Separated at Birth

Posted on October 19, 2011

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The story in ArtDaily caught my eye for a couple of reasons.

First, there was the headline: Researchers at SMU-led Etruscan dig in Italy discover ancient depiction of childbirth – first of its kind ever found.

Yet another  “first of its kind ever found”, I thought, sighing about the media (again).

But then I took a second look: the image published showed a close-up of a fragment of pottery, the surface blackened over a brown paste, with a stamped rectangular panel that at first was utterly illegible to me as anything more than circles and lines.

The article told me that I was seeing

the head and shoulders of a baby emerging from a mother represented with her knees raised and her face shown in profile, one arm raised, and a long ponytail running down her back.

With that prompting, I could image two circular shapes as a baby’s head and body, inverted, between the legs of a squatting woman.

That set me off on an image search for something I remembered seeing another time… a petroglyph from the Moab, Utah area, widely reproduced and described on the official BLM web site as “the well known ‘birthing scene’”.

Again, to “see” the image we are instructed to look for the infant’s body:

Notice the feet first presentation of the baby.

These two images, so distant in space and separated in time by hundreds of years, each schematized to the point that no facial features are depicted on the mother’s body, are nonetheless completely legible as representations of childbirth. They seem to naturally communicate a message to us: separated at birth, they are nonetheless fraternal twins.

Except… I wonder about histories of visualization of childbirth. What do we see, when, and where?

I traced the new Etruscan find back to a press release from Southern Methodist University. The Poggio Colla project looks like a model for the open publication of research, its website describing an explicit commitment to changing the image of archaeology “from an elite and esoteric discipline understood by only a chosen few”.

Short narratives about the excavations allow the identification of the context of the birth image as Trench PC41, where the final summary by the field supervisor says

“Our efforts were focused on the removal of a very early layer of black sediment that lay below the site’s monumental architecture. In the ancient matrices we discovered an incredible amount of bucchero, a ceramic type characteristic of the 6th and 7th centuries BCE for which the Etruscans are famous. Amongst the excavated materials were a number of particularly important finds that include scenes of childbirth, potentially the earliest known example from Classical art.”

Other evidence prompted excavators to think of the site as possibly a shrine to a female divinity:

The abundance of weaving tools and a stunning deposit of gold jewelry discovered earlier have already suggested to some scholars that the patron divinity may have been female.

Greg Warden, director of the project, went further, implying that the imagery might indicate “the kind of worship that went on at the hilltop sanctuary of Poggio Colla”. Presumably, this means rites aimed at securing safe childbirth.

The specialist in Etruscan bucchero pottery who identified the image, Phil Perkins, is quoted as saying

“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.”

For him, the image demands identification of the mother giving birth with a goddess.

There is clearly a rich iconography of childbirth in the Classical world involving mortal women.

A website by Hollins University professor Christina Saloway about the Greek Classical world includes 4th and 5th century BC images of women, shown seated in profile, experiencing or reacting to the rigors of childbirth. The Metropolitan Museum of Art published a 4th century Hellenistic sculpture from Cyprus that shows the moment immediately after delivery of a child by a clothed, seated woman, whose position can be viewed from multiple sides:

A standing attendant, whose head is missing, supports the mother from behind. At the foot of the couch, a seated attendant holds the newborn child

These Greek and Cypriot images are dated only slightly later than the Etruscan sherd, which is given a date of ca. 600 BC.

The posture of birth in these examples, unlike the Etruscan one, presumes the woman is supported by a birthing chair. Birthing chairs are also a normal part of late Roman practice; for example, a website on Roman women maintained by professor Ann Raia at the College of New Rochelle reproduces an ivory plaque from 1st century BC Pompeii, and describes a very similar scene:

The pregnant woman sits on a birthing chair. Behind her, a standing woman holds her steady as she lifts her left arm backwards to grasp the attendant. The midwife kneels in front of the mother with a sponge in her right hand. Behind her stands a veiled woman who extends her hands toward the mother.

These Classical descriptions and images of childbirth posture are very different from anything the Etruscan image might be showing, however schematic it is.

A closer match may come from the documented birthing practices of ancient Egypt, where the recovery of a Middle Kingdom “birthing brick” reinforces texts interpreted to indicate that “the standard form of childbirth in ancient Egypt was for the woman to deliver the baby while squatting on two mud bricks”. In Egyptian art, the moment of birth itself is not shown.

So in the Etruscan context, perhaps the unusual nature of the frontal image showing the child emerging from the mother’s body supports interpretation as non-human, a divinity.

But the same assumption is harder to make in the Americas, where explicit imagery of mothers giving birth to infants is far more common. A Mixtec historical manuscript from Oaxaca, Mexico, dating after 1000 AD depicts the Lady 3 Flint, a high-ranking woman, giving birth: mother and child are nude, the baby still attached by the umbilical cord, the red blood of afterbirth pooling around the mother. Precisely the same composition is found in other Mixtec manuscript images featuring different noblewomen.

But it is not only historical women who are shown giving birth in American traditions. Slightly later in central Mexico, an Aztec stone statue shows one of the major goddesses squatting in birth, her child emerging face first.

This kind of presentation of a child face first during birth is described by Michelle Hegmon and Wenda Trevathan as “unusual in human birth” in their discussion of similar imagery on Mimbres pottery from the US Southwest dating between 1000 and 1150 AD.

Hegmon and Trevathan note that Mimbres images show the infant emerging face first, arms outstretched, a position they note is so unusual that it is not even described in obstetrical literature. While the BLM describes the dangling limbs on the Utah “birthing” scene as legs, all that is really distinguishable are extended linear body parts– as likely to be arms as legs, and thus as likely to be unnatural as the position shown by the Mimbres painters.

While Hegmon and Trevathan argue that this divergence from real birth posture is due to the Mimbres artists being men unfamiliar with actual childbirth, it is possible that the child emerging face first, arms already outstretched, ready to seize objects in the environment, reflects traditions like those of the Aztec in which some supernatural children are born already able to take up arms and defend their mothers. Less an image of natural childbirth, such details may reflect the subtleties of representation really legible only to someone who was steeped in the everyday life, historical traditions, and beliefs of the society that created them.

The Etruscan image set off a memory that led me to locate the Utah petroglyph. So similar on the surface, in their specific historical contexts these two schematic images of frontally posed women in labor are actually quite distinct, and we need to attend to the tiniest details to be able to secure our understandings at all.

So, not twins separated at birth: rather, birth separated by history and culture.