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Ancient depictions of childbirth intrigue archaeologists

Oct. 19, 2011
Courtesy of Southern Methodist University
and World Science staff

Two im­ages of a wom­an giv­ing birth have turned up at 2,700-year-old set­tle­ment in It­a­ly, probably the old­est known de­pic­tions of child­birth in West­ern art, ar­chae­o­lo­gists say.

They ap­pear on a small piece of a ce­ram­ic ves­sel and show the head and shoul­ders of a ba­by emerg­ing from a moth­er. She is seen with her knees and one arm raised, her face in pro­file and a long po­ny­tail down her back.

Archaeologists say the above is a 2,700-year-old de­pic­tion child­birth. (Cre­d­it: Phil Per­k­ins)


“We were as­tounded to see this in­ti­mate scene. It must be the ear­li­est rep­re­senta­t­ion of child­birth in West­ern art,” said Phil Per­kins, an ar­chae­o­lo­gist from The Open Uni­vers­ity in Mil­ton Keynes, U.K., working with the Mu­gel­lo Val­ley Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Proj­ect in Italy. 

“Etr­uscan wom­en are usu­ally rep­re­sented feast­ing or par­ti­ci­pat­ing in rit­u­als, or they are god­desses. Now we have to solve the mys­tery of who she is and who her child is.”

The archaeo­lo­gi­cal site, known as Pog­gio Col­la, lies about 20 miles (32 km) north­east of Flor­ence. It housed a set­tle­ment of Etr­uscans, a mys­te­ri­ous peo­ple who set­tled Italy long be­fore the Ro­man Em­pire. They built the first cit­ies, were a con­duit for the in­tro­duc­tion of Greek cul­ture to the Ro­mans, and were known for their art, agricul­ture, fi­ne met­al­work­ing and com­merce. But they even­tu­ally fell to con­quer­ing Ro­mans and were ab­sorbed in­to their so­ci­e­ty.

“The birth scene is ex­tra­or­di­nary, but what is al­so fas­ci­nat­ing is what this im­age might mean on elite pot­tery at a sanc­tu­ary,” said Greg Ward­en of South­ern Meth­od­ist Uni­vers­ity in Dal­las, Tex­as, a di­rec­tor of the Mugello Val­ley Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Proj­ect. He spec­u­lat­ed that it might have a con­nec­tion to re­li­gious rit­u­als car­ried out at a lo­cal hill­top sanc­tu­ary.

The ob­ject was dug out by Wil­liam Nutt, a le­gally blind grad­u­ate stu­dent in an­thro­po­l­ogy at the Uni­vers­ity of Tex­as at Ar­ling­ton who was par­ti­ci­pat­ing in the Pog­gio Col­la Field School, which op­er­ates dur­ing sum­mers. “It was thrill­ing to find out that it was so sig­nif­i­cant,” Nutt said of the frag­ment. “I found the ar­ti­fact at the be­gin­ning of my sec­ond week there. It was quite dirty, and we weren’t sure what it was un­til it was cleaned at the on­site lab and iden­ti­fied by Dr. Per­kins.”

Less than two inches or four cen­time­ters wide, the frag­ment is dat­ed to about 600 B.C. and comes from a ves­sel of buc­chero—a fi­ne, black ce­ram­ic ma­te­ri­al used to make eat­ing and drink­ing ves­sels for Etrus­can elites. Buc­che­ro typ­ic­ally fea­tures stamped de­signs rang­ing from ab­stract ge­o­met­ric mo­tifs to ex­ot­ic and myth­i­cal an­i­mals. There are no known Greek or Ro­man de­pic­tions of child­birth as clear as the Pog­gio Col­la ex­am­ple un­til more than 500 years lat­er, schol­ars said.

“This is a most ex­cit­ing dis­cov­ery,” said La­ris­sa Bon­fante of New York Uni­vers­ity, an ex­pert on the Etr­uscans. Ann Stei­ner, a clas­si­cist who is al­so prov­ost and dean of the fac­ul­ty at Frank­lin and Mar­shall Col­lege in Lan­cas­ter, Penn., is to pre­s­ent a pa­per on the find in Jan­u­ary at the an­nu­al meet­ing of the Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal In­sti­tute of Amer­i­ca.

An abun­dance of weav­ing tools and a stun­ning de­pos­it of gold jew­el­ry found ear­li­er have sug­gested to some schol­ars that a fe­male de­ity was wor­shiped at Pog­gio Col­la. The child­birth scene strikes some as fur­ther ev­i­dence of that. 

Ar­chae­o­lo­gists con­sid­er Pog­gio Col­la a rare and spe­cial site, partly be­cause it spans most of Etrus­can his­to­ry: it seems to have been oc­cu­pied from around 700 to 187 B.C., when Ro­mans over­ran it. It al­so fas­ci­nates ar­chae­o­lo­gists be­cause time has left it rel­a­tively un­scathed: it was­n’t bur­ied un­der lay­ers of lat­er con­struc­tion—a fate met by many oth­er set­tle­ments of Etr­uscans, who pick­ed beau­ti­ful, easily de­fended hill­tops as homes. Third, Pog­gio Col­la rep­re­sents a whole set­tle­ment, in­clud­ing tombs, a tem­ple, a pot­tery fac­to­ry and an ar­ti­san com­mun­ity. Ex­cava­t­ions of work­shops and liv­ing quar­ters are yield­ing new de­tails about Etrus­can life.

The site cen­ters on an acrop­o­lis, a roughly rec­tan­gu­lar plat­eau of one and a half ac­res at a hill sum­mit. Ex­cava­t­ions have found what schol­ars call strong ev­i­dence that the acrop­o­lis housed a sanc­tu­ar­y; they have iden­ti­fied a tem­ple build­ing and an al­tar at the cen­ter of a large court­yard. Many of­fer­ings have been found bur­ied around the al­tar, gifts ap­par­ently left as part of a sa­cred rit­u­al to some de­ity. These so-called vo­tive dona­t­ions range from a mas­sive de­pos­it of nearly 500 var­ied bronze ob­jects, to a spec­tac­u­lar gift of wom­en’s gold jew­el­ry and semi-precious stones.

Anoth­er such de­pos­it con­tains a group of what are thought to be rit­u­al ob­jects laid in a room at a cor­ner of the sanc­tu­ary court­yard, pos­sibly by a priest. Ex­cavators found a large cir­cu­lar pit, at the cen­ter of which was a sand­stone cyl­in­der, pos­sibly the top of a vo­tive col­umn. Near the cyl­in­der were two sand­stone stat­ue bas­es, the larg­er of which in­cludes the in­scribed name of some­one schol­ars say was probably an aris­to­crat­ do­nor, “Nakai(-)ke Velus.” Bur­ied with these ob­jects, ar­chae­o­lo­gists add, were a strand of gold wire; a bronze im­ple­ment bro­ken ap­par­ently on pur­pose; two bronze bowls once used to pour rit­u­al liba­t­ions; and the bones of a pig­let, pre­sumably sac­ri­ficed as part of a pu­rifica­t­ion rit­u­al. Based on the find­ings, re­search­ers have re­con­struct­ed what they say were the rit­u­als and ac­tions of the pre­sid­ing priest or mag­is­trate.


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Two images of a woman giving birth have turned up at 2,700-year-old settlement in Italy, probably the oldest known depictions of childbirth in Western art, archaeologists say. They appear on a small piece of a ceramic vessel and show the head and shoulders of a baby emerging from a mother. She is seen with her knees and one arm raised, her face in profile and a long ponytail down her back. “We were astounded to see this intimate scene. It must be the earliest representation of childbirth in Western art,” said Phil Perkins, an archaeologist with the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project from The Open University in Milton Keynes, England. “Etruscan women are usually represented feasting or participating in rituals, or they are goddesses. Now we have to solve the mystery of who she is and who her child is.” The site, known as Poggio Colla, lies about 20 miles (32 km) northeast of Florence. It housed a settlement of Etruscans, a mysterious people who settled Italy long before the Roman Empire. They built the first cities, were a conduit for the introduction of Greek culture to the Romans, and were known for their art, agriculture, fine metalworking and commerce. But they eventually fell to conquering Romans and were absorbed into their society. “The birth scene is extraordinary, but what is also fascinating is what this image might mean on elite pottery at a sanctuary,” said Greg Warden of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, a director of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project. He speculated that it might have a connection to religious rituals carried out at a local hilltop sanctuary. The object was dug out by William Nutt, a legally blind graduate student in anthropology at the University of Texas at Arlington who was participating in the Poggio Colla Field School, which operates during summers. “It was thrilling to find out that it was so significant,” Nutt said of the fragment. “I found the artifact at the beginning of my second week there. It was quite dirty, and we weren’t sure what it was until it was cleaned at the onsite lab and identified by Perkins.” Less than two inches or four centimeters wide, the fragment is dated to about 600 B.C. and comes from a vessel of bucchero—a fine, black ceramic material used to make eating and drinking vessels for Etruscan elites. Bucchero typically features stamped designs ranging from abstract geometric motifs to exotic and mythical animals. There are no known Greek or Roman depictions of childbirth as clear as the Poggio Colla example until more than 500 years later, scholars said. “This is a most exciting discovery,” said Larissa Bonfante of New York University, an expert on the ancient Etruscans. Ann Steiner, a classicist who is also provost and dean of the faculty at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Penn., is to present a paper on the find in January at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America. An abundance of weaving tools and a stunning deposit of gold jewelry found earlier have suggested to some scholars that a female deity was worshiped at Poggio Colla. The childbirth scene strikes some as further evidence of that. Archaeologists consider Poggio Colla a rare and special site, partly because it spans most of Etruscan history: it seems to have been occupied from around 700 to 187 B.C., when Romans overran it. It also fascinates archaeologists because time has left it relatively unscathed: it wasn’t buried under layers of later construction—a fate met by many other settlements of Etruscans, who picked beautiful, easily defended hilltops as homes. Third, Poggio Colla represents a whole settlement, including tombs, a temple, a pottery factory and an artisan community. Excavations of workshops and living quarters are yielding new details about Etruscan life. The site centers on an acropolis, a roughly rectangular plateau of one and a half acres at the summit of Poggio Colla. Excavations have found what scholars call strong evidence that the acropolis was home to a sanctuary; they have identified a temple building and an altar at the center of a large courtyard. Many offerings have been found buried around the altar, gifts apparently left as part of a sacred ritual to some deity. These so-called votive donations range from a massive deposit of nearly 500 varied bronze objects, to a spectacular gift of women’s gold jewelry and semi-precious stones. Another votive deposit contains a group of what are believed to be ritual objects laid in a room at a corner of the sanctuary courtyard, possibly by a priest. Excavators found a large circular pit, at the center of which was a sandstone cylinder, possibly the top of a votive column. Near the cylinder were two sandstone statue bases, the larger of which includes the inscribed name of someone scholars say was probably an aristocratic donor, “Nakai(-)ke Velus.” Buried with these objects, archaeologists add, were a strand of gold wire; a bronze implement broken apparently on purpose; two bronze bowls once used to pour ritual libations; and the bones of a piglet, presumably sacrificed as part of a purification ritual. Based on the findings, researchers have reconstructed what they say are the rituals and actions of the priest or magistrate who presided over the ceremonies.