Saturday 9 June 2018

The Key to the Womb

by Caroline Lawrence

I have been studying the remains and also the grave-goods of a 14-year-old girl from 3rd century Roman London as part of the inspiration for a new book provisionally titled The Girl with the Ivory Knife. Dubbed the Lant Street Teen, this girl’s grave was uncovered on Lant Street in Southwark when ground was being cleared for a new development near Borough Tube Station. 

One reason she is of interest is that her DNA and isotopes have been analysed and tell us that she was of European ancestry with blue eyes, but grew up in the southern Mediterranean, perhaps even North Africa. (She was buried near other Roman Londoners of black African ancestry.) We know from her teeth and bones that she came to London aged about nine and died five years later, aged around fourteen. 

Apart from the fascinating story suggested by her DNA and isotopes, her burial was notable for the richness of the grave goods. In a cemetery where other bodies were buried with maybe a couple of clay beakers and some glass beads, the Lant Street Teen had two exotic glass perfume bottles, a wooden box decorated with bone inlay and copper, a copper-alloy key on a chain and an iron clasp knife with an ivory handle in the shape of a leopard. The glamour of a knife with a handle of expensive ivory in the shape of an exotic leopard has slightly eclipsed the other items, in particular the little key. 

One of my obsessions is with the apotropaic devices and charms of the ancient Roman world. We forget how terrifying it was to live in a world of invisible enemies. The Romans had no concept of infection apart from a vague idea of miasma or bad air. Most illnesses, accidents and other calamities were blamed on evil spirits or gods. For this reason, I believe that almost every manufactured item had an apotropaic aspect (i.e. to turn away evil) either as its primary function or in addition to its primary function. The girl’s knife, for example, obviously had many practical functions, but its fierce leopard-shaped handle made from piercing elephant tooth might have had the power to frighten off spirits.

The box may have contained makeup which not only beautified but protected.

Her clothing did not survive, but it almost certainly had built-in protection. In her book Dress and Personal Appearance in Late Antiquity, Faith Pennick Morgan points out that almost all embellishment on ancient garments was apotropaic. Borders, knots and sewn-in talismans were all designed to act as ‘flypaper for demons’, to confuse them and keep the wearer safe. Even colours had special properties. For example, red was considered repellent to demons which may explain why archaeologists have found so many children’s tunics in this colour. (Children were considered especially vulnerable, which is why they also wore apotropaic amulets such as the phallus-shaped charm.)

The two small flasks might have contained perfume; good and bad smells were used to manipulate spirits. In ancient times, the uterus of a woman was considered by the ancients to be a living creature – almost demonic – wandering around and causing damage or death to a woman by harming or squeezing her other internal organs. Plato (Timaeus 91c) writes that the wombs and uteruses of women have in them a living animal that craves children. (Our word ‘hysterical’ comes from the Greek word for uterus.) Ancient doctors suggested that girls marry as close to their first period as possible so that they could bear children and control the wandering womb.

If the restless womb moved too far down, doctors would place pleasant incense near the woman’s head to draw it up while at the same time wafting unpleasant scents such as burnt hair, pitch, cedar resin and squashed bedbugs (!) between her legs to repel the womb. If the womb had wandered too high and threatened to asphyxiate the woman by pressing on her lungs, then they would do the opposite, placing sweet-smelling things below her pelvis and ill-smelling substances by her nose. (see Magical and Medical Approaches to the Wandering Womb in the Ancient Greek World by Christopher A. Faraone) 

This brings us to the last item found in her grave, the key on its chain. 

What might this have symbolised? 

In Roman times, a key on a woman’s belt might well have showed that she enjoyed responsibility in her domain, the household. Sets of keys dangling from belts on a chain became an important status symbol in Late Antique times and gave us the word chatelaine. But the Lant Street Teen’s key seems too small and delicate to be a house or storeroom key. It feels more like the key to a small chest or box. Although we have the evidence that she was buried with just such a small box (above), there is no trace of a lock, which one assumes would also have been in copper-alloy. 

Perhaps the key symbolised the unlocking of the Gates of Death so that the girl’s soul could cross the threshold into the afterlife. This suggestion is made in connection with an iron key found above the pelvis of a Roman womans skeleton from Cirencester. (The Western Cemetery of Roman Cirencester p24 & p88) There is another possibility for the Lant Street Girls key that I have not seen suggested elsewhere.   

Many Romans believed the soul to be immortal, but another way of ensuring ‘everlasting memory’ was to leave something of yourself behind. Literature, a monument or a fine tombstone were all ways of making a mark. Another way of continuing beyond death was to live through offspring. In this day and age of empowered women we tend to downplay the craving for children, but this was often the deepest desire of many women in ancient times. 

In her book about Dress in Late Antiquity, Faith Morgan writes that keys were found on womb amulets, symbolising control of the opening of the womb to allow conception and pregnancy, and the locking of the womb to prevent miscarriage. (p36) And in his fascinating article about the Wandering Womb, Faraone highlights the many gems of hematite (bloodstone) depicting a womb above a key. The womb is shown as a kind of upside down beaker and the key is usually the kind with teeth like a comb. (The picture above shows a big iron key probably for a warehouse door. On the amulet below you can see the key with crank-like handle and distinctive teeth beneath the opening of the womb.) 

Womb amulet gem from the British Museum
In this position the key clearly symbolises the locking or unlocking of the womb. (This one has a magical seven teeth.) Again, the womb is like a creature that needs controlling. Sometimes a magic name is carved on the other side of these magic womb amulets. This may be the name of the demon or spirit in charge of wombs. Sometimes a sentence on the back addresses the demon or even the womb directly. E.g. ‘Contract, womb, lest Typhon seize you!’ (Faraone Gems of Heaven p 66) 

Reading about keys on womb amulets made me wonder about the small key found with the bones of the Lant Street Teen. Perhaps it was the key to the now-lost wooden box, originally worn with her knife on her belt. But perhaps she also wore it as a talisman to protect a growing baby in her womb. Dr Rebecca Redfern, who probably knows this girl’s bones better than anybody, told me that although the Lant Street Teen was young there is a chance that she might have been a young mother. And we have just seen that it was recommended that girls begin to bear children as soon as possible. Perhaps our girl even died in childbirth. In that case, the little key that protected her womb and helped her bear fruit would be a testimony of her achievement on earth. This is my own idea, and a far-fetched one, I admit, which may or may not end up in my fictionalised account of her life. 

Whether the Lant Street Teenager had a child or not, she has now gained a kind of ‘everlasting memory’ in the ongoing mystery of who she was. 

You can see the Lant Street Teen’s grave goods (though not her bones) at the current Roman Dead exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands. The remains of other Roman Londoners shed light how they lived but also bring home how much we still have to learn.


Ann Turnbull said...

This is fascinating, Caroline, and the subject is so engaging and moving - no wonder you want to write about her! (And who better than you?) Also, you've taught me a new word. Lovely post - and thanks for the news about the exhibition.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks, Ann! Was your new word "apotropaic"? :-)

Ann Turnbull said...

Yes! I nearly said so, but thought it must be obvious! (Unless I missed something like an interesting new swear word...?)