Roman period – The Kelsey Blog

Roman period

Ugly Object of the Month — March 2022

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

This month we are celebrating Women’s History Month with an uncharacteristically handsome Ugly Object: a sestertius coin featuring the indomitable empress Julia Domna.

Bronze sestertius. Septimius Severus for Julia Domna, 193–211 CE. Gift of George Monks, 1991. KM 1991.2.657.

Julia Domna was born in modern-day Syria to a family of Arab priests and became empress of Rome when her husband, Septimius Severus, defeated multiple co-contenders to the imperial throne in 197 CE. Julia Domna was a highly visible and powerful political figure who influenced the reigns of both her husband and her son, Caracalla. Her image appears in a range of marble carvings, in painted wood on the famous Severan Tondo, and countless coins—including KM 1991.2.657. Julia Domna appears on the obverse side of this coin draped with hair coiled and waved, encircled by her honorary title, Julia Domna Augustus. The goddess Juno, accompanied by a peacock, appears standing on the reverse.

These powerful images of women—one historic, one mythical—would have played an important role in amplifying the authority of the emperor by circulating the empire as currency. We don’t know where this coin was found, but I like to imagine it was carried around in the pocket of someone outside Rome—maybe as far afield as Julia Domna’s own hometown?

Attention, Ugly Object devotees! Giving Blueday is Wednesday, March 16!

Announcing 2022’s Giving Blueday, the University of Michigan’s 24-hour celebration of giving. Every March since 2014, the global U-M community has come together on Giving Blueday in support of programs and causes they care most about.

We know that the Kelsey’s Ugly Objects are uppermost in your mind when you consider making charitable donations with your hard-earned money. Any donation you make to the Kelsey Museum on Giving Blueday will support our broadest goals—including the careful conservation of these unique beauties. Gifts to the Kelsey are like the artifacts we care for: even if they seem small or insignificant, we love and appreciate every one.

So mark your calendar and give a dollar on March 16! Give two dollars! Give five whole smackers in commemoration of the love we know you feel for Franken Horse!

Learn more about what your donation to the Kelsey Museum supports at our website.

Ugly Object of the Month — June 2020

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Greetings, Kelsey blog fans! You are in for a treat. This month’s Ugly Object is another rarely-before-seen feature from our vaults. Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you (drumroll please …) a box full of rocks!

KM 107, a box of marble samples from Carthage, Tunisia, purchased by Francis W. Kelsey in 1893.
KM 107, a box of marble samples from Carthage, Tunisia, purchased by Francis W. Kelsey in 1893.

I can guess what you’re thinking, but bear with me. Let’s virtually “unpack” this box.

The box unpacked: 22 samples of architectural marble of varying type and origin.
The box unpacked: 22 samples of architectural marble of varying type and origin.

What we’ve got here is a collection of high-quality marble samples. I can see some white and gray marbles and what could be a yellow giallo antico marble, among others. The samples are weathered so it’s hard to classify their exact marble type. But it’s safe to say they are the sort of decorative stones you’d find on the interior and exterior surfaces of buildings in ancient Rome.

These particular samples come from Carthage, Tunisia, and were purchased in 1893 by none other than Francis Kelsey himself from the Jesuit priest and archaeologist Père Delattre. Kelsey acquired construction materials like these to support his teaching, and they remain important access points to understanding ancient materials and technology. They also provide evidence of trade and connectivity in the Roman world. Marbles with specific colors and inclusions were highly sought after, and many of the rocks in this box probably traveled from another place in the empire before being cut and mortared onto a building at Carthage. For the geology enthusiasts in our audience, a number of Kelsey’s marble samples were part of a recent archaeometric study to identify where they were quarried. I for one can’t wait to read more about this!

Keep tuning in to the Kelsey Blog for more Ugly Objects as we continue to reveal more unseen highlights of the collection!

Ugly Object of the Month — March 2020

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

Hey, all you March babies! What’s your sign? Are you a wise and artistic Pisces? Or a quick and competitive Aries? I happen to be a Pisces myself, and I can tell you that this month’s Ugly Object is a real catch. This rotund Roman fish is made of free-blown glass, and whoever made it was clearly working fast. In spite of its speedy manufacture, all the fishy elements are there — apart from the tail, which might actually have served as an attachment point to a larger vessel or piece of jewelry. In my view, the best thing going for this fish is its expression, which reminds me of the protagonist of the modern children’s classic The Pout-Pout Fish (read it and you will understand!).

small glass fish
Free-blown glass fish. Length: 3.7 cm. Roman, 4th century CE. Gift of Alexander G. Ruthven. KM 1970.3.952.

I’ve never blown glass myself, but I imagine it would have taken some serious skill to execute details such as tiny pouty fish lips out of molten glass. As imperfectly blobby as this fish is, there was little room for error in the furnace-filled workspace of its creation.

You can pay this fish a visit in the Kelsey’s Ancient Glass gallery on the first floor. And make sure to check out his piscine pal in the case on the opposite wall!

Roman funerary stela

Ugly Object of the Month — June 2019

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

June’s Ugly Object is a stela from Terenouthis, a Roman Egyptian city whose necropolis was excavated by the University in the mid-1930s. This might be a somewhat controversial pick for our blog roll, seeing as the stela is, in its way, actually quite beautiful. Finley Hooper, author of a catalog of stelae from Terenouthis, Funerary Stelae from Kom Abou Billou (Ann Arbor: Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, 1961), calls it “one of the most pleasing in the entire group” of stelae discovered at the site. These are high marks given that more than two hundred of these objects exist!

Roman funerary stela
Limestone funerary stela with black, white, red, and pink pigment. Roman period (late 2nd–early 4th century CE), Terenouthis, Egypt. U-M Excavations, 1935. KM 21052.

I’ve looked at quite a few of these grave markers myself, and I’d have to agree that this one is special. The man and his architectural surrounds are carefully carved, as are the attending Anubis figures. There is a lot of pigment left on the surface, and the details captured in paint are quite interesting. There are flesh tones, a variety of surface details on the columns, and a fringed shroud that hangs over the figure’s upraised arms. Hooper’s translation of the stela’s Greek inscription gives the name of the deceased (Nemesion) his age (about 24 years old) and his date of death (Hathur 6). Elements of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian religious practice converge in this stela, making it an important object of Roman Egyptian material culture. At the same time, it remains a very personal token of remembrance that makes me think about who this young man was and what life was like for him.

This stela will be on display in the Kelsey’s temporary exhibit space as part of Ancient Color’s extended run through July 28. Come and see it for yourself!

statue fragment

Ugly Object of the Month — April 2019

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

This month’s Ugly Object post is inspired by, and can be found next door to, the special exhibition Ancient Color. Although not part of the exhibition per se, the object’s proximity to the exhibition has inspired some museum visitors to view it and its fragmented marble brethren in a different light. The case to the right of Ancient Color contains a group of marble fragments that were previously a part of large-scale sculpture, architectural elements, and — in the case of our Ugly Object — a fountain. They are also, at first glance, colorless.

statue fragment
Female hand holding a jug. Marble, Roman period, 1st–3rd century AD. Pozzuoli, Italy. KM 2975.


Take a good look at this fragment. What do you see? I see a rather creepy-looking hand (think Thing Addams) perched atop some kind of vessel. Look closer, and you might actually see traces of pigment. This is probably true for the other fragments in the case, as well as the majority of marble sculpture and architecture from the ancient Roman world. When we consider what’s missing, we begin to see these fragments in a new way — as shadows of their erstwhile complete and colorful selves. We’ve been able to verify the presence of pigments on a few marble objects on the collection using multispectral imaging and other analytical techniques (see the Bacchus head on display on the Color exhibition), and there is undoubtedly more evidence of color to discover!

Come see April’s Ugly Object on the second floor of the Kelsey’s Upjohn Exhibit Wing. And while you’re at it, check out Ancient Color, on display through May 26.

Conserving a dog skull

BY MADELEINE NEIMAN, 2014–2015 Samuel H. Kress conservation fellow at the Kelsey Museum

This past Friday marked the opening of our new exhibition at the Kelsey: Death Dogs: The Jackal Gods of Ancient Egypt. My favorite object in the exhibition is a desiccated dog skull excavated from Karanis, a Roman-period village in Egypt. Here at the conservation lab we have affectionately named the skull Kalbi, or “my dog” in Arabic.

While he is not the prettiest specimen, the conservator in me is amazed by Kalbi’s phenomenal state of preservation. Large portions of the dog’s skin were preserved by the arid desert environment at Karanis. Even his eyelids and nose remain! Today, I thought I would share with you the challenges of displaying Kalbi, as well as how we overcame those challenges.

Challenge 1: The dried skin covering the skull is extremely fragile. Skin is composed of a network of collagen fibers — chains of amino acids that are spiraled together to form fibrils that, in turn, bundle together to form fibers. As the skin covering the skull dried, the fibers shrank and stuck together, causing it to become brittle and cracked. In several locations along the edges, the delicate skin was in danger of completely falling off.

Solution 1: Cracks in the skin were stabilized by gluing small pieces of Japanese tissue beneath the cracks. The tissue acts like a splint; it bridges/reinforces splits in the skin and secures loose pieces in place.

Gluing Japanese tissue mends under cracks in the skin.

Challenge 2: Several of the teeth had fallen out of the dental aveoli — the small voids in the jaw that hold the roots of the teeth. While we could easily secure the teeth in place with a small amount of adhesive, figuring out their correct anatomical location was trickier.

Solution 2: For assistance, we turned to Richard Redding, a Kelsey Research Scientist and zooarchaeologist (specialist in archaeological faunal remains). Richard determined the proper placement of each tooth, and we glued them into place.

Challenge 3: We needed to find a way to put the head back together. The dog’s head came to the lab in two pieces; without muscles to hold them together, the skull and jaw had separated. Unfortunately, the fragile teeth and delicate skin along the lower jaw meant that the skull could not safely rest on top of the jaw.

Solution 3: A mount. The creation of mounts is typically the domain of our talented exhibition preparator Scott Meier. When objects are particularly fragile, however, Scott and the conservation staff collaborate. In this case, we combined forces to create a mount that would allow the skull to float above the jaw, giving the appearance of a complete head without allowing the two pieces to touch. Scott made a raised support using a carved wood block and brass dowels. To the top of the wood block, I attached carved pieces of ethafoam, which keyed into raised areas along the base of the cranium, locking it into place. With the skull held above, the jaw could be slid into place below. Each piece is separately supported, but Kalbi’s head appears complete.

Kalbi on display at the Kelsey Museum.

As you can see, the preparation of objects for exhibition is a team effort! We hope you will come by to visit Kalbi and all of the other artifacts on display in Death Dogs: The Jackal Gods of Ancient Egypt.

My Favorite Artifact

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.

BY ANN VAN ROSEVELT, Adjunct Research Scientist Emeritus, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Her learned background includes a BA in classical studies in English from Vassar College and three MA degrees in classical studies, museum procedures, and classical archaeology from the University of Michigan. Associated with the Kelsey for nearly 50 years, currently as a volunteer docent.

Sculpture of a Lion
Sculpture of a lion.

Favorite Artifact: Sculpture of a lion. Limestone. Roman period (1st–4th century AD). Karanis, Egypt. KM 25785. U-M Excavations, 1924–1935.

Why. “This lion’s rather human profile reminds me of movie director Alfred Hitchcock! It looks a little like a cartoon character. It’s a comfortably sized lion and not frightening. There probably weren’t free-ranging lions in Egypt during the Coptic period, so I can’t help but wonder if the sculptor was using a sphinx for a model?”

About Artifact: One of many sculptures that University of Michigan archaeologists uncovered at Karanis during its 1924–1935 excavations, this sculpture of a lion appeared in Curator Elaine Gazda’s 1978 Kelsey exhibition Guardians of the Nile: Sculptures from Karanis in the Fayum (c. 250 BC–AD 450).

Background. According to Kelsey curator T. G. Wilfong, Karanis was a town in Egypt’s Fayum region, founded around 250 BC to house a population meant to work newly reclaimed agricultural land. It was a farming community with a diverse population and a complex material culture that lasted for hundreds of years after its foundation. Ultimately abandoned by its inhabitants and partly covered by the encroaching desert, Karanis eventually proved to be an extraordinarily rich archaeological site, yielding thousands of artifacts and texts on papyrus that provide a wealth of information about daily life in the Roman-period Egyptian town.

The University of Michigan excavated at Karanis from 1924 to 1935, and during these seasons the Egyptian government granted nearly 45,000 of the artifacts discovered to the University of Michigan. Along with extensive archival records and photographs of the excavation, the Karanis material forms one of the major components of the collection of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.

Find It. On the first floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing, look for the statue of the seated priest near the stairway to the second floor. You’ll find the sculpture of a lion in the exhibit case right behind the seated priest on the left.

Learn More. A number of books about U-M’s Karanis excavations are available in our Gift Shop, or online from ISD, including: Karanis: An Egyptian Town in Roman Times; Discoveries of the University of Michigan Excavation to Egypt (1924-1935), edited by Elaine K. Gazda with new preface and updated bibliography by T. G. Wilfong.

Looking for non-elites at Gabii

BY J. TROY SAMUELS, Ph.D. student, University of Michigan Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology

Me, at right, looking for non-elites (and numerous other things) at Gabii with Dr. Marilyn Evans (ICCS). Photo courtesy of the Gabii Project Facebook page.

As a student in the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology moving from the coursework phase of my time at U-M toward the dissertation-writing phase, I had the opportunity this summer for preliminary research in my dissertation topic: non-elites in Republican central Italy. Archaeology has long been a discipline associated with the material of elite lifestyle. It has often been far easier to attract interest with a fancy temple or golden ornament than with the potentially mundane trappings of non-elite life. Because of this, non-elites in the ancient world have, in general, received considerably less attention than their elite compatriots. While this imbalance has been changing over the past half century, there is still (thankfully for me) much work to be done.

My current research focuses on a major lacuna for studies of this important group: the early and middle Republican period (roughly speaking, the early 4th century through the early 1st century BCE) in central Italy. Non-elites are not the only poorly understood topic for this period; this has always been a bit of an archaeological terra incognita (the typical example for this lack of information being mid-Republican Rome itself, where Augustan and later imperial building projects have largely obscured the city’s “teenage” years). However, new research has begun to expand our understanding of life during this formative phase of the Roman state. The University of Michigan excavations at Gabii have been leading the way in these discoveries, uncovering Republican habitation on a scale hitherto unseen (for more, see my earlier blog post/associated links). However, as much of this activity is elite in appearance, the non-elites at Gabii remain enigmatic.

This past summer, while excavating at Gabii, I have made a conscious effort to promote the study of the city’s non-elite population. This has taken both a research-based and a pedagogical form. It is important to question what exactly we mean by elite: is it a value judgment based on the quality of material or craftsmanship? Is it based on our assumptions about life in Republican Italy? While I do not have (nor do I believe there is) an easy answer to this question, it has been productive reformulating this in as many ways as possible. It has also, I hope, been productive in challenging the students working at Gabii, making them question the material they are excavating. In doing so, they can begin to consider the less visible, possibly non-elite, individuals involved in the production, consumption, and distribution of the artifacts we discovered. This summer has proved highly productive, and I hope that my continuing research will help problematize and further bring to the forefront these sometimes invisible yet crucially important participants in Roman life.

My Favorite Artifact

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. We wondered, “Which artifacts move our staff?”

 BY KATHRYN (KATE) CARRAS, Entrance Monitor, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan. A self-confessed “fiberholic” with two degrees in textile studio art from Eastern Michigan University, in her spare time Carras spins, knits, weaves, crochets, embroiders, and knits dolls from her own patterns. She is currently learning rug-hooking and Japanese braiding (kumihimo).

Fragment of woven wool tapestry.

Favorite Artifact. Small fragment of woven wool tapestry. Roman period (1st–4th century AD). Karanis, Egypt. KM 10534.

Why. “I first saw this textile fragment when I worked on a Karanis textile cataloging project for former Kelsey curator Thelma Thomas. The image — which may be a lion or some other creature — looks more like something out of a Pac-Man game. As a spinner and weaver, I appreciate all the textiles in the museum, but this little cartoon character is special.”

About Artifact. This small tapestry fragment features the motif of an animal that appears about to eat a red/purple object. The design is somewhat oval with an outer ring of yellow crested wave motif on the red/purple backgrounds.

The ancient weaver used light brown wool for the warp (set of vertical threads) and the weft (set of horizontal threads), along with a lighter yellow, red/purple, and blended yarn of red/purple and blue. Although the weft in the plain brown weave shows damage on the fragment’s edges, the colors remain vivid and still show luster.

This piece was one of approximately 3,700 textile fragments excavated by University of Michigan archaeologists during their 1924–1935 Karanis expeditions. Historic textiles from the Roman period and later antiquity are rare in many parts of the world, but Egypt’s dry climate fortunately preserved great quantities of them.

Background. Museum namesake Professor Francis W. Kelsey began a series of excavations in Egypt that were intended to find artifacts and documents in an archaeological context to illustrate daily life in the Greek and Roman world. These excavations began with the site of Karanis (modern Kom Aushim), extensive ruins of an abandoned town of the Greek and Roman periods. The University of Michigan spent eleven seasons at Karanis, where the team unearthed a wealth of material of everyday life. Thousands of these objects were given to the University by the Egyptian government, and the artifacts are now housed at the Kelsey and the papyri at the Papyrology Collection at the University of Michigan Library.

Find It. Currently not on exhibit, this fragile textile is protected in our climate-controlled collections storage. Scholars should contact Kelsey Collections Manager Sebastián Encina at for further information.

Learn More. The book Textiles from Karanis, Egypt, in the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology: Artifacts of Daily Life, by Thelma K. Thomas, is available for purchase in our gift shop or online from our distributor, ISD.

Curator Favorites

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 fourth in a series.

Seated Dignitary from Karanis, Egypt
Seated dignitary from Karanis, Egypt.

BY T. G. WILFONG, Curator of Graeco-Roman Egyptian Collections, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, and Professor of Egyptology, University of Michigan

Favorite Artifact: “Statue of a Priest.” Black basalt. AD 50–100. Karanis, Egypt. KM 8218.

Why. It’s hard to resist this statue: it’s a lively example of how Egyptian art adapted and survived into the Roman period. Although this isn’t a portrait, we get a vivid sense of the anonymous priest that this statue represents. With his smiling, eager expression, our priest seems ready to get off his seat, while the monumental quality of the statue attests to the endurance of Egyptian culture into Roman times. I never get tired of looking at this statue.

About Artifact. This statue was found in a courtyard near the South Temple by the University of Michigan’s 1928 expedition at the ancient site of Karanis (modern Kom Aushim). It represents a very late manifestation of traditional Egyptian style, all the more valuable because of its archaeological content.

Although classically Egyptian in its formality and frontal, symmetrical orientation, the statue’s proportions are not those of classical ancient Egyptian art. Its pose and monumentality hark back to the Old Kingdom but do not reflect the earlier canon of proportions. For example, the head and ears are bigger than one would expect.

The figure wears not only a traditional Egyptian short kilt but also a sash across his chest. The shaved head and costume indicate a priest, and he would have served the cult of two crocodile gods of the South Temple, Pnepheros and Petesouchos. The priest would have participated in the daily cult activities of the temple and its periodic festivals, and he may even have been involved in oracles delivered by the crocodile gods or the mummification of actual crocodiles as votive offerings.

Background. This statue has a number of parallels from elsewhere in Egypt’s Fayum region; a similar statue from Soknopaiou Nesos (modern Dimé) very closely resembles this example. Most of these statues are inscribed, some in Greek and some in Egyptian Demotic.

The Kelsey’s statue itself would have had an inscription on its base but was left unfinished: minor detailing work on the figure was not done, and the base and back pillar remain rough, in preparation for an inscription that was never written. Therefore, we do not know the name of our Karanis priest and can only guess about the specifics of his titles and duties from what is known generally about priests of his time.

“Statue of a Priest” anchored a special 2013 Kelsey exhibition: “Karanis Revealed, Part II.”

Find It. Fittingly, “Statue of a Priest” sits serenely (perhaps contemplating the day’s temple activities) in its own exhibit case on the first floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Look for it between the Graeco-Roman Egyptian case and the stairway leading up to the Roman galleries.

Check out Wilfong’s new book, Life, Death, and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt: The Djehutymose Coffin in the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.

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