On Friday 8th May The Votives Project had its inaugural field trip to Blythe House in London, which is the store and archive for The Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science and British Museums and the Wellcome Collection. We spent a fascinating morning examining the anatomical votives collected by Henry Wellcome (that is, those which aren’t on display in the Medicine Man gallery in the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road). To give you a flavour of the rich array of material at Blythe House, we’ve each picked out an object or theme that we felt to be particularly significant.
All images on this page are reproduced courtesy of the Science Museum/Wellcome Collection.
“My favourite votive was the lower half of the head. I’ve seen plenty of votive full and half heads, as well as a range of votive torsos depicting internal organs, but votives of mouths, tongues and teeth seem to have been dedicated much less frequently (or have at least survived in far smaller quantities), so to see a votive depicting all of these things simultaneously in the way that this particular votive did was a rare treat. It got me thinking not only about the reasons why such a votive might have been dedicated (an affliction of the mouth/teeth/tongue/throat? A speech impediment?), but also about how the votive would have been produced (how familiar were coroplasts with the inside of the head, as opposed to other parts of the body? Was it inspired by a particular sight, such as the after-effects of a death or an injury? How was it made? Was it a one-off, a special commission?).”
“My personal favourites were the terracotta offerings in the form of human faces. They’re slightly under-life size, with an unusual amount of pigment preserved. It was particularly interesting to see three-dimensional faces painted reddish-brown, presumably indicating male, and white, presumably indicating female – the same artistic conventions found in Etruscan tomb painting.”
“Holding a newborn baby votive. Cradling it along one arm, its length matches my forearm, head cradled in the crook of my right elbow, feet resting in my right hand. I gently rock it. The weight is comparable to a new baby. But it is very cold to the touch because it’s kept in a [temperature controlled] cool storeroom. If it was in a sanctuary in Paestum, in the sunshine, the terracotta would be warm to the touch – blood temperature maybe? feeling like the warm skin of a real baby? And if it was wrapped in swaddling bands it would be warm and soft and would smell of my own baby. Or maybe it doesn’t wear real swaddling bands because maybe it is apotropaic, a terracotta dissonant imitation of the baby I want so desperately. Am I trying to warm it up when I rock it? Or am I wistfully wishing it was my real baby? I feel a sense of attachment to it, an attachment which grows as I cradle and rock it. I don’t want to put it down. It is difficult to put it down.”
“London is wonderful for our special interests: during two days in May I was able to see all the known anatomical votives in the Wellcome Collection: a few are displayed in the Science Museum in South Kensington, and a large table-case of them is in the Wellcome Museum in Euston (in the “Medicine Man” gallery presenting Wellcome himself). The largest group, stored in Blythe House, was generously shared with us. I had expected the Wellcome anatomical models to show great variety, but it still surprised me: in addition to rare items, like the votive of lower jaw and head, or the fragmentary torso showing cut ribs around an incision exposing internal organs… the biggest surprise was the range of sizes of the terracotta votive heads and limbs. Most ancient Italian votive deposits hold near-lifesize heads, feet, and hands, but the unknown sites that furnished many Wellcome pieces prioduced votive models representing at least three, probably four “generations” of some types. [In making terracottas, clay is pressed into a mold, then dried carefully until it is fired: each step of the process, from making and firing a clay mold to the finished votive, involves drying and thus shrinkage of the clay. A busy coroplast may later take a product off his shelf, cover it with clay and make a mold from it – again more shrinkage, so that we see “mold-siblings” (identical pieces drawn from the same mold), and “generations” – multiple pieces made from molds of the same size/generation.] Some of the Wellcome heads, hands and feet – and even a few uterus models – were so small that they had to be third or fourth generation pieces descended from near-lifesized original terracottas. In the few publications of excavated sanctuaries, one seldom sees such small items, presumably cheaper versions dedicated by less affluent patients: it must mean that 19th-century collectors were purchasing finds (probably discovered in farm fields and lawfully sold by the landowners) at the sites of great sanctuaries in central Italy – sites with bustling votive factories patronized by thousands of pilgrims – sites not yet identified today!”
Jean MacIntosh Turfa
[A votive aside: my trip in the UK took me to Cambridge after my London visit, and showed me the answer to a small riddle. In the Wellcome Collection, I saw one or two odd-looking votives in terracotta, spherical to conical in shape, with a deep groove spiraling around the outside. One might mistake them for stylized intestines, yet they looked too regular for that. I had my answer on the top floor balcony of the Museum of Anthropology, where a case displays finds excavated in India and South Asia: in it were nearly identical terracottas, labeled “Buddhist votive stupas”! Still votive in character but not at all Etruscan or Italic. JMT]
“I was struck most by one of the swaddled infants which has enormous feet, looking almost like clown shoes poking out of the bottom of the swaddling bands. These are far too big to represent the real feet of the baby. Examples of swaddled infants that I have seen elsewhere have carefully crafted, almost delicate feet, sometimes with elegantly shaped individual toes and even toenails. They usually emerge, bare, from the bottom of the swaddling clothes, even though ancient sources such as Soranus (Gynecology 2, 14-15) recommended that babies be wrapped ‘to the tips of the toes’. These large feet at Blythe House appear more like shoes or slippers, with two small arrow-shaped marks (or maybe eyes?) incised into the tops of each. Are these supposed to indicate the detail of sandal fastenings, or are they decorative, even apotropaic? Are the feet even original? The model shows signs of damage so was it reconstructed from elements of two entirely separate items? The inevitable frustration of working with objects without provenance or context! But still, it brought to mind some thoughts I’ve pondered before about whether the feet of infants were shown bare for a reason and whether the greater attention to detail that they often receive compared with other parts of the body is important. Maybe the emphasis on the feet was intended to signal the future mobility of a young child, both physical and metaphorical as it began its journey through the life-course.”
“It was very exciting to discover that one of the terracotta uteri in Blythe House had a moveable clay piece inside it. I’d read about this phenomenon in a report by the Italian archaeologist Gaspare Baggieri, who worked on a collection of 400 uteri from the Etruscan area of Vulci, Tarquinia [The Lancet, vol. 352, September 1998]. Baggieri noted that nearly all his Vulci examples contained 1 or 2 freely-moving clay spheres of c. 1cm diameter, which he interpreted as signs of ‘intrauterine life’. These little spheres are extraordinarily valuable sources for the history of gynaecology and generation; at the museum, however, I was most struck by the sound that this one made as it moved around the interior of the clay uterus. We were very careful in handling the uterus and conscious that we couldn’t move it around too much, but we took the opportunity to make a short recording of the sound so that we could conserve and share it on The Votives Project website. There was something unexpectedly magical and moving about hearing this millenia-old Etruscan object ‘speak’ to us in a storage room in South London.”
With special thanks to Collections Access Officer Becky Storr for facilitating our visit and making it so enjoyable!