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.
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.
A very common occurrence in archives is coming across mysteries that have no answers. It is frustrating for those of us working with these materials to not have any idea what we have stumbled across. Or who these people are. Or what this photograph is depicting. More frustrating is knowing that for some of these matters, there will never be an answer.
Even with materials very familiar to us, such mysteries pop up. Though we have spent many years working with the maps, journals, and photographs from the Karanis excavations, there are still some items that leave us puzzled. One such example is a series of drawings of artifacts excavated at Karanis. The drawings are in color in order to capture the full nature of the artifacts, a necessity in the days before color photography.
The drawings themselves are not the mysteries. We know what artifacts are depicted; most are here at the Kelsey Museum. Instead, the mystery is who drew them. They are signed by “Joslin” and dated 1929, but no first name, no affiliation, no other identifying information is given. The 1929 Karanis excavation team included several architects and artists, but nothing else in our archives was associated with “Joslin.”
In 2015, the Kelsey Museum received an email from Nancy Joslin Kaleel saying her grandfather was an architecture student at U-M who went to Karanis with the U-M team in 1929. She and her son Calvin were visiting Ann Arbor and were interested in seeing anything relating to Joslin at the Kelsey Museum. We invited Nancy and Calvin to view these files and during their visit, Nancy revealed that Joslin was actually Frederick Burr Joslin, an architect who designed homes in Detroit. Mystery solved.
Nancy recently returned to the Kelsey, bringing more family members who were interested in seeing F. B. Joslin’s work and learning about the Kelsey and the excavations at Karanis. For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present a few of Joslin’s drawings and a photo of his family members each holding a drawing.
It was an absolute pleasure hosting the family at the Kelsey Museum and spending an afternoon with them. They were a delight to have, and we learned so much more about Joslin than we previously knew. Nancy and Judith, who are sisters, say they have many of their grandfather’s belongings, so perhaps we will continue to learn about Joslin’s time at Karanis. What they find may wind up being a future “From the Archives” blog post.
It is June, and many students at U-M have graduated, or have at least completed their courses for the academic year. Soon, local schools will be letting out as well, and thus will summer truly begin. For many, this is the time to find fun and entertaining things to do with friends and family. Festivals will pop up throughout the country, and county fairs will have rides available for children and adults alike.
This desire for fun is not limited to American students and families. People across time and throughout the world seek out such amusements. For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present an example of people creating their own entertainment.
In the mid-1920s, a team of University of Michigan archaeologists lived in Egypt as they undertook the excavation of the site of Karanis. The team’s photographer, George R. Swain, would often turn his camera on the locals to capture life in the Fayum region, where Karanis is situated. It is for this reason that candid photographs of animals, neighbors, and people playing and attending weddings dot the collection of photographs of the buildings and artifacts uncovered at the site. It is these photographs of daily life that add color to the Kelsey’s archival record of the Karanis excavations and gives us a glimpse into the lives of people in the Fayum region in the early 20th century.
KM 0150 is one photograph in a series of images that are largely unattributed and undated. It shows us a glimpse into the local preparations for the festivities of the Moulid, or Mawlid, the observed birth of the Prophet. Swain’s note for the photograph reads, “A native ferris wheel for the Moulid at Qasr Raswan.” Though it does not look exactly like a Ferris wheel as we might imagine one, the concept is the same, albeit on a smaller scale. This image shows us the kind of fun people were creating for themselves in Egypt in the 1920s. People were riding, spinning around, enjoying themselves. The children in the photograph are smiling.
As summer commences, many of us will seek out similar thrills. Whatever form the fun takes, the joy is universal, transcending time and space.
In 2018, a Registry intern worked with the archives to help assess materials and devise a plan for organization and some culling. As this intern had not previously worked with archival materials, they were encouraged to seek out the expertise of our colleagues at the Bentley Historical Library, the University of Michigan’s primary historical repository. Bentley archivist Aprille McKay advised our intern about plans for organization and creating a finding aid, and provided suggestions for disposing of non-essential or duplicated materials. At the end of the semester, the intern wrote a report along with recommendations, which the Kelsey will implement.
The Kelsey is very appreciative of Aprille’s insights into handling archival materials and archives in general. In addition to these, Aprille also brought the Kelsey gifts. In the 1990s, when Newberry Hall was undergoing renovations, we sent archival materials, including maps and photographs from the site of Karanis, Egypt, to the Bentley for safekeeping. Aprille returned these materials to us in 2018, and we’re still inventorying them to determine how to incorporate them back into our collections.
This semester, a new intern is working with the Karanis materials, and they found an image that shows a feature in a temple wall labeled “crocodile mummy niche” (fig. 1). This excited them, and they wanted to learn more, which is why this exciting discovery is this month’s “From the Archives.”
Two temples survive at Karanis, the South Temple, which we know from an inscription was dedicated to the crocodile gods Pnepheros and Petesouchos, and the poorly preserved North Temple. The image above shows construction details of the “crocodile niche” found in an inner room of the South Temple (figs. 2 and 3). Scholars think that a crocodile mummy on a bier would have been placed in this niche. While no crocodile mummies were found in the ruins of the South Temple, crocodile bones were found in both the inner shrine (room C) and the room south of the shrine (room X) (Ali 2013, p. 50).
Below is a photograph of a partial crocodile mummy resting against a stone wall of the inner sanctuary of the North Temple (fig. 4). This image is the only specific record of crocodile mummies at the site of the North Temple at Karanis, although the excavators noted the discovery of “a number of crocodile mummies” to the southwest of the temple (Boak 1933, p. 13). However, the record of objects, the list of every item found at Karanis by the University of Michigan expedition (1924–1935), does not list any crocodile mummies.
We do not know where this particular mummy wound up. It likely it went to the Cairo Museum in the division of finds, but this is by no means certain. Its location remains a mystery.
* * * * *
Read more about the Egyptian cult of the crocodile in the chapter “The Temples and the Gods,” in Karanis: An Egyptian Town in Roman Times, by Elaine K. Gazda (2nd ed., 2004). An abridged version of this chapter, without illustrations, is available here.
This year, the University of Michigan is celebrating its bicentennial. Founded originally in Detroit in 1817, the University has enjoyed a tremendous history. In that time, the staff, faculty, and students have achieved a great deal, with much to be proud of and to showcase.
Among that storied history are all the archaeological projects the University has undertaken in the last 200 years. The University of Michigan, through its archaeological programs, has been around the world multiple times, visiting fantastic sites in far off countries. It is these projects that are now the focus of our most recent exhibition, Excavating Archaeology @ U-M: 1817-2017. The exhibition is now open to the public, here at the Kelsey Museum. Through this exhibition, we display artifacts gathered together by University of Michigan archaeologists. Some of those objects are from the Kelsey Museum collections, while others are on loan from the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology.
The University still has excavations in some of the countries exhibited in the galleries, but these days, countries like Egypt do not permit artifacts to leave the country. Instead, researchers must visit these countries in order to study artifacts in local or national museums and storage magazines. But this was not always the case. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, when Michigan first went to places such as Karanis, these countries often permitted scholars to bring artifacts back to Michigan. This is how the Kelsey Museum formed much of its collections.
For this month’s From the Archives, we present records of how the decision was made about which objects would be kept in Egypt and which would be sent to Michigan. The Egyptian government had antiquities staff working with Michigan staff on the excavations. When artifacts were accumulated, they were brought together and arranged according to type (coins, wood objects, ceramics, papyri, etc.). They were then photographed. Looking over the photographs, the antiquities staff member marked with red Xs which ones were to be kept in the country, leaving the rest to be sent to Michigan. Look closely at some of these photographs and you can still see a red “X” on some of the objects.
These black and white photographs were later bound into thick books and stored in our archives. Recently, an intern and I carefully took these books apart and made color scans of the photographs to preserve this valuable information. In addition to information about what objects went where, these photographs are often the only image we have of certain artifacts.
The Kelsey Museum possesses a long history of archaeological excavations, many of which have been highlighted in this blog. Now, thanks to Professors Terry Wilfong and Carla Sinopoli, these and many other excavations are now available for viewing in our latest exhibition.
It’s back-to-school time, and town is certainly feeling lively as ~30,000 students return to campus. It’s also the harvest season here in Michigan, where it’s already starting to feel like fall. That is sort of, maybe, a decent lead-in to this month’s Ugly Object, which is … wait for it … some pieces of wheat!
Old-as-heck wheat. 1st–3rd century AD. University of Michigan excavations at Karanis, Egypt. KM 3958.
This is some bonafide archaeological grain-stuff here and, while it might not be considered a typical museum-quality artwork, I think it looks pretty amazing. According to Kelsey curator and director Terry Wilfong, wheat was the biggest and most important crop for ancient Karanis. Egypt was a major producer of grain for the Roman Empire, and Karanis had ten large granaries to store it prior to its shipment to Alexandria and then Rome. Some of this wheat’s brethren might have been eaten by emperors! But if, for some reason, it fails to impress you with its extreme ancient awesomeness, be aware that we also have garlic bulbs and a bunch of other fantastic 1,700-year-old seeds on view. Come enjoy the Kelsey’s cornucopia of ancient — if not always attractive — agricultural delights.
Last Friday we said goodbye to our first-ever summer intern in conservation, Amaris Sturm. Amaris is a graduate student in the Winterthur / University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, and has a special interest in archaeological conservation. During her two months at the Kelsey, Amaris treated twelve artifacts (many in preparation for the museum’s upcoming bicentennial exhibition), familiarizing herself with some of the “bread and butter” activities of a museum archaeological conservator. She brought thoughtfulness and skill to each of her projects, and approached each new treatment as an opportunity to learn. As is often the case with interns and fellows in the lab, we learned a great deal from her as well.
We will miss having Amaris in the lab, and wish her all the best as she moves on to her internship year at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.
This month’s Ugly Object is bound to give its competitors a run for their money. It is not much to look at, but it’s definitely worth getting to know. What exactly is it? It’s an ancient Egyptian mudbrick.
Mudbrick is a material used in building construction worldwide. It was used in antiquity and continues to be used today, from the painted mudbrick complexes of El Kurru village to my grandmother’s old ranch house in Fresno, CA. The components of mudbrick vary but usually include clay or clayey soil, sand, plant fibers and, in the case of the Kelsey brick, pieces of fired ceramic. Each brick would have been shaped, dried in the sun, and then used to build things. There are countless ancient mudbrick structures in Egypt, including the houses excavated at Karanis.
Mudbrick architectural remains at Karanis, Egypt
This mudbrick has seen better days, but it’s fun to imagine what kind of structure it might have been a part of once. Was it part of the wall of a house? A pyramid? We don’t really know. There are a number of ancient mudbrick structures still around, but (as shown by the poor condition of our brick) they can be a challenge to preserve.