The Way My Body Feels — A new collaboration between art and archaeology

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums
7 min readOct 12, 2022

Olivia Turner and Sally Waite reflect on their new exhibition ‘The Way My Body Feels’, which brings together art and archaeology to reflect on the ancient and contemporary body.

Dr Sally Waite is Senior Lecturer in Classical Archaeology and Dr Olivia Turner is an artist and postdoctoral researcher, both at Newcastle University.

A woman lying down wrapped in a white sheet and covered in clay objects

The exhibition ‘The Way My Body Feels’ is a result of a collaboration between artist and researcher Dr Olivia Turner and Classical archaeologist Dr Sally Waite. It presents a series of experimental workshops with students to consider the links between objects, art, and medicine. At the heart of this project was a votive artefact from The Shefton Collection of Greek Art and Archaeology.

The Shefton Collection was founded by Professor Brian Shefton (1919–2012), a leading Classical archaeologist, Shefton established an internationally significant collection of Greek artefacts now located in the Great North Museum. The collection was originally established in the 1950s to support teaching and research and now numbers almost one thousand objects. The final acquisition was made shortly before the collection’s move to the Great North Museum in 2009.

The votive you see here, is a fourth century BCE terracotta anatomical votive offering — intended to represent a uterus. It is over 2,000 years old.

A woman’s wrist wearing a pink watch, clutching a rock in her hands

A votive offering represents the transaction between the dedicant and the god — either in petition or in thanks for healing. The dedication of anatomical body parts to gods or goddesses was a common practice in the ancient Greek, Etruscan and Roman worlds. In fact, the practice of dedicating a body part to some kind of divine entity is both transhistorical and transcultural.

Whereas in mainland Greece, anatomical offerings represented the exterior bounded body, in the Greek colonies of Southern Italy and in Etruscan and Roman contexts interior body parts were also dedicated. These offerings took the form of specific abdominal organs or a collective representation of these visceral organs. The uterus was a very common anatomical offering — thousands of these survive from antiquity and no doubt they refer to issues of fertility, conception, pregnancy and delivery, as well as disease. Whilst anatomical votives were created to reference specific body parts, Jessica Hughes (2017) suggests the bodily fragmentation of votives were metaphors for illness, disease and pain, giving ‘visual form and social meaning to the otherwise intensely personal [and inarticulable] experience of illness’.

We introduced this anatomical votive uterus from the Shefton Collection to students from Newcastle University, studying fine art, psychology, and archaeology to stimulate learning around ancient objects, medicine, and the body, cultivating innovative and collaborative teaching methods between disciplines. We began the workshop with an extended object handling session to familiarise ourselves with the votive uterus.

A group of hands, one pair of hands is clutching a rock and another is touching their feet

The object is extremely tactile — it fits within the palm of the hands and the fingers fit perfectly into the ridge-like structures on the top of the uterus. As we passed the object around, each person made an observation about the uterus. These observations tended to focus on the material state of the object — colour, shape, size, weight and its construction and design. However, this votive is also a material remnant of the relationship between the human and divine and as such it serves to embody the hopes and fears of the dedicants. Therefore, we asked the students to also make observations about the ways the object made them feel and how they emotionally connected with it.

A group of three women, the woman in the centre is clutching a rock

Through a short visualisation exercise we encouraged the participants to imagine the display of votives within a sanctuary. Some votives have suspension holes and they would have hung from the rafters and walls of buildings. Others, like the Shefton uterus, would have been placed on shelves or the floor. Through the combination of multiple anatomical bodies, the fragments are incorporated into a collective whole in their display — creating a communal body. Using replicas of anatomical votives alongside the Shefton votive uterus, we encouraged the students to collaboratively arrange the objects. This resulted in a strange hybrid body, but this activity was also a forging of a social body — about what it means to dedicate objects together, what our bodies mean in relationship to one another, and how by piecing the body back together this can serve as a metaphor for re-assembly and healing.

Body parts made out of clay

We then experienced a 45-minute guided meditation session led by Michael Atkinson from the Faculty of Medical Sciences and Dr Jessica Komes from Clinical Psychology, both at Newcastle University. This encouraged embodied and experiential, alternative learning methods of corporeality — devising a way of ‘tuning into’ the body as a source of knowledge and creativity.

For the second section of the workshop, the students were asked to work in groups to devise a series of performance instructions, called ‘scores’, which were read to the rest of the cohort and enacted together. This section of the workshop was influenced by the Fluxus movement, an experimental art movement founded in the 1960s. A key method in this movement was ‘the score’ — developed from music composition, only language was used as opposed to musical notation, and anyone could carry out the instructions.

Here are a few of examples of the scores created during the workshop:

  1. Hold at a distance.
  2. Say thank you to one of your body parts.
  3. Share a connection that you are grateful for.
  4. Select and clasp part of your body you do not normally notice, see how you can entwine your fingers around it.
A close up of two women touching each other’s shoulders

Producing the scores was a process of democratising an experience and about performing an instruction together as a group — thinking about how we relate to our body as an individual, and how we relate to the idea of a social body together.

In the final section of the workshop, we worked with terracotta clay. To protect the students’ clothes from the messiness, we each created a costume. The deep orange colour of the fabric reflected the colour of the terracotta clay, and the white cotton became a recorder of the marks made through the day from the clay.

A woman cutting orange fabric with scissors

Each participant was given a small piece of clay and invited to lie down as a series of texts about the medical and material history of bodies, in particular of women’s bodies, written by Olivia Turner, Anne Boyer, Sinéad Gleeson, and Elinor Cleghorn, were read aloud. As the participants listened to the texts, they were asked to think about how they feel inside of their body and to impress into the clay the different sensations they felt.

We then moved into the final collaborative activity. One student volunteered to lie down and was asked to describe the feelings they had and sensations they felt happening with their body. As they described this, the other students created small clay sculptures and placed them onto the lying down student, making them in response to the individual’s requests for pressure or relief from pain. This led to a forming of a social and collective corporeal experience and brought together all of the different experiences throughout the day.

‘The Way My Body Feels’ demonstrates the transformative role ancient objects can play in learning about the body and in particular, the body in medicine. We are grateful to our funders and to our collaborators and workshop participants.

The British Medical Journal’s Medical Humanities podcast episode ‘Body Talk: “Corporeal Pedagogies”’ is available to listen to here. This episode features Sally and Olivia talking to BMJ Medical Humanities Editor-in-Chief, Brandy Schillace, about this research in more depth.

With thanks to Janina Sabaliauskaite, Lindsay Duncanson, Michael Atkinson, Jessica Komes, Graham Taylor and Incite Design, to all our workshop participants, and to our funders: Wellcome Trust, The Catherine Cookson Foundation, Newcastle University’s Institutes for Creative Arts Practice and Humanities Research, and EngageFMS.

All photographs by Janina Sabaliauskaite.

References

Jessica Hughes (2017) Votive Body Parts in Greek and Roman Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 25–26.

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