Ugly Object

Ugly Object of the Month — October 2020

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

It’s close to midnight
And something evil’s lurking in the dark
Under the moonlight
You see a sight that almost stops your heart …

small bronze figurine
Bronze figurine of ???, from Karanis, Egypt. Height, 5.4 cm. Roman Egyptian. KM 10886.

Happy (almost) Halloween, Kelsey blog fans! It’s October, and this month’s Ugly Object is something straight out of a horror movie. This bronze figurine was discovered in the South Temple complex at Karanis, and although an old catalogue entry identifies it as Eros, I don’t really buy it. I mean, this object doesn’t exactly radiate love and physical desire. Both feet and one hand are missing, and the one that remains is clutching something  — a cluster of grapes? Something more sinister? Cue the spooky music.

What really strikes me though is the figure’s weird posture, which looks like one of those impressive zombie dance maneuvers featured in Thriller. (Or maybe it’s just an awkward attempt at contrapposto — who knows?) Whether this is Eros or an undead version of him, this little figurine is going to haunt my dreams.

Ugly Object of the Month — September

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Hey, Ugly Object fans! It is great to be back at the Kelsey part-time and working with the collection again. One thing I’ve missed most about being away from the museum are the surprises — the chance discoveries than can happen while examining artifacts up close. This month’s Ugly Object is a rather unassuming funerary stela from Terenouthis, Egypt, showing a woman with upraised arms. At first glance, it doesn’t look like there’s much going on here beyond the carved figure, and I was not expecting to find more than a few small traces of pigment in the woman’s chiton. But as soon as I shined a UV light over the surface, hidden figures emerged! Look closely and you might be able to see a fringed shroud hanging over the woman’s left arm, an Anubis figure reclining on a plinth to her left, and below the woman’s feet … a painted inscription! 

Limestone funerary stela KM 21021 from Terenouthis, Egypt, late 2nd–early 4th century CE. Left, under visible light; right, under longwave ultraviolet light.

At what point did these images disappear? A photograph of the stela shows faint traces of the shroud, canine figure, and inscription, but the fact that they aren’t mentioned in the Terenouthis stelae’s published catalogue suggests that these elements had nearly disappeared by the early 1960s. Today, they are all but invisible to the human eye. Thankfully, some trace of the original paint remains in a form that is sensitive to UV light. This makes me wonder … how many other stelae have images and inscriptions that await rediscovery?

Stay tuned for more!

Ugly Object of the Month — August 2020

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

August 26 is National Dog Day, and our canine-loving readers out there will appreciate this month’s Ugly Object pick, a terracotta dog figurine from Karanis, Egypt. This previously painted ceramic pup was discovered in 1935, and its original function remains something of a mystery. We can all agree though that it in the 2,000 years since its manufacture (probably in a three-part mold), this figurine has preserved much of its original charm.

terracotta figurine of a small dog
Terracotta figurine of a dog from Karanis, Egypt. 1st–3rd century AD. Ceramic, gesso, pigment. KM 6909.

In fact, you’re probably wondering how this critter made our Ugly Object cut. If you’re able to look past the cute collar and curly tail, you’ll see a pair of highly skeptical-looking incised eyes — one of which has a brow that is ever so slightly raised. It’s a look not unlike the one I get from my toddler when I offer him asparagus. This adorable dog is … Discerning? Disgruntled? Maybe sleep-deprived?

Another mystery to ponder.

I learned about this and other canines in the Kelsey collection from Terry Wilfong’s catalog for his 2015 exhibition Death Dogs, which is available on the Kelsey website as a free PDF download, along with many more digitized publications.

Ugly Object of the Month — July 2020

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Greetings, Ugly Object fans! I thought it would be fitting to acknowledge 2020’s halfway point (can you believe it?) with a pointy piece of volcanic stone. This object is likely a single unit of opus reticulatum, a Roman wall-building technique that sets hundreds of these angular stones into mortar. The effect was a visually pleasing diagonal pattern that was also — according to Vitruvius Pollio — inherently flawed and prone to cracking. This particular block is from Pompeii and traveled here to Ann Arbor under the auspices of Francis Kelsey.

A piece of pumice from Pompeii, likely from an opus reticulatum wall such as that shown on the right (Jensen / Public domain). 12.4 x 8.0 cm. Gift of Francis W. Kelsey, 1893. KM 580.

From time to time I’ll encounter an object that works a bit of magic on me. When I look at this unassuming piece of wall stone, I’m transported directly to Pompeii. In my mind, I would walk by the old Hotel Suisse where Francis Kelsey stayed during his visits to the area, and wander around the archaeological park. I’d travel to nearby Stabiae and take a second look at some of the colorful wall paintings at Villa Arianna. And I’d take a boat ride (assuming you can do that!) over to the seaside city of Baiae, which I’ve never seen in person. Artifacts have a power to activate memories and spark our imaginations in a way that is hard to replicate.

Keep tuning in to the Kelsey blog for more glimpses into our collections and archives!

Ugly Object of the Month — June 2020

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Greetings, Kelsey blog fans! You are in for a treat. This month’s Ugly Object is another rarely-before-seen feature from our vaults. Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you (drumroll please …) a box full of rocks!

KM 107, a box of marble samples from Carthage, Tunisia, purchased by Francis W. Kelsey in 1893.
KM 107, a box of marble samples from Carthage, Tunisia, purchased by Francis W. Kelsey in 1893.

I can guess what you’re thinking, but bear with me. Let’s virtually “unpack” this box.

The box unpacked: 22 samples of architectural marble of varying type and origin.
The box unpacked: 22 samples of architectural marble of varying type and origin.

What we’ve got here is a collection of high-quality marble samples. I can see some white and gray marbles and what could be a yellow giallo antico marble, among others. The samples are weathered so it’s hard to classify their exact marble type. But it’s safe to say they are the sort of decorative stones you’d find on the interior and exterior surfaces of buildings in ancient Rome.

These particular samples come from Carthage, Tunisia, and were purchased in 1893 by none other than Francis Kelsey himself from the Jesuit priest and archaeologist Père Delattre. Kelsey acquired construction materials like these to support his teaching, and they remain important access points to understanding ancient materials and technology. They also provide evidence of trade and connectivity in the Roman world. Marbles with specific colors and inclusions were highly sought after, and many of the rocks in this box probably traveled from another place in the empire before being cut and mortared onto a building at Carthage. For the geology enthusiasts in our audience, a number of Kelsey’s marble samples were part of a recent archaeometric study to identify where they were quarried. I for one can’t wait to read more about this!

Keep tuning in to the Kelsey Blog for more Ugly Objects as we continue to reveal more unseen highlights of the collection!

photo of a marble head of a faun

Ugly Object of the Month — May 2020

Caroline Roberts, Conservator

 Dear Kelsey blog fans,

Since our museum isn’t open for physical visits, we’ve decided to be even MORE open virtually. We’re cracking open the storage vaults: last month, this month, and until whatever month we can get back in the galleries, we’re highlighting ugly objects in our storage cabinets.

I was inspired to write about this object during a walk; I don’t know about you, but I am LOVING the spring weather we’re experiencing here in Ann Arbor. I’ve noticed quite a few fairy doors and houses — a well-documented local tradition — during my walks around the neighborhood, and these have inspired our latest, Pan-like Ugly Object pick.

photo of a marble head of a faun
Marble head of a faun. Height 4.9 cm. Carthage, Tunisia, late 2nd–early 3rd century AD. KM 29622.

This marble head of a faun was discovered in Carthage, Tunisia, and was carved sometime between the second and third centuries AD. It was probably once a part of a larger sculptural relief, perhaps a sarcophagus. You’ll immediately see that things are more than a bit off with this creature’s face and head. It kind of looks like it’s being sucked into a vacuum — and surprised by this fact. Distortions like this are not uncommon among figures carved in high relief. Our faun probably wasn’t intended to be seen square in the face, but rather at an angle.

This head was one of a number of sculpture fragments selected for Elaine Gazda’s sculpture class this past semester. Students were asked to examine a fragment and determine its likely origin based on its condition, shape, carving detail, and other visual clues. What they were able to learn from these fragments was quite impressive, and illustrates what the close examination of a broken and incomplete artifact can reveal.

Seated figurine carved from alabaster

Ugly Object of the Month — April 2020

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Greetings, Kelsey blog fans! I hope that you are all safe, healthy, and keeping it real at a sound social distance. We weren’t about to let today’s uncertainty get in the way of our ongoing celebration of Ugly Objects. So, it brings me great pleasure to present April’s pick: a seated female figurine from Seleucia. Seleucia on the Tigris was a Hellenistic capital city located south of present-day Baghdad and excavated by the University of Michigan from 1927 through 1937. Over 3,500 objects were recovered from Seleucia, including a myriad of figurines made of bone, ceramic, and stone.

Seated figurine carved from alabaster
Seated female figurine carved from alabaster, with bitumen repair resin at the neck and on the base. H. 12.8 cm. Seleucia on the Tigris, Iraq, 150 BCE–200 CE. KM 15879.

Our seated figurine is made of alabaster, a soft sedimentary stone with a uniquely translucent quality that made it a suitable material for window panes. Alabaster is easy to work, so we find a lot of vessels and figurines carved from it. But that same quality causes the stone to deteriorate easily. The alabaster block used to create this seated figure has broken along its bedding planes, causing the right arm to shear clean off the front of the statue. This type of inherent flaw might be what caused the head to detach — probably while the figurine was in use. Look closely and you can see traces of bitumen resin along the neck and on the base, signs of someone’s effort to repair the figurine in antiquity.

It amazes me how much we can learn from artifacts that were excavated nearly a century ago! Please keep reading our blog and visit the Kelsey website for opportunities to learn more about our collection.

Ugly Object of the Month — March 2020

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Hey, all you March babies! What’s your sign? Are you a wise and artistic Pisces? Or a quick and competitive Aries? I happen to be a Pisces myself, and I can tell you that this month’s Ugly Object is a real catch. This rotund Roman fish is made of free-blown glass, and whoever made it was clearly working fast. In spite of its speedy manufacture, all the fishy elements are there — apart from the tail, which might actually have served as an attachment point to a larger vessel or piece of jewelry. In my view, the best thing going for this fish is its expression, which reminds me of the protagonist of the modern children’s classic The Pout-Pout Fish (read it and you will understand!).

small glass fish
Free-blown glass fish. Length: 3.7 cm. Roman, 4th century CE. Gift of Alexander G. Ruthven. KM 1970.3.952.

I’ve never blown glass myself, but I imagine it would have taken some serious skill to execute details such as tiny pouty fish lips out of molten glass. As imperfectly blobby as this fish is, there was little room for error in the furnace-filled workspace of its creation.

You can pay this fish a visit in the Kelsey’s Ancient Glass gallery on the first floor. And make sure to check out his piscine pal in the case on the opposite wall!

Ugly Object of the Month — February 2020

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

Love is in the air, gentle readers. It’s February, and St. Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. Maybe you’re hoping to receive something special from your significant other, or maybe you’re hoping your love life will receive a boost this month. Either way, we’ve got the object for you: it’s Eros on a pyxis, and he’s bringing a gift. What could be better?

1977_03_0002-1-web
Clay pyxis with lid. Rim diameter 6.4 cm, height 7.8 cm. Ca. 5th–4th c. BCE. KM 1977.3.2.

Exactly what’s happening with Eros in this scene is a little unclear. You would think that the Greek God of Love and Sex would have it made, but on this pyxis it looks like that’s not the case. For one, he doesn’t have any feet. Granted, Eros does not actually need feet, because he has wings. But still. It just seems lazy on the painter’s part. You can paint giant wings and a truly freakish hipbone but you can’t bother to put ankles and feet on those legs? Come on.

Two, Eros appears to be holding a cushioned stool as he flies up on some poor, unsuspecting woman, and she really doesn’t look into it. Maybe she truly doesn’t want the stool, or maybe the painter hasn’t accurately captured the spirit of the moment.

The woman could be Psyche or, you know, not. The Eros / Pysche thing is complicated and — once again — the painter of this pyxis is not giving us a lot to go on. Why would Psyche / unknown woman want flown-in furniture? Maybe she ordered it on Amazon and instead of delivering it by drone, they sent Eros instead?

The woman is standing in front of what looks like a dovecote, which might mean something. Or not. My husband, who is 100% an expert (but not in this), says this could be some sort of guest / host situation. As in, the woman has come to visit — wandering through the wilderness and passing by a dovecote, as one so often does in the wilderness — and when she gets to Eros’ place, he’s like, “Heeeyyy, Psyche! Come on in! Have this stool. Get comfy!”

With her upraised arm, she could be saying, “Eros, thank god I made it through the insane wilderness where I was nearly pecked to death by half-domesticated doves! I seriously need that stool, and please bring wine.” Or she could be like, “Gah! Get back! Why is this crazy bird-person flying up on me?! I barely made it out of that dove situation alive!”

Who can say.

What I can say is that I love this object. If the Kelsey decided to hold an auction, I would buy this in a hot second. And then I would use it to serve candy hearts. “Will you be my Valentine?” I think this is what Eros is trying to say with his imperfectly painted body and odd, furniture-gifting situation. Let’s hope his lady love, whoever she is, is saying yes.

Announcing the Official Ugliest Object of 2019!

The votes are in!

Your voices have been heard loud and clear and the Ugliest Object of 2019 is …

CREEPY BABY HEAD BY A LANDSLIDE!

Whether you all truly find this object to be the ugliest of all those presented this year, or you just wanted to appease it so it won’t come after you next, the numbers don’t lie: Creepy Baby Head netted 44 of the 93 votes cast. (This is a huge number for us; the fame of the Ugliest Object competition is spreading. Tomorrow, THE WORLD!!)

graph

The runners up were so far behind that we won’t even bother mentioning them. CBH is in a class of its own.

Come experience for yourself the chilling effect of being in the same room with this eerie disembodied head. It’s still in our Roman Architecture display case on the second floor. Because, frankly, none of us want to make it mad by taking it off display.