Dissecting the Past: writing the biography of an anatomical votive

In this week’s special guest-post, Dr. Jessica Hughes of the Open University, shares her research on the fascinating ‘dissected’ female figurine found at the Nemi sanctuary


Terracotta Roman female figurine with open torso. Excavated from Nemi sanctuary. Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

In 2009 a team from the Open University went to Nottingham to record some audio-visual material for a new course on Greek and Roman mythology. Part of the course focused on the sanctuary at Lake Nemi, where the mythical figure Hippolytus was said to have been taken by Artemis/Diana after he had been raised from the dead by the healing god Asklepios. As an introduction to this site and its material culture, we recorded Dr Katharina Lorenz from the University of Nottingham talking about four objects in the Castle Museum collections: the famous herm of Fundilia, a terracotta oil lamp depicting a street entertainer, a terracotta votive model of a temple (which may or may not represent the temple of Nemi itself) and another votive model of a woman without a head, whose torso was ‘opened’ to reveal her intestines, rather like the later anatomical models used for teaching dissection to medical students.

L0037289 Ivory anatomical figure of a pregnant woman

Ivory 17th century medical figure of a pregnant woman with removable internal organs. Photo: Wellcome Images

While each of the objects was fascinating in its own way, the ‘dissected woman’ was my personal favourite, not least because I was in the process of researching a book about ‘anatomical votives’ – models of the human body and its parts that were dedicated in ancient sanctuaries. The Nottingham figurine was one of the most unusual and striking examples of this phenomenon, and when I was invited to give a paper at a conference about votive offerings the next year, I jumped at the chance to go back to Nottingham to have another look at her. With the help of the Castle Museum curator Ann Inscker, I began to do some research into the various stages of this object’s ‘biography’, from its manufacture, dedication and subsequent disposal in a ‘sacred pit’ within the Nemi sanctuary, to its excavation by Savile in 1885, its journey from Italy to England, and its modern display in both physical and digital form.

Needless to say, some stages of the votive’s biography were much easier to reconstruct than others. We could access quite a lot of information about the manufacturing process from a close visual analysis of the figurine itself, which was made in two parts – front and back – from reddish clay pressed into moulds that had themselves been made from another ‘prototype’ figurine. Examining the figurine also shed light on later stages of its life: for instance, the surprisingly good state of preservation suggested that the model had been placed gently amongst the other objects in the votive pit where it was discovered – rather than carelessly discarded, as people often think in relation to this sort of findspot. And of course, the handwritten label that had been carefully glued to the figurine’s back gave insight into nineteenth-century practices of excavation, recording and interpretation (the fading ink letters read ‘Anatomical Votive Offering for some internal malady or childbirth from Artemision, Nemi, 1885’).


Reverse of terracotta Roman female figurine with Victorian excavation label. Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

Further information about the figurine came from comparing it to other objects, both in and beyond the Castle Museum collections. One exciting moment in the research process came when Ann found another, previously-overlooked fragment of a figurine that was identical to part of the dissected woman, suggesting that there may have been more than one such model amongst the votives dedicated at Nemi. At other times, ‘general knowledge’ about anatomical votives from other sites in Italy helped to to fill in the gaps in the figurine’s own, inevitably patchy narrative.

L0058445 Votive male torso, Roman, 200 BCE-200 CE

Terracotta Roman male figurine with open torso. Excavated from Isola Farnese, near Rome, 1871-1900. Photo: Wellcome Images

For example, while the dedicant of this figurine did not inscribe their offering with their name or any clue as to the motivation for their offering, other votive body parts from the ancient world do sometimes have inscriptions, findspots or other things that connect them to healing, making this a plausible interpretation for our figurine too. And while we have no trace of where this votive was dedicated and displayed at Nemi, the evidence from other sanctuaries can suggest possible locations – round the bases of the temple’s cult statue, for instance, or (as was the case at the nearby site of Lavinium) on the top of altars that were used for the performance of animal sacrifice.

Roman relief from Louvre showing haruspex (divinator of entrails, left) waiting to inspect after a sacrifice. Photo: Flickr aegean-blue.

Roman relief from the Louvre showing haruspex (divinator of entrails, left) waiting to inspect after a sacrifice. Photo: Flickr aegean-blue.

This mention of sacrifice leads on to what was, for me, the most compelling aspect of writing the figurine’s life story – that is, thinking about how its symbolic meaning changed and acquired different layers as it moved through history and across cultures. The more I looked at this offering in relation to its original context, the more I became convinced that the imagery of sacrifice had been deliberately evoked in order to add meaning to the object for ancient viewers. The iconography of the dissected torso bore many similarities to depictions of the sacrificial butchery of animals and the related ritual of prophesying the future from the appearance of the entrails. Meanwhile, other objects and narratives from the Nemi site related to human sacrifice, such as a now-lost marble relief showing the killing of the ‘Rex Nemorensis’ (complete with his ‘protruding entrails’, according to one nineteenth-century description). And human sacrifice lay at the core of the sanctuary’s own mythical foundation narrative, in which Orestes had rescued his sister Iphigenia from a life of sacrificing human victims to the Tauric Artemis before bringing her to Nemi along with that goddess’ cult statue. In fact, sacrifice and healing were closely linked concepts in classical antiquity, and it may be that the dedicant of the figurine was aware of this connection, using the figurine to represent his or her status as a sacrificial gift handed over to the care of the goddess.

Early 19th century ivory mug showing Iphigenia as preistess of Artemis on the right and Orestes on the left, about to take her to Nemi. Photo: Walters Art Museum

Early 19th century ivory mug showing Iphigenia as preistess of Artemis on the right and Orestes on the left, about to take her to Nemi. Photo: Walters Art Museum

For later viewers far from the sanctuary of Nemi, these sacrificial resonances would have been less intrusive, and indeed most later commentators focus – as the author of the figurine’s label did – on the ‘medical’, healing function of the votive. When the figurine was included in the innovative virtual sanctuary created by the University of Nottingham it was represented alongside other anatomical offerings in a category of votives related to physical well-being. Here, the visitor to the site is given the opportunity to (re)dedicate votives from Nemi by sending them to another online correspondent for whom the votive might have meaning (in this case, perhaps a friend with tummy ache?!). This is a really good example of how later ‘receptions’ of votives can simultaneously take us away from, and draw us closer to, the original meanings and functions of votives. Here, the emailing of a votive to a mortal rather than a divine recipient seems like the ultimate act of secularisation; however, at the same time, it also potentially restores to the votive some of its empathic, emotional and transactional qualities – qualities that have often been sidelined in academic and antiquarian discussions.

I haven’t yet been to the new exhibition to see how the dissected lady has been presented, but I’m really looking forward to going and updating my object biography with this latest stage in the figurine’s story. In the meantime, our OU students continue to enjoy looking at and hearing about the different votive objects from Nemi, and discovering how the ritual practices surrounding Diana can complement (and sometimes complicate) the rich body of mythological narratives about the goddess of Nemi.

The Anatomy of Ritual is Dr. Hughes’ forthcoming book on ancient anatomical votives.

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On Nemi’s A-list: the herm of Fundilia Rufa

The undisputable star of Nottingham Castle’s ‘Treasures of Nemi’ exhibition is the herm of Fundilia Rufa. Annie Evans, a research student in the Classics department of the University of Nottingham, liked Fundilia so much that she decided to write her entire PhD thesis on her! Today she answers some of our questions about the mysterious lady of Nemi …

So what is it about Fundilia that makes her so special?

Annie: Well originally she was going to be my MA dissertation topic, but the more I looked at her and the more I read about her, the more I realised I could get a lot more than that out of her. I also chose her so I could have something local that I could get my hands on. I wouldn’t have to go down to London or rely on books. I wanted something which had a real local significance.

Herm of Fundilia, Copyright Nottingham Castle Museums

Herm of Fundilia, Copyright Nottingham Castle Museums

When was the first time you saw her?

I must have been a second year undergraduate when I first heard about her. I was sent an email by Katharina [Lorenz, of Nottingham University Classics department] about going to see ‘Fundilia’. I thought we were going to see a person! Afterwards everyone was coming back saying “I’ve been to see Fundilia”, and I was like: “Who is this Fundilia?!” Honestly I thought she was a person who worked at the museum … with a really unusual name!

The first time I went to see her was after I’d seen photos of her in books, which really did her no justice. I got in touch with Ann Inscker [curator at Nottingham Castle Museums] to ask if I could have a look at her.

When you first see her she sort of looks like a witch. I think initially I was drawn to her because she’s so … I guess what we would call conventionally ugly. She’s not your typical ‘Latin lovely’: she’s no Livia or Venus. Then the more reading I did and the more I actually looked at her the more I realised how fascinating she was. There’s stuff about her we’ll never understand because she works on so many different levels.

Detail of Herm of Fundilia, Copyright Nottingham Castle Museums.

Detail of Herm of Fundilia, Copyright Nottingham Castle Museums.

Do you think the real Fundilia looked like that in real life?

No. Because we use the word ‘portrait’ I think you initially think, ‘oh it must be a likeness of someone’, but it’s very hard to judge. We should see the portrait as a construction: her forehead is a high status male Claudian forehead. So once you’ve got used to the visual impact of the forehead, you realise it’s about showing her high status. She also has quite severe ‘Venus rings’ incised around her neck, which was a Roman mark of beauty. We have to understand what this means.

Being ‘pretty’ is one thing, portraying beauty is another thing. Someone is portraying her as a very high status person, and they’ve used a male characteristic to do it, yet they’ve incised her throat with ‘Venus rings’ which is a mark of female beauty. It’s very hard for modern viewers to peel all their preconceptions away.

Also we have to realise she looks a bit funny because she was buried underground for so long. She would have been painted, which I think would have helped enormously. Her hair would have been painted; her face would have been painted; the drapery on her clothes would have been painted.

Herm of Fundilia, detail.

Herm of Fundilia, detail.

And her missing feet?!

The feet Ann found are definitely her missing feet. Obviously they’ve become detached, you can see the crack behind the feet when they were removed.

When were they removed?

There was a landslide at Nemi, and that’s why she’s so damaged and all the sculptures in the room with her were underground for such a long time. It’s highly likely Fundilia’s feet came off at this time.

Why doesn’t she have any arms?

She did, but like the feet they’ve fallen off. But why they haven’t found the arms like the feet is a more interesting question. As a herm, the arms would have been separate, you can still see the pins in her shoulders which would have held the arms on. They could have been made of wood, and so have rotted away. They would have been arm stumps which you could have hung garlands from.

Herm of Fundilia, detail. Copyright Nottingham Castle Museums.

Herm of Fundilia, detail. Copyright Nottingham Castle Museums.

What can you tell us about her very unusual hairstyle?

It’s kind of like a deconstructed nodus.

A what?!

Like the topknot which Livia [wife of the first emperor Augustus] had. Fundilia has the bun moved to the top of her head, and changed slightly. It’s a traditional Roman hairstyle from the late Republic, which is much earlier than Fundilia. It’s an interesting question as to why a woman in the Claudian period has this early Roman style, as Roman ladies were normally really up-to-date with the latest hairstyle fashions. The other women from the room where Fundilia was found has pretty contemporary, modern hairstyles.

So she’s a woman who liked to look different?

Yes, it would have given her gravitas.

Inscription from statue of Fundilius, Ny Calsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Hans Ollerman CC

Inscription from statue of Fundilius, Ny Calsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Hans Ollerman CC

What was the motivation behind this sculpture? Did she decide to make it?

It was dedicated by her freedman, her ex-slave called Fundilius. He dedicated a statue of himself [now in Copenhagen] and two, possibly three of Fundilia. They were possibly originally at different locations around the temple complex, maybe one near the theatre.

But to say that he’s a ‘slave’ is a bit simplistic. He calls himself ‘Doctus’, which means ‘learned’, and he calls himself ‘Apollo’s parasite’, meaning an actor. His statue is a lot more expensive than Fundilia’s full-size statue [also in Copenhagen]. It’s a lot fancier.

The herm of Fundilia [in Nottingham], on the other hand, is absolutely amazing and outstanding. There’s no other herm like her from the Roman world.

Statue of Fundilia. Ny Calsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Barbara F. McManus CC.

Statue of Fundilia. Ny Calsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Barbara F. McManus CC.

So there was a cheap full size statue of Fundilia and a really expensive herm?

Well the herm has amazing features. It actually has uneven breasts, which was a feature of large-scale female sculpture. A herm was more fitting in a sanctuary context, it likely would originally have been near the temple of Diana. It looks like Fundilius came into lots of money, or became more famous or rose in society, and then decided to put up some more statues, and just went to town on his own full-size, and got her a fairly average one! But the herm of Fundilia is of such incredible quality that it would have been very expensive.

Is it unusual to have a female statue in a sacred place? Is she a votive?

Not a votive to a goddess like Diana. It’s more of a dedication to Fundilia herself from her freedman Fundilius. Provenance is, of course, a huge issue. The statues clearly didn’t originally come from the room with the mosaic where they were found in excavations. The full-size statue was probably in or near the theatre at Nemi, and it’s quite nice to think that Fundilius’ statue was also originally there too as it would fit well with him being an actor. I think all the statues were collected from all around the sanctuary at a later point and put into this room so that more statues could be set up in Diana’s sanctuary.

Statue of Fundilius, freedman of Fundilia. Ny Calsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Barbara F. McManus  CC.

Statue of Fundilius, freedman of Fundilia. Ny Calsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Barbara F. McManus

So Fundilia may not have had any say in the creation of this herm. Does this mean that she was the vehicle for someone else’s ambitions?

She clearly had a status of her own, but Fundilius has used her as his vehicle. He took his name from hers, and used it all over the statues. As a freedman, Fundilius needed a lineage to point to, and that’s what he’s got with Fundilia. She’s a surrogate mother, possibly wife. Fundilia isn’t mentioned as anyone’s wife or mother [the key definers of Roman womanhood], only as a daughter. So she’s nobody’s woman, apart from Fundilius’!

What kind of status would an actor like Fundilius have had in Roman society?

It’s really unusual to have an ex-slave actor with this amount of resources. What’s interesting about him is how he goes to great lengths to portray himself as an orator, and yet has two inscriptions stating that really he’s an actor. So why doesn’t he just portray himself as an actor? In reality actors were a bit dodgy in Roman society, associated with prostitution and the like. He’s obviously showing himself instead as a serious, serious actor.

Nemi is a very interesting case for showing social mobility in Roman society. With the Via Appia door to door between Rome and Nemi everyone had increased mobility. It’s only about 17km. Nemi was where all the Roman aristocrats had their villas, so there were a lot of very ‘proper’ people there. Nemi town boomed with the temple complex – they had their own granaries, minted their own coins, there were money-lenders. The people there were ridiculously rich: there would have been silly money in Nemi. Like some sort of South Riviera of antiquity, where the very very rich would come: royalty, and then slowly the A-list celebrities would catch on, and so on. Fundilius and Fundilia aren’t royalty: they don’t have imperial connection, but they’re A-list celebrities of Nemi.

Rebecca Usherwood & Annie Evans are doctoral researchers at the University of Nottingham.

All around me are familiar faces …

This week in her guest-post Dr. Emma-Jayne Graham of the Open University muses on the vividness of the many ancient faces found at Nemi: 

NCM 1890-1355-384

©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

It is a common situation: you are sure that you recognise someone but can’t quite put a name to the face. Imagine, then, walking into an ancient sanctuary and seeing an array of terracotta heads that you know belong to family, friends and neighbours but can’t quite name.


©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

Like most votive deposits from Italy, there are a lot of heads and faces in the assemblage from Nemi. We can’t give names to any of them, even though we know that each was dedicated by an individual. Votive heads have received a lot of scholarly attention and for good reason. Of all types they are amongst the easiest to date and their development can be traced through the use of prototypes and moulds. I suspect that heads have also proved so interesting because the diversity of faces reminds us of real people more directly than a terracotta foot ever can.

This is something that I have been thinking about, not just for the light that it sheds on our own, not always objective, responses to the material culture of the past, but because it makes me wonder about the reactions of ancient people. To us, these heads represent the range of personalities and characters found within a past community. We can recognise men and women, adults, children and adolescents based on the fundamental and immediately familiar characteristics of our shared human physiognomy. We might also sometimes recognise clues about wealth or social status.

NCM 1890-1355-388

©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

All of this and more would have been recognisable to the ancient community. Walking into a sanctuary or cult room and seeing terracotta heads lining the walls, scattered across the floor, or piled in a corner, might have been very much like walking into a room full of familiar people. It is unlikely that many of these votive heads reflect the real features of an individual so it would not necessarily have been possible to point out relatives or friends, but votive offerings were made in the understanding that this was the traditional way of communicating with the gods. It would therefore involve coming face-to-face with the past and present community of people who worshipped the same deities, performed the same rituals, sought healing for the same conditions and had done so in the same place perhaps for centuries. Consequently, almost everything in the sanctuary represented the body and identity of someone who had experienced similar concerns, fears and hopes as you. This makes me wonder about the sense of belonging and community that participating in votive cult might provoke. If the point was to seek protection, healing or good fortune from the divine, then seeing the ‘faces’ of people who had done precisely the same, knowing that you were in good company, must have intensified that feeling of security.  So, a visit to the sanctuary might indeed have entailed familiar faces all around you, including old, worn out faces that were significant precisely because they were going nowhere.

Emma-Jayne Graham, Baron Thyssen Lecturer, The Open University.

See more ancient faces in our photo gallery!

Always something there to remind me: a short introduction to votives

An essential part of the experience of visiting the ancient Sanctuary of Diana at Nemi was bringing something for the goddess and leaving it behind for her when you left. Known as a ‘votive’, these carefully selected offerings were placed in shrines and temples across the ancient world as a way of communicating with the gods. Dr Emma-Jayne Graham of the Open University* explains the role of votive giving in ancient life:

Giving up an item rendered it sacred or inviolable… These items might be made specifically for the purpose or might be taken from daily life… ranging from a small cake to the building of a monumental temple… A person sought protection, healing or good fortune for either a one-off event (a journey, childbirth, warfare etc.) or as part of the rites of passage (coming of age, marriage, puberty etc.). In order to do this they petitioned the god through prayer, making a vow (votum) that they would acknowledge the support of the god with a gift (ex voto).

Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

In the temple at Nemi a base for a statuette was found which the bears the inscription: ‘Aerentia, daughter of Lucius, dedicated [this] sacred offering to Diana in payment of her vow’.

The range of objects left to the goddess at Nemi was vast and they give us an incredible snapshot into the lives of the ancient people who visited the site. Unlike Aerentia, most people did not have their offerings inscribed and so we can never know for certain who they were. However, the particular object that they chose to dedicate can give us some important clues about their lifestyle and what their concern was the day they visited the sanctuary.

Take this unremarkable-looking object, found in the entrance to the temple of Diana.


Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

It turns out to be a terracotta representation of a goat or sheep’s astragalus, one of the ankle bones. Might the person who dedicated this have been a farmer, thanking Diana for good stock that year? We often find small models of animals in ancient shrines, thought to be dedicated for just that purpose (see the image below). However, this part of the animal’s body was also used in an ancient gambling game known as knucklebones (the ancient version of the game ‘jacks’). This object could therefore have been left by a player of the game in thanks for a successful contest.

Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

A more poignant votive found at Nemi is this small terracotta model of a couple with a new baby, dated 300-100BCE. Despite Diana’s strong link with virginity in ancient myth, objects like these show she was also seen as a goddess of fertility and childbirth in antiquity, and were likely left as thanks for a pregnancy or successful birth. This object is one of four examples found at Nemi which were clearly created from the same mould. As at temples today, such as in India, roads around the sanctuary at Nemi may have been lined with sellers providing mass-produced, ready-made offerings like this one which pilgrims could buy and leave at the shrine for Diana.

One common type of offering found at Nemi, and across the ancient world, are the models of human body parts, now known as ‘anatomical votives’. They come in the shape of heads, hands, eyes, ears, legs, feet, and internal organs. A similar practice continues today in Mexican and Italian Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. In the ancient world these are usually associated with healing shrines to gods such as Aesculapius. Their discovery at Nemi suggests that people suffering with medical issues were making the journey there to take advantage of Diana’s more nurturing side.

NCM 1890-1357-8 Anatomical etc. votive offerings [ii]

Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

However, as Dr. Graham highlights, interpreting these captivating objects is not straight forward:

‘It is difficult to know whether these were supposed to refer directly to a specific part of the human body that required divine intervention or healing, or whether they made some sort of metaphorical reference… associated with that part of the anatomy. Does a foot, for example, mean that a person was suffering from pain or difficulty walking, or might it refer to a journey or some sort of metaphorical ‘movement’ through the different stages of life?’


Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

Anatomical votives are now thought to provide important insights into ancient knowledge of, and attitudes to, the body. For example, it is thought that this terracotta object, also found at Nemi, was meant to represent a uterus. Its appearance suggests that ancient people, who were not in the practice of performing autopsies, had only limited idea of what internal organs really looked like.

Catherine Walker of the Wellcome Collection, suggests that ancient votive wombs are a visual representation of observations made from outside the body:

They would have been aware of the function of the organ and could have observed childbirth, so we see that this understanding has been incorporated into the votive as the wavy lines represent contractions. This understanding of the body had implications for the way people practiced medicine’.

However, others have challenged assumptions that these objects suggest a lack of anatomical knowledge in antiquity. Another artefact found at Nemi seems to indicate a more sophisticated understanding of the internal workings of the human body.


Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

As Dr. Katharina Lorenz of the University of Nottingham explains here, this terracotta model of a woman shows her digestive system intricately carved. It is possible it was brought to the temple by a woman with gastric problems. Furthermore, the hand-carved internal organs suggest that whoever she was had a certain amount of money – enough to spend on customizing her small offering to the goddess. Of course, we will never know for sure.

Jen Grove, researcher, University of Exeter (@jenniferegrove)

Have a look through the objects found at the sanctuary and see if you can guess who might have dedicated them and why. If you had visited the sanctuary, what would you have left? 

You can let us know your ideas in the comments.

And look out for more posts on the votives found at Nemi!

*Dr. Emma-Jayne Graham and Dr. Jane Draycott are currently producing a major new academic volume on the anatomical votive.