The Remarkable Legacy of Francis Kelsey

Published In:
Ann Arbor Observer, August 1996,
August 1996

Author: Grace Shackman

At the turn of the century, a U-M Latin professor single-handedly amassed the university’s amazing collection of antiquities.

Who can imagine Barbie dolls as educational tools? The Kelsey Museum of Archaeology can, and did. On family days, held regularly to teach area children about ancient Egypt, kids get to mummify Barbie.

The young students “disembowel” the previously prepared dolls, extracting walnut lungs, gummy worm intestines, raisin livers, and jelly bean stomachs. These “entrails” go into “canopic jars” made from empty film canisters. The children then wrap their dolls in a white, linen-like packing material and place each one in a sarcophagus--a shoe box spray-painted gold.

Lauren Talalay, the Kelsey’s associate director, says the idea of using Barbies came to her in a dream one night after she’d been approached by the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum to develop a program for children. She laughingly says, “Barbies deserve this.” Besides making mummies, the children participate in a sandbox dig, make bead necklaces, and learn to write hieroglyphs.

The Kelsey is unique among U-M museums because it serves both teaching and display purposes. Organized in 1929 to house a collection started in 1893, it now has more than 100,000 artifacts from all over the Mediterranean world, spanning a period from 2700 B.C. to 1100 A.D. Long a great resource for U-M faculty and students, as well as the international academic world, the Kelsey in the last ten years has extended its mission to reach the community at large with lectures, mini-courses, and tours to archaeological sites. To reach more school-age children, the museum created “Civilization in a Crate,” sets of teaching aids on thirteen subjects ranging from the Argonauts to ancient social problems. The idea has been picked up by institutions as far away as Japan.

Photograph of Francis Kelsey's archaeology
team in Egypt

Kelsey (in dark suit) personally chose Karanis in Egypt as the site for the U-M’s first archaeological dig, then persuaded Horace Rackham to finance the expedition.

The day I visit, docent Susan Darrow, a social worker by profession, elegantly dressed in a brown dress with a coordinating scarf, is teaching a group of seventh graders from Southfield about daily life in ancient Egypt. She’s using artifacts from Karanis, the Kelsey’s first dig (1924–1935) and the source of almost half the museum’s holdings. As the children sit around a large table in a windowless basement room of the museum, Darrow, wearing protective gloves, holds up various objects sealed in plastic bags and asks the kids to guess what they are. She begins with items that would be used at the start of a day 2,000 years ago: comb, perfume bottle, kohl mascara container (one of the kids says in disbelief, “They used makeup back then?”), a pull toy, and even breakfast food--a piece of bread, which leads the kids to joke, “It must be kinda stale.” This group is part of the Chavez-King project, intended to interest students considered noncollege-bound to set their sights higher and consider a wider variety of professions, such as archaeology.

When Darrow finishes, she leads the group upstairs, turning them over to docent Tammy Vaughn, a blond, blue-jeaned EMU student. Vaughn takes them on a tour of the first floor, the only public part of the museum; the rest of the building is used for offices, classrooms, and storage. Built in 1891 as the headquarters for the U-M Student Christian Association, the building still has many elegant accoutrements—tiled fireplaces, inlaid wooden floors, even a genuine Tiffany stained-glass window. There is display room to exhibit only about .5 percent of the museum’s holdings at any one time, but exhibits change regularly. Usually Greek and Roman artifacts are displayed on the south side and Egyptian and Near Eastern pieces on the north.

Vaughn leads the group into an exhibit on the north side called “Death in Ancient Egypt: Preserving Eternity.” They watch intently as she shows them the mummy of Djheutymose, ask “Where’s his tail?” about a cat mummy, and then gasp almost in unison when she shows them the mummy of a little boy about five. Vaughn explains that mummifying people was the Egyptians’ attempt to defeat death.

The museum’s fantastic collection was started by Francis Kelsey, a U-M Latin professor from 1889 to 1927. He began the collection as a teaching aid on his first sabbatical and he continued adding to it on every sabbatical and leave of absence thereafter. He moved from buying artifacts with his own funds to raising money for acquisitions and then, after World War I, to conducting his own digs. Kelsey had the advantage of starting his collecting before laws were passed prohibiting the removal of historic artifacts from the countries of origin. But he was far more than a treasure hunter. The Kelsey’s collection testifies to his wide-ranging interests in all aspects of ancient history.

Kelsey was born in 1858 in Ogden, New York, and educated at the University of Rochester. Early pictures show a dark-haired, serious young man, but most surviving photos show a graying, bearded gentleman, dressed formally even on archaeological sites. “He had a heavy beard and rode a bicycle,” recalled the late Charles A. Sink in the book Our Michigan. Sink and Kelsey worked closely over the decades when Kelsey was president and Sink the administrator of the University Musical Society. “He was a bit pompous in manner and exceedingly polite,” wrote Sink.

Reading Kelsey’s papers at the Bentley Historical Library, one senses a continual conflict between his old-world politeness and his drive to secure artifacts for the university. He was relentless in asking for help, yet apologized as he did so. “I cannot tell you how sorry I am to bother you with this matter,” he wrote while seeking more money from W. W. Bishop, the U-M librarian who handled acquisition funds. “My only excuse is that we have here a unique opportunity and it seems to me that duty both to our subject and to the university requires us to put forth every effort.”

Kelsey followed up on any suggestion that might lead to a find or a potential donor, and he went to great lengths to please contributors. For instance, he persuaded Horace Rackham, Henry Ford’s lawyer and U-M contributor (the Rackham building is named after him), to finance the first two excavation seasons at Karanis. Kelsey bought two rugs for Rackham during the dig and begged to be allowed to buy him something more, writing, “I had so much pleasure in hunting out those two rugs, and became so much interested in them that I do wish you would think of anything else that you would like from the Near East.” Kelsey may have gone overboard in his efforts to keep Rackham interested. In January 1923, Rackham wrote from Pinehurst, North Carolina, “Please do not send any more [photos of the excavations]. I am here to play golf and escape business of every kind.”

Kelsey wooed another rich Detroiter, Charles Freer, who had made his money manufacturing railroad cars, as well as local people such as G. Frank Allmendinger, owner of several Ann Arbor mills. (Allmendinger procured funds from the Michigan Millers Association to purchase a Roman mill.) But Kelsey did not use people. Many of the donors he worked with became lifelong friends, and he was always willing to return their favors. For instance, he looked after the sons of David Askren--a medical missionary who had helped him secure Egyptian papyri--when they came to the United States, getting them medical help and scholarships.

Kelsey made his first purchase for the university in 1893, while on leave to study archaeological sites. In Carthage he met a Jesuit priest, Father R. P. Delattre, who took a liking to him and sold him 109 items collected over forty years of excavations there, including lamps, vases, and building materials. According to The University of Michigan: An Encyclopedic Survey, “a warm and lasting friendship sprang up between the American scholar and the priest of the Hill of Byrsa. As a lasting reminder of the kindness shown him, Professor Kelsey assigned accession number one in the museum records to a fragment of an ancient Roman lamp. It was the discovery of this lamp that had induced Father Delattre in the early years of his life in North Africa to undertake the careful excavation of the Roman sites at ancient Carthage.” By the time Kelsey returned to Ann Arbor, he had amassed more than 1,000 other specimens from Rome, Sicily, Capri, and Tunis.

Limited by budget and time constraints, Kelsey multiplied his achievements by enlisting others. For example, a colleague, Walter Dennison, while teaching in Italy, heard of a parish priest, Giuseppe de Criscio, who had a large collection of Roman and Greek inscriptions. De Criscio lived north of Naples in Pozzuoli (now famous as the hometown of Sophia Loren), a volcanic area rich with remains of earlier civilizations. When Dennison informed Kelsey that de Criscio was willing to sell his collection to a university, Kelsey went to work raising the necessary funds, buying the collection in three installments starting in 1899. The largest part of it is a collection of 267 inscriptions, mainly marble tombstones. Because these inscriptions include information such as the occupation and nationality of the deceased, they tell a lot about daily life in a Roman seaport more than 2,000 years ago. Today, some of the items from the de Criscio collection are usually on display in the Kelsey’s south gallery.

Kelsey met David Askren in 1915, while sailing to Italy to work on the estate of his late friend Thomas Spencer Jerome (whose bequest still pays for the Jerome lectures in classical studies). Kelsey soon interested Askren in his endeavors, and before they parted, Askren agreed to become a U-M agent in Egypt. During World War I, nothing could be shipped out of Egypt, but Askren bought and saved material for Kelsey. He reported to Kelsey, “I have been gathering odds and ends that I can get cheaply and have now at least 300 fragments of papyri and parchment writing in Greek and Coptic.”

After the war, Kelsey returned to the Near East. The papyri Askren had obtained, supplemented with other purchases Kelsey made on this trip, were the start of the university’s current excellent collection, now housed in the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library. Kelsey traveled around, making further purchases and looking for possible excavation sites. He returned to Ann Arbor with three suggestions: Antioch of Pisidia in Turkey, Carthage in Tunisia, and Karanis in Egypt. After exploratory digs at the first two sites in 1924 and 1925, he chose Karanis as the most promising site.

Karanis, a Greco-Roman farming community about fifty miles southwest of Cairo, interested Kelsey because the area was rich in papyri. In addition to a generous $10,000 grant from Rackham, Kelsey secured donations of a Dodge sedan and a Graham truck, and brought along his son, Easton, as chauffeur. The dig found extensive and valuable collections of papyri, coins, and glass; Kelsey meticulously documented where every item was found to help assign each to its proper historic period. George Swain, a Latin instructor at the university who was also a professional photographer, photographed the excavation. His 12,000 photos form an important part of the Kelsey Museum’s photography collection and are still a valuable resource for researchers.

Kelsey was as interested in spreading knowledge of the ancient world as he was in acquiring its artifacts. He convinced Saginaw lumber baron Arthur Hill (the U-M regent for whom Hill Auditorium is named) to start a fund to publish humanistic studies series and he persuaded Charles Freer to leave a bequest to continue scholarly publications. Kelsey himself wrote textbooks and translated many works, including an edition of Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gaelic Wars, for many years the standard text. (The edition was so well known that Kelsey was introduced at a talk in Denver as the author of Caesar’s Commentaries.)
Kelsey’s contributions were not confined to classical studies. He persuaded Catherine Pendleton, whose late husband, Edward, had been interested in ancient history, to endow a library in the Michigan Union and establish a number of scholarships. An ardent music lover, Kelsey persuaded the regents to locate Hill Auditorium on its present site, and he raised money for it and for its organ. He also secured the Stearns Collection of rare musical instruments for the university.

In May 1927, Kelsey returned early from the third season at Karanis to give a paper on his latest findings, but became very ill. Though he left his bed at Cowie’s Hospital on Division Street to attend the meeting, someone else had to read his paper for him. He died May 14, 1927, of a heart attack. On the very day he died, twenty-two large cases of archaeological specimens he had sent from Egypt arrived in Ann Arbor. Speaking at Kelsey’s funeral, U-M President Clarence Little described him aptly as “combining a rare degree of tact with pertinacity.”

Photograph of the Kelsey Museum

In 1929, two year’s after Kelsey’s death, his collection was moved into what is now the Kelsey Museum, a 1891 building originally home of the Student Christian Association.

Two years after Kelsey’s death, his extensive collections--scattered around campus in his office, the basement of Alumni Memorial Hall (now the art museum), and the campus library--were brought together to their current home in what was then known as Newberry Hall. Kelsey had no doubt been familiar with the building, since early University Musical Society concerts were held in its auditorium. Orma Fitch Butler, who had served as Kelsey’s assistant and was very familiar with the collection, became the museum’s first curator, while John Winter, professor of Latin and Greek, served as the first director. They moved the collections in, but otherwise left the building much as it had been when it was occupied by its builder, the Student Christian Association. The downstairs area was arranged for displays: a site room, a household room, a materials room, and a room devoted to sociological exhibits. The upstairs was converted into offices.

Meanwhile, the excavations at Karanis continued until 1935. Data from the dig form an amazingly complete picture of daily life in a Greco-Roman outpost and are still the basis of much scholarly research. The Karanis artifacts make the museum especially strong in glass, pottery, and textiles. In the early days of excavating, when most archaeologists were looking only for sensational finds like the King Tut tomb found by Howard Carter in 1922, Kelsey realized that information about daily life was equally important. He worked with his team to see that every item was treated carefully and recorded precisely.

Before the Great Depression ended excavations, the university participated in several other digs, including two more in Egypt, one at Sepphoris (Zippori) in Palestine, and--second in importance only to Karanis--at Seleucia on the Tigris in Iraq. Under the leadership of Leroy Waterman, and later Clark Hopkins, the Seleucia dig yielded another 10,000 artifacts and provided valuable information about the town, founded by Seleucus Nicator, one of the generals of Alexander the Great.

After an almost twenty-year hiatus occasioned by the Depression and World War II, the Kelsey Museum began organizing expeditions again in the 1950s. The first of these, in 1956, was Saint Catherine’s monastery in Israel, which is one of the oldest monasteries in existence, with a priceless collection of Byzantine religious art and manuscripts. Rather than removing artifacts for the museum, the emphasis this time was on learning from them, photographing and taking notes on the artifacts found.

Subsequent Kelsey Museum digs, done in conjunction with other universities or museums, have explored sites in Tunisia, Israel, Libya, Syria, and Egypt. Current Kelsey expeditions are at Paestum, Italy, investigating a Greek sanctuary; Leptiminus, Tunisia, where the researchers created a museum to display their findings; Pylos, Greece (a new kind of survey in which researchers are walking across the countryside, collecting signs of past human activity); and Abydos, Egypt, where the museum is doing an archaeological survey in an ancient cemetery. Smaller projects include Lauren Talalay’s dig at Euboea, Greece, and John Cherry’s investigation into digging in Albania, which had been closed off to outsiders for almost forty years.

Although it no longer obtains artifacts from digs, the Kelsey still adds to its collection with gifts and carefully considered purchases. Karanis artifacts remain the star attraction; Francis Kelsey’s findings are still considered the best collection in the world illustrating life in a Greco-Roman outpost. The 10,000 artifacts gathered by Waterman and Hopkins in Iraq are also considered important, especially because it is now much more difficult for Western scholars to enter the country. In many other areas, the Kelsey is considered to have the best collection in North America. Particular strengths are in glass (while the Corning and Toledo museums have more pieces, the Kelsey’s are arguably more valuable because their sources can be documented); textiles, particularly late Roman and early Byzantine; and Latin inscriptions (with the de Criscio collection giving them the edge). Other treasures include 8,000 nineteenth-century photographs, largely of archaeological sites, and all twenty-three volumes of the reports of the scholars who accompanied Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Yet despite the Kelsey’s wonderful collections, the U-M’s budget crunch in the 1970’s threatened to close it, or to merge its collections with those of the university Museum of Art. Ultimately, the Kelsey was saved, and classical studies professor John Pedley, a member of the four-person review committee, was appointed its director. One of the first things Pedley did was to hire a British Museum expert to assess the collection. The assessor reported that the textiles, bronzes, bones, and ivory were in grave condition; he recommended that a conservator be retained, and that the collection be cataloged and records computerized. Conservator Amy Rosenberg was hired, and work began on cataloging the collection. But preserving the artifacts took longer because it required a large amount of money.

Elaine Gazda replaced Pedley in 1986 so he could concentrate on his research in Paestum, Italy. Gazda set the museum on its present course of outreach to the community. She also has been able to achieve the long-desired goal of building a climate-controlled storage area. Located on a newly created third floor in the upper half of the original building’s auditorium, the storage area now holds 85 percent of the museum’s collection. It was funded by a $250,000 gift from New York real estate developer Eugene Grant, a U-M alumnus, and additional contributions from private donors, the university, and the Kelsey Associates, a volunteer support and fund-raising group organized in 1979. In 2005 the Kelsey was preparing for an expansion of their building.

Although he died in 1927, Francis Kelsey’s influence is still strongly felt, not only through his collection, but also in ongoing research. Terry Wilfong, the curator in charge of fieldwork, is making Karanis information available to both scholars and the general public on the Internet. Wilfong also serves as a clearinghouse for other Karanis information, collecting papers from scholars around the world and helping to get them published in scholarly journals. Eventually Wilfong would like to return to Karanis to reassess the original work and do new excavating.