ancient glass

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 — May 2017

SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator of Conservation

Are you ready for swimsuit season? No? Me neither, which is just as well, because it’s SHARK MONTH at the Kelsey. This is one of the all-time cutest, weirdest, made by the most amazingly skilled craftsperson Ugly Objects ever: a mosaic glass fish head.

 

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Glass mosaic fish head inlay fragment. 1st century BC–1st century AD. Egypt. Gift of Alexander G. Ruthven. KM 1965.3.135.

What do we know about this tiny bit of a scary-looking fish? Not much, because it’s got zero excavation provenance. One, I do know that whoever made it had enviable motor control. Mosaic glass is made of small pieces of colored glass rods, or “canes,” which have been sliced up, placed close together, and then fused with heat. Two, inlays like this one would have decorated Roman Egyptian walls or furniture.

Three, former U-M graduate student Lindsay Ambridge wrote an article about this object, in which she discusses the meanings of fish in ancient Egypt. Bottom line: fish were important for many reasons, chief of which was as a food source.

To me, this fish looks more like predator than prey — check out the pink gums and very, very pointy teeth. See it in all its splendor in the Upjohn Exhibit Wing — look in the glass case on the south side of the back hall.

Ugly Object of the Month — June 2016

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

This month’s Ugly Object, a blown-glass vessel from the Fayum region of Egypt, wasn’t meant to be ugly. If you look past its flaws, you’ll notice the vessel’s attractive shape and the carefully applied strand of glass that spirals around its neck. It actually could have been quite pretty, had not an unfortunate accident befallen it during manufacture.

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Glass vessel KM 5073, from the Fayum.

I can imagine the moment when it happened: the glassmaker had just transferred the vessel onto a pontil (the metal rod used to shape the glass) and was working on finishing the neck. Somewhere in the transfer, or in the process of wrapping the strand of glass around the neck, the glassmaker’s sleeve or glove might have grazed the surface of the vessel, sticking to the soft, semi-molten glass and tugging it out of plane. The moment is captured in the twisted, pinched deformity that marks the vessel still. This vessel isn’t alone — the Kelsey is home to a number of flawed glass vessels. Together they give an impression of the speed of manufacture that produced thousands of objects like these. A mistake or two would probably have been considered run-of-the-mill.

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This vessel and its flawed friends will be featured in Carla Sinopoli’s upcoming exhibition Less Than Perfect, opening at the Kelsey Museum on August 26. Be sure to pay them a visit!