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.
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!
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.
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.
If you’re still looking for a Halloween costume, I have one for you! This month’s Ugly Object is a stylized Late Roman clay female figurine just waiting to be adapted into a costume. With her outstretched arms, she is interpreted to be an orant. The orans pose is a gesture of prayer often seen in Roman, Byzantine, and Christian art.
She is a human figurine in the most simplified sense: she has arms, stubby little outstretched things that end abruptly; legs, which start midway down her torso and are only separated by a small yellow-painted channel; and pointed feet. Her head is a flattened half-circle that is connected to her body with a thick neck—which happens to be the same width as the rest of her torso! Most of the features on her face and the rest of her body are painted on, except for her pinched beak-nose and her two knobby breasts. In addition, there is a hole on each side of her head, presumably for earrings that have since been lost.
The painted details are both this figure’s saving grace and a point of comedy. The figurine appears to have been painted all over with a base white paint (calcite-based) with details added in black (carbon-based), red (ochre), and yellow (ochre) paints. Because of the preserved pigments, we can see that she is wearing some sort of red and black headband. However, she is also wearing a painted-on amulet somewhat counter-intuitively below her breasts. Her eyes are hastily drawn simple black circles with a dot in the middle, but one overlaps with her nose and the other is cut off by the black outline of the headband. She seems to be wearing some sort of clothing (at least pants?), indicated by the red bands outlined with black that run down the middle of each leg. Does she have a mouth? It’s hard to say. The trio of black, red, and black lines painted horizontally across her neck could be part of her garment and would accord best with how her clothing is drawn on her legs, but this all makes for a very interesting outfit that sports a gaping hole across her chest (some sort of reverse crop top?). It’s a good thing this figurine hails from Karanis, Egypt, because her attire does not seem to offer much coverage or warmth!
Although she was hastily constructed by hand and seemingly painted with little care, she holds a special place in my heart. Her stubby arms, knobby breasts, and beak-nose are just so silly. To make her into your costume, find a white body- or jumpsuit, grab some red, black, and yellow paint and a couple of brushes, and get to work! Add some costume jewelry—necklace and earrings—and you are good to go.
Recent “From the Archives” blog posts have focused on Francis Kelsey and his team as they traveled through Europe, southwest Asia, and North Africa. The trip commenced in 1919 and concluded in 1920, during which time the group traveled from Michigan to New York City, to Scotland and London, France, and through Europe until they reached Turkey. They continued through to Egypt on this trip as well. Posts from 2019 and 2020 show these adventures, and their subsequent return to London and America.
A blog post from April 2018 also showcased some of these travels, and how far the team managed to get on this trip. On April 27, 1920, the Michigan team visited the site of Dimé (Dimay; ancient Soknopaiou Nesos) in the Egyptian Fayum. The blog post highlighted a single roll of film, KS175, which showed the remains of the city, and the team’s approach and quick visit.
For this month’s “From the Archives,” we revisit this trip to Dimé by showcasing more photographs from this day. Though Kelsey had other goals for this year-long trip, he was keen on finding potential excavation sites for Michigan. The team wouldn’t return to excavate nearby Karanis until 1924, and to Dimé until 1931 (after Kelsey’s death in 1927), but he was already laying the groundwork for these excavations back in 1920. The 2018 post showed but a few images George Swain took. This month we show even more photos he took using other equipment, including a Cirkut camera in order to capture a panoramic view of the site. We also have several photographs taken by Easton Kelsey.
Kelsey and his team were able to see all this in a single day; Swain’s photographs from the next day show they were back on the road visiting other sites in Fayum. Even today it takes a long while to reach the site of Dimé; it would have been an even longer trip in the 1920s. This is one reason why the Michigan team spent only one season excavating there.
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!
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?
By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation, and Carrie Roberts, Conservator
The inability to travel to the Kelsey’s field sites due to the COVID-19 pandemic has made us, well, crazy to travel to the Kelsey’s field sites. If you, too, are experiencing serious wanderlust, we invite you to take a quick photographic mini-break with us. Here’s a beautiful photo and something we love about each of the four sites we currently support.
Suzanne loves the incredibly good-looking site of Notion, Turkey. It’s got everything a conservator could want — the romantic ruins of an entire ancient city, lots of conservation work to be done, and a beautiful seaside location.
This spectacular photo of the ancient temple, cemetery, and city site of Jebel Barkal, Sudan, makes Suzanne miss the desert sunshine and all her fellow Jebel Barkal and El-Kurru teammates.
Carrie is inspired by the ancient landscape of Abydos. It’s great to drink a cup of coffee with the team at sunrise and know that the Seti I temple is only a 10-minute walk from the dig house, while the early dynastic tombs below the desert cliffs can be reached in 20 minutes.
At El-Kurru, Carrie loves village life — walking from the house where we live to the temple site and saying hello and how are you to neighbors on the way, then grabbing a snack at the corner store at the end of the day. She also misses the family we live with, especially the kids.
We are living in interesting times. COVID-19 has changed our daily routines and lifestyles. We are no longer socializing as we normally do. Museums, galleries, and businesses remain closed in order to stymie the spread of the coronavirus. Instead, we work from home as we can, making adjustments to the database, writing policies, connecting with colleagues. We try to carry on as normal — as normal as we can make it.
For Kelsey Museum staff, working from home is difficult, as so much of what we do revolves around art and artifacts. We cannot bring these objects home with us. During this time, our kitchen tables become our offices, our couches our desks. Meetings become virtual, and colleagues get to show off their homes and their pets to their coworkers.
The Kelsey archives also represent the sense of home. For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present several photographs of the Karanis dig house, which was constructed specifically for the staff who worked at the site in the 1920s and 1930s. Viewing these photos gives us a chance to view both the living and working spaces for the likes of E. E. Peterson, Harold Falconer, Frederick Joslin, Joy Fletcher-Allen, George Swain, and so many more. While they were in Egypt, life centered around this house. Work happened here. Laundry happened here. Cooking happened here. Pets lived here. And the residents of the house documented their surroundings and home life.
In these pictures, we see just that. We see the house as it stood in the 1920s and early 1930s (much has changed since its original construction), the staff helping with laundry, with cooking, Mrs. Joy Fletcher-Allen serving as hostess. Less than 100 years ago, the Karanis staff was operating in ways similar to our current experience, albeit under very different circumstances. Eventually, the Karanis staff returned to their normal routines, and in time, so will we.
Camp house at Kom Aushim (Karanis), with flags flying in honor of H. E. Ismail Sidy Pasha’s visit to the Fayum.
This month’s Ugly Object is a recurring character. I’ll give you some clues: he’s short, bearded, and has prominent ears. He looks a little grumpy, but deep down he’s a really good guy. He’ll go to bat for you in times of need — especially if you’re an expectant mom or a young child.
By now I’m sure you’ve figured out who I’m talking about. He’s the one and only Bes!
The terracotta Bes featured this month was pointed out to me in the galleries by Scott Meier, who heads the Kelsey’s exhibition department. Scott knows the collection well, and when I asked him what he thought of this particular Bes he remarked, “It is beautiful in its ugliness.” I couldn’t agree more. Sure, this Bes is missing an ear and a chunk of his feathered crown has popped off, and I dare anyone who isn’t a scholar of Graeco-Roman Egypt to identify the lumpy thing he’s holding in his hands (I checked our database, where it’s described as a club or some sort of instrument). But despite these issues, the object is undeniable in its Bes-ness. Like most Bes figurines, this one faces forward. He looks you straight in the eye as if to say, “Yeah, I’m Bes, and I’m bringing some power to this situation, whatever it might be. So get used to it!” Bes is direct. I like that. He is definitely the sort of deity I would want in my corner.
Come pay Bes a visit at the Kelsey. You’ll find him in our first-floor galleries, across from the Karanis house case.
This September, researchers from the University of Lecce (Italy) working at the site of Dimé (Soknopaiou Nesos) in Egypt visited the Kelsey Museum. Professor Paola Davoli and team (Bruno Bazzani, Stefania Alfarano, Clementina Caputo) returned to work with the collections from Michigan’s excavations at Dimé in 1931. On this visit, the researchers spent two weeks measuring, drawing, photographing, and studying artifacts from the site. They looked at furniture, beads, sandals, lithics, sculpture, figurines, and a number of other artifact types.
This was the team’s second time in Ann Arbor to work with materials from Dimé. In 2017, Davoli and team visited the Kelsey to look through the archival materials from the excavation. This includes maps, drawings, photographs, and other files that help the current Dimé project better understand work undertaken at the site previously. At that time, Professor Arthur Verhoogt hired two Michigan undergraduates, Bianca Gallina and Josiah Olah, to digitize the Dimé archives to assist the Lecce team’s work. Bianca and Josiah helped the Kelsey organize, identify, catalog, and digitize a great number of items from the archives, which will prove to be beneficial for years to come.
For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present a taste of the work Bianca and Josiah accomplished. Like in Karanis, the Dimé excavation team took detailed notes of the architecture at the site, noting topographic measurements. While there were many drawings made, we present those of an oven found at the site, in house I 107. Ovens were not rare at the sites, but not every home had one. With these drawings, we learn the basic construction of a Roman-era Egyptian oven, its size, and potential uses. We also see the handiwork of the person who, in 1931, drew this for their own research and also for those who followed.
Though Michigan’s excavation at Dimé occurred back in 1931, the work still has plenty to inform research today. The Dimé team from Lecce continues to mine the Kelsey archives for information, and plenty of other researchers will use this material for other projects. We don’t know yet what those requests will look like, so we do our best to protect this collection and make it accessible to all who want to use it.
Below: Drawings of features from House I 107 in Dimé (Soknapaiou Nesos), Egypt.
I stumbled across this month’s Ugly Objects while compiling a list of stone artifacts in the Kelsey collection. The Kelsey Museum has over 5,000 artifacts that are classified as stone, which include everything from marble sarcophagi to tiny carnelian beads. Among this trove of artifacts made of rock, the two toadstool-shaped objects pictured here stood out to me.
I looked them up in our database and learned that these objects are Dynastic Egyptian earplugs made of alabaster. My initial thought was, naturally, Wow …these surely must be the world’s oldest-known earplugs!! However, when I ran down to the gallery to make sure they were on display — they are — their labels describe them as ear studs. If so, these would seem to resemble the chunky variety of ear stud/plug worn by body-jewelry enthusiasts today. I’m fascinated by objects that clearly had a specific purpose at some time, and yet manage to puzzle us now. It makes me wonder what people in a thousand years will think when they discover all of our earbuds, nose rings, Fitbits, and aviator shades.
Come see if you can spot these plugs/studs for yourself! You’ll find them in the Dynastic Egyptian cases on the first floor of the Kelsey’s Upjohn Exhibit Wing.