Ancient Reproduction Practices

Bioarchaeologist Kristina Killgrove and her colleague, Ancient Historian Sarah E. Bond, have embarked on a wonderful initiative to bring peer-reviewed science to the public. The Ancient Studies Articles Podcast was recently launched. It features Kristina and Sarah reading aloud interdisciplinary ancient studies, in order to make the field more accessible to visually impaired people. This is an innovative and exciting project that I hope will bring ancient studies to new audiences, and perhaps inspire other fields. This post gives an overview of the project and a summary of the first podcast on the scientific development of contraception in 6th Century Byzantine.

Bringing the Ancients to Life

The Ancient Studies podcast project begins with a focus on open access articles that cut across the “classics, history, art, archaeology, anthropology, osteology, philology,” and related fields. Kristina is also in the process of negotiating with Elsevier to turn other peer reviewed articles into podcasts. Kristina’s blog post provides more information. On Kristina’s original post, she notes that she is seeking other scholars and ancient studies enthusiasts to volunteer to read other articles for future podcasts .

Kristina runs a terrific blog with many resources on how to make anthropology and archaeology more accessible to different publics, such as children and non-experts. The new podcast extends this public outreach by bringing ancient studies to life in auditory form. You can subscribe to the podcast via Itunes and by visiting the Ancient Studies blog.

Given that the majority of academic resources are produced as written texts, it’s important to adapt peer reviewed science into other mediums in order to reach different audiences. Making materials more inclusive of visually impaired people is vital to growing public science. It’s especially exciting to see this outreach in Ancient Studies, a field with much to teach us about the historical connections between different cultures across time and place. The podcast series begins with the ancient science of contraception.

Ancient Reproduction Practices

The first podcast is a reading of a paper published in the open access journal Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies,. The article is: “Theodora, Aetius of Amida, and Procopius: Some Possible Connections.” Theodora was wife of the Emperor Justinian who was born lower class and was a former sex worker before marrying into royalty. Aëtius of Amida was likely a court physician who served Theodora and he was also an established medical writer who wrote about obstetrics and gynaecology, amongst other topics. Procopius  was an ancient historian writing in the 6th Century who studied the connection between Theodora and Aëtius. The article tracks the fascinating historical evidence about all three historical figures, as well as related texts detailing the methods of contraception and abortion in ancient times.

The article begins with the question as to why sex workers like the Empress Theodora who lived in the Byzantium empire (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey), rarely conceived at a time when methods of contraception were  limited. The analysis explores ancient texts where reproductive methods are alluded to, particularly involving botanicals (“feminine pharmacology”). This included the use of pomegranates, seeds, oaks, oils, alcoholic concoctions (such as wormwood), animal materials, herbs, teas and other organic mixtures.

The historical writing also outlines the scientific development of surgical procedures. For example, the stipulation that abortions solely be carried out in the third month “never before, never after.” There is also evidence of female circumcision, such as cliteridectomies performed on  young women who were thought to be overly sexual. These were also performed amongst Egyptian virgins before marriage.There are mentions of other surgeries for breast cancer,  hernias and the use of anesthetics for other treatments.

This article is intriguing and well worth hearing in full via the Ancient Studies podacst. The material presented is an excellent way to think about the power of discourse. Discourse is a concept used in social science to explore power dynamics in society that are communicated via speech and written texts.  These historical texts were describing scientific ideas around reproduction at a time when reliable contraception was not readily discussed in public. The texts simultaneously treat sex work and contraception as medical matters but at other times also represents how women’s active sexuality was pathologised.

The term nymphomania appears, which was used to describe women who enjoyed sex. This label usually led to genital mutilation, drug treatment, and institutionalisation of women. At various times throughout history, including in Western society, it was women who were medically treated for being overly sexual, not men (see the work of Michel Foucault and Anne Summers. Theodora is an intriguing figure in this respect,  given her transition from sex worker to ruler. The evidence shows that she is likely to have been highly skilled at using pharmaceutical contraceptives and abortifacients (herbal mixtures to induce an abortion).

Be sure to listen to the podcast and be transported back in time!

This post was first published on Google+