graeco-roman – The Kelsey Blog


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!

Ugly Object of the Month — February 2022

By Suzanne Davis

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.

Wool textile fragment(s) from Roman Egypt, 5th to 6th centuries CE, possibly earlier. 22 x 21.5 cm. Purchased in Egypt from Phocion Tano. KM 94443.

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.

Can’t make it to the museum? You can also visit virtual versions of this and all previous Kelsey in Focus exhibitions on the Kelsey website.

Ugly Object of the Month — January 2022

By Caroline Roberts

Happy New Year, Kelsey blog fans! Can you believe it’s 2022? And that this pandemic is still happening? I cannot. But on a much brighter note, I’ll tell you what else is still happening: Ugly Objects. That’s right. They just keep on coming. And this month, to kick off the New Year, we’re featuring one of my favorite Egyptian deities: Bes.

Faience Bes figurine from Karanis. Roman Egypt, 1st–3rd c. CE. KM 25979.

Bes is an in-your-face, snake-squishing protector god whose cult took off during the New Kingdom and stayed strong through the Roman period. The Bes we have here is a rather large faience figurine from the Roman Egyptian city of Karanis. He is missing his feet and crown and a good deal of his bright turquoise surface glaze, but his characteristic beard, tummy (with glazed belly button!), and phallus remain. (By the way, if you’re wondering how this Bes got his incredible blue-green sheen, check out Carolyn Riccardelli’s awesome article on Egyptian faience.)

Terry Wilfong calls out Bes as the most commonly encountered amuletic figure at Karanis, which makes sense to me. Bes faces us full-on, ready to help us confront whatever ill life might throw at us. Now I’m starting to envision a whole line of auspicious Bes paraphernalia for the Kelsey gift shop … Maybe he can help us take on the COVID pandemic?

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.

terracotta figurine of Bes

Ugly Object of the Month — December 2019

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

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!

terracotta figurine of Bes
Terracotta figurine of Bes. Roman Egypt (Fayum), 1st–2nd century CE. Height: 21.7 cm. Museum purchase (David Askren, 1925). KM 4960.

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.

Ugly Object of the Month — December 2018

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

This month’s Ugly Object is, at first glance, pretty unrecognizable. Its outline suggests a bust format, and one can start to make out a head, the folds of robe, locks of shoulder-length hair, a beard and other facial features. While I personally couldn’t make heads or tails of who this figure is, a trained eye (namely, Kelsey director Terry Wilfong) can spot specific details that reveal that this somewhat diminished bust is in fact a deity —specifically, the Graeco-Egyptian god Serapis. Serapis was worshiped in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt and elsewhere in the Roman empire as a cult deity. Like most gods, Serapis wore many hats: he was seen as an oracle, a consort to Isis, a hybridization of the bull deity Apis and Osiris, and a figure associated with the underworld.

wooden bust of Egyptian god Serapis
Wooden bust of Serapis decorated with gesso, bole, and gold leaf. H: 10.2 cm. Roman period, late 2nd to early 3rd century CE. KM 4655.

How do we know that this particular wooden bust is Serapis? A major clue is in the wooden dowel at the top of the figure’s head, which originally held a grain basket in place. The thick, shoulder-length hair is another Serapis signature. The decorative surface is pretty patchy, but the losses happen to reveal how the figure was made. A carved wood base was coated with a thick layer of gesso. A layer of red clay (called bole) was painted onto the gesso, and a final layer of gold leaf was applied on top. The bole would have allowed the gilding to be burnished and smoothed to a lustrous sheen, which would have made this Serapis super shiny. This is fitting, considering that the bust likely started out as an element of bling on a piece of furniture.

Come visit our shiny Serapis, on display in the Karanis House on the first floor of the Upjohn Exhibit wing! And see if you can spot other Graeco-Roman Egyptian deities elsewhere in the Kelsey galleries.

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