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?
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).
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
Battle past the hoards of school children in the British Museum ogling at the dried up body of a 5417 year old ginger man from Upper Egypt and you might just make it to a small nondescript case standing on the north-facing side of room 63. Here is where, in my humble opinion, the real treasures are to be found.
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.
Current location: Michigan, A. Alfred Taubman Medical Library
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
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
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
Copy of a Roman Strigil set (199BC-500AD). The small bottle would have been used for the oil and the strigil was used to scrape away excess oil, sweat and dead skin. Wellcome Images, Science Museum
In the second century BC in the Macedonian city of Beroea there was a Gymnasium. Like many from its period, it had a Gymnasiarch who was responsible for administration and etiquette within the complex, and it existed as an important civic institution, governed by laws and funded by both the city-state and private funds. The gymnasium was the regular haunt of the neoi, the young men, and the ephebes whose training and socialisation was strictly regulated. By this point, in the Hellenistic period, the gymnasium was not just a place for athletics and training, but for all the education required to turn youthful boys into promising future leaders. Despite its importance within the community, the gymnasium at Beroea was barred to a great deal of people: slaves, freedmen, the sons of freedmen, tradesmen, male prosistutes, drunk people, people with physical disabilities and, unsurprisingly, women. It no doubt had places to train, talk, study, wash and oil up in preparation for the days activities. But as an inscription found in Beroea attests, the gymnasium also had another stream of income, often overlooked. Continue reading
Edwin Smith Papyrus, Case 11
Broken noses have long disfigured history: from the erroneous legend of Napoleon and his troops firing a cannonball at the nose of the Greek Sphinx during the French campaign in Egypt, to the thousands of nose-less statues from antiquity. Whilst some were likely to have been deliberately vandalised by other groups of people, especially the early Christians, the most likely cause of noselessness is probably an accidental drop. Continue reading