figurine – The Kelsey Blog


Ugly Object of the Month — October 2021

By Laurel Fricker, IPCAA grad student 

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.

Female orant figurine made of painted clay. Height: 13 cm. Late Roman period, 4th–5th c. AD. Excavated at Karanis, Egypt, 1925. KM 3768.

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.

Ugly Object of the Month — December 2020

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

The final Ugly Object of 2020 immediately caught my eye when I spotted it leering back at me from its 1939 catalog entry. This grotesque male head was discovered at Seleucia-on-the-Tigris sometime between 1927 and 1932 during the joint U-M, Toledo Museum of Art, and Cleveland Museum of Art Expedition to Iraq. It is one of thousands of terracotta figurines discovered at the site, most of which were formed in molds — some from the same mold — and, originally, painted.

terracotta head
Terracotta figurine fragment from Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, Iraq. Parthian, 150 BCE–200 CE. Height: 5.7 cm. KM 14002.

This figurine fragment wears a tall, pointed cap and a rather caustic expression, and the deep red pigment that remains on its face doesn’t exactly lighten the mood. According to the author of the catalog, Wilhelmina Van Ingen, the pointed cap could signal that this is the head of a priest – although she describes the object simply as a “grotesque male head.” Other figurine types, like lute-playing musicians, also wear pointed caps and are linked to temple life.

Whatever this bloke’s line of work, it doesn’t seem to be bringing him much joy. Or maybe the coroplast just caught him on an off day? I can relate!

Tune in for more Ugly Objects from the Kelsey collection in the New Year! Happy Holidays, everyone — and stay safe!

Ugly Object of the Month — October 2020

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

It’s close to midnight
And something evil’s lurking in the dark
Under the moonlight
You see a sight that almost stops your heart …

small bronze figurine
Bronze figurine of ???, from Karanis, Egypt. Height, 5.4 cm. Roman Egyptian. KM 10886.

Happy (almost) Halloween, Kelsey blog fans! It’s October, and this month’s Ugly Object is something straight out of a horror movie. This bronze figurine was discovered in the South Temple complex at Karanis, and although an old catalogue entry identifies it as Eros, I don’t really buy it. I mean, this object doesn’t exactly radiate love and physical desire. Both feet and one hand are missing, and the one that remains is clutching something  — a cluster of grapes? Something more sinister? Cue the spooky music.

What really strikes me though is the figure’s weird posture, which looks like one of those impressive zombie dance maneuvers featured in Thriller. (Or maybe it’s just an awkward attempt at contrapposto — who knows?) Whether this is Eros or an undead version of him, this little figurine is going to haunt my dreams.

Ugly Object of the Month — August 2020

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

August 26 is National Dog Day, and our canine-loving readers out there will appreciate this month’s Ugly Object pick, a terracotta dog figurine from Karanis, Egypt. This previously painted ceramic pup was discovered in 1935, and its original function remains something of a mystery. We can all agree though that it in the 2,000 years since its manufacture (probably in a three-part mold), this figurine has preserved much of its original charm.

terracotta figurine of a small dog
Terracotta figurine of a dog from Karanis, Egypt. 1st–3rd century AD. Ceramic, gesso, pigment. KM 6909.

In fact, you’re probably wondering how this critter made our Ugly Object cut. If you’re able to look past the cute collar and curly tail, you’ll see a pair of highly skeptical-looking incised eyes — one of which has a brow that is ever so slightly raised. It’s a look not unlike the one I get from my toddler when I offer him asparagus. This adorable dog is … Discerning? Disgruntled? Maybe sleep-deprived?

Another mystery to ponder.

I learned about this and other canines in the Kelsey collection from Terry Wilfong’s catalog for his 2015 exhibition Death Dogs, which is available on the Kelsey website as a free PDF download, along with many more digitized publications.

Seated figurine carved from alabaster

Ugly Object of the Month — April 2020

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Greetings, Kelsey blog fans! I hope that you are all safe, healthy, and keeping it real at a sound social distance. We weren’t about to let today’s uncertainty get in the way of our ongoing celebration of Ugly Objects. So, it brings me great pleasure to present April’s pick: a seated female figurine from Seleucia. Seleucia on the Tigris was a Hellenistic capital city located south of present-day Baghdad and excavated by the University of Michigan from 1927 through 1937. Over 3,500 objects were recovered from Seleucia, including a myriad of figurines made of bone, ceramic, and stone.

Seated figurine carved from alabaster
Seated female figurine carved from alabaster, with bitumen repair resin at the neck and on the base. H. 12.8 cm. Seleucia on the Tigris, Iraq, 150 BCE–200 CE. KM 15879.

Our seated figurine is made of alabaster, a soft sedimentary stone with a uniquely translucent quality that made it a suitable material for window panes. Alabaster is easy to work, so we find a lot of vessels and figurines carved from it. But that same quality causes the stone to deteriorate easily. The alabaster block used to create this seated figure has broken along its bedding planes, causing the right arm to shear clean off the front of the statue. This type of inherent flaw might be what caused the head to detach — probably while the figurine was in use. Look closely and you can see traces of bitumen resin along the neck and on the base, signs of someone’s effort to repair the figurine in antiquity.

It amazes me how much we can learn from artifacts that were excavated nearly a century ago! Please keep reading our blog and visit the Kelsey website for opportunities to learn more about our collection.

terracotta figurine of harpocrates

Ugly Object of the Month — February 2019

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

Guess what, everyone?! We have a new exhibition going up right now: Ancient Color. Co-curated by my conservation compatriot Carrie Roberts, it features one her favorite Egyptian gods. Yes, you guessed it, HARPOCRATES RETURNS!

If you read this blog series with any regularity you will know that Carrie has a thing for Harpocrates. And it’s not because he’s really, really good-looking. Although when you know a little bit about him, you’d think he would be. Son of Isis (who we all know is gorgeous) and Horus (not bad if you’re into birds), he symbolizes the newborn sun (nice, right?). He also has magical healing and protective powers, exerted especially on behalf of women and children. This all sounds pretty great, and yet if you wanted a figurine of this god for your house (who wouldn’t?), it would look like this:

terracotta figurine of harpocrates
Painted terracotta figurine of Harpocrates. Egypt, 2nd century CE. Height 21.3 cm. KM 6947.

Yes, obviously this has seen better days. But imagine it with all the paint still on it! It would be very colorful, but would you really want to look at it every day? I know I wouldn’t, but figurines like this were very popular in Roman Egypt.

Carrie likes this figurine because she is crazy for ancient paint. But I’m not going to tell you about the traces of paint on this little guy, because that would spoil your Ancient Color exhibition experience.

I like this figurine for a different reason: it makes me contemplate two different but equally intriguing possibilities. One: that my decorative taste is very different from that of the typical Roman Egyptian. Would I have hated their interior decorating schemes? I feel like I would have, but I like to imagine what they’d have looked like, all the same. Two: that figurines like this — which were mass-produced by pressing clay into molds, firing the figurines, and then slapping on some paint (I have never seen one of these that was carefully painted) — were meaningful regardless of how they looked. The magical powers of this figurine are not dependent on beauty, in other words. Harpocrates can be messily made and slapdashily painted, and still heal your snake bites. He doesn’t have to look good to take care of business.

 * * * * *

Learn more about this figurine by visiting the Kelsey’s new exhibition Ancient Color, here in Ann Arbor beginning February 8, or anytime online.





Ugly Object of the Month — April 2018

By Caitlin Clerkin, IPCAA PhD candidate

photo 1_16200
Bone figurine with pigment. 6.5 x 1.3 cm. 150 BCE–200 CE. University of Michigan excavations at Seleucia, Iraq. KM 16200.

Is the end of the school year getting you concerned? Are you worried that this winter will NEVER end? Are you stressing about the summer heat and humidity to come? Well, whatever they are about, you and your worries have NOTHING on our ugly friend this month, because he has been worried for around 1,900 years.

This anxious-looking anthropomorphic figurine is from Seleucia on the Tigris, an ancient city located in modern-day Iraq. The University of Michigan excavated Seleucia in the 1920s and ’30s and found a whole bunch of these worried carved-bone guys (among lots of other things — check out the Seleucia cases in the permanent galleries). Our friend here is pretty schematic looking, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t communicate BIG emotions.

Look at those eyes! They might not have had headlights in 1st and 2nd century CE Seleucia, but if they had, the local gazelles would have probably looked like this when caught in the path of a speeding cart. Look at that mouth! It is definitely saying “MEEP!” Look at those little clothespin-like legs! Those legs are not going to carry him anywhere — no escape is possible! No wonder he is so worried. So, buck up, blog-reading friend! This little fellow is going to be worried way longer than you are.

photo 2_16182
Bone figurine. 7.1 x 1.3 cm. 150 BCE–200 CE. University of Michigan excavations at Seleucia, Iraq. KM 16182.

Go visit this figurine on the ground floor of Upjohn Exhibit Wing, where it has some equally expressive buddies, including a ready-to-brawl, angry, cock-eyed fellow (shown below — see its angry eyebrows and ready stance? Don’t mess with it!). Maybe you can soothe their worries a little by beaming affirming messages at their ugly little heads. But I’m not sure it is going to help: they have made those faces so long that I think they are stuck that way….



From the Archives 22 — July 2017

BY SEBASTIÁN ENCINA, Collections Manager

Walking through the galleries of the Kelsey, one will encounter many fantastical creatures. These are spoken about in ancient myths, and read about in stories or seen on film. They litter the displays, appearing on stelae, as figurines, on coins, and in paintings. The sphinx in the Egyptian galleries, the sea creatures in the Roman bath. Satyrs, centaurs, nymphs, cupids, gorgons, griffins, and all the Egyptian half-animal half-human deities, greet our visitors as they peer into each case.

These depictions are coupled with real animals as well. We see camels, dogs and cats, falcons, crocodiles, snakes, bulls, sheep, and goats. There is a nice mix of animals, both friendly and not friendly, meant to protect, guide, or attack. There are enough animals on display that the Kelsey had its own exhibition, Animals in the Kelsey: An Undergraduate Exhibit of Animals in the Ancient World, in 2000/2001. Clearly, animals, both real and imaginary, played an important role in the ancient world.

Recently, Southern Methodist University professor Dr. Stephanie Langin Hooper visited the Kelsey Museum to conduct some research on the museum’s holdings on artifacts from Seleucia. Many will remember Dr. Langin Hooper as the curator of the exhibition Life In Miniature (2014). That exhibition showcased a number of figurines from Seleucia, held by the Kelsey Museum and Toledo Museum of Art.

Along with the artifacts, Dr. Langin Hooper also spent some time looking through the archives from Seleucia. In the end, she selected a number of artifact cards created by the excavators as a means to document the finds with images. These were scanned by the Kelsey Registry in order to share.

During the scanning process, a few of these cards stood out. It is these that are this month’s choice for “From the Archives.” Animals were a popular motif in Seleucia, but even these caught our attention. We present to you the Seleucia unicorn. Cast in bronze, the distinguishing horn is prominent even on these small black-and-white photographs. The cards give us more information, such as findspot, field number, and additional notes (“Note: bridle!”). These three show the same statuette from two angles, one depicted twice.

Not much else is known about this artifact. We do know it was left at the Baghdad Museum. It was discovered in 1936.


Ugly Object of the Month — December 2016

SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator of Conservation

Hello, readers! How are you? I ask because a lot of people I know are feeling tired and stressed. The academic term is ending. Some people have to take a lot of exams, other people have to grade a lot of exams. If you’re a graduate student, you might be doing both. What about your plans for the winter break? All set? Well, that’s great. I’m very pleased for you. Sadly, some of us have not been so organized and now we are really regretting it.

What’s the solution? I’ll tell you, although you might’ve already guessed. Yes, it IS once again time to invite relaxation and happiness into your life by contemplating an ancient, ugly object. Some people might call this kind of activity “procrastination,” but those are not people we care to know at the moment. So enough jibber jabber, let’s get to it.


Clay figurine of a woman. 3rd–4th century AD. Karanis, Egypt. KM 7525.

I know I say this about every Ugly Object, but this one is really the best. When it was excavated in 1928 in Karanis, Egypt, the excavators described it as a “roughly made mud figurine, small,” and categorized it as a toy. The last bit might not be true, but the rest checks out. The object is made of unfired clay, it’s burned, and it’s broken. Not the best-looking figurine on the block, in other words, but it is surprisingly detailed and well-crafted for something made of mud. It fits easily in the palm of your hand and has a hairdo reminiscent of Bart Simpson’s. The breasts and necklace are carefully delineated, as is decoration around the navel. And, although you can’t see it in this photo, shoulder blades have been modeled on the back.

Was it really a toy? Today, scholars think not. Former IPCAA student Drew Wilburn has studied this figurine as evidence of magic at Karanis, and he writes that it was most likely used as part of a love spell. Although the suggestion is that this spell was compulsive in nature (you know, a spell to make someone fall in love with you), the exact details of the figurine’s use are not easy to determine.

The bottom line, for me, is that it was created in the service of love. Somebody loved somebody else, and wanted it to be reciprocal. We don’t know how things worked out for our ancient, lovelorn friend but, in his or her memory, we can take a few minutes today and in the days that come to send love to people we care about. Thankfully, we don’t need a spell, or a burned mud figurine. Because let’s be honest — it would be hard to top the perfection of this one. Also, now we have texting and Snapchat.

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