Monday, January 29, 2018


Jane Draycott, Emma-Jayne Graham (ed.), Bodies of Evidence: Ancient Anatomical Votives Past, Present and Future. Medicine and the body in antiquity. London; New York: Routledge, 2016. Pp. xiv, 271. ISBN 9781472450807. $149.95.

Reviewed by Debby Sneed, University of California, Los Angeles (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume, which stems from a 2012 conference in Rome, addresses the basic definition of the anatomical votive and expand its study in several dimensions. Emma-Jayne Graham and Jane Draycott begin by outlining previous and current approaches to the study of anatomical votives in their introduction. They address some of the big questions surrounding the votives, including when in the ritual process they were dedicated, and outline the kinds of objects that are included under the "anatomical votive" umbrella. Finally, the editors set the stage for what follows. The essays, they state, are meant not to provide a comprehensive treatment of the phenomenon but to encourage scholars to try to understand "how these objects were used and manipulated in a range of cultic, cultural, and curative contexts, both past and present, as well as the meanings and knowledge associated with and produced by their use." (p. 6) Graham and Draycott emphasize the chronological and geographical variability of ancient ritual practice and argue for the multivalent nature of anatomical votives and their ability to resist singular interpretations, especially those that assume an easy relationship between the dedication of an anatomical votive and the dedicant's body, motivations and expectations. In the first chapter. Justine Potts defies the traditionally limited definition of the anatomical votive and introduces 2nd and 3rd century CE Phrygian and Lydian confession stelai by demonstrating not just the formal similarities between the two classes, but also their nearly identical contexts of production and dedication. The corpus of confession stelai contains around 150 inscriptions dedicated by people punished with illness and pain (among other things) for various types of wrongdoing and crime. Images incised or carved in relief—many anatomical in nature—accompany about half of the inscriptions, but these images have largely been ignored in the logocentric scholarship on the stelai. Text aside, however, these objects are identical in form, production, and dedicatory context to contemporary anatomical votives. Because of their overlaps, Potts argues (p. 20) that in inland Anatolia there was a hierarchy of propitiatory epigraphy that firmly encompassed the stelai and contemporary anatomical votives within the same intellectual world. The distinction between the two is a product of modern scholarship, she suggests, and by discussing the confession stelai and anatomical votives together, we not only understand both corpora more fully, but also appreciate the fluidity and complexity of religious mentalities in the ancient world.

Three essays assess the place that the votives occupy in modern academic, religious, and cultural imaginations (Haumesser, Ch. 9; Adams, Ch. 10; Grove, Ch. 11). Jen Grove, in particular, demonstrates the multivalent nature of anatomical dedications. She uses a single collection of male and female genitalia compiled and displayed in the late 19th and 20th centuries CE by Sir Henry Wellcome, an American-born pharmaceutical millionaire, to confront the oft-held claim that early treatment of these and other sexually explicit objects was always characterized by suppression and censorship (e.g., the 'secret cabinets' in late 18th and 19th century Naples). Grove uses archival records to show that Wellcome deliberately sought and purchased votive genitalia, and that he used them alongside other, similarly themed objects from cultures across the world in order to understand ancient medical and anatomical knowledge, on the one hand, and cultural practices, including the link between religion and sex, on the other. She argues that many such early collections of sexually explicit material were not regarded as pornographic but were meant for serious academic study. Grove's contribution, then, expands our understanding of the votives themselves by examining a range of artifacts not often discussed in depth; the place of anatomical votives in modern scholarship; the motivations of early collectors of ancient artifacts; and the history of modern sexual knowledge.

Not all contributions in this volume are equally successful in fitting within the anatomical-votive paradigm. In his chapter on swaddled infants, for example, Olivier de Cazanove brings the discussion of such ex-votos outside its traditional geographical boundaries by arguing for a link in votive practice, especially in the dedication of swaddled infants, between central Italy and Roman Gaul. He demonstrates that images of swaddled infants in Roman Gaul during the Imperial period formally resemble those excavated from mid-Republican sanctuaries in Italy and suggests that they are part of a widely diffused religious practice that traces its history back to the Greek Classical period. Excavations in earlier cult sites in Gaul have yielded assemblages different from those that characterize ritual sites in the Roman period; de Cazanove posits therefore that the swaddled-infant votives are directly attributable to the process of "Romanization" in Gaul, with its attendant cultural changes. De Cazanove's essay encourages thinking about the timing and appearance of the spread of Roman religious practices and shows how singular objects and their assemblages can help us understand larger processes. He does not, however, discuss anatomical votives in ways that go beyond the typological, nor does he engage with the nuances of the Middle Ground that may have contributed to religious changes evident in Gaul during the Imperial period (as a point of comparison, see Ch. 7, Fay Glinister's contribution, which also discusses swaddled infants in Italy).

I was delighted to see Ellen Adams's discussion of anatomical votives in the context of disability. The author argues that these fragmented body parts functioned like ritual aids in the healing process, thus playing an important part in a dedicant's quest to achieve the contemporary ideal of "normality." By introducing attitudes toward disability in antiquity and in the modern period, Adams suggests that the disabled in both time periods exist(ed) at two ends of a spectrum—subhuman or superhuman—and that either extreme rendered them neither normal nor ideal. She then presents anatomical votives as ritual prostheses intended to help the dedicant overcome their otherness in the ritual world, not in their lived lives. Finally, Adams considers the 'real' fragments of antiquity, contrasting diachronic responses to broken Classical sculpture, where authenticity is valued over completeness, to modern attitudes toward the disabled, which privilege somatic integrity. Adams' arguments about the prosthetic function of anatomical votives and the relationship between "body part" and "body whole" add layers to our understanding not just of the votives, but also of ancient conceptions of 'normality' and how we might reconstruct it, and she links ancient art with the development of the science of anatomy. Her contribution is, however, somewhat undermined by an attempt to achieve too much in a short space, with multiple and varied arguments (about ancient and modern disability, normality, anatomical votives, ritual practice, classical art, anatomy, modern art, broken sculpture and Renaissance reactions to it, and the importance of naming for identity) crammed into 21 pages. This essay has many arguments, but not enough space to develop any one fully. Perhaps we will read more about them in a future book?

As a whole, this volume accomplishes its goals well and paves the way for future studies on anatomical votives beyond the typological. The authors show that such dedications were not limited to the healing sanctuaries of Classical Greece and that their meanings went beyond simple equations between object and body. Anatomical votives were "used, understood, and experienced, and were part of a broader material process of negotiation" (p. 15) and their importance for the ancient world extends from Anatolia to Gaul, from the 5th century BCE to the modern world.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Debating the anatomical votive / Emma-Jayne Graham and Jane Draycott
1. Corpora in connection: anatomical votives and the confession stelai of Lydia and Phrygia / Justine Potts
2. Partible humans and permeable gods: anatomical votives and personhood in the sanctuaries of central Italy / Emma-Jayne Graham
3. Anatomical votives (and swaddled babies): from Republican Italy to Roman Gaul / Olivier de Cazanove
4. Hair today, gone tomorrow: the use of real, false and artificial hair as votive offerings / Jane Draycott
5. Demeter as an ophthalmologist? Eye votives and the cult of Demeter and Kore / Georgia Petridou
6. Wombs for the gods / Rebecca Flemming
7. Ritual and meaning: contextualizing votive terracotta infants in Hellenistic Italy / Fay Glinister
8. The foot as gnṓrisma / Sara Chiarini
9. The open man: anatomical votive busts between the history of medicine and archaeology / Laurent Haumesser
10. Fragmentation and the body's boundaries: reassessing the body in parts / Ellen Adams
11. Votive genitalia in the Wellcome collection: modern receptions of ancient sexual anatomy / Jen Grove
12. Votive futures: an afterword / Jessica Hughes

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