The final Ugly Object of 2020 immediately caught my eye when I spotted it leering back at me from its 1939 catalog entry. This grotesque male head was discovered at Seleucia-on-the-Tigris sometime between 1927 and 1932 during the joint U-M, Toledo Museum of Art, and Cleveland Museum of Art Expedition to Iraq. It is one of thousands of terracotta figurines discovered at the site, most of which were formed in molds — some from the same mold — and, originally, painted.
This figurine fragment wears a tall, pointed cap and a rather caustic expression, and the deep red pigment that remains on its face doesn’t exactly lighten the mood. According to the author of the catalog, Wilhelmina Van Ingen, the pointed cap could signal that this is the head of a priest – although she describes the object simply as a “grotesque male head.” Other figurine types, like lute-playing musicians, also wear pointed caps and are linked to temple life.
Whatever this bloke’s line of work, it doesn’t seem to be bringing him much joy. Or maybe the coroplast just caught him on an off day? I can relate!
Tune in for more Ugly Objects from the Kelsey collection in the New Year! Happy Holidays, everyone — and stay safe!
Greetings, Kelsey blog fans! I hope that you are all safe, healthy, and keeping it real at a sound social distance. We weren’t about to let today’s uncertainty get in the way of our ongoing celebration of Ugly Objects. So, it brings me great pleasure to present April’s pick: a seated female figurine from Seleucia. Seleucia on the Tigris was a Hellenistic capital city located south of present-day Baghdad and excavated by the University of Michigan from 1927 through 1937. Over 3,500 objects were recovered from Seleucia, including a myriad of figurines made of bone, ceramic, and stone.
Our seated figurine is made of alabaster, a soft sedimentary stone with a uniquely translucent quality that made it a suitable material for window panes. Alabaster is easy to work, so we find a lot of vessels and figurines carved from it. But that same quality causes the stone to deteriorate easily. The alabaster block used to create this seated figure has broken along its bedding planes, causing the right arm to shear clean off the front of the statue. This type of inherent flaw might be what caused the head to detach — probably while the figurine was in use. Look closely and you can see traces of bitumen resin along the neck and on the base, signs of someone’s effort to repair the figurine in antiquity.
It amazes me how much we can learn from artifacts that were excavated nearly a century ago! Please keep reading our blog and visit the Kelsey website for opportunities to learn more about our collection.
Researchers from around the world often visit the Kelsey Museum, or seek out its holdings, in order to learn more about the ancient world. The archives of the Kelsey have detailed information about sites where Michigan has excavated, the artifacts discovered there, and the general timeline of occupation of the site. With new research, even legacy information plays a vital role.
For modern researchers, the archives provide a secondary benefit: learning what life was like for the excavators. Who were the they working with? Who did they hire? What were the logistics of the excavation? Where did they get their food? What visitors came through the site? Scholars ask these questions not only for curiosity’s sake, but also to recreate the circumstances under which project directors worked. Often, the researchers are working or leading a project in the same area, and are interested in seeing the similarities and differences.
The journals found in the Kelsey Archives provide an even closer look at the people behind the excavation directorship. Not only what work was occurring, but also who they visited with, who they corresponded with, what they did on their way to and from the site. For example, we have the journal that dig director Clark Hopkins kept at Seleucia on the Tigris in October–December 1936, with notes about his experiences while overseas. Reading it, we can see that he spent time at the Museum of Aleppo, where he encountered a statue of Brahma. He took notes on artifacts on display at the Palmyra Museum. There is even a detailed account of expenses he incurred while traveling, including food purchased for a train journey, nights stayed in Palmyra, and tea. He even begins the journal by noting what he plans to look for at the site when it rains (“walls of palace, theatre, walls + canal sides, etc.”).
Every once in a while, we are treated to even more amusing entries. For this month’s “From the Archives,” we present a single page from Hopkins’ October–December 1936 journal. Though much of the journal discusses work happening at the site, as well as Hopkins’ work and travels, we weren’t expecting to find this:
Friday Dec 18
Captain + Mrs. Modin [sp?], Mrs. Mitchell, Mr. Lampard + party visited us for lunch. No special finds.
Recipe for cooking rice. Brown slightly in butter. Cook over slow fire to 2 cups of water to one cup of rice until water disappears + little holes appear in the rice. Take off fire + cover w. napkin, the napkin touching the rice to dry it. Better still use chicken broth instead of water to give flavor to the rice.
Being able to cook a basic meal of rice is important, and we are happy Hopkins found a recipe he could use. It is still a welcome surprise to find when researching the finds of Seleucia, the architecture and the temples.
As one reads through any archive, they will undoubtedly find surprises. This will likely not be the last time we find a recipe from long ago in the Kelsey Archives, nor will it be the last random non-archaeological thing we encounter. This makes our work all the more exciting. We never know what we will read next.
This month’s Ugly Object will be featured in the new Kelsey in Focus case, a rotating exhibit space that will highlight some of the Kelsey Museum’s hidden collections. The first In Focus installment features a trio of ceramic duck figurines from Seleucia on the Tigris, a site just under 20 miles south of modern Baghdad that was excavated by the University of Michigan between 1927 and 1937. The duck fragment that’s made our list bears a remarkable likeness to the real thing; I live near a creek and as such share my habitat with a number of these aquatic birds, so I consider myself a fair judge of the high quality of this remaining fragment of duck. Even so, back when it was made this was not a one-of-a-kind object. It was created from a two-part mold, evidenced by a seam that bisects the duck’s face. Even more interesting: one of the duck’s nostrils is “clogged,” seemingly because it was not fully scooped out like the other nostril after casting. These little artifacts of the manufacturing process are fascinating, as is the question of how many of these ducks were made and what they were used for. Look closely and you can see traces of paint in the duck’s eyes and nostrils, and an ancient repair adhesive on its neck. Someone clearly valued this duck enough to stick its head back on when it broke.
Come visit the Kelsey in Focus case on the first floor of the Upjohn exhibit wing, next to the elevator.
Is the end of the school year getting you concerned? Are you worried that this winter will NEVER end? Are you stressing about the summer heat and humidity to come? Well, whatever they are about, you and your worries have NOTHING on our ugly friend this month, because he has been worried for around 1,900 years.
This anxious-looking anthropomorphic figurine is from Seleucia on the Tigris, an ancient city located in modern-day Iraq. The University of Michigan excavated Seleucia in the 1920s and ’30s and found a whole bunch of these worried carved-bone guys (among lots of other things — check out the Seleucia cases in the permanent galleries). Our friend here is pretty schematic looking, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t communicate BIG emotions.
Look at those eyes! They might not have had headlights in 1st and 2nd century CE Seleucia, but if they had, the local gazelles would have probably looked like this when caught in the path of a speeding cart. Look at that mouth! It is definitely saying “MEEP!” Look at those little clothespin-like legs! Those legs are not going to carry him anywhere — no escape is possible! No wonder he is so worried. So, buck up, blog-reading friend! This little fellow is going to be worried way longer than you are.
Go visit this figurine on the ground floor of Upjohn Exhibit Wing, where it has some equally expressive buddies, including a ready-to-brawl, angry, cock-eyed fellow (shown below — see its angry eyebrows and ready stance? Don’t mess with it!). Maybe you can soothe their worries a little by beaming affirming messages at their ugly little heads. But I’m not sure it is going to help: they have made those faces so long that I think they are stuck that way….
Julia Triezenberg is a junior majoring in American culture and minoring in museum studies. She has looked for ways to be involved in the museum world, so she spent this past summer interning for the Registry Department at the Kelsey. During her time with us, Julia assisted with exhibitions, worked with researchers using the collections, and worked independently on a ceramics rehousing project. Her internship offered her diverse ways to explore a museum career.
Over the course of my summer interning at the Kelsey, one thing is for certain: I spent a lot of time around pots. “Pots?” you ask. “What kind of pots?” “Do they keep better company than other kitchenware?”
Why yes, they do. I wasn’t surrounded only by pots, either — the project I worked on for over a month dealt with finding new homes for a variety of ceramics from excavation sites in Seleucia, Iraq. An extension of previous interns’ work, I reorganized and housed the ceramics from three of the Kelsey’s cabinets. While that might sound simple at first, it was no small task. Depending on the shape and size of the artifacts, there could be hundreds of artifacts in each drawer that had to be moved individually for their safekeeping. It was especially confusing for me in the beginning because the objects were quite mixed up by shape and size when I began.
With this in mind, I decided to move the ceramics between the three cabinets based on their size and function to see how I could improve future organization. I was able to condense space in quite a few of the drawers, which proved especially helpful as the Kelsey prepares to officially accession some ceramic objects from the Toledo Museum of Art. Final steps included editing the Kelsey’s new database to reflect my changes and leaving behind my procedure and advice to future interns’ work with the collection.
Rehousing these ceramics was one of many things I did while at the Kelsey, but it was a project that gave me specific opportunities to formulate my own plan about the reorganization and work independently to get it done. Other college students spent their summer lifeguarding poolside or backpacking through the Rocky Mountains. This is what I spent my summer doing — and I couldn’t have been happier about it.
Walking through the galleries of the Kelsey, one will encounter many fantastical creatures. These are spoken about in ancient myths, and read about in stories or seen on film. They litter the displays, appearing on stelae, as figurines, on coins, and in paintings. The sphinx in the Egyptian galleries, the sea creatures in the Roman bath. Satyrs, centaurs, nymphs, cupids, gorgons, griffins, and all the Egyptian half-animal half-human deities, greet our visitors as they peer into each case.
These depictions are coupled with real animals as well. We see camels, dogs and cats, falcons, crocodiles, snakes, bulls, sheep, and goats. There is a nice mix of animals, both friendly and not friendly, meant to protect, guide, or attack. There are enough animals on display that the Kelsey had its own exhibition, Animals in the Kelsey: An Undergraduate Exhibit of Animals in the Ancient World, in 2000/2001. Clearly, animals, both real and imaginary, played an important role in the ancient world.
Recently, Southern Methodist University professor Dr. Stephanie Langin Hooper visited the Kelsey Museum to conduct some research on the museum’s holdings on artifacts from Seleucia. Many will remember Dr. Langin Hooper as the curator of the exhibition Life In Miniature (2014). That exhibition showcased a number of figurines from Seleucia, held by the Kelsey Museum and Toledo Museum of Art.
Along with the artifacts, Dr. Langin Hooper also spent some time looking through the archives from Seleucia. In the end, she selected a number of artifact cards created by the excavators as a means to document the finds with images. These were scanned by the Kelsey Registry in order to share.
During the scanning process, a few of these cards stood out. It is these that are this month’s choice for “From the Archives.” Animals were a popular motif in Seleucia, but even these caught our attention. We present to you the Seleucia unicorn. Cast in bronze, the distinguishing horn is prominent even on these small black-and-white photographs. The cards give us more information, such as findspot, field number, and additional notes (“Note: bridle!”). These three show the same statuette from two angles, one depicted twice.
Not much else is known about this artifact. We do know it was left at the Baghdad Museum. It was discovered in 1936.
BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
This demon bowl, which was excavated by the University of Michigan in the 1930s, now resides in the Kelsey Museum. It comes from the ancient city of Seleucia, which is located not far from Baghdad along the Tigris River. If you look closely at the bowl, you can see that the inside is covered in rows of what looks like text, as well as four line-drawn figures. These are demons (hence the title “demon bowl”) and they reveal the function of the bowl: to trap demons.
Unfortunately, the bowl has a dark gypsum crust which obscures these super cool and creepy demons. Fortunately, we know there are ways to see though the crust, and Madeleine Neiman, who worked as a Samuel H. Kress Conservation Fellow in the Kelsey conservation lab during the 2014–15 academic year, spearheaded a project to investigate the bowl. This included looking at the bowl with infrared reflected (IRR) imaging.
IRR is a technique used by conservators to reveal difficult-to-read painted inscriptions, or drawings under paint layers. The Detroit Institute of Arts Conservation Department has its very own Goodrich SWIR infrared camera. The SWIR’s capture range surpasses that of the modified DSLR camera we use for IRR at the Kelsey, and Madeleine found that infrared light at this higher range could pass through the bowl’s darkened crust. So we packed up the bowl and drove to Detroit to see what we could see.
The Goodrich camera was able to reveal the bowl’s inscription, thanks to the IR transparency of the gypsum crust and the heavy IR absorption of the inscription. The result is a higher visual contrast between the inscription and the surrounding ceramic, making it easier to read. Okay, actually “reading” it is hard to do, given that the inscription is not real script! But you get the picture. What I found fascinating is the high level of detail revealed in the images of demons on the bowl, including flames, raised arms, and scary faces. These unique characteristics are all the more visible thanks to the power of infrared light.
I’d like to thank our DIA colleagues Aaron Steele and Aaron Burgess for taking the time to capture these images, as well as Madeleine Neiman for helping us uncover the demons who have been hiding underneath that dark (and scary) crust!
BY MADELEINE NEIMAN, 2014–2015 Samuel H. Kress conservation fellow at the Kelsey Museum. During her time here, Madeleine’s work will focus on the technical analysis and treatment of objects from the Seleucia collection.
The vessel was excavated in the 1930s from Seleucia on the Tigris, a site approximately 18 miles south of modern-day Baghdad, Iraq. Magical bowls like this one were placed in the corners of houses or under thresholds as a means to protect their owners from evil spirits. The text and images drawn served to combat demons or other supernatural beings that might harm the object’s owner. Today incantation bowls, including this one, are important for the study of ancient magical and religious practices.
Can you guess why the bowl came to the conservation lab?
How about if you compare it to another incantation bowl in the Kelsey collection?
Yes. That’s right. There is a thick, dark crust covering much of the interior and exterior of the bowl, and it hides the decoration on the bowl’s surface. Curators here at the Kelsey have asked the conservation lab to remove the crust so that the decoration on the surface is easier to see. Before the crust can be removed, however, conservators must figure out what this strange material is.
Based upon a close examination of the surface, we suspect the crust is most likely one of two things.
Option 1: Salts! This bowl was buried under ground for approximately 2,000 years. During that time the porous ceramic vessel was likely exposed to groundwater containing a range of salts; chlorides, nitrates, phosphates, and sulfates are all commonly present in soil and are, as a result, often found within the fabric or on the surface of ceramics recovered from archaeological contexts. While salts typically appear as areas of white crystalline efflorescence on an artifact, they may also occur as dark, hard surface accretions similar to the material visible on the bowl.
Option 2: A modern coating. It is possible that the darkened surface is due to the application of a modern coating. During the 1930s, when this object was excavated, archaeologists and conservators often covered artifacts with a resin or glue in an attempt to protect and strengthen surfaces. While these materials were applied with good intentions, they can alter over time in unexpected and undesirable ways. A once clear, coherent coating could become dark and brittle like the coating on the bowl.
However, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle notes, “it is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.” So … how will conservators here at the Kelsey get the data necessary to determine what is covering the bowl?
Like historians, conservators look at archival records. The Seleucia archive at the Kelsey Museum holds a range of primary source documents created by archaeologists at the time of excavation, including journals, object lists, and photographs. We will examine these documents for any clues to what the bowl looked like at the time of excavation (e.g., was the bowl’s surface dark when removed from the ground?) as well as the conservation methods that might have been used on the bowl. We will also utilize a range of scientific examination techniques available across the University of Michigan campus to study the chemical makeup of the crust.
I hope you will check back with us in the coming months as we work to uncover the surface of this bowl.
BY MADELEINE NEIMAN, 2014–2015 Samuel H. Kress Conservation Fellow at the Kelsey Museum. During her time here, Madeleine’s work will focus on the technical analysis and treatment of objects from Seleucia on the Tigris, a site approximately 18 miles south of modern-day Baghdad, Iraq.
One of my major projects here at the Kelsey is conducting a survey of artifacts from the Seleucia collection. The goal of this work is to answer three questions:
What are the artifacts made of and how are they made?
What is the condition of the object? More simply, is there any evidence of damage or deterioration (e.g., breaks, cracks, discoloration) present?
Have the objects been modified (e.g., repaired or reused) in any way by modern or ancient people?
Conservators utilize a number of tools to help us answer these questions. Today I thought I would share with you a bit about one of our most commonly employed techniques — examination under ultraviolet light.
Light is a form of electromagnetic radiation and exits as part of a large electromagnetic spectrum. Ultraviolet radiation, often called UV light, refers to that area just below what is visible to the human eye. While we can’t see UV light, when it illuminates the surface of an artifact, certain types of materials, including some dyes, minerals, and resins commonly found on archaeological objects, fluoresce. These materials glow different colors!
Let’s look at an example.
Among the over 13,000 objects in the Seleucia collection are a group of bone figurines. Several of these are decorated with a reddish-pink paint that displays a unique orangey-pink fluorescence.
In antiquity, people created paints using mineral pigments as well as organic colorants found in plants and animals. Among the most common sources of red were the pigments hematite (iron oxide), cinnabar (mercury sulfide), and red lead as well as the dyes kermes (from the Kermes vermilio insect) and madder (from the plant Rubia tinctorium). When viewed in visible light all five appear red. However, when examined under UV light, one stands out: madder. Madder contains four principal colorants: alizarin (red), purpurin (red), pseudopurprin (red) and xanthine (yellow). The purpurin and pseudopurpurin glow a bright orangey-pink when exposed to UV light, making it easy to distinguish.
By examining the figurines under UV light we can tell that an ancient artist used madder to decorate these figurines!