Things that matter(-ed): A biography of anatomical votive reliefs


Anne-Lieke Brem, is currently a Masters student at the University of Groningen, studying both Archaeology and Cultural Geography. Her recent research focuses on the social landscape of illness and disease in ancient Greece (500-200 BC). In this article for The Votives Project she reflects on how this project has prompted her to think more critically about the biography and changing value of ancient votive reliefs as ‘things’.

Within archaeology, there are two main research approaches: one approach focuses on ‘things’, often being critiqued for not incorporating the human and/or cultural aspect. The other focuses on the human/a culture, receiving for its part the critique that this approach leaves out the ‘things’ (Anderson et al. 2003: 3; Hahn 2016; Olsen 2010: 2). In my own research, there is no such thing as leaving out the ‘things’ (i.e. anatomical votive reliefs). To put it shortly: my ‘things’ are important to understand what people were suffering from and how this could affect a societal construct.

After spending some time on interpreting anatomical votive reliefs, it came to mind that I never really thought about the biography of these ‘things’, I just interpreted the ‘thing’ from a recent perspective. But, what happened before the ‘thing’ was offered? And, what happened after the ‘thing’ was found? And, even more importantly, what was the meaning/value of the ‘thing’ within each stage of existence? The latter question is important, because a ‘thing’ is only considered to be a ‘thing’ if it has value (Hahn 2016). But are there any stages in which a ‘thing’ is just an object without value? The biography of, in this case, the anatomical votive relief matters when we consider when, how and why the relief was at a certain place in a certain time: what happened to the ‘thing’ along the way? Besides, it is also important to understand how and why we interpret these reliefs nowadays in comparison to the value they had in ancient days. Though we do not always expand on this aspect enough, in my opinion, the ancient value may be very different from how we interpret the value of an object now (as seen from a modern Western perspective). By analysing its biography, the interpretation may be less self-evident than ‘a ‘thing’ found at a healing centre’, it brings to light the story of the object and the different values it can have through time.

In general (see also Votives on display (Part I)): anatomical votive reliefs are terracotta representations of body-parts, generally made from local clay within reach of the healing centre (i.e. Asclepieia and Amphiareia). Each type of body-part was produced to either hang on a wall or from the ceiling, to lean against the wall on a shelf or to stand by itself (see Fig. 1). As far as we know, all body-parts were produced: from fingers to toes, from eyes to organs, and also genital representations. By counting these reliefs, they give researchers a clue about the most common illnesses and diseases which were treated in general, and within a specific healing centre (Oberhelman 2014: 49-50). Such a statistical analysis is part of my ongoing research and the results will (hopefully) be shared by means of a future blog-post on the Votives Project.


Figure 1: Anatomical votive reliefs from Corinth (Image courtesy of

However, the actual process of becoming ‘a thing’ already starts when the clay is won and in the process of being brought to the production centre. At the production centre, the reliefs (even before taking a physical form) have meaning to the workmen: by creating and selling these reliefs, a workman ensures for himself an income, and therefore maintenance of his family. This imbues the reliefs with a rather practical value. At the second stage, a single relief is in the hands of an ill/diseased person, or perhaps an already healed person. In the first case, the relief exists as an offering to the god, its purpose is to ask for healing of the affected body-part. In the second case, the person is already healed and the relief exists as an offer of gratitude (Hughes 2013; Oberhelman 2014: 49). When the reliefs are offered, they stay in the centre for a long time and, eventually, will be placed into a votive pit, indicating that the reliefs have adopted a new value, as part of the centre’s material heritage.

After being placed into the votive pit, there is a large time gap between the offering and the recovery of the reliefs. During the existence of the healing centre the location of these votive pits had to be known to the caretakers of the centre since they were the ones initiating the clearance of the centre in order to create space for new votive reliefs, while also making sure the older reliefs were kept within the original context. But, after the closure of the healing centre, were the reliefs forgotten? Or simply lost? It is more likely that the objects are lost, in the direct meaning of the word: ‘unable to be found’. I can imagine that the reliefs were lost after no one succeeded the last caretaker. This does not mean that the reliefs are also forgotten, since, and I do say this with caution, inhabitants and scholars through time are possibly familiar with the history of the region and are aware of the presence of an ancient healing centre and its cult. If not, they are indeed forgotten and it is not until researchers recover the reliefs, that the value of the reliefs changes again.

Once the reliefs have been recovered, they can raise but also answer questions about the site where they have been found. When researchers have fully documented and interpreted the reliefs, they either end up in a depot or in a museum (to be called ‘secondhandness’?). In a depot, the reliefs will be ‘forgotten’ again: there are no persons looking at them, with the exception of a researcher every now and then. This type of ‘forgetting’ is different (more profoundly) than when the reliefs were placed into a votive pit. In the votive pit, the reliefs still had a religious value, while in the depot it is set aside from its context and does not gain a new value as such. In a museum however, the reliefs are showcased for the public. At this moment, though not in its original context, it has value to the curators, they have to take care of the reliefs and they find it important that these reliefs are shown to their public. Furthermore, the reliefs now have (or are supposed to have) a learning value for the visitors at the museum. They (only) learn about the value it had when it was offered at the healing centre: what does it resemble? What was its function? I do have to be critical and say they are, sadly, only informed about a small part of the biography of the relief. How about the full story of the object? Or does this encompass too much information? To put it in other words: do the reliefs have to have value for the visitors of the museum? Or do they just walk by and think ‘seen that stuff, check’ and forget about it after they leave the museum? This would be an interesting topic to discuss in the future.

By Anne-Lieke Brem


Anderson, K., Domos, M., Pile, S. and N. Thrift, 2003. Handbook of Cultural Geography. London:  Sage.

Buschel, H.R.H., 2016. Resistance and Material Culture: Objects of Female Patients in Psychiatric  Hospitals. Presented at the Summer School ‘Things that Matter 3’, 20-24 June 2016, University of Groningen.

Hahn, H.P., 2016 (Forthcoming). Material Culture. In: International Encyclopaedia of Anthropology.  London: Routledge.

Hughes, J.. 2013. Dissecting the past: writing the biography of an anatomical votive. [Online]  Available at: < > [Accessed: 25-09-2016].

Oberhelman, S.M., 2014. Anatomical Votive Reliefs as Evidence for Specialization at Healing  Sanctuaries in the Ancient Mediterranean World. Athens Journal of Health, 1(1), pp. 47-62.

Olsen, B., 2010. In Defense of Things: Archaeology and the Ontology of Objects. New York: AltaMira  Press.


3 thoughts on “Things that matter(-ed): A biography of anatomical votive reliefs

  1. Pingback: Week in Review – 15 Jan « Freya Gowrley

  2. Pingback: Anatomical votive reliefs as proof for specialisation at ancient Greek healing sanctuaries? | The Votives Project

  3. Pingback: Anatomical votive reliefs and healing landscapes: archaeological evidence in a geographical context | The Votives Project

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s