish) paint layer on KM 23976. This painted wood panel from Karanis depicts what looks like an eagle, and around its neck is a gold collar. The artist chose to use orpiment, a brilliantly yellow arsenic sulfide pigment, to create the pendant. Although it has faded and darkened over the centuries, the pendant would have practically sparkled in antiquity. No wonder orpiment’s Latin name, auripigmentum, means “gold pigment.”
Be sure to stay tuned for more cool images from our new ‘scope!
Did you know that Kelsey Museum researchers and students participate in a broad array of archaeological field projects throughout the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and North African region? These excavations continue to enrich our understanding of the ancient world and give us a fuller view of the past. Archaeology uncovers, both figuratively and literally, new pieces of information that add to or alter our modern knowledge of ancient people and places.
To bring more attention to the Kelsey’s active field projects, we want to answer your questions! Between Tuesday, August 9, and Wednesday, August 31, specialists at the Kelsey will answer all your questions about archaeology and fieldwork. Participating is easy. Search @KelseyMuseum on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, find one of our #TrenchTalkTuesday posts, and type your question in the comments field. Kelsey archaeologists and specialists will respond before the end of August. Your question might even be featured at the Kelsey Museum!
What would you like to know about archaeology? What ancient materials or objects would you like more information about? What about some of the field sites, like Gabii in Italy, Notion in Turkey, Abydos in Egypt, or Jebel Barkal in Sudan? Explore the Kelsey’s Current Field Projects web pages to get you started.
We look forward to your questions!
Not on social media? We still want to hear your questions! Email your archaeology-based questions to KelseyMuse@umich.edu before August 23, 2022.
We all have our nemeses—you know, those people, things, or tasks that cut us off at every turn, constantly elude us, or simply drive us mad. Mine is the high E from that confounded clarinet solo in “Moonlight Serenade,” which I could never manage to deliver without squawking out like a deranged waterfowl. In Roman Egypt, Nemesis was a goddess who punished people for becoming overconfident in their good fortune, and who often took the rather menacing form of a gryphon.
This month’s Ugly Object is a fragmented but colorful panel painting featuring Nemesis in gryphon form framed within a temple façade. Her face and front right leg are no longer present, but you can make out her beak, mane, and wings, and her left paw resting on the wheel of fate. At the center of the pediment above her is an intriguing medallion (painted in green earth, my favorite of the green pigments), its contents obscured by damage. In a way, it’s fortunate that Nemesis’s eye is also missing since her gaze would certainly be bad luck to anyone who meets it! On the other hand, we’re lucky that so much of the panel’s original paint remains intact, as this has provided us with another interesting point of study for our NEH–funded color research project. We are just starting to synthesize the pigment and dye data we’ve gathered from over 140 objects, including more painted panels, sculpture, ceramics, and textiles, and if the fates allow we may yet reach our 200 object goal later this summer. Stay tuned!
This month’s Conservation blog post serves as a send-off for Laurel Fricker, our wonderful graduate student researcher for the Color Project. Laurel is finishing her third year in the IPCAA program and will be spending her fourth year at the American School in Athens. We are so excited for her, and so sad to see her leave! We wanted to feature Laurel once more on the blog before she heads off on her Greek adventures and get her take on her experience exploring ancient polychromy at the Kelsey over the past year.
Carrie: Hey, Laurel! I love that you are as excited about ancient color as we are, however, I know your research interests go beyond this topic. Can you tell folks more about them?
Laurel: I primarily study houses and households in ancient Greece and I am really interested in exploring questions related to the daily lives and identities of the inhabitants of ancient Greek houses. To do this, I hope to take an object-focused approach where I will connect objects uncovered in houses with their findspots to see how much can be said about the different activities that took place in houses and what can be determined about the people who did those activities.
C: Awesome. So what drew you to the Color Project? What were you hoping to learn?
L: I have always been interested in the idea of exploring color on ancient objects, but I was never afforded the opportunity to do so until the Color Project. I was completely blown away when I was first told that ancient sculpture was originally brightly painted, as many of the objects held in museum collections and presented in textbooks are not often discussed in terms of their original color. I played with the idea of researching ancient color for a term paper during my master’s degree, but unfortunately it was not encouraged, and I did not pursue the topic any further. When I saw the announcement that Kelsey Museum conservators Suzanne and Carrie had won this incredible NEH grant in December 2020, I knew I had to reach out and see if I could get involved. Thankfully they said yes!
I don’t really remember what I was hoping for when I first joined the project; I just know that I wanted to learn as much as possible, gain new skills, and develop deeper connections with the Kelsey Museum staff. I can confidently say that I accomplished all three!
Suzanne, Carrie, and I could not start our work in the lab right away because of COVID restrictions on campus, so the first few months involved a lot of intense reading and research. This was really eye-opening for me! Carrie and Suzanne knew so much already because they had already been doing some multispectral imaging (MSI) of objects in the Kelsey collections and because of Carrie’s work curating the Kelsey Museum’s 2019 exhibition Ancient Color. I, on the other hand, was completely underprepared when I first started; there is a good amount of scholarship discussing different avenues for researching color on ancient objects and what other scholars have discovered through this work and I had a lot of catching up to do! I had not touched chemistry since high school and suddenly all these articles on X-ray fluorescence (XRF) were discussing different elemental compositions of pigments and other articles on MSI were presenting data on different wavelengths of light and what this meant for showing traces of pigments. I was definitely out of my comfort zone at the start, but it has been a lot of fun to see my growth over this year and to have all the articles I read early on start to make sense as I do the work in the conservation lab myself. I have learned a great deal and I am looking forward to continuing this work when I come back from my year in Athens!
C: How many objects have you looked at for the project so far? Which one is your favorite and why?
L: One of the goals of the Color Project is to study about 200 Roman Egyptian objects housed in the Kelsey Museum that have documented excavation contexts from Karanis and Terenouthis in Egypt. My role in the project involved researching the ceramic objects included in the list, primarily figurines from Karanis.
Over the past academic year, I spent around 120 hours in the conservation lab under Carrie’s supervision. During that time, I imaged and analyzed over 35 objects. Studying each object was a multi-step process: capture a condition record photograph, complete an MSI workup, process the MSI photographs, enter the MSI data into the spreadsheet, investigate the pigments with XRF, process the XRF data and enter it into the spreadsheet, record all the data in the appropriate way according to our data-management protocols, and then upload the most important information to the Kelsey Museum database!
Picking just one favorite object is really tricky! So here are two:
First is KM 6449, a Harpocrates figurine standing next to a stove piled with bread, holding a pot, and leaning on an amphora. Excavated at Karanis in 1935, this figurine is really fun because of the amount of color that has been preserved that is visible to the eye—red and blue on the stove, pink on the amphora and the pot, yellow for the amphora base and in the curly hair, and black dots on the bread and as a ground line. This object was a treat to study because it was incredibly cool to see all this preserved color. However, everything was not exactly as it looked to the eye. In addition to the pink visible on the amphora and pot (a pigment created from mixing red ochre and white), there was a different pink in the crown! This pink was only shown through MSI as the area fluoresced orange under ultraviolet light, meaning it is a rose madder. Then the blue turned out to be Egyptian blue—the MSI infrared image showed the blue area clearly luminescing. I really enjoyed the process of studying KM 6449 and it was one of the first objects where I finally felt confident and that I knew what I was doing!
Second is KM 6578, a figurine of Eros on a swan rising out of waves. When I first joined the project and Suzanne and Carrie were deciding on the list of objects to study, this object was my first request. Sadly, this figurine does not come from a Michigan excavation—it is a purchase—but it is one of my favorite pieces in the Kelsey collection. Eros on the swan is another figurine with a great deal of color preserved and visible to the eye: the swan is white and has a red beak and feet and there are two different shades of purple on the swan’s wings, the waves are blue, and Eros still has a good amount of his skin tone. The purples are interesting because they are likely mixes of red ochre, a white, and differing amounts of carbon black to get the two different shades—this shows that the artists were capable of creating different colors and mixing pigments to get new shades. Also, this figurine had a lot of Egyptian blue present, both in the waves and in parts of the white of the swan, likely included to add depth and shading to the torso of the swan.
I could keep going—there are so many incredible figurines that I have studied this year!
C: I love those two! They both have some of the best-preserved color on any of the terracottas in the Kelsey collection. Can you tell our readers—why do you think it’s important to study color on archaeological materials?
L: I think color is a really important area to study because for too long our interpretation of the ancient world has been one that seems white, monochrome, and dull. But that is not the case; just like today, the ancient world was full of color! The architectural decoration of public buildings, the walls and floors of houses, figurines, votive offerings, pottery, and garments were all decorated and full of color and this fact is still only slowly gaining the attention of scholars. There is still this idea in popular culture that the white marble statues seen in major museums and presented in books are a reflection of notions of perfection and beauty. These ideas are incorrect and can be extremely harmful. I won’t go into detail about this here, but this has been written about by scholars such as Sarah Bond; one of her articles can be found here.
There are many different avenues that can be explored using color, including trade and connections when it comes to the sourcing and creation of pigments, questions of identity and the decisions that go into choosing different colors, and the cultural values and ideologies exemplified by different colors and pigments. Further, as I am interested in the lived experiences of people in the ancient world, every piece of information that helps me better understand their daily lives—including how colorful their surroundings were—is exciting!
C: It’s true that we have so much more to explore on this topic. But looking ahead, are there any cool sculptural or architectural polychromy you’re looking forward to seeing in Athens next year?
L: Next year I will be in Athens as a member of the American School of Classical Studies and part of the program involves site and museum visits all over Greece. While I am sad to be away from the Color Project and figurines in the Kelsey, I am very excited to see if my better-trained eye can pick out more traces of color on different objects on display now that I have a better understanding of the different pigments in use in the ancient world. I am especially excited to see the Peplos Kore and the Kore from Chios again, both on display in the Acropolis Museum in Athens. The two korai have traces of color preserved in their hair and on their garments. These large Archaic Greek marble sculptures are quite different than the small Roman Egyptian terracotta figurines that have been my friends for this past year, but they are just as fascinating. And I am excited to be surprised by color and see traces of pigments when I don’t expect them!
C: Thanks, Laurel! We can’t wait to hear all about it.
The semester here at U-M has come to a close, and that means that our resident IPCAA students will soon be drifting away to do their summer research. These guys have been super busy this past year, and we have a whole slew of amazing updates to tell you about.
Caitlin Clerkin successfully defended her dissertation, “Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, Revisited.” Caitlin is currently in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as the Frederick Randolph Grace Curatorial Fellow in Ancient Art at the Harvard Art Museums. She’s working on a range of curatorial activities, including object-based research, exhibitions, and gallery/object teaching with the Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and ancient Middle Eastern collections.
Christina Difabio also successfully defended her dissertation, “Synoikism, Sympolity, and Urbanization: A Regional Approach in Hellenistic Anatolia.” She’s currently at Koç University, Istanbul, finishing her fellowship at the Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations (ANAMED).
Leah Bernardo-Ciddio: has been awarded a Graduate Student Fellowship at U-M’s Institute for the Humanities to support her work next year. Leah’s research addresses material traces of trans-Adriatic interactions between human, cultural, and object mobility in the Iron Age (early first millennium BCE).
Amelia Eichengreen has been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship in Italy. Amelia will use the fellowship to research her dissertation on Archaic domestic architecture in central Italy under the sponsorship of General Director Massimo Osanna (Ministry of Culture in Italy and University of Naples Federico II) and Prof. Paolo Brocato (University of Calabria).
Joey Frankl has been awarded a fellowship for the American School of Classical Studies in Athens Regular Member Program. The program is an immersive academic experience that includes residency in Athens for an academic year together with a small cohort of graduate students in Classical studies. The year will include visits to sites and museums across Greece, as well as coursework and independent research. Joey is hoping to use part of the year to make progress writing his dissertation, while also having an opportunity to gain a broader and deeper understanding of Greece’s archaeology.
Laurel Fricker has been awarded a White Fellowship from the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.
Machal Gradoz has received a U-M Rackham Predoctoral Fellowship to work on her dissertation, which examines local reactions to Roman hegemony in northwest Greece/ southwest Albania in the late-Hellenistic–early Roman period (ca. 150 BCE–150 CE). In June, Machal will be working as field director for the Brač Island Project (BIP) in Croatia. She will then head to Albania and Greece to finish up data collection for her dissertation.
Alex Moskowitz has been awarded an Olivia James Traveling Fellowship from the Archaeological Institute of America.
Theo Nash received a Vermeule Fellowship from the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.
Caroline Nemechek will be working as a volunteer intern at the MFA Boston with the department for the Art of Ancient Greece and Rome this summer, as part of her graduate certificate program in Museum Studies. She will be working in the recently re-opened galleries, updating the database to reflect the results of new research, and giving talks and tours based on the new presentation of the material in these galleries.
We are so proud of all of our amazing IPCAA students. We wish them all the best this summer, wherever their research takes them.