The University Record, November 5, 2001

Amulet collection works its magic at Taubman and at Kelsey

By Lesley Harding

Rider spearing a prostate female demon. (Images courtesy of University of Michigan Library)
Harry Potter has a sorcerer’s stone . . . and the University has amulets. These small objects have cast spells for centuries and are now mesmerizing the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and the Taubman Medical Library.

According to Dr. Campbell Bonner, the former owner of Taubman’s amulet collection, an amulet is “any object which by its contact or close proximity to the person who owns it, or any possession of his, exerts power for his good, either by keeping evil from him and his property or by endowing him with positive advantages,” or in a word “magic.”

“Amulets protect from things that could go wrong in a society that doesn’t necessarily understand why things go wrong,” says Robin Meador-Woodruff, coordinator of museum collections at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. That means things like disease, pain, and other evils. Amulets also promote love, peace and harmony. “They’re sort of like a rabbit’s foot,” says Mary Townsend, rare book librarian at the Taubman Medical Library. Any situation that calls for a lucky charm is right for an amulet.

Popular in the 1st through 5th centuries, most amulets are made out of stone, some metal, adorned with a picture or words. “It has to be a stone that’s hard enough to be carved and maintain an inscription without significant wear,” says Meador-Woodruff. Many at the Taubman library show an image of a reaper or a man cutting grain. These amulets are associated with curing back pain. Townsend says despite her back problems she never has gotten around to wearing one to see if it helps.

Amulets were popular among the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. Many religions also used these protective charms. Rather than a stone, early-era Jews might use slips of parchment upon which religious law was written. These pieces of paper were worn as badges to protect from evil spirits.

Two-headed god (snake and ibis heads), holding an Egyptian was scepter and the ankh symbol. A crocodile lies beneath with a disk on its back.
The use of amulets became so popular in Christianity that in the 4th century, clergy were forbidden to make or sell them and in 721, the wearing of amulets was condemned by the church.

Most of the amulets in the University’s collection are from early Egypt. They are oval-shaped and about a the size of a silver dollar. “People would carry or wear them. Some have holes where a cord was pushed through,” says Townsend. A few in the Kelsey collection are even set in gold bezels.

“It never ceases to amaze me the technical level they attained when working with tools that didn’t keep a point, didn’t magnify and didn’t provide light. That they exist is amazing,” says Meador-Woodruff. “They’re just so wonderful.”

To see the Kelsey Museum of Archeology’s online amulet display, sign on to their Web site at www.lib.umich.edu/pap/magic/def1.display, or to find out more about Taubman’s collection, sign on to their Web site at www.lib.umich.edu/taubman/amulets/amtitle.