Archaeologies of Childhood
The mummy's playthings
by Laura Bien
If Hokey Pokey Elmo turns out to be not what it's all about, if Swan Lake Barbie sings a swan song, if the kids' excitement engendered by the tide of Christmas plastic has already dwindled to apathy, one trip to take in the long days until school starts is to Archaeologies of Childhood, the colorful, well-designed Kelsey Museum exhibit on toys in ancient Roman Egypt.
The graceful austerity of the toys on display, most from the Egyptian town of Karanis and dating from 100 B.C.E. to 400 C.E., make Elmo look a bit chintzy by comparison. There are jaunty V-shaped wheeled wooden horses (right), a neatly plaited rattle once filled with chips of broken glass(!), and meticulously shaped, lovable clay animal figurines.
One sign notes that one figurine is ambiguous, representing either a horse or a cow. "How can you not see that that's a cow? Looks like these archaeologists didn't spend enough time on the farm," sniffed one impeccably coiffed Ann Arbor mom in pricey boots. I immediately inspected the object, and well, I hate to be a neighsayer.
Other families got similarly engaged, reading signs to their kids and lifting up the six little hinged doors, mounted at kid height on the walls, that display a kid-friendly question on the outside and the answer hidden within.
Signs explain that unlike today's more frivolous toys, ancient toys tended to be utilitarian tools to train kids into adult roles. On display are a wooden weaver's comb, a toy hammer, and toys presumably meant for playing house, such as miniature jars, pots, and bowls and a tiny chair and storage chest. There's also a soldier's dagger and a rather ominous whip.
Nearby lie more playful items, versions of which are still in use today, such as cloth-strip dolls with human hair and a stone sheep knucklebone that reveals the antiquity of Crazy Bones, the contemporary version of this jacks-like game.
In a baby blue criblike display
box lies the spookiest part of the show, a lifelike, life-size photo of a child mummy (the real one's in cold storage). Signs explain that the relic was given a CAT scan, which revealed the surprising information that the five-year-old boy has six fingers on his left hand, a possible result of the then-accepted practice of marriage to relatives.
There's an arresting photo of the dingy, somewhat ragged, tiny brown mummy riding with an air of immense gravity and dignity into what seems to represent eternity, the immaculate, huge white technodoughnut of a U-M CAT scanner.
You can analyze the items for yourself, on display through September 15, 2004.
[Originally published in January, 2004.]