Hiding the Natural Face – Alutae et Splenia

BM Cosmetic box

Bronze Cosmetic Box, British Museum 1866,0415.235, 1st-2nd century AD

Non tamen expositas mensa deprendat amator
Pyxidas: ars faciem dissimulata iuvat.

Still, don’t let your lover find cosmetic bottles on your dressing table: art delights in its hidden face.

It’s no surprise to find that Ovid was yet another man fond of the ‘natural look’, the unblemished, thrown together, I-woke-up-like-this woman whose imperfections are as deliberate as her smooth cheeks. In his advice for lovers, Ovid refers to alutae, small soft leather patches worn like plasters to cover blemishes on the face (Ars, 3.202). Unfortunately these bizarre patches are only found in literary references, so we have no archeological evidence to suggest what they looked like and how they were applied. It’s thought that the patches would have been treated with alum and pasted directly onto the skin with a thick paste or foundation, which would then cover them, creating the impression of a flawless skin.  Continue reading

A note on the language of shells, vulvas and wombs

 Birth of Venus, Botticelli

Whilst the association of cowrie shells and vulvas is never explicitly stated by ancient writers, there are a few clues which draw connecting lines between the two, even if never stating the obvious. In addition to the cowrie girdles placed near the womb and vulva, etymological links suggest a linguistic parallel to our visual one.   Continue reading

Concha Veneris: the shell of Love

Met c.1338A

Cowries are native to the Indian Ocean, but have been found en masse in archaeological excavations across Egyptian, Phoenician and Mesopotamian sites, often modified or pierced – presumably to be suspended as a pendant. Whilst some lack context, many have been found in the tombs of children and women. Around the 2nd millennium BC, objects appear which imitate the form of cowrie shells, with characteristic elliptical shape and central split with serrated edges. A brief look at such imitations brings up some questions: why recreate a shape which forms so naturally? And what meaning could be hidden within this intriguing form?

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Breast buttons and the Cesnola Collection

cyprus breast necklice

Bronze Buttons, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Acc. No. 74.51.5693

The Cesnola Collection of Cypriot Art, comprising over 6000 objects, was bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1872. The collection is known best for its unrivalled stone statues and spans a vast period between 3000 BC to 300 BC, encompassing the twists and turns of Cyprus’ rich history. It was amassed by the American consul Luigi Palma di Cesnola, who served in Cyprus between 1865 and 1877 and later became a director of the Met (a deal he set up in return for his collection).
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Votive Breasts and Where to Find them



Votive breasts from Asklepieion, Corinth

For over two thousand years, a phenomenon took hold in the ancient world, from the Levantine coast of Phoenicia to the rainy fields of Somerset. In sanctuaries and temples, anatomical votives were dedicated to a range of different deities, calling upon their healing powers. These anatomical votives have been found in their hundreds, among them hands, feet, eyes, noses, breasts, ears, penises and uteri. Continue reading

Perfect Pubic Hair


Pubis fragment from large kouros, with flat-trimmed hair style with razor in shape of anvil. Marble, W:16cm. From Samos (found 1984). Dated to the mid-late sixth century BC.

Were you to find this delicate fragment under the hot Mediterranean sun, coated in a layer of Samian dust, what conclusions might you draw? From the sharp straight line, horizontal in our photograph, you might be tempted to visualise some kind of repeated pattern, like a border. I asked a trusted archaeologist, who opted for the depiction of cattle horns, carved into large-grained marble. What we’re actually looking at, so R. R. R. Smith assures me, is a fragment of a colossal kouros statue featuring nothing other than the careful definition of pubic hair.

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Greco-Egyptian Uterine Amulets

Small, roughly cut and covered in strange symbols, these little stones have made their way through museum collections, passed from Classical departments to Egyptology ones, Medieval to European Prehistory. They’ve represented exotic religious doctrines and containers carried by devotees of Isis. Their central motif has depicted a “vase of sins” of the Gnostic Christian sect, a vase to collect water from the Nile, a pneumatically driven musical instrument, a cooking pot and no doubt many more entertaining conjectures which never made it to paper. Continue reading

Prescription No. XI: Treatment for a woman who loves bed

These prescriptions are all taken from the Kahun Gynaecological papyrus, edited and translated by F.L.Griffith in 1989. The Papyrus was found at El-Lahun in Northern Egypt and is currently housed in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, part of University College London. The papyrus is dated to circa 1800BC, the late Middle kingdom, making it the oldest known medical text in Egypt. Continue reading

ὀμφαλός: The Navel of the world

omphalos Delphi

Omphalos stone, Delphi. This is thought to be a (Roman?) replica of the original sacred stone which mysterious disappeared and was displayed outside the temple

Sometime in the second half of the 4th century bc, a Pythaogorean philosopher living in Southern Italy put forward his idea about the principles of man. He wrote that the rational animal is made up of four principles: the brain, the heart, the navel, and the genital organ, in order of hierarchy. These choices, perhaps not the four you would have chosen, are explained by dividing the functions of the body between these principles. The navel is the seat of implantation and the growth of the embryo, from which future growth and nutrition is provided. Whilst these philosophical ideas of Philolaus of Croton are preserved only in the fragmentary records of later Greek philosopher, we can assume from what we have that Philolaus considered the navel as the centre of the body. Continue reading