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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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Learn more about this figurine by visiting the Kelsey’s new exhibition Ancient Color, here in Ann Arbor beginning February 8, or anytime online.
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.
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….
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.
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.
It’s October, folks, and that means the season of decorative gourds and dressing up in festive costumes is upon us. This is partly why I chose this ceramic figurine of Harpocrates as October’s Ugly Object.
Who, you might ask, is Harpocrates? He was a deity worshipped in Ptolemaic Egypt, a child version of the sun god Horus. This ceramic figurine bears many of Harpocrates’ signature traits, such as a finger raised to his mouth, the double crown and crescent moon, and a garland. This figurine is also probably one of many identical ceramics produced for mass consumption. But what’s really cool, to me, is what’s going on the surface: this Harpocrates is seriously decked out in a variety of well-preserved paint colors, which include black, pink, red, yellow, and blue. Equally cool is the likelihood that other ceramics like this one, many of which retain no polychromy at all, were just as colorful.
While documenting the figurine I thought it might be worth doing some technical imaging of the pigments, to get a preliminary idea of what they could be. The longwave ultraviolet luminescence (UVL) image revealed that the pink garland is likely made of rose madder pigment, and the visible-induced infrared luminescence (VIL) image showed traces of Egyptian blue pigment on the structure next to Harpocrates, as well as on his crown. The remaining colors are likely iron-based earth pigments, and the black carbon-based. Other techniques that could help us confirm these results include XRF or FTIR spectroscopies, the first of which (like imaging) is non-invasive.
Left: UVL image showing orange autofluorescence of madder in the garland. Right: VIL image showing luminescent Egyptian blue stripes to the right of the figure, as well as in the crown.
When it comes to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s collections, not all artifacts are created equal. Some call out to us intellectually, others emotionally. To that end, we asked our curators to name their favorite Kelsey artifact or object. Here is the second in a series of seven.
BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Associate Curator and Head of Conservation, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan
Favorite Artifact. “Statuette of a Young Man (kouros).” Bronze, solid cast with engraved details, Archaeic Period (6th century BC), Rome, Italy. E.B. Van Deman bequest 1938, KM 6708. (Above top photo: front view; above bottom: back view).
Why. “I like this little guy because he is the perfect pocket-sized man. If you visit him in person, you can see how the figurine is curved due to his funny posture. As a conservator, I’ve never been particularly attracted to the metal objects I’ve worked on, with the exception of this one. He is the cutest copper alloy ever!”
About Artifact. This statuette of a young man most likely was made in the sanctuary of an Etruscan god and purchased there by a worshiper to dedicate to the deity. It may have represented the worshipper symbolically and, when left at the sanctuary, reminded the deity of his continual devotion.
The kouros type originated in the Greek world, but this Etruscan statuette differs from its Greek models. The tautness of the youth’s pose, the strongly arched back, and the large head with its lively facial expression lends the figure an aura of energy characteristic of the art of Archaic Etruria.
Background. From the Villanovan Iron Age, the Archaic Period (ca. 900-480 BC), the Etruscans developed a distinctive visual culture that drew upon indigenous traditions and contemporary artistic trends represented by imported objects, especially in those from the ancient Near East, Egypt, and Greece.
Find It. On the first floor in an exhibit case that backs up to the window, opposite the ancient Greek case, in the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.