Karanis – The Kelsey Blog


Ugly Object of the Month – October 2022

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Welcome, dear readers, to Ugly Object of the Month Halloween edition (cue the spooky organ music)! I’ve been sharing a lot of ancient panel paintings with you folks lately, and I hope you’re ready for more…

because this month’s object is, indeed, a painted wood panel from Karanis, Egypt (cue the maniacal laughter)!

KM 28807, wood panel fragment painted with an image of Aphrodite; Karanis, Egypt, 2nd – 4th century CE
KM 28807, wood panel fragment painted with an image of Aphrodite; Karanis, Egypt, 2nd – 4th century CE

Can you make out the (dare I say?) spooky lady emerging from this panel’s aged, discolored paint layer? You may be wondering… who is this mysterious figure? If you can’t tell looking at the object under visible light, take a look at the infrared reflectance image below. The woman is clad in a diaphanous robe, jewels, and a conical crown, all of which suggest that she is a goddess—probably Aphrodite. In Roman Egypt, Aphrodite and Isis were often worshipped as a single deity, and her potency took on aspects of both goddesses: fertility, childbirth, but also rebirth. Which makes this lady more magical than mysterious.

(IRR) image of KM 28807
Infrared reflectance (IRR) image of KM 28807

The Kelsey welcomes visiting scholar Dr. Blondel

By Malloy Bower

The Kelsey gallery cases are filled with ancient artifacts from the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions, with more artifacts available to the public in drawers below the cases. A visitor might be overwhelmed if their goal is to experience every object on display! The objects in the gallery, however, represent a small portion of the collections at the Kelsey due to the limitations of display space. The remainder of our over 100,000 object collection resides in collections storage. 

There are numerous reasons why certain objects remain in storage, but their potential for research and adding to our knowledge of the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East is not one of them. Researchers from all over the world travel to Ann Arbor to study the collection, each researcher approaching the objects with unique questions about the people who created, owned, and used the objects. In July 2022, researcher Dr. Francois Blondel from the University of Geneva spent several weeks at the Kelsey collecting tree-ring data from wooden objects excavated in Egypt that date to the Roman period (1st century BCE–5th century CE).

A middle aged bearded man in a black t-shirt sits at table in front of a large microscope, hands in his lap. He is looking at the camera and smiling.
Dr. Francois Blondel sitting at the binocular microscope in the Kelsey’s collection storage area.

Using a binocular microscope and measuring table, Dr. Blondel measured the distance between tree rings observed on the wooden objects (including KM 88723, featured in June’s Ugly Object blog). With each press of a button to record the measurement, software, connected to the measuring table, creates (or draws) the growth curve of the wood (or its growth pattern) as it goes along. The resulting curve characterizes all the variations of ring widths in these ancient artifacts crafted from ancient trees. Dr. Blondel repeated this process at least three times with each object to obtain the most complete sequence possible and also to compensate for possible measurement errors due to the lack of ring legibility on some complex objects. This data will then be compared to a database of tree-ring measurements and interpreted by Dr. Blondel in a future academic paper to help date the objects. This process of using the growth rings of trees to date objects is called dendrochronology.  

We look forward to what his research uncovers about the ancient world and its people, and how the objects in our collections contribute to his findings! 

Ugly Object of the Month — May 2022

By Suzanne Davis, with Dr. Laura Motta

Welcome to springtime, Ugly Object fans! It’s for reals this time! It hasn’t snowed for at least a week, and after a million months of winter, that feels like a miracle.

You know what else is a miracle? Seeds. I’m getting ready to plant some in my garden now that the ground isn’t frozen. Every year when I stick them in the dirt, I feel like, “there is just no way this is going to work.” But then it does! 

Because it’s that time of year—a time of minor miracles and new beginnings—our object this month is a sample of ancient coriander seeds.

Coriander seeds from Karanis, Egypt, 1st–4th centuries CE. 3.5mm x 4mm. KM 20355b.

My involvement with these seeds, which were excavated at Karanis, Egypt, is pretty limited. It consists mostly of making sure they don’t get damp or catch a fungus. But the Kelsey does have a real-life research expert in this area: archaeobotanist Dr. Laura Motta.

Dr. Laura Motta, seated at one of her research microscopes in the Kelsey Museum Bioarchaeology Lab, shows us a reference book with images of coriander seeds.

Dr. Motta’s research explores social complexity through food production and redistribution patterns, and much of her work focuses on the early phases of the world’s first cities. And yes, seeds help her do this! She agreed to sit down with me to answer a few seed-focused questions.

S.D.: Are these seeds for real? Were people at Karanis really eating cilantro and cooking with coriander 2,000 years ago?
L.M.: Yes! Coriander was very popular, and we know for sure that it was cultivated 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. But it’s also native to the Mediterranean region and to parts of Asia, so it would have been around even before it was cultivated. Coriander seeds have been found in large quantities in archaeological contexts much older than Karanis, such as King Tutankhamun’s tomb. The oldest known context is a Neolithic site about 7,000 years old. By Roman times, coriander was a very common cooking herb. One of the cool things about it from a culinary perspective is that the entire plant can be eaten, from the leaves—which, by the way, are called “cilantro” only in the United States—to the seeds.

S.D.: If I planted these seeds in my garden, would they grow?
L.M.: They probably wouldn’t grow. Not only are these “seeds” very old now, they’re not actually seeds. Technically, what we call coriander “seeds” are the plant’s fruits. The real seed is inside the small capsule you see, like it is for similar plants such as caraway, fennel, and dill. So you’d really be planting very old, very dried fruit.

S.D.: That sounds pretty dubious! So what kinds of information can you learn from seeds, or dried fruits, that are this old?
L.M.: You can learn a lot. Most of what we have preserved in the archaeological record is not spices or herbs like coriander, it’s major crops like legumes and grains. Karanis is unique because the preservation is so good that you get both major crops and things like herbs. For archaeological research, the great thing about seeds of any type is that everyone has to eat. Unlike objects, which often tell you more about the elite people who could afford to amass wealth, seeds tell you about everyone. Seeds can tell you what people at all different levels of society were eating and what crops they were importing and exporting. At places like Karanis, they can even show you differences between what people have in their houses for their own consumption, and what they are officially recording and reporting in letters to Rome.

S.D.: What’s one important, specific thing you’ve learned by studying ancient seeds?
L.M.: One of my most amazing discoveries was four tiny millet seeds that I found when collecting flotation samples at a Middle Bronze Age site (ca. 1400 BCE) in the Carpathian Mountains. “Flotation” is a technique where you mix soil samples with water, and then strain out and examine any organic materials that float to the top. It’s a way of discovering tiny seeds and other archaeological plant remains that would normally be missed during excavation. The four tiny millet seeds I found in this flotation sample were extraordinary because the Carpathian Mountains are part of a big system of mountains that historically created a boundary between Europe and Asia. We know that millet was hugely popular in Asia and then, at a later point in time, also became popular in Europe. When I took that flotation sample I was expecting to see the same European crops I was used to at the site, like legumes, barley, and wheat. Instead, I found millet! Those four seeds are some of the earliest evidence of millet making its way into Europe. I was very excited when I found them!

S.D.: Would you agree that ancient seeds are extremely cool and worthy of a place in museum collections?
L.M.: Yes, of course! Museums show interesting things and help us see how the past is relevant, but with archaeological objects we can often still feel like they are very separate from us. A painted Greek vase is recognizable, yet most of us don’t have anything like it in our homes today. But seeds don’t change! They are so relatable. We still use them today in the same ways our ancestors did thousands of years ago. Seeds can tell us all kinds of interesting stories, and we should absolutely make more room for them in museums.

Ugly Object of the Month — April 2022

By Suzanne Davis

Welcome to springtime, Ugly Object fans! Or wait, maybe it’s still winter? The huge piles of snow have melted, campus is basically completely flooded, and daffodils and tulips are beginning to show us that they still live. And yet … it keeps freakin’ snowing and it’s hard to remember when we last saw the sun.

So I am keeping myself sane by doing the same things that got me through winter, namely cooking, knitting, and reading mystery novels, but mostly cooking. This ugly object is for all my fellow cooks and bakers who are staying sane the same way, and also for people who like a cozy ancient mystery where no one gets murdered.

“Bread” (but not really—see below) from Karanis, Egypt, 1st–4th centuries CE. 12.7 x  8.7 cm, 2.4 cm thick. KM 22492 and 22493.

Excavated in 1935 from the Roman Egyptian town of Karanis, Egypt, these objects are the remains of ancient flatbread … or so the excavators thought. Even at the time, there were some clues that they might not be bread. For example, they were found in huge stacks in a sort of warehouse-y space, which is odd, because—even back in the day—you would not expect bakers to warehouse their finished loaves. Typically you bake and sell on the same day (which is why you can get Zingerman’s bread on sale at the Produce Station after a certain time every afternoon—bread is a “one-day item”).

1935 photo caption: “Piles of bread as found in a top layer granary on the eastern side, A411. One pile reserved for the Department of Antiquities, Division, May 31, 1935. The other pile at the University of Michigan.”

The “bread” story never seemed quite right, and there was speculation about this material for decades, but what else could it be? The idea that it was flatbread persisted until the mid-1990s when a crack team of forensic scientists (paleobotanists) sampled the “loaves” and discovered that they are … wait for it … the crushed pits and skins of olives. In other words, these are what’s left over after you make olive oil. Just like me, the people of Karanis were crazy for olive oil, and they not only made their own, with large olive presses scattered throughout the town, but they also imported it from many locations around the Roman world. (Sometimes you’re just in the mood for a nice one from Andalusia, right?).

Now, why were these olive pressings stacked up in a warehouse? Were they going to be recycled/reused? Was there some other plan? As far as I’m aware, that’s still a mystery. 

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 — November 2021

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

This month’s Ugly Object—a fragmented wood panel painting from Karanis—is a visual challenge. One interpretation I’ve read describes what we’re seeing as hair. But to me, this looks like a figure. Take a look at the infrared (IRR) image I captured—what do you see? I see some kind of furry (or feathery) creature with a pendant hanging around its neck. I think I see a bit of a wing and two bird legs. And I think I see a wreath-like object in front of those feet. Could this perhaps be an eagle with some imperial imagery thrown in? This is my best guess, and I’m sure there are other possibilities. What do you think, readers?

KM 23976, panel painting of a bird (eagle?). Roman Egypt (Karanis), 1st–5th centuries CE. Left: visible light image; right: infrared (IRR) image.

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 | September 2021

By Caroline Roberts and Suzanne Davis

Fragment of a wall painting from Karanis, Egypt, first–fifth centuries CE. KM 26982.

This small and funky fragment of wall painting—excavated at Karanis in 1924—is part of our lab’s technical color research project. What exactly does it show, you might ask? Good question. We knew we were looking at fleshy bits of a human, but we spun this sucker around and around trying to guess what bits. Suzanne thought it was an arm (with an elbow joint) and an archaeologist friend thought it was a leg. Annoyingly, the ancient painter did not define the anatomy well enough for us to make a clear determination based on the joint in question. In the end, however, we decided our archaeology buddy (shout-out to Craig Harvey!) was right, based on … wait for it … the garment we see on display here.

What is obviously a highly fashionable couture cloak is draped luxuriously behind the figure, and the way this falls makes more sense for a leg than an arm. This lovely pale pink garment is lined in blue-gray, with black detailing along the seam of the lining. Seen against the pink of the outer fabric, the lining looks almost purple. And here is where the color research comes in.

The pink is rose madder, but what is the blue-gray-almost purple color? When we imaged (MSI) and analyzed (XRF) it, we discovered that it doesn’t contain Egyptian blue. This isn’t totally surprising, since the color doesn’t much resemble Egyptian blue (which tends to be more greenish), but how did the painter get this shade? The color contains iron and titanium, and it turns out that the black lines in this fragment are also from a paint rich in titanium and iron. So the black pigment isn’t a typical carbon-based black, but—whatever it is (and we have a good guess about this, actually)—it’s probably being used to create the purplish/bluish cloak lining.

Bottom line, this pigment could be what’s known as “optical blue,” a mixture of calcite and black pigment. Alternatively, the fragment could be from a later but still extremely cool period where people were wearing awesome cloaks. Excavation records link the fragment to a wall in a room in a house dating to the first–fifth centuries CE, however, so we’re still believing it’s ancient. But we will need to bring in other forms of analysis (possibly FTIR) to pin down exactly what pigment we’re seeing here.

News from the Conservation Lab — Indigo Subtraction Imaging

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

 Suzanne and I are busy preparing for the data-gathering phase of our NEH-funded Color Research project, which is scheduled to begin next month. We’ll be investigating color on 200 ancient objects from Karanis, Egypt, including about 40 textile fragments.

Among the tools we’ll use is multiband imaging (MBI, previously referred to as multispectral imaging). MBI is a photographic technique that can be used to characterize textile dyes, and we’ve added a new method to our MBI toolbox: multiband reflectance (MBR) image subtraction for indigo—a blue, plant-based dye used in Egypt during the Ptolemaic and Roman periods.

multiband image of textile revealing indigo dye
Left: Visible light image of KM 13821, a split-tapestry woven textile fragment from Karanis. Right: MBR subtraction image of the textile revealing indigo dye in areas of white.

Indigo dye molecules absorb a lot of light at 660 nanometers (the end of the visible light range) and reflect a lot of light at 735 nanometers (the start of the infrared light range). We can capture these contrasting behaviors by using lens filters that allow the camera to record these specific wavelengths. When we combine images captured at 660 and 735nm using the “difference” blend mode in Photoshop, areas that contain indigo (which absorb and reflect at those specific wavelengths) appear white. On textile KM 13821 you can see that the dark blue horizontal tapestry bands contain indigo dye. This technique will be useful for identifying indigo and for mapping where indigo is located on an object. The latter will be helpful in areas where dyes have been mixed to create a modulated color and in places where the original color has faded or discolored over time.

We look forward to sharing more colorful discoveries like these as this project unfolds. Stay tuned!

News from the Conservation Lab — March 2021

By Suzanne Davis

Hello! Happy end of winter! This week in the conservation lab we’re pretty excited about two things. First, we just had a research study be published in the journal Studies in Conservation. Written with our colleague Andy Poli, in U-M’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, the paper examines the behavior of conservation adhesives in hot climates and focuses on an adhesive that we tested extensively at the hot field site of El-Kurru, Sudan. The article is titled “Paraloid® B-72/B-48N 1:1 as an Adhesive for Use in Hot Climates: Literature Review, Laboratory Testing, and Observational Field Study.” It’s about glue, basically, and it involves molecular and physical chemistry, making it a topic that is both boring and complicated to understand. BUT we worked hard to make the writing clear, accessible, and active. The reviewers seemed to appreciate this, and we hope other archaeological conservators will find this study useful for their work.

broken pot in a basket
A large pottery jar at El-Kurru, Sudan, in 2016 after our usual conservation adhesive failed due to high heat. Failure like this is why we started researching adhesives for use in hot climates.

Second, this month we’re beginning work in earnest on our new, NEH–funded study of color in the Kelsey’s collections, and I’ve been selecting textiles to examine. We’re still early in this project, and I’m struggling with how to choose fragments for analysis: Pretty colors? Interesting fabric constructions? Good archaeological context?  So far I’ve got some of all the above, although the latter is complicated by how the excavators at Karanis, Egypt, understood and recorded stratigraphy in the 1920s. Still, it’s a lot of fun, and we look forward to new discoveries.

textile fragments
A selection of textiles—all from Karanis, Egypt—for the just-beginning technical study of color in the Kelsey’s collections.

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