Thursday 9 February 2012

Historical Detectives & Social Networking

votive wombs, willies, feet
by Caroline Lawrence

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.

There is also a famous terracotta plaque commemorating a midwife from tomb number 100 of the Isola Sacra in Ostia. (left) It shows the midwife sitting on her stood in front of the parturient (the woman about to give birth) who is seated on a birthing chair. The woman behind, perhaps a slave-girl, is helping. This plaque inspired one of the story lines in my 13th Roman Mystery, The Slave-girl from Jerusalem. In that book, a teenage midwife named Miriam gives birth to twins. Because one of my aims is to show life as it really was in ancient Rome, that part of the story does not have a happy ending.

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.

What immediately strikes me is the similarity of the heads of these two of the women. One from the "5th century BC relief" the other from the Ostia plaque which, if from the Isola Sacra, is almost certainly 2nd or 3rd century AD!

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
So what we have on our Ostia plaque is a woman who has given birth and been removed to the soft couch. The baby has been washed and prepared according to Soranus, and is now being presented on a cushion, just as the mother ejects the afterbirth.

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
What strikes me most about this process is how much the internet and social networking can help us solve mysteries. I was able to visit the piece in person and photograph it, while others in our Ostia Facebook Group contributed their expertise from all over the world. We are like a global bunch of detectives working together to solve a mystery.

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.


H.M. Castor said...

Caroline, I'm blown away! By the story of your detective work, by the fantastic way that people from all around the world can come together online to look at and talk about the same object and - perhaps most of all - by the representations of childbirth themselves, the non-reclining ones in particular. How, I wonder, has our culture developed in such a way that realistic images of this most vital process - this awe-inspiring, punishing & heroic process - are so unfamiliar to us? Even if we've been through it ourselves, to see it depicted realistically is a shock. One that makes me cheer, I must say! Thank you so much for this fantastic post.

Theresa Breslin said...

This is an amazing post Caroline! I applaud your perseverance and detective work. I agree with Harriet but it does make me winch to look at the depictions - I found my 'Christmas Baby' blog difficult enough without having actual visuals. The lock of vergin's hair and the ants eggs' of the middle ages weren't much of an improvement on Pliny. But the gentle massaging and home made hot water bottles sound lovely - it would be good if the overstretched staff in our modern mat units had time for that.

Kit Berry said...

What an amazing story! Absolutely fascinating to read - thank you. One of the things that got me through my labours was the thought of millions of women suffering in a similar way throughout the ages - and the knowledge that they did it in far more primitive circumstances. Although when you think about it, nothing really changes: birthing stool, hard bed, soft couch - thought I guess they didn't have the option of a birthing pool! And apart from thoroughly enjoying everything about this post, I've also learnt a new word today. I'd never heard of "parturient" before - thank you!

Kirsty Caddy said...

WOW! As an Archaeology student I've looked at many reliefs and artefacts through the course of my degree, but the process of childbirth is definitely a subject that has been completely neglected in my studies (maybe its more of a classicists area of expertise rather than an archaeologists), but still, I've found this post so interesting to read. A welcome distraction from dissertation writing. Definitely a subject I will want to look into in the future that's for sure!

Thank you!

adele said...

Completely fascinating post,Caroline. What a story! What a mystery...well done you and the other webby historical detectives.

Kathryn said...

I love the idea of a blog dedicated to historical mysteries. Your investigation into the carving of the birth scene is especially fascinating and well-written. Thanks!

Essie Fox said...

Fantastic, and fascinating!

Katie Pybus said...

Thanks so much for writing this great post. Really interesting to me for two mains reasons. My 7 year old home educated daughter has read your whole RM series since Christmas (I just ordered the dvd for her today!) and I read some of the Slave Girl with her.

and secondly we live close to Bignor Roman Villa in West Sussex where you might know several baby skeletons have been found and many theories as to why this might be so.

Great detective work.

Leslie Wilson said...

Very very interesting, thank you, Caroline, and thanks to all the others who had input to this post!
If you want to get the massage nowadays you have to rely on your husband or birth partner. I did it for my daughter in her labours, and I do wonder whether one of the 'midwives' is actually the woman's mother.
But what strikes me, like Kit, is the continuity, actually. Jo's midwife helped stretch the cervix, I seem to think - or maybe I'm thinking of the second stage, stretching the perineum. So did mine, when I was having Jo. Very uncomfortable, btw.
I find myself hoping the woman didn't die, but if the plaque was a funeral one, it sounds likely that she did. Sad, if so.

michelle lovric said...

Wonderful, Caroline, both in the doing and the telling!

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks, everybody. I love doing this sort of research and as several of you have pointed out, it makes me very grateful to be alive today and not back in those days of hyena feet amulets and sow dung potion.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

So fascinating! Thanks for an eye-opening piece.

Linda B-A said...

Just to say how much I enjoyed this post and how impressed I am with how your group works together. How cheered would be Voltaire, Diderot and the 18th-century encyclopedistes to see how freely knowledge could be exchanged now!

Sue Purkiss said...

Fantastic detective story! I do hope the woman didn't die after the birth. She looks so happy - relaxed and relieved.