Ugly Object – The Kelsey Blog

Ugly Object

Ugly Object of the Month – December 2022

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Hey, hey, Ugly fans! It’s the end of the year, which means it is time to celebrate with bubbly beverages and twinkling lights. What better way to wrap things up than with a light-bringing Ugly Object? This ceramic lamp came into the Kelsey collection in 1899, making it one of (if not the) first artifact to be acquired by the museum. Its object record indicates its origins to be somewhere in Asia Minor and that it was formerly part of a collection held by a Professor Rhoussopoulos from the University of Athens. The lamp was made in a two-part mold with the handle and nozzle attached separately, and the impressed figure on the discus is none other than Herakles, lion pelt and club in hand. This lamp makes me smile—the simple image of young Herk reminds me of 6th grade, when I was obsessed with Greek myths and committed D’Aulaire’s book on the subject to memory. I love that this object is frequently used in classes and gets students thinking about the ancient world in a direct, tangible way. And I love that it’s burned, like an oil lamp should be! It is a quintessential Ugly Object—ordinary, imperfect, and meaningful.

View from the top facing down on a reddish clay lamp with red to black glaze. The handle is broken off with the nozzle darkened from use. In the center of the discus, Herakles stands facing forward, but moving towards the left with his club raised above his head and carrying a lion skin in his right hand.
Ceramic lamp with image of Herakles at center, KM 792; Asia Minor, no date given; acquired in 1899 by Stuart.

Ugly Object of the Month – November 2022

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

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!

Painted terracotta figurine of Isis Aphrodite under visible light on a light gray background.
KM 6488, painted terracotta figurine of Isis Aphrodite; Roman Egyptian,
1st – 3rd century CE; discovered at Karanis in 1928

Painted terracotta figurine of Isis Aphrodite under ultraviolet-induced visible luminescence (UVL). Thin lines of fluorescent colors on the crown and robe show areas of madder pigment.
Ultraviolet-induced visible luminescence (UVL) image of the figurine showing orange-pink fluorescent madder pigment in the crown and robe.

Ugly Object of the Month – October 2022

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

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)!

KM 28807, wood panel fragment painted with an image of Aphrodite; Karanis, Egypt, 2nd – 4th century CE
KM 28807, wood panel fragment painted with an image of Aphrodite; Karanis, Egypt, 2nd – 4th century CE

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.

(IRR) image of KM 28807
Infrared reflectance (IRR) image of KM 28807

Ugly Object of the Month – September 22

By Suzanne Davis

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.

Partially deconstructed Fleming Administration Building.
The Fleming Administration Building in the process of deconstruction.

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.

R.I.P. Fleming Administration Building.

The inside structure of the Fleming Administration Building visible with an entire exterior wall removed.
The inside structure of the Fleming Administration Building visible with an entire exterior wall removed.

A crane pulling down pieces of the Fleming Administration Building upper floors with the interior structure exposed.
Cranes pulled down pieces of the building bit by bit, leaving the interior structure exposed to curious passersby.


Heavy machinery lifting and moving debris left behind from a building deconstruction.
The remains of the Fleming Administration Building following deconstruction.

Ugly Object of the Month — Special DOUBLE UGLY post!

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?

KM 1798, mummy portrait, modern (19th century?) forgery, acquired by David Askren in the Fayoum in 1920, gifted to the Kelsey Museum.

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. 

KM 29574. Modern plaster plaque painted as giallo di Siena, L. 15.5, W. 11.8, D. 1.5 cm. Presented by Miss Wanere on January 10, 1896. No provenance, No accession date.


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. 


Ugly Object of the Month—June 2022

Caroline Roberts, Conservator

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.

Panel painting of a Nemesis in the form of a gryphon. Egypt, ca. 200 CE. Gift of David Askren. KM 88723.

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!

Ugly Object of the Month — May 2022

By Suzanne Davis, with Dr. Laura Motta

Welcome to springtime, Ugly Object fans! It’s for reals this time! It hasn’t snowed for at least a week, and after a million months of winter, that feels like a miracle.

You know what else is a miracle? Seeds. I’m getting ready to plant some in my garden now that the ground isn’t frozen. Every year when I stick them in the dirt, I feel like, “there is just no way this is going to work.” But then it does! 

Because it’s that time of year—a time of minor miracles and new beginnings—our object this month is a sample of ancient coriander seeds.

Coriander seeds from Karanis, Egypt, 1st–4th centuries CE. 3.5mm x 4mm. KM 20355b.

My involvement with these seeds, which were excavated at Karanis, Egypt, is pretty limited. It consists mostly of making sure they don’t get damp or catch a fungus. But the Kelsey does have a real-life research expert in this area: archaeobotanist Dr. Laura Motta.

Dr. Laura Motta, seated at one of her research microscopes in the Kelsey Museum Bioarchaeology Lab, shows us a reference book with images of coriander seeds.

Dr. Motta’s research explores social complexity through food production and redistribution patterns, and much of her work focuses on the early phases of the world’s first cities. And yes, seeds help her do this! She agreed to sit down with me to answer a few seed-focused questions.

S.D.: Are these seeds for real? Were people at Karanis really eating cilantro and cooking with coriander 2,000 years ago?
L.M.: Yes! Coriander was very popular, and we know for sure that it was cultivated 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. But it’s also native to the Mediterranean region and to parts of Asia, so it would have been around even before it was cultivated. Coriander seeds have been found in large quantities in archaeological contexts much older than Karanis, such as King Tutankhamun’s tomb. The oldest known context is a Neolithic site about 7,000 years old. By Roman times, coriander was a very common cooking herb. One of the cool things about it from a culinary perspective is that the entire plant can be eaten, from the leaves—which, by the way, are called “cilantro” only in the United States—to the seeds.

S.D.: If I planted these seeds in my garden, would they grow?
L.M.: They probably wouldn’t grow. Not only are these “seeds” very old now, they’re not actually seeds. Technically, what we call coriander “seeds” are the plant’s fruits. The real seed is inside the small capsule you see, like it is for similar plants such as caraway, fennel, and dill. So you’d really be planting very old, very dried fruit.

S.D.: That sounds pretty dubious! So what kinds of information can you learn from seeds, or dried fruits, that are this old?
L.M.: You can learn a lot. Most of what we have preserved in the archaeological record is not spices or herbs like coriander, it’s major crops like legumes and grains. Karanis is unique because the preservation is so good that you get both major crops and things like herbs. For archaeological research, the great thing about seeds of any type is that everyone has to eat. Unlike objects, which often tell you more about the elite people who could afford to amass wealth, seeds tell you about everyone. Seeds can tell you what people at all different levels of society were eating and what crops they were importing and exporting. At places like Karanis, they can even show you differences between what people have in their houses for their own consumption, and what they are officially recording and reporting in letters to Rome.

S.D.: What’s one important, specific thing you’ve learned by studying ancient seeds?
L.M.: One of my most amazing discoveries was four tiny millet seeds that I found when collecting flotation samples at a Middle Bronze Age site (ca. 1400 BCE) in the Carpathian Mountains. “Flotation” is a technique where you mix soil samples with water, and then strain out and examine any organic materials that float to the top. It’s a way of discovering tiny seeds and other archaeological plant remains that would normally be missed during excavation. The four tiny millet seeds I found in this flotation sample were extraordinary because the Carpathian Mountains are part of a big system of mountains that historically created a boundary between Europe and Asia. We know that millet was hugely popular in Asia and then, at a later point in time, also became popular in Europe. When I took that flotation sample I was expecting to see the same European crops I was used to at the site, like legumes, barley, and wheat. Instead, I found millet! Those four seeds are some of the earliest evidence of millet making its way into Europe. I was very excited when I found them!

S.D.: Would you agree that ancient seeds are extremely cool and worthy of a place in museum collections?
L.M.: Yes, of course! Museums show interesting things and help us see how the past is relevant, but with archaeological objects we can often still feel like they are very separate from us. A painted Greek vase is recognizable, yet most of us don’t have anything like it in our homes today. But seeds don’t change! They are so relatable. We still use them today in the same ways our ancestors did thousands of years ago. Seeds can tell us all kinds of interesting stories, and we should absolutely make more room for them in museums.

Ugly Object of the Month — April 2022

By Suzanne Davis

Welcome to springtime, Ugly Object fans! Or wait, maybe it’s still winter? The huge piles of snow have melted, campus is basically completely flooded, and daffodils and tulips are beginning to show us that they still live. And yet … it keeps freakin’ snowing and it’s hard to remember when we last saw the sun.

So I am keeping myself sane by doing the same things that got me through winter, namely cooking, knitting, and reading mystery novels, but mostly cooking. This ugly object is for all my fellow cooks and bakers who are staying sane the same way, and also for people who like a cozy ancient mystery where no one gets murdered.

“Bread” (but not really—see below) from Karanis, Egypt, 1st–4th centuries CE. 12.7 x  8.7 cm, 2.4 cm thick. KM 22492 and 22493.

Excavated in 1935 from the Roman Egyptian town of Karanis, Egypt, these objects are the remains of ancient flatbread … or so the excavators thought. Even at the time, there were some clues that they might not be bread. For example, they were found in huge stacks in a sort of warehouse-y space, which is odd, because—even back in the day—you would not expect bakers to warehouse their finished loaves. Typically you bake and sell on the same day (which is why you can get Zingerman’s bread on sale at the Produce Station after a certain time every afternoon—bread is a “one-day item”).

1935 photo caption: “Piles of bread as found in a top layer granary on the eastern side, A411. One pile reserved for the Department of Antiquities, Division, May 31, 1935. The other pile at the University of Michigan.”

The “bread” story never seemed quite right, and there was speculation about this material for decades, but what else could it be? The idea that it was flatbread persisted until the mid-1990s when a crack team of forensic scientists (paleobotanists) sampled the “loaves” and discovered that they are … wait for it … the crushed pits and skins of olives. In other words, these are what’s left over after you make olive oil. Just like me, the people of Karanis were crazy for olive oil, and they not only made their own, with large olive presses scattered throughout the town, but they also imported it from many locations around the Roman world. (Sometimes you’re just in the mood for a nice one from Andalusia, right?).

Now, why were these olive pressings stacked up in a warehouse? Were they going to be recycled/reused? Was there some other plan? As far as I’m aware, that’s still a mystery. 

Ugly Object of the Month — March 2022

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

This month we are celebrating Women’s History Month with an uncharacteristically handsome Ugly Object: a sestertius coin featuring the indomitable empress Julia Domna.

Bronze sestertius. Septimius Severus for Julia Domna, 193–211 CE. Gift of George Monks, 1991. KM 1991.2.657.

Julia Domna was born in modern-day Syria to a family of Arab priests and became empress of Rome when her husband, Septimius Severus, defeated multiple co-contenders to the imperial throne in 197 CE. Julia Domna was a highly visible and powerful political figure who influenced the reigns of both her husband and her son, Caracalla. Her image appears in a range of marble carvings, in painted wood on the famous Severan Tondo, and countless coins—including KM 1991.2.657. Julia Domna appears on the obverse side of this coin draped with hair coiled and waved, encircled by her honorary title, Julia Domna Augustus. The goddess Juno, accompanied by a peacock, appears standing on the reverse.

These powerful images of women—one historic, one mythical—would have played an important role in amplifying the authority of the emperor by circulating the empire as currency. We don’t know where this coin was found, but I like to imagine it was carried around in the pocket of someone outside Rome—maybe as far afield as Julia Domna’s own hometown?

Attention, Ugly Object devotees! Giving Blueday is Wednesday, March 16!

Announcing 2022’s Giving Blueday, the University of Michigan’s 24-hour celebration of giving. Every March since 2014, the global U-M community has come together on Giving Blueday in support of programs and causes they care most about.

We know that the Kelsey’s Ugly Objects are uppermost in your mind when you consider making charitable donations with your hard-earned money. Any donation you make to the Kelsey Museum on Giving Blueday will support our broadest goals—including the careful conservation of these unique beauties. Gifts to the Kelsey are like the artifacts we care for: even if they seem small or insignificant, we love and appreciate every one.

So mark your calendar and give a dollar on March 16! Give two dollars! Give five whole smackers in commemoration of the love we know you feel for Franken Horse!

Learn more about what your donation to the Kelsey Museum supports at our website.

Ugly Object of the Month — February 2022

By Suzanne Davis

Hello, Ugly Object Fans, and welcome to February—a month of celebration. This is Black History month, and the theme for 2022’s celebration here at U-M is Black Joy. Carrie and I are super excited about the many events celebrating the lives and achievements of Black people of all backgrounds, and if you’re here at U-M and want to join us in attending some of these, you can see a list on U-M’s Black History Month webpage.

Thanks to St. Valentine’s Day on February 14, this is also a month when we focus on love; love of romantic partners, family, friends, favorite foods, and funky craft projects. The latter is what we are showcasing in this blog post—it is an extra special collage made of ancient textiles, cut and pasted to make a fantastical chimera-like creature that looks (sort of) like a horse in ancient war armor. I call him Franken Horse.

Wool textile fragment(s) from Roman Egypt, 5th to 6th centuries CE, possibly earlier. 22 x 21.5 cm. Purchased in Egypt from Phocion Tano. KM 94443.

Franken Horse is an exciting mash-up of two different tapestry-woven textiles. The beige wool background of the piece is ornamented with a vining floral design in dark blue, red, green, and yellow wool. This fragment has a large, irregular loss in the center, and into this, another fabric has been sewn. This second fabric has a dark blue ground decorated with small, fat cross shapes in pinkish-red, green, yellow, undyed linen, and light blue. Each shape has a central boss of a contrasting color, either red or yellow. This piece has been placed so that it appears to create the body of an animal, with an element of the background fabric appearing as the creature’s head (and this thing has a horn, like the armor for a warhorse would have). Although both fabrics appear to be ancient, their conjunction is the work of a more contemporary creative hand; they are stitched together with modern thread. Overall the effect is bright, highly patterned, and strangely attractive. You kind of can’t stop looking at it.

This textile comes from the collection of a famous twentieth-century Cairo antiquities dealer, Phocion Tano, and it tells us a little bit about what early antiquities collectors were interested in, namely color and exciting designs. If you feel as much love for Franken Horse as we do, you are in luck: he is on view now in the Kelsey in Focus mini-exhibition, Ancient Abstraction in Textiles from Late Roman Egypt. If you are willing to brave the frigid February weather, you can see him in person on the first floor of the Upjohn Exhibit Wing here in Ann Arbor, where is he is in good company with two of his abstracted horsey textile friends. To be frank, any of the three would qualify for this series but, in our view, Franken Horse is the winner by at least a nose. You won’t be sorry you visited.

Can’t make it to the museum? You can also visit virtual versions of this and all previous Kelsey in Focus exhibitions on the Kelsey website.

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