Object of the month: Understanding the ancient body

Clay-backed uterus. Wellcome Images

Clay-backed uterus. Wellcome Images

Votive offerings from the ancient world are devotional objects that are also a key to how people once understood their own bodies. Catherine Walker explains why these objects capture the imagination.

The Etruscan votive offerings, found in the Medicine Man gallery, are fairly modest objects in general. For me, however, they are endlessly fascinating as they act as a window into the way the Etruscans understood their bodies.

2500 years ago votives like this could be found all over the classical world. Handmade or bought at markets, they were to be gifted to the gods in order to win favour. Left in temples or thrown into sacred pools, most surviving examples – including the ones in the gallery – are made of terracotta, but some were even made out of bread or cake. While these are very much religious objects, they give us insight into medical practice at the time, even if it simply gives us an idea of what part religion played in the healing process.

The Etruscans themselves are an elusive civilisation, pre-dating the Roman Empire. Indeed, even in the early decades of the first millennium CE, Etruscan as a language had become viewed as almost dead, understood by only the most scholarly. Etruria, the region of Italy that is now predominantly Tuscany, was very much separate from what we would consider to be Roman. At this time the Mediterranean was made up of small city states, separate in identity and culture, and Italy as we know it today was populated by people who could have considered themselves Greek, or Asian. Herodotus, a historian from the fifth century BCE, believed that the Etruscans hailed from Lydia in Asia Minor.

Much of our understanding of medical practice at this time comes from a group of Greek texts called the Hippocratic Corpus. Originally attributed to the legendary doctor of the fifth century BCE, Hippocrates, it is now understood that these texts were in fact written by a number of different authors. They are written in a range of styles and are from a wide timescale, which provides us with a relatively in-depth look at medical understanding at this time.

The key thing that you notice when reading these texts is the importance of prognosis over diagnosis. The aim was not so much to cure, but to understand. In this sense there are a lot of texts within the Corpus that focus on charting the course of an illness, rather than making the individual better. However, that is not to say that the doctors are indifferent. There is close attention paid to the patient and there is often a large amount of detail included about conditions we now believe to be fairly irrelevant, such as the season in which the individual got sick or even the weather conditions at the time of the illness.

This observational understanding of medicine provides an interesting perspective when looking at the votives we have in the gallery. The knowledge of what was going on inside the body was limited, so what couldn’t be observed would have been assumed. If we take the votive uterus pictured above as an example, we can see that there was little knowledge of what the organ actually looked like. Autopsies would not have been carried out at this time; there are isolated cases in third-century BCE Alexandria, but these are not the norm. The form of this votive is based on assumptions and what observation could have been made. They would have been aware of the function of the organ and could have observed childbirth, so we see that this understanding has been incorporated into the votive as the wavy lines represent contractions. This understanding of the body had implications for the way people practiced medicine. The classical Greeks believed that the uterus could detach and go wandering around the body. The womb would have been attracted to pleasant smells, so the remedy involved sitting on a sweet-smelling cushion while placing something foul-smelling under your nose! Knowing how people understood the body also helps us to understand medical practices at the time.

This is why these votives are my favourite objects in the Medicine Man gallery. While we can gain insight into how much people knew about what was going on inside their bodies from classical texts, these votives show us how this knowledge impacted day-to-day life. On face value they might appear modest, but they tell us so much about a culture that existed thousands of years ago, and how everyday people at this time understood their own bodies.

Catherine Walker is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection. 

Miracles and Charms, two free exhibitions exploring faith, hope and chance, is open until 26 February.

12 thoughts on “Object of the month: Understanding the ancient body

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