object conservation – The Kelsey Blog

object conservation

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

Ugly Object of the Month – September 22

By Suzanne Davis

Discerning readers, are you worried about getting a regular, reliable dose of Kelsey Museum Uglies each month? We feel you, and we promise to do better. Things have just been extra exciting around here with the start of the fall term, which is the first, real, full-on, in-person, students-everywhere, what-the-heck-happened-to-Ann Arbor, and is-it-a-home-football-weekend-again? kind of term in three years. We used to do this every year, but thanks to COVID we’re out of practice, and it’s been nuts. Thankfully, you can relax and enjoy a belated Ugly right now! 

This month, my top pick is more of a historical than archaeological object, and actually it’s more of a building than an object, and you might disagree that it was ugly (I do – I liked it). But look–if it wasn’t ugly before, it sure is now. It is the Fleming Administration Building, once a cool modernist gem, now a giant hole in the ground.

Partially deconstructed Fleming Administration Building.
The Fleming Administration Building in the process of deconstruction.

The Fleming Administration Building was designed by the famous modernist architect Alden B. Dow, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. Dow, who was based in Midland, Michigan, also designed 18 other buildings in Ann Arbor (five on the U-M campus). The Fleming building was built in 1964, before the civil rights demonstrations at U-M, but a myth arose that the fortress-like building had been purpose-built to foil protestors. In truth, Dow’s arrangement of vertical and horizontal bands of limestone, with windows of varying sizes arranged in a grid, were meant to make the otherwise blocky brick façade more interesting. Fans of the Dutch modernist painter Piet Mondrian will note the similarities to Mondrian’s work. 

Yet while I enjoyed looking at this building, it was reportedly miserable to work in, and it was also falling apart, with bits of the brick veneers popping off and creating hazards for passersby. So this September, the building was deconstructed. Not demolished, but deconstructed; pulled apart bit by bit, very carefully, because it is located near a dormitory, a plaza, the student union, the parking garage where I park, and a bunch of frequently trafficked sidewalks. The deconstruction was fascinating, gripping the entire central campus community. So even though I didn’t want the building to be torn down, morbid fascination glued me to the spectacle. Please enjoy my amateur snapshots, and you can see official U-M photography here and read more about the building’s history here and here.

R.I.P. Fleming Administration Building.

The inside structure of the Fleming Administration Building visible with an entire exterior wall removed.
The inside structure of the Fleming Administration Building visible with an entire exterior wall removed.
A crane pulling down pieces of the Fleming Administration Building upper floors with the interior structure exposed.
Cranes pulled down pieces of the building bit by bit, leaving the interior structure exposed to curious passersby.


Heavy machinery lifting and moving debris left behind from a building deconstruction.
The remains of the Fleming Administration Building following deconstruction.

News from the Conservation Lab — new lab gear to scope out old pigments

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

The Kelsey Conservation lab has been in operation since the 1970s—thanks to former director John Pedley, who launched the conservation department here at the Kelsey—and some of our equipment likewise dates back a few decades. Our old binocular microscope may very well go back that far and has served us well over the years, allowing us to clean coins, count threads, and identify any number of salt encrustations. But this summer, we decided that the time had finally come to replace it. In its place we now have a Leica S9i stereomicroscope, and I am admittedly geeking out over it. The new ‘scope has an extendable arm that will allow us to perch the instrument over large objects, as well as a built-in camera, so we can simultaneously examine objects and visualize what we’re looking at in real-time on our laptops.

A young woman with short dark hair sits at a desk and works on a computer. A microscope is on the desk beside her.
Carrie examining KM 23976 under the new stereomicroscope.

Last week I used our new microscope to capture the chunky orpiment particles that are embedded in this yellow(ish) paint layer on KM 23976. This painted wood panel from Karanis depicts what looks like an eagle, and around its neck is a gold collar. The artist chose to use orpiment, a brilliantly yellow arsenic sulfide pigment, to create the pendant. Although it has faded and darkened over the centuries, the pendant would have practically sparkled in antiquity. No wonder orpiment’s Latin name, auripigmentum, means “gold pigment.”

A brown field with small gold flecks embedded.
Detail of orpiment particles in the painted pendant on KM 23976.

Be sure to stay tuned for more cool images from our new ‘scope!

News from the Conservation Lab — November 2021

By Suzanne Davis

Hello, readers! As always it’s a busy time in the Kelsey Conservation lab, and we are feeling excited about our winter work. Since we often focus on cool objects in this blog, I thought I would give you a little peek into all the other stuff we do, and I’m going to illustrate this with a photo of my messy desk / lab bench.

color photo of a desk strewn with papers and an open laptop. A gavel rests on top of a short stack of books.

At left there are samples of (modern) building materials we’ve been testing for use at the Jebel Barkal and El-Kurru archaeological sites in Sudan. Next, half-buried under other things, is a copy of the budget my colleague Geoff Emberling and I are working on for those two archaeological projects—we hope to be in the field in Sudan this winter.

The pile on top of this is related to board meetings for the American Institute of Conservation (AIC), and the Foundation for Advancement in Conservation (FAIC). As AIC president, I’m responsible for running the AIC board meeting, so I’ve got the presidential gavel (passed down from president to president since the 1980s) and my copy of Robert’s Rules of Order, the Classic Manual for Parliamentary Procedure (ditto). Tucked underneath this are my notes from those meetings, including a quote from my FAIC board colleague and friend, Bob Mitchell, who runs a successful consulting firm that focuses on marketing and strategy. The quote is, “What got you here, won’t get you there.” Bob believes it’s important to have a spirit that embraces change and re-imagination right now. I like this idea!

Next up is a messy clipboard with a flow chart that I’m consulting for identification of ancient dyes, and this overlays all my notes about the multispectral imaging I’m doing. Finally, on my computer screen is a copy of the schedule for the annual meeting of the professional archaeological association ASOR. It’s happening in Chicago this week, I and many of my Kelsey colleagues are participating in the conference, and we are very excited to attend it in person this year!

News from the Conservation Lab — Color research update!

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Greetings, Conservation aficionados! We are in the midst of the data-gathering phase of our NEH Color Research project, and so far we’ve imaged and analyzed over 50 objects from the Roman Egyptian sites of Karanis and Terenouthis. In the process, we’ve gathered data that both strengthens (and in a few cases has led us to question) what we know about pigments and dyes from this period in Egypt’s history. We’ve also been fortunate to have IPCAA student Laurel Fricker here in the lab to help us with our research. Laurel has a special interest in terracotta figurines and is looking at the surface decoration on painted figures from Karanis.

As I mentioned in a recent Ugly post, a few of the objects we’re looking at have yielded some unexpected results. Among them is an unassuming wall painting fragment that’s got green and red spots. The green spots are a real mystery. They have a weird element (chromium!) in their XRF signatures. Could this be a trace element? How common is it? Could it tell us something about where this pigment came from? So many questions to consider. We’ve also found arsenic on two horse pull-toys from Karanis. Could this be from an orpiment (arsenic sulfide) pigment that’s worn away? Or perhaps from a historic pesticide treatment? We just don’t know yet. But that’s okay—I love a good mystery!

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 — exploring the Kelsey collection with X-rays

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Suzanne and I are excited to announce a new addition to our lab: a handheld X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer. We were able to acquire this instrument with the help of the NEH-sponsored Research and Development grant we received this year. This nifty-looking handheld device—which, to me, resembles something out of an original Star Trek episode—is engineered to generate a powerful X-ray beam. The X-rays are directed onto an object, where they are absorbed by atoms that make up the pigment particles in an ancient paint layer. This initiates a phenomenon called the “photoelectric effect” which results in a release of photons from the atom. These photons have quantifiable energy levels that are unique to specific chemical elements, such as iron, copper, lead, mercury, or arsenic. The XRF device can detect these photons as they leave the object, and convert this information into a graph that we can read. All of this can be done without removing a paint sample from the artifact.

XRF machine being used in a lab
Bruker Tracer 5g handheld XRF spectrometer positioned on a tripod over KM 21114, a limestone funerary stela from Terenouthis, Egypt, late 2nd–early 4th century CE.

We’ll use the XRF unit, along with our lab’s multispectral imaging kit and polarized light microscope, to identify pigments that were used on artifacts at the Kelsey, providing us with materials-based evidence of what artists were using to decorate objects and structures in the ancient world. For the NEH grant, we’ll be focusing our investigative efforts on the collections we have from Karanis and Terenouthis. We’re especially interested in learning which pigments people were using to paint artifacts in Roman Egypt, since there isn’t as much data from this later period as there is from earlier parts of Egypt’s history.

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.

News from the Conservation Lab — NEH Research and Development Grant

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Suzanne and I are thrilled to report that we’ve received an NEH Research and Development Grant to study ancient color in the Kelsey collection. This project will allow us to conduct multispectral imaging and XRF analysis on a large group of painted and dyed artifacts from Roman Egypt, including objects from the University’s excavations at Karanis and Terenouthis. As we conduct the study, we will develop a scalable research protocol that can be adapted for use in other archaeological collections.

For many years, ancient color research has focused on artifacts from elite contexts. The data gathered from our study will inform us about the colors used by artists working for everyday people living in the Roman Empire. An important, broader goal of the grant will be to make this type of research more accessible to small research institutions like ours, both at the University of Michigan and elsewhere. We look forward to keeping you updated as we roll out this project over the next two years!

Left: Carrie performs multispectral imaging (MSI) on a mummy portrait from the Fayum region of Egypt. Right: A closeup of the portrait, KM 26801.

News from the Conservation Lab — Ancient Polychromy Roundtable

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the 10th International Roundtable on Ancient Polychromy, a biennial conference of art historians, archaeologists, and scientists who study color on ancient artifacts. This was my first time attending the conference, which this year took place via Zoom over a four-day period and across at least 10 different time zones (hats off to our colleagues in LA in particular, who were up at 5 a.m. for this meeting!). It was a virtual deep dive into ancient paint surfaces, with the focus this year on the interactions between polychrome sculpture and their architectural surrounds. There were lengthy debates about context, original appearance, and the use of difficult-to-ID organic pigments on artifacts, as well as quite a bit of excitement around the color purple. One paper identified at least six different pigment combinations used to create this elusive color, while another identified the rare and costly Tyrian purple on a wall painting. The paper I presented focused on color selection on the Kelsey Museum’s collection of painted limestone stelae from the necropolis at Terenouthis.

The roundtable revealed a lot of new and exciting information, which just goes to show how much work remains to be done on this topic. My hope is that ancient color research will continue its expansion into the provinces and other parts of the ancient world and to lesser-known collections. I especially enjoyed hearing papers about the research that is taking place in Jordan and Tunisia, for example. These have given me a lot to consider as we continue to look at ancient polychromy in the Kelsey’s collection.

painting of a a gathering in ancient Rome
Conference key image: Gustave Boulanger’s Rehearsal of the Flute Player and the Wife of Diomedes in the Atrium of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Pompeiian House. Musée D’Orsay RF 1550, MV 5614 (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

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