Happy New Year, Kelsey blog fans! Can you believe it’s 2022? And that this pandemic is still happening? I cannot. But on a much brighter note, I’ll tell you what else is still happening: Ugly Objects. That’s right. They just keep on coming. And this month, to kick off the New Year, we’re featuring one of my favorite Egyptian deities: Bes.
Bes is an in-your-face, snake-squishing protector god whose cult took off during the New Kingdom and stayed strong through the Roman period. The Bes we have here is a rather large faience figurine from the Roman Egyptian city of Karanis. He is missing his feet and crown and a good deal of his bright turquoise surface glaze, but his characteristic beard, tummy (with glazed belly button!), and phallus remain. (By the way, if you’re wondering how this Bes got his incredible blue-green sheen, check out Carolyn Riccardelli’s awesome article on Egyptian faience.)
Terry Wilfong calls out Bes as the most commonly encountered amuletic figure at Karanis, which makes sense to me. Bes faces us full-on, ready to help us confront whatever ill life might throw at us. Now I’m starting to envision a whole line of auspicious Bes paraphernalia for the Kelsey gift shop … Maybe he can help us take on the COVID pandemic?
Greetings, Kelsey blog readers! It is officially Decorative Gourd season, and we are so excited about this that we forgot to write an Ugly Object post last month. Oops! We thank you for your patience, and hope that you will enjoy a rare Ugly Object twofer: Egyptian mummy wrappings and amulets! For this special post we wanted to celebrate both Halloween and the day after, All Saints’ Day, by featuring objects that are both spooky and holy. The mummy wrappings and amulets on display in our Egyptian galleries are a perfect fit.
October: In honor of Halloween, we’ve chosen linen mummy bandages that are inscribed with text and images from the Book of the Dead, an ancient funerary text designed to prepare and protect people on their journey after death. The fragment below shows an individual confronted with a series of gates guarded by animal-headed gods, an illustration of what the deceased might encounter as they make their way toward the afterlife.
November: The amulets shown here in honor of All Saints’ Day (which, okay, is Christian, and these are not, but they are magical and holy!) were discovered at Terenouthis in 1935. They would have been tucked between the mummy’s wrappings to protect the individual in the afterlife. We especially love the carnelian heart, which manages to be both creepy and cute.
By actually wearing these instructions and tokens of protection, the deceased person would have been ensured safe passage to the afterlife. Come see these artifacts at the Kelsey! You’ll find them in the left-hand set of drawers beneath the Terenouthis stelae display in the Egyptian galleries.
A recurring theme in the “From the Archives” blog posts is coming across random materials and being surprised by what turns up. Often, the archives provide a fun opportunity to learn about the history of the Kelsey’s excavations and of the museum itself. As we have shown, sometimes within those papers are random tidbits that were not expected, such as a recipe for rice.
For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present this interesting cigar box. It is labeled “Spanera” and “Havana Cigarillos.” Of course, the Kelsey Museum would not normally collect cigar boxes — or cigars — but that’s not what we find when we look inside.
When we open the box, we see that it was used for storing thirteen glass plate negatives. From an archaeological standpoint, we may be most interested in the images that show ancient Egyptian artifacts: Bes amulets, fish, various other gods and images, scarabs, and hieroglyphs. However, it is the plates that show people — people posing and having fun — that draw our attention. There is no information in the images about these objects and people. The clues to this puzzle are on the box itself.
As the reader can see, the cover of the box has some handwritten notes on it. First we see “Komter Scarabs I,” followed by “Egypt,” “Maria Luz,” and finally “Scheveningen.” “Komter” refers to Douwe Komter, a Dutch artist who ran an art dealership in Amsterdam from 1902 to 1926. “Scheveningen” is a region of The Hague, Netherlands. Added with the knowledge that Spanera was a Dutch cigar company, we see more evidence that this is all taking place in Netherlands. But how did the Kelsey come to have this box of images?
When we took a closer look at the pictures of people, we saw a familiar figure that is perhaps a clue to the source of the images. The kneeling man at the left in image 001, the face peeking out at rear center in 002, the man on the floor, at left, in 003 — all are a young Samuel Goudsmit (1902–1978), U-M professor of physics from 1927 to 1946, amateur Egyptologist, and friend to the Kelsey Museum. Goudsmit, his wife Irene, and daughter Esther have donated many beautiful and wonderful materials to the Kelsey over the years. In these photos we see Goudsmit in his early days in the Netherlands, his place of birth.
On page 6 of A Scientist Views the Past, the catalogue of a 1982 exhibition celebrating the Goudsmit collection, we find notes from Goudsmit about how in the early 1920s he was searching the art and antiquities dealers in Amsterdam for ancient Egyptian amulets. He couldn’t find any until he came across a small collection in D. Komter’s shop. Komter allowed Goudsmit to borrow the amulets to study, even though he did not purchase them. Are these the scarabs we see in the images?
These plates likely came into the Kelsey collection in 1981 with other Goudsmit donations. They have not yet been catalogued or incorporated into the archives. We will continue to research the images and try to figure out who the other people are. Unfortunately, a search for “Maria Luz” did not reveal much, as it is a common name. However, we hope to provide more information in the future. And we will of course continue to stumble upon more interesting finds like this.
This month’s Ugly Object is one of ancient Egypt’s niftiest, most all-purpose and off-the-chain gods: the god of war, but also of childbirth, fertility, sexuality, and humor, he was also known as a protector of the household. He’s never the tallest or best-looking guy in the room, but he’s one of our very favorites — he’s Bes.
This particular Bes figurine looks (take your pick) like a gremlin or an ewok, or one of many other creatures one might find in the Nordic fairy-tale woods. The way he’s manufactured also makes him look kind of like a gummy bear. No matter, folks! Beauty isn’t everything, and Bes is up to the job. See him yourself – he’s on view at the Kelsey starting February 10, as part of the special exhibitionThe Art and Science of Healing: From Antiquity to the Renaissance.
BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator for Conservation, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
This month’s Ugly Object is, well, not as ugly as it could be. As fish go, there are certainly more attractive examples, but for an archaeological artifact made from lead? This is in great shape! We really like it! We chose it for you because, although our galleries are closed for a major exhibit installation, you can go see this little guy in person, right across the street in the Hatcher Graduate Library. He is moonlighting, along with four of his Kelsey friends, in a special exhibition curated by our colleague, papyrologist Brendan Haug.