Collections History


Array of everyday objects found intact on a Karanis windowsill

Francis W. Kelsey began acquiring archaeological artifacts in 1893, believing they would help his students understand the ancient world. He first purchased 108 items (lamps, vases, and building materials) from the Jesuit priest Father Delattre, who was excavating at the site of Carthage in Tunisia. During that same year Kelsey bought another 1,096 objects from dealers in Tunis, Rome, Capri, and Sicily. These purchases joined a group of several thousand coins donated to the University in the 1880s as the foundation of the University of Michigan's archaeological collections.

Kelsey continued to build the collections until his death in 1927. By that time he had acquired, through gifts and purchases, artifacts ranging from pottery and terracotta figurines to painted stucco and inscribed tombstones to Roman brick stamps, daily life objects, Roman glass, Egyptian tomb sets, and Greek papyri from Egypt. In 1925 he contracted with the well-known Italian artist Maria Barosso to paint a set of almost full-scale replicas of wall paintings in the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii. These beautiful watercolors now occupy a special room in the Upjohn Exhibit Wing.

In 1924, when Kelsey secured funding to excavate at various sites around the Mediterranean, the nature of the University's archaeological collections began to change as he shipped some of his excavated materials back to Ann Arbor. The greatest wealth of such materials came from the site of Karanis in Egypt. Between 1926 and 1936 almost 45,000 objects from Karanis arrived in Ann Arbor: shoes, hairpins, dolls, toys, pottery, rope, combs, tiny amulets and beads, large storage jars, olive presses, wooden doors, and glass, as well as sculpture and works of art. These Karanis materials illustrate in detail how daily life was lived in Egypt under Roman rule. During the same years excavations at Seleucia-on-the-Tigris in modern Iraq yielded another 13,000 objects—pottery, lamps, seals and sealings, coins, terracotta figures, jewelry, and architectural stucco—for the collections. The value of these and other excavated items among the Museum’s holdings lies in their discovery in well-documented contexts.

Subsequent Michigan-sponsored fieldwork further augmented the Kelsey collections. Click here to learn more about these early expeditions. By the 1960s, however, antiquity laws had changed significantly and most finds from foreign excavations could no longer be legally exported to the United States.

While excavations account for most of the Museum's holdings, slightly more than 35 percent come from purchases, bequests, and gifts, which continued well after Kelsey's death. The largest of these donations was the 3,336 artifacts that Peter Ruthven had amassed, mostly during the 1930s, to represent the late Roman period through the twelfth century in Egypt. This far-ranging corpus includes glass, bone, glazed ceramics, wood, textile, magical amulets, beads, bracelets, papyrus, stone, and bronze. More recently, purchases and gifts have been limited by the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Click here to learn more about our acquisitions policies.

Today the Museum houses more than 100,000 artifacts, as well as some rare objects important to the study of archaeology, excavation records, and an archive of 25,000 archaeological and fine arts photographs. Click here to read more about our archives and here for a list of our more notable archaeological collections.