ὀμφαλός: The Navel of the world

omphalos Delphi

Omphalos stone, Delphi. This is thought to be a (Roman?) replica of the original sacred stone which mysterious disappeared and was displayed outside the temple

Sometime in the second half of the 4th century bc, a Pythaogorean philosopher living in Southern Italy put forward his idea about the principles of man. He wrote that the rational animal is made up of four principles: the brain, the heart, the navel, and the genital organ, in order of hierarchy. These choices, perhaps not the four you would have chosen, are explained by dividing the functions of the body between these principles. The navel is the seat of implantation and the growth of the embryo, from which future growth and nutrition is provided. Whilst these philosophical ideas of Philolaus of Croton are preserved only in the fragmentary records of later Greek philosopher, we can assume from what we have that Philolaus considered the navel as the centre of the body. Continue reading

Gloios: Grime, Sweat and Olive Oil


Copy of a Roman Strigil set (199BC-500AD). The small bottle would have been used for the oil and the strigil was used to scrape away excess oil, sweat and dead skin. Wellcome Images, Science Museum

In the second century BC in the Macedonian city of Beroea there was a Gymnasium. Like many from its period, it had a Gymnasiarch who was responsible for administration and etiquette within the complex, and it existed as an important civic institution, governed by laws and funded by both the city-state and private funds. The gymnasium was the regular haunt of the neoi, the young men, and the ephebes whose training and socialisation was strictly regulated. By this point, in the Hellenistic period, the gymnasium was not just a place for athletics and training, but for all the education required to turn youthful boys into promising future leaders. Despite its importance within the community, the gymnasium at Beroea was barred to a great deal of people: slaves, freedmen, the sons of freedmen, tradesmen, male prosistutes, drunk people, people with physical disabilities and, unsurprisingly, women. It no doubt had places to train, talk, study, wash and oil up in preparation for the days activities. But as an inscription found in Beroea attests, the gymnasium also had another stream of income, often overlooked. Continue reading

The Case of a Broken Nose

Edwin Smith Papyrus - broken nose

Edwin Smith Papyrus, Case 11

Broken noses have long disfigured history: from the erroneous legend of Napoleon and his troops firing a cannonball at the nose of the Greek Sphinx during the French campaign in Egypt, to the thousands of nose-less statues from antiquity. Whilst some were likely to have been deliberately vandalised by other groups of people, especially the early Christians, the most likely cause of noselessness is probably an accidental drop. Continue reading

Bad Blood


These two objects were among fourteen bronze cupping vessels excavated from the site of Pompeii, the Roman town just inland of the Bay of Naples, which fell to the mercy of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD. Cupping vessels were just one type of the many surgical and medicinal devices found across the Roman city, which included speculums, forceps, hooks and probes. These two cupping vessels were found in a building known as ‘the House of the Surgeon’, after the concentration of medical instruments found there, as pictured below. Continue reading


So saying, [Zeus] sliced each human being in two, just as they slice sorb-apples to make a dry preserve, or eggs with hairs; and at the cleaving of each he bade Apollo turn its face and half-neck to the section side, in order that every one might be made more orderly by the sight of the knife’s work upon him; this done, the god was to heal them up. Then Apollo turned their faces about, and pulled their skin together from the edges over what is now called the belly, just like purses which you draw close with a string; the little opening he tied up in the middle of the belly, so making what we know as the navel. Continue reading

Etruscan Dentures


L0058137 Copy of an Etruscan denture, Europe, 1901-1930

L0058137 – Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images

It will be no revelation to find that the image above depicts a denture, a prosthetic device designed to replace missing teeth. It is not immediately clear which cavities would have the pleasure to be filled by this specimens, but my guess would be the top front ones, known in the world of dentistry as the central incisors, as the two teeth are of similar size and shape. But this is only a guess.

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Making Eye Contact

Met kohl pot and stick

Kohl jar and Stick, Met Museum, New York (36.3.62, 36.3.63)

Think about the ancient Egyptians, or perhaps rather imagine Cleopatra, and the most distinguishing detail of her appearance which comes to mind will be, for most, a pair of dark, accentuated eyes. But whereas Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes are weighed down with blue eye-shadow and heavy black lines, Richard Burton’s have no such definition, naked in their naturalness. But then again he was Mark Anthony, and a Roman: he knew nothing of the dangers brought by Egyptian sand, sun and the infectious Nile. The image above shows a Kohl Jar and Stick from the Met Museum in New York which is dated to the ‘New Kingdom’, Dynasty 18, around 1492–1473 B.C. Many like this have been found from Ancient Egyptian sites and attest the widespread use of kohl in Egyptian culture. Continue reading

Hair loss and Masculinity in Ancient Rome; or Why do Eunuchs not go bald?

It might not be so surprising to discover that the anxieties of balding are not unique to the modern man. The Roman historian Suetonius is known for his vivid and merciless portrayals of the Roman Emperors. His Julius Caesar combs his thin strands of hair forward to cover his thinning scalp and delights in the opportunity to don a laurel wreath, a discreet wig. Otho too wore a wig to deceive onlookers but supposedly dilapidated his entire body becoming, in Suetonius’ eyes, “as fastidious about appearances as a woman”. Domitian shortly after him even authored a manual entitled Care of the Hair. Continue reading