Archaeologist Jeanny 'Jes' Canby

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Jeanny "Jes" Canby, 78, a scholar who engaged in archaeological digs in the Middle East but made her greatest discovery as a retired volunteer at the University of Pennsylvania museum gallery, died of emphysema Nov. 18 at the Quadrangle in Haverford, Pa.

In 1985, Dr. Canby was studying a nine-foot-high limestone pillar, known as the Ur-Nammu stele, at Penn's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. It had been pieced together, and she noticed a pair of disembodied tiny feet. Suspecting that it depicted a baby sitting on a god's lap, she asked the museum director for permission to search his storerooms for missing pieces of stone.

What she found in the closets startled her and the small, erudite world of Ur specialists. A stone showed an adult hand on the deity's shoulder, which meant that something was very wrong with the scene on the stele.

She climbed a rickety ladder to examine the stele under strong lights. When she descended, she had a new purpose in life. The reconstruction of the stele was botched and inaccurate, she declared. It had to be rebuilt.

"It had stood up in our galleries" since 1927, said Richard Zettler, now the associate curator-in-charge of the Near East section of the museum. "So here she is, 50 or 60 years later, wanting to take it apart. She basically bullied [the museum director] into it. It was a big, risky thing to do."

At the time, Dr. Canby was a volunteer, albeit a retired scholar of Middle Eastern artifacts who had the respect of her colleagues. Zettler, a newly arrived assistant curator, told the Philadelphia Inquirer five years ago that once she showed him the clumsy reconstruction, he couldn't argue. Also, "you rapidly learn with Jes that, sooner or later, you will do exactly what she wants you to," he said.

The remains of the ancient royal monument, from Mesopotamia in modern Iraq, had been found in 1925, shattered in hundreds of fragments. It had been discovered by renowned archaeologist Leonard Woolley. The Pennsylvania museum won the right to rebuild it, and Woolley supervised its reconstruction from afar.

But Dr. Canby determined that Woolley was misled by his zeal for quick publication and by imprecise photographs. The artifact was definitely historic, but upon viewing the reconstruction, experts considered its art pedestrian. By the time Dr. Canby was finished, it was anything but that.

Conservators began to pry the stele apart, discarding the plaster that had been used to fill in missing areas. Dr. Canby found many overlooked images by staring, studying and rotating the pieces.

"She studied every one of those pieces as if it was the only piece she'd ever look at," Zettler said yesterday. "She did this with a kind of dogged determination you just could never imagine. She was absolutely devoted to this."

Dr. Canby found a knee, a goat's hoof, gowns, chariots, wrestlers, angels and workmen. She also discovered that some pieces were missing. One particularly crucial piece was in the British Museum, and Dr. Canby marched into that august museum and demanded the return of the stele remnant. She planned to carry it back in her bag to Philadelphia. She didn't get the piece, but she got a cast of it.

"Work on the stela has the fascination of a jigsaw puzzle with the added enticement of finding scenes that have not been seen since the destruction of the monument four thousand years ago," she wrote for the museum's Expedition magazine in 1987.

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