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Kelsey in Focus: Installment #1

Head of a duck, clay. 1st–2nd century CE. Seleucia-on-the-Tigris excavations, KM 2018.1.106.

Figure of a duck, clay. 1st century CE. Seleucia-on-the-Tigris excavations, KM 2018.1.105.

Head of a duck; clay, slip, paint. 2nd century CE. Seleucia-on-the-Tigris excavations, KM 2018.1.104.

Ducks from Seleucia (by way of Toledo)

Curated by Terry G. Wilfong, Director and Curator of Graeco-Roman Egyptian Collections

For this inaugural installment of Kelsey in Focus, we’ve chosen to highlight a recent acquisition: 703 artifacts excavated at the ancient site of Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, in modern Iraq, transferred by the Toledo Museum of Art to the Kelsey Museum. Toledo was a partner in Michigan’s 1927–1937 excavations at Seleucia and received these artifacts in the division of finds. They now join over 13,000 artifacts from this excavation already in the Kelsey. We are extremely grateful to our colleagues in Toledo for the transfer of this important body of excavated material to the Kelsey.

Seleucia-on-the-Tigris was one of the greatest cities of the Hellenistic age. It was founded in 307 BCE as the eastern capital of the Seleucid Empire and, after its conquest in 141 BCE, became the western capital of the Parthian Empire. The site was abandoned by 215 CE. Seleucia was a nexus of trade between Asia, Africa, and Persia, and had a diverse and cosmopolitan population.

From this new material, I’ve chosen three artifacts—representations of ducks from the first and second centuries CE. All three were excavated in the 1928–1929 season in the ruins of a Parthian villa or temple, built over a Seleucid hero temple. These figures show a range of quality and skill. The larger duck head shows an impressive amount of detail likely based on observation. Ducks were widely domesticated across the ancient Near East. Despite this, their meat remained something of a luxury, and they were associated with wealth and celebration. With these three ducks, we inaugurate this new showcase for the Kelsey Museum’s unseen collections. Watch for the next installment of Kelsey in Focus in the fall.

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Thanks to Michelle Fontenot, Kelsey Museum Collections Manager, for first pointing these ducks out, and Caitlin Clerkin, PhD candidate in the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, for her research on the Seleucia material.