conservation – The Kelsey Blog


News from the Conservation Lab – April 2023

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Hello, friends of the Kelsey Blog! The past six months have really flown by, haven’t they? Suzanne and I have spent quite a bit of this time traveling for work, something that we both missed during the pandemic. Here are some highlights!

In September and October, Suzanne and I returned to Abydos, Egypt, where we provide conservation for the Abydos Middle Cemetery (AMC) Project. We worked on a variety of things, including objects from the serdab of Weni the Elder, as well as newly excavated artifacts, alongside our Egyptian conservator colleagues Hamada Sadek and Ahmed Abdullah. Being back there—and being a part of the Weni project—was such a thrill. 

Single story white structure surrounded by sand and palm trees under a blue cloudless sky with rock formations in the background.
AMC dig house at Abydos, Egypt

In November, Suzanne and I gave papers at the American Society of Overseas Research’s annual meeting in Boston, where Suzanne presented her research on gender equity in museums and I participated in a workshop on Roman-Egyptian funerary portraits. It was great to see colleagues in the flesh once again after many years of virtual meetings and to be able to visit some old stomping grounds, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where I took in the newly reinstalled Greek and Roman galleries. Check out this truly inspired loom weight display (I love it so much I just had to share it with you folks)! We also enjoyed a tour of the Harvard Art Museums with recent IPCAA graduate Caitlin Clerkin, who works there as a postdoctoral fellow.

Five ceramic loom weights of various sizes and shapes attached to threads in a museum display case.
Ceramic loom weights, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Acc. #s 84.381, 84.373, 84.374, 84.370; Greek East, 6th–4th centuries BCE, from Assos (Behramkale, Turkey)

In January, Suzanne traveled to Jebel Barkal, Sudan, where she is directing site preservation with her team of conservators and conservation architects including Elmontaser Dafalla, David Flory, and Sefian Mutwakil. Check out her blog post and more news from Barkal here.

As always, there is a lot going on in the Conservation Lab! Keep tuning in.

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—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!

News from the Conservation Lab — Exploring bronze corrosion under the microscope

Harrison Biggs at the microscope.

This month we’re excited to welcome Harrison Biggs as our Conservation guest-blogger! Harrison is interning in the Conservation lab as part of the Museum Studies Undergraduate Program.

By Harrison Biggs, Conservation Intern

This semester I’ve been given the opportunity to work with Carrie and Suzanne as an intern here in the Kelsey Conservation lab. As an intern, I’ve been doing a lot of multispectral imaging and XRF analysis for the ongoing NEH Color Research project, but the project I’ve been most excited about lately is the treatment of this little bronze statuette (KM 3090).

Bronze Isis and Eros figurine. Graeco-Roman Egypt. Purchased from David Askren, 1925. KM 3090.

Even though treatment in this case just means picking harmful materials off the object with a pin (it’s more fun than it sounds), this has been a great opportunity to learn about the ways that bronze objects age. Bronze corrosion is an incredibly complex process where even small environmental changes can lead to the generation of drastically different minerals and patterns, but there are a few minerals that appear more than others.

Cuprite (Cu2O), a red-orange-brown copper oxide, and Malachite (CuCO3-Cu(OH)2), a pale green copper carbonate, are fairly common corrosion products that often form protective patinas on ancient bronze objects. Azurite (2 CuCO3-Cu(OH)2) is a less stable copper carbonate that tends to manifest as small blue crystals on an object’s surface. Nantokite (CuCl) is a soft, waxy copper chloride that forms commonly under burial conditions. When it gets too moist, Nantokite transforms into powdery, light green Paratacamite (Cu2(OH)3Cl), commonly referred to as “bronze disease.” Paratacamite is the main target of the treatment because, if allowed to spread, it can reduce an object to powder.

Together with a pile of less common and similarly colored minerals, these form a beautiful little world that I have the privilege of staring at through a microscope for hours at a time. I hope you enjoy looking at it as much as I do!

The surface of the figurine under 10x magnification.

News from the Conservation Lab—Conservation in the movies

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

This month I thought I’d offer up some entertainment—and a bit of trivia for those conservation and film enthusiasts out there. Curiously enough, even though we’re a small field, cultural heritage conservation pops up fairly frequently in film. This seems to happen when a screenwriter is looking for something visually compelling for their protagonist to do in their off time, i.e., while they’re not capturing ghosts or saving the planet from evil superhumans. Less often, conservation may feature within a cultural preservation adventure plot (“It belongs in a MUSEUM!” … oh wait, wrong profession …).

I’ve seen only one film that stars a real-life conservator—George Stout in 2014’s Monuments Men—but the fictional characters are just as fun (if not more so) to watch. I’m still holding my breath for a conservator to appear in a futuristic space saga …

There are far more comprehensive lists out there, but here are some of my favorite films in which conservation plays a central role (be warned, some of these tomatoes are pretty rotten):

  • Ghostbusters II (1989), starring Sigourney Weaver as Dana Barrett, a professional cellist and paintings conservator (!) who must save her son from the evil magician Vigo.
  • The Relic (1997), in which a statuette of a mythical forest monster is uncrated and wreaks havoc on an unsuspecting museum staff—including the conservation department (filmed at Chicago’s Field Museum).
  • Head Over Heels (2001), starring Monica Potter as Amanda Pierce, who paints the face of FBI agent Bob (played by Freddie Prinze Jr.) into a missing area of a painting she’s restoring for a Russian smuggler.
  • Monuments Men (2014), starring George Clooney as one of conservation’s founding fathers, George Stout, who led a team of Allied officers charged with saving cultural heritage from destruction by the Nazis.
  • Wonder Woman 1984 (2020), in which Diana (Gal Gadot) works at the Smithsonian as a conservator (or curator? or both?) but must take some PTO (or however she negotiated this with her boss) to stop an evil guy named Max from destroying the planet while also letting go of her lost love, Trevor (Chris Pine), and dealing with a disgruntled coworker-turned-cheetah, Barbara (Kristen Wiig).


Diana (Wonder Woman) treating a statue in Wonder Woman 1984. Photo by Clay Enos. TM & © DC Comics (source:

News from the Conservation Lab — NEH Research and Development Grant

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Suzanne and I are thrilled to report that we’ve received an NEH Research and Development Grant to study ancient color in the Kelsey collection. This project will allow us to conduct multispectral imaging and XRF analysis on a large group of painted and dyed artifacts from Roman Egypt, including objects from the University’s excavations at Karanis and Terenouthis. As we conduct the study, we will develop a scalable research protocol that can be adapted for use in other archaeological collections.

For many years, ancient color research has focused on artifacts from elite contexts. The data gathered from our study will inform us about the colors used by artists working for everyday people living in the Roman Empire. An important, broader goal of the grant will be to make this type of research more accessible to small research institutions like ours, both at the University of Michigan and elsewhere. We look forward to keeping you updated as we roll out this project over the next two years!

Left: Carrie performs multispectral imaging (MSI) on a mummy portrait from the Fayum region of Egypt. Right: A closeup of the portrait, KM 26801.

News from the Conservation Lab — Artifact QT

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

It’s October, and we are coming up on nine months of pandemic life. A lot of us are struggling right now, and trying to find comfort where we can. Being here at the Kelsey always gives me a lift. I just love spending quality time with the artifacts. Caring for them helps me put worries aside and grounds me in the here and now. Part of this comes from necessity — you really need to focus while photographing or treating an artifact — but there is also something meditative about working with an ancient object.

Egyptian faience ushabti figurine. Gift of Robert Gillman, 1952. KM 1980.4.35.

The ushabti figurine I’m treating today is one of thousands that were mass-produced in ancient Egypt. Its purpose was to serve the deceased in the afterlife; this particular one holds a sickle in each hand, ready to work the farm. Its turquoise color comes from copper minerals that were mixed with sand and salts and heated to form the figurine’s glazed surface. This ushabti is not only a tireless helper, it is also a really cool piece of ancient technology.

This artifact is in the lab because it needs a little TLC. And frankly, so do a lot of us. Let’s not forget to take care of ourselves — and each other — as we navigate these difficult times.

News from the Conservation Lab — Chairing a Conference … Remotely

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

For the past three years, I’ve had the privilege of chairing the annual conference of the American Institute for Conservation. It’s an interesting job in which I get to work with a lot of amazing people, read about all the cool research my colleagues are doing, and — once a year — stand up on multiple different stages, introduce people, hear and see their great papers, and then moderate discussions with them. Every year I get nervous about this because our biggest sessions have around 1,000 people, and both our speakers and our audience members are super smart (and also very opinionated). But then, every year, it’s a great experience and I’m so glad I got to be part of it.

This year, however, there’s a new twist. I bet you can guess what it is! Yes: this year, for reasons of health and safety, we’re holding the conference online. Thankfully, there is a great team at AIC managing all the actual logistics, because I still have a paper copy of the newspaper delivered to my door each morning, I’ve never been on the book of faces, and I don’t tweet or ‘gram. So we’ll see how this goes. Fingers crossed! I’m cheering myself up by thinking about the ~100 hours of great content we’re going to have.

The AIC Board members sitting virtually for our pre-conference board meeting. Screenshot by Kate Lee.

In our opening session this Thursday, we’ll have a talk by NEH Chairman Jon Parrish Peede, and then five presentations by AIC members on topics of importance to the direction of our discipline: how conservation is / should be presented in public outreach, collections care practices that can help us navigate change, considerations for the future of African collections, reworking science curriculum in conservation training, and methods for ensuring pluralistic, values-based decisions in conservation and collections-care. I’m looking forward to this and many other sessions, and will report back on how they go. Wish us luck!



News from the Conservation Lab — Working Remotely and Conserving Ourselves

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

Hello, blog readers. I hope you are happy, healthy, and staying safe. This past week felt like about six, huh? It did to me. Work has changed at the Kelsey, as it has at many workplaces around the world. A small example — I usually work here:


And now I’m working here:


It’s a little bit different. Not least because my cat feels that humans in the home should equal very frequent snacks for cats. He’s like, “Look lady, we both know you’re sitting right by the treats cupboard. Would it kill you to serve more snacks? All you’re doing is sitting there like a lump. Look alive and give me more of those #$@%! fish crunchies already!”

Conservators’ main job is to preserve cultural heritage for the future, so it’s reasonable to wonder how I’m doing it from a small corner of my kitchen while trying to ignore Flash Kitty. Truthfully, I’m doing conservation-adjacent work, as are most of my colleagues around the country. Here’s a sample of things I’ll be doing over the next few weeks:

  • Recording guest lectures about conservation for colleagues’ classes
  • Taking professional development webinars and online courses
  • Writing up research into publishable journal articles
  • Preparing grant applications
  • Planning future projects
  • Catching up on all the professional reading and newly published research I usually only barely have time to skim

Other conservators I know are recording the oral histories of senior colleagues, writing up treatment and research protocols, and contributing to conservation-focused wiki entries.

It’s also kind of a stressful time right now. Many of us are either at high-risk of serious complications from COVID-19 or have loved ones who are. So please follow public health advice in order to conserve yourselves and those who are more vulnerable than you are. AND there are things you can do to preserve your mental health and reduce stress. Below are the activities I find most useful.

  • Exercising: walking outside, jumping rope, doing yoga or high-intensity body weight exercises at home.
  • Relaxing: UCLA’s mindfulness awareness research center has free guided meditations I like, here.
  • Connecting with friends and family: I’m not normally a big fan of talking on the phone, but I’m learning to like it now!
  • Making stuff with my (carefully washed) hands: conservators will be the first to tell you how satisfying it is to do hand work; we do it for our jobs and most of us love it and miss it if we’re away from it too long. Now might be a good time to take up a handicraft or invest time in one you’ve already got going. There are lots of online videos if you want to learn something new and supplies can be ordered, probably even from your local shops.

Wishing you good health,


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