|votive wombs, willies, feet|
In a recent blog called Tinker Tailor Votive Willies, I told about about a treasure-hunting expedition I made to Blythe House in Hammersmith, and how I found lots of clay votive body parts there... plus ghosts of George Smiley, fictional spymaster.
Today on History Girls I am going to talk about the object of my quest – a marble relief plaque of a woman giving birth – because I think the readers of this more grown-up blog are better equipped to deal with terms like cervix, womb, placenta, parturient and birthing chair.
It all started when Amber Porter, a new member of an Ostia Archaeology Facebook Group, posted a marble relief plaque which none of us "Ostia lovers" had ever seen before. It shows a naked woman reclining, having just given birth, seemingly attended by three cheerful midwives. When I first saw the photo, my immediate reaction was: It's so fabulous that it must be a FORGERY!
|marble plaque showing a woman giving birth, from Ostia Antica|
What exactly is happening here? If we examine the plaque from right to left, we see a naked woman reclining on the couch. She has just given birth. She may or may not be about to give birth to a second child, a twin. The woman nearest her head is holding the side of the sheet on the far side of the bed, perhaps about to cover the woman up again. The next woman is holding the afterbirth, or maybe the womb. If it is the latter, then the mother is in trouble. On the far left a third woman holds the newborn baby on a cushion. The folds of the blanket are in the "archaic" style, but but the faces and hairstyles could be anything from Classical Greek to late Roman.
|House tombs from Ostia's Isola Sacra (photo by Joe Williams)|
Why would my first impulse be that this is a forgery? Well, certainly not because it's a plaque about a foot long and half a foot high. We have plenty of plaques like these from the ancient world, in both clay and marble. They usually come from tombs, where they told whose remains or ashes were contained within. The so-called Isola Sacra ("Sacred Island") is a flat bit of land between the original port of Ostia and the Claudian harbour called Portus. It is full of tombs with such plaques on them. In the picture above, you can see a tomb with a donkey grinding grain on the left and a merchant ship on the right. Grain was Ostia's main industry: more specifically, the reception of big grain-ships from Egypt and the storage, milling, baking and transferring of grain and bread up to Rome, 14 miles inland.
Natasha Barrero, the actress who played Miriam (right), told me that sitting on the birthing chair was one of the most uncomfortable things she'd ever had to do. But this is what the Greeks and Romans did. To me and other academics on the Ostia Facebook Page, the strangest thing about this scene on our plaque is the thing that might seem quite normal to you. The woman who has just given birth is lying down. Other elements that set alarm bells ringing were the woman's frankly sexy pose. It reminded one member of the sensuous "drunken faun".
A few explanations of the woman's unusual reclining pose spring to mind.
1. The woman is dying, hence her supine position.
2. The woman is enjoying the process, hence her langorous pose like the drunken faun (below)
3. Her pose is meant to please a male viewer, who would never have witnessed a real childbirth.
4. The midwife's birthing chair was on the other side of town, or couldn't be brought soon enough.
5. Scholars are mistaken in thinking that women in antiquity normally used a birthing chair.
|drunken faun and woman from the Ostia childbirth plaque|
|Reclining nursing mother from Ostia|
On our Ostia Facebook Group, we discuss these aspects across time zones and language barriers, people posting pictures and theories. Joe from Canterbury sends me great high res photos from his time on a dig in Ostia (above). Hanne in Calgary wonders why we have never seen it before. Dutch webmaster Jan-Theo finds two more objects in the Wellcome Collection which are supposedly from Ostia, including one of a reclining nursing mother! (right) Justine is interested in the hairstyles and clothing as a possible dating method. Suzanne from Australia also thinks the langorous reclining pose is suspect, but reserves judgement. Tonnie, based at Lake Albano, Italy, gets a lead on the man from whom it was bought, an art collector from Perugia named Mariano Rocchi.
Terrence from South Africa finds several more plaques showing childbirth, one of which show the woman reclining, though admittedly after she has given birth.
And everyone is hopeful that when I see the now-famous plaque in the flesh – that is, in the marble – that all the answers will become obvious.
When at last I have the object in my (gloved) hands, I find it is smaller than I expected, but far, far heavier. My guide, Katie Maggs, won't let me move it away from the shelf, lest I drop it. I examine it carefully. On the sides are chisel marks, showing that it was not meant to stand on its own, but to be set into a wall. I see similar roughness on the back. On top are a couple of dents which might have been used to fix it to the wall of a tomb. All these clues are consistent with it being a plaque from a tomb in Ostia. But even after my close examination, I am none the wiser. For an amateur like me, it is impossible to know if it was carved 2000 years or 100 years ago.
I try to think logically, listing arguments in favour of it being genuine. First, why would a forger spend time and effort carving something which would not fetch much money? The piece was acquired in 1932 for £11, which at various estimates is between £500 - £5000 in today's money. Second, the relief is the right size and shape to be a plaque from Ostia's Isola Sacra graveyard. Third, Ostia was being excavated just around the time this piece was acquired. Fourth, the proportions of the newborn baby match those of Roman frescos of the first century AD, like this little cupid from Pompeii (right). The style of the plaque is admittedly a hodge-podge, but that might be explained if it came from a local Ostian workshop rather than a posh Roman (or Athenian) one.
On the other hand, look at the plaque that originally spurred Amber Porter to pursue a study of childbirth in the ancient world. It shows a dishevelled naked woman (like ours) sitting on a birthing stool with the baby's head beginning to appear and attended by no less than four helpers. It has unmistakable similarities with the Ostia plaque and yet it is supposed to be from Classical Athens! On our discussion page Amber wrote, "This is the first relief that got me started. It's from E.D. Phillips' Greek Medicine. He says it's a 5th century BC relief, but it's been questioned by others and currently it has gone missing." Look carefully at the head of the woman on the bottom left. Then compare it with the head of the woman second from the left on our Ostia plaque.
|5th century BC head & 2nd century AD head?|
The only real argument against the Ostia plaque being a genuine Roman artefact is that pose. It seems so western. So modern. So provocative! Even the eminent Classicist and Pompeii-expert Mary Beard remarks that "the woman giving birth is a bit too sexy"!
And then all my conjectures are blown out of the water. Spurred into action by the discovery of our Ostian plaque, webmaster Jan-Theo Bakker finds this great article on childbirth in ancient times which references Pliny the Elder and Soranus of Ephesus. To summarise, Pliny the Elder is BAD, suggesting ruses such as placing the right foot of a hyena on the woman giving birth, or offering her potions made of goose semen or a drink sprinkled with sow's dung. Really, Pliny!
|Woman giving birth sitting on a bed, rather than a birthing stool|
Soranus is the sensible one. He tells us step by step what will happen:
At the onset of labor, the midwife is summoned and the necessary equipment made ready. During labor, the parturient lies on her back on a hard, low bed with support under her hips; her feet drawn up together, her thighs parted. The midwife should ease the labor pains with gentle massage, with a cloth soaked in warm olive oil laid over the abdomen and genital area, and place bladders filled with warm oil – the ancient version of hot-water bottles – against the woman's sides. As the cervix begins to dilate, the midwife encourages the process of dilation by gently rubbing the opening with her left forefinger (with its nail cut short); the finger is to be generously smeared with olive oil. When the cervix is dilated to the size of an egg, the parturient is moved to the midwife's stool, unless she has become very weak; in the latter case, the delivery is to be made on the hard bed. If the birth is successful, the woman is finally moved to a soft couch.
|detail of Ostia plaque|
On balance, I think this relief is a genuine 2nd century Roman funerary plaque. This seems the most likely explanation, given the provenance of the piece. But did it commemorate the baby who is being born? Or was it a memorial to the mother herself? Or was it a monument to the three midwives, (or perhaps even a single midwife show at three different points during the birth)?
We don't have any firm answers yet, but the investigation continues. And along the way we are constantly learning new things about life, birth and death in ancient Rome.
|Ostia plaque, side view|
And what fun it all is!
P.S. You can find hundreds more fascinating objects to do with birth, life and death in the ancient world on the Science Museum's great interactive website, Brought to Life. You can read a story about a 15-year-old girl giving birth in Ostia in the year AD 80 in my novel, The Slave-girl from Jerusalem.