The University Record, May 21, 2001

Kelsey archives provide unique record of life in ancient world

By Judy Steeh
News and Information Services

Robin Meador-Woodruff (left) and graduate student Brenda Longfellow examine one of the approximately 20,000 photographs housed in the Kelsey Museum’s archives. Photo by Marcia L. Ledford, U-M Photo Services
When he set out to excavate the rustic Egyptian village of Karanis in 1924, Francis W. Kelsey was not looking for mummies, nor was he, in the fashion of the times, interested solely in papyrus.

Kelsey’s goal was more ambitious. He wanted to reconstruct the actual environment of life in Egypt during the Greco-Roman period, around the beginning of the first millennium. To do that, the Michigan team saved and meticulously recorded everything they found, down to food specimens and animal remains.

As a result of Karanis and other U-M excavations that span most of the last century, the Kelsey Museum has an unparalleled collection of tens of thousands of artifacts, including furniture, toys, clothing and tableware. Using the archives, researchers can create a unique picture of everyday life in Egypt 2,000 years ago. But anyone who thinks that visiting the museum’s archives will be like visiting grandmother’s attic will be disappointed.

Romantic visions aside, the Kelsey archives are not housed in a dim, dusty cave filled with mysterious objects stacked in corners. On the contrary, the archive room is brightly lit, clean and organized. But those mysterious objects are certainly there, hidden in rows of filing cabinets.

Reigning over the collection is collections manager and photographic curator Robin Meador-Woodruff, who looks after not only the artifacts themselves, but also some 20,000 photographs of the excavations and another 10,000 albumen prints of various artifacts and classical sites. The archive reflects the unique system developed by U-M excavators, which enabled them to reconstruct the evolution of both the towns and the individual structures within them.

In her third-floor office, Meador-Woodruff pulls out a large, hardcover book—a Record of Objects from Karanis. In the field, the excavators wrote stacks of notes on file cards and in notebooks and diaries, Meador-Woodruff explains. When they got home, they transcribed all those notes into ledgers, which were then typed, bound and annotated so that the entries could be linked with photographs.

Artifacts from excavations in Seleucia, such as this terra cotta figurine compose just a fraction of the vast collection. Photo by Marcia L. Ledford, U-M Photo Services
“Since the finds are organized by building, the lists of objects becomes a great sociological annotation of what a family actually owned,” Meador-Woodruff says.

Put those lists together with a comprehensive set of photographs showing the objects actually in the ground, and you have documentation that is difficult to find for any other sites of the time. “That organization, along with the breadth of the collection, is what makes the Kelsey so important,” Meador-Woodruff says.

Across the hall are two cumbersome cameras that the expeditions hauled back and forth, along with thousands of 5-by-7 and 7-by-11 glass plates. In addition, Meador-Woodruff explains, everyone on the dig had Kodak Brownies for candid snapshots.

“Those candid shots allow one to see the aspects of daily life that each individual considered important, adding to the comprehensive nature of the photographic documentation,” Meador-Woodruff says.

Although the papers in the archive originally were organized by archivist Carol Finerman in conjunction with an exhibition mounted in the 1970s, the archive remained in the Kelsey’s attic, where it was stored until Meador-Woodruff brought it down to be housed more properly. Some material that needed climate control, such as Kelsey’s papers, were sent to the Bentley Historical Library, but material related directly to the excavations was kept in-house, sorted and stored. Most of that organization was, and still is, done by volunteers and students, Meador-Woodruff says.

With its bright lights and antiseptic atmosphere, the actual collections storage room resembles a large, walk-in refrigerator. Down one end of the room runs a row of cases holding prints in archival envelopes. On top is a stack of file cards from Seleucia, on the Tigris River in modern-day Iraq, that Meador-Woodruff still is trying to interpret, 65 years later.

Ranks of large cabinets fill the rest of the room, holding the Kelsey’s treasures from the past. Donning a pair of gloves, Meador-Woodruff pulls open a drawer of small glass objects—vases, pitchers, drinking vessels—each carefully labeled, wrapped and stored in its own compartment. Another cabinet holds baskets of all shapes and sizes, for all kinds of uses. They look contemporary, as if they were just purchased at a craft sale, but these are thousands of years old. “Nobody else has this kind of stuff,” Meador-Woodruff notes.

Other drawers hold sandals in every size imaginable, from tiny sizes for children to one pair that would fit a modern basketball player. Again, any of the sandals could be mistaken for modern flip-flops or espadrilles. “They came up with the design thousands of years ago, and no one has figured out how to do it better,” Meador-Woodruff says. Ropes, wooden animal tethers, pots, statues and a myriad of other objects fill the shelves and drawers.

Who uses all this material? Professors teaching introductory archaeology and history of art courses can come to the Kelsey for almost anything they want to illustrate, while upper-class courses in art, history and archaeology also are major users. Students doing research papers are another big user group.

Scientists from other research institutions also visit the Kelsey. An Italian team at the University of Turin still is excavating at Seleucia, working closely with the Kelsey to compare what it is finding with the material the museum already owns.