Why were thousands of clay body parts buried in ancient Italy?


Blackleaf
#1
Large numbers of ancient model body parts made from clay have been unearthed in pits across Italy - but researchers still don't fully understand why.

Feet, hands, eyes, ears and internal body parts, called 'anatomical votives', are thought to have been buried as a mark of devotion to the gods.

Exactly why they were buried, or what the ancient Italians hoped to get from the divine in return, remains unclear.

But a new book to be released next year hopes to put an end to some of these mysteries...

Why were thousands of clay body parts buried in ancient Italy? New book aims to shed light on the mystery


'Bodies of Evidence' looks at ancient clay votives and is out next year

The clay sculptures were buried from the 4th to 1st century BC in Italy

The body parts were likely offered to the gods at specialist healing centres

Thousands of votives found in pits across Italy may be evidence of a 'clear out' to make space for new offerings, which may have greater symbolism

By Ryan O'Hare for MailOnline
21 November 2016

Large numbers of ancient model body parts made from clay have been unearthed in pits across Italy - but researchers still don't fully understand why.

Feet, hands, eyes, ears and internal body parts, called 'anatomical votives', are thought to have been buried as a mark of devotion to the gods.

Exactly why they were buried, or what the ancient Italians hoped to get from the divine in return, remains unclear.

But a new book to be released next year hopes to put an end to some of these mysteries.


Thousands of clay body parts are thought to have buried by ancient Italians as a mark of devotion to the gods. The various body parts and internal organs called anatomical 'votives' are thought to have been buried as part of healing ceremonies

Votives have been found in other ancient cultures, including the Greeks, with the objects carved out of stone, terracotta and wood.

But many more are thought to have been made from wax, gold or silver which would have been melted down or perished.

A new book, titled 'Bodies of Evidence' and released next year, is hoping to shed more light on the beautiful objects.

Author Dr Jane Draycott, a research fellow in classics at the University of Glasgow, told MailOnline:

‘One of the really interesting things about them is how they can potentially give us an insight into what different groups were thinking about their bodies, and how they were using their bodies in both art but also religion as well.'


2017 – Routledge

The sheer number of objects found in Italy, from Rome to Sicily, shows their popularity as an offering during a specific period.

According to Atalas Obscura, large numbers have been uncovered in pits along the western coast of central Italy.

In a few hundred years from the 4th to 1st century BC, people were burying these objects in their thousands.


Evidence suggests they may have been central to ceremonies to cure health conditions. Pictured is a clay afoot found near Rome


In a few centuries from the 4th to 1st century BCE, people were burying these objects by their thousands

Pits have been found to contain a mix of external body parts with reproductive organs and viscera, many of which would bore holes and would been hung on display before burial.

At one site, in Ponte Di Nona near Rome, more than eight thousand terracotta votives were unearthed in the 1970s.

The site is believed to have been a specialist centre of healing dealing with curing ailments afflicting the hands and feet.

In another example, at a sanctuary in Fragellae, almost half of the 4,000 votives found were of feet.

At another site, clay wombs were X-rayed and found to have tiny spheres inside, which may have represented embryos. Researchers suggest these were either a thank you symbol for prayers answered or requests to become pregnant in the future.

Previous research indicated these votives would have been hung and displayed in sanctuaries and healing centres dedicated to gods, in the hope of being relieved of painful or debilitating conditions.

While the origins and the exact reasons are unclear, the practice is steeped in the tradition of reciprocity, where the gods are gifted something to earn their favour.

‘You made an offering in advance to get their attention. When they did what you wanted them to do you would make another offering to say thank you,’ explained Dr Draycott.

In the first instance this could have been wine or an animal offering, with a longer lasting terracotta or stone votive as a gift to the gods afterwards, with offerings set up in sanctuaries decorated with sculpted body parts and even bandages or blankets.


Pits have been found at many sites in Italy, containing a mix of external body parts with reproductive organs and viscera, many of which would bore holes and would been hung on display before burial


Pits contained a mix of external body parts with reproductive organs and viscera, many of which would bore holes and would been hung on display before burial. Pictured is an eye and a set of clay ears


Previous research indicates that the votives would have been hung in temples and healing centres dedicated to gods, in the hope of being relieved of painful or debilitating conditions. Pictured is a set of clay breasts

‘This would show future visitors to the sanctuary how powerful that god was, that had made all of these people’s wishes or prayers come true’ Dr Draycott said.

Rebecca Flemming, a British scholar who writes about the votives in Popular Medicine in Graeco-Roman Antiquity, says that these pits, with a mix of body parts, could represent a 'clear out' of temples.

For the most popular sanctuaries, thousands of visitors would have left their mark in the way of offerings, with the oldest being periodically cleared out and buried.

Dr Draycott explained: ‘Of course you can’t just bin them or burn them, because they’re sacred and they belong to the god.

'So you would have ritual deposition, and quite often this is what archaeologists come across. They find them ritually disposed of nearby.'


Archaeologists have uncovered a range of clay body parts in central Italy, depicting body parts, organs and faces and more, all of which tell a story about an individual's plea to the gods


The anatomical likenesses likely come from post-mortem studies. Pictured is a clay uterus thought to date back to the 4th century BC

People with health conditions would have made offerings to the Roman god of medicine, Aesculapius, but offerings could have been made to a number of other gods as well, such as Diana or Juno.

Scholars believe the presence of heads and faces could be indicative of headaches related to cases of malaria.

But others argue these objects may be much less literal, relating to conditions as trivial as dandruff, spots and eczema.

While some of those uncovered may have a clear connection to health, the link is only one interpretation of their uses, with some scholars suggesting the objects may have played a more symbolic role.

‘Potentially, you might donate a foot if you were going on a journey, or an ear if you wanted the god to speak to you,’ explained Dr Draycott.

‘So there’s a slightly more symbolic or metaphorical motivation.’

Due to the lack of written evidence surrounding votives, archaeologists and classical scholars continue to debate their meaning and importance in ancient Italian and Greek societies.

Dr Draycott told MailOnline: 'I think we would like people not to make assumptions, to really think about the material and the possibilities; to put ourselves in the place of the people who made these offerings.'

'They wouldn't all have been making the same offering for the same reason, so we have to try and understand that.'

She added: 'There are thousands of these hidden away in museums. They weren't considered to be important for quite a long time.'

'So if we can inspire people to take a second look at their museum collections, that would also be great.'


Scholars believe these objects were left at healing sanctuaries and other religious sites as offering. Pictured is a terracotta thumb (left) and a clay child (right)


But others argue these objects may be much more general, relating to conditions as trivial as dandruff, spots, eczema


Pictured is a votive of a woman found in Sicily, believed to date back to the 4th century BC


WHAT ARE VOTIVES?

Carved body parts and representations of organs have been found in both Italy and Greece, with the objects carved out of stone, clay and wood and other materials.

Many more may have been made from wax, or gold or silver which would have been melted down or perished.

Previous research indicates that they would have been hung in temples and healing centres dedicated to gods, in the hope of being relieved of painful or debilitating conditions.

But they could also have carried more symbolic meanings, such as a foot for someone embarking on a journey.

WHO MADE THEM?

Due to the sheer number of votives, evidence suggests that a whole trade sprung up around these offerings.

Some would have been mass produced by professional craftsmen, who moulded them out of terracotta.

For the more elaborate pieces it is thought they would have been individually commissioned by wealthy donors.

Other offerings would have been more perishable, in the form of bandages or even wax effigies.

One issue which continues to divide scholars in the area is whether the style of the objects, such as whether the faces have beards or not, or whether the women have veils, is proof of Roman or Latin spreading across Italy.


OFFERINGS FOR HEALING OR SYMBOLIC ITEMS?

Evidence suggests that temples and sanctuaries may have been dedicated to ailments affecting specific regions of the body.

It is thought that Ponte Di Nona near Rome would have been a specialist centre of healing dealing with curing ailments afflicting the hands and feet.

In Greek culture, a sanctuary in Athens is thought to have been dedicated to eye health.

The most popular sanctuaries would have seen the walls adorned with large numbers of these sculpted offerings, as thanks for hearing the pleas and prayers of people.

While some of those uncovered may have a clear connection to health, the link is only one interpretation of their uses, with some scholars suggesting the objects may have played a more symbolic role.

In this scenario, people would have potentially offered the gods a symbolic gesture such as an eye for foresight, a foot for going on a journey, or a uterus in the hope of conceiving a child.

Due to the limited number of votives found with inscriptions, the evidence for a direct link with medical conditions or otherwise continues to be a matter for debate.


Some scholars believe the presence of heads and faces could be indicative of headaches related to cases of malaria. Three Roman votive offering representing faces



Read more: Why were thousands of clay body parts buried in ancient Italy? New book aims to shed light on the mystery | Daily Mail Online
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Last edited by Blackleaf; Nov 22nd, 2016 at 08:42 AM..
 
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