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Research Cluster on The Ancient Body

Male figure, Kerameikos Museum, Athens

Female figure, Kerameikos Museum, Athens

Several members of Classical Studies at the Open University are committed to studying the ancient world through the theme of ‘the body’. We interpret this theme in an interdisciplinary way, bringing together the approaches of archaeology, anthropology, medical humanities, ancient history and classical studies to find ways of using material culture and written evidence alongside each other.

Any historical discipline needs to address what we see as a central question: is the past just like us, and therefore transparent, or entirely other, and therefore unknowable? Where the body is concerned, the fact that we share so many experiences with the people of the past may blind us to the difficulties of interpreting their writings, ideas, and objects. Studying how people thought about, treated, represented, experienced and disposed of their bodies provides a window into ancient societies.

These concerns, interests, materials and critical approaches to the ancient body are actively encountered by students studying Part 2 of the MA in Classical Studies, launched in 2015.


Pannonian woman, Tac, Hungary
Wax anatomical figure, Bologna
Marcus Aurelius treated by Galen, Paris
casa buonarotti wombs

Members of the research cluster:

Eleanor Betts’ research takes a multisensory approach, exploring interrelationships between the physiological body, artefacts and place. She is particularly interested in how bodily sensations and experiences affected the construction and use of space, with foci on the cult places of Iron Age Italy and the urban locales of ancient Rome. Her recent publications include the edited volume Senses of the Empire: Multisensory Approaches to Roman Culture (2017, Routledge), which includes contributions from Emma-Jayne Graham and Valerie Hope. She has also published studies on the phenomenology of water, experience of cave sites in Central Adriatic Italy, and multisensory movement around the city of Rome. She is a founding member of the Sensory Studies in Antiquity network.  

Emma-Jayne Graham’s research concerns the body and its relationship with material culture in the Roman world, with a particular focus on Republican and early Imperial Italy. Much of her earlier research has focused on the treatment of the body in death, including cremation rites, the burial of the disabled, memory and the manipulation of the corpse. Her recent publications have focused on the body in religious contexts, and include the co-edited volume (with Jane Draycott) Bodies of Evidence: Ancient Anatomical Votives Past, Present and Future (2017, Routledge), as well as studies of infant health and votive offerings of swaddled babies, bodily well-being and mobility impairments, and the role of movement in ritual performance. With Jessica Hughes she is co-founder of The Votives Project, a website which, among other things, regularly spotlights recent work concerning anatomical votives and ancient healing.

Valerie Hope’s research is centred on Roman death, including the treatment of dead and living bodies during funeral and commemorative rituals. A current focus is how the bodies of the bereaved were adapted to mark the state of mourning, and how these modifications were characterised (and gendered) in different genres. Recent publications have also explored how the corpses of Roman soldiers killed in battle were disposed of, and literary presentations of the military dead.

Jessica Hughes works on the body in Greek and Roman material culture. Her PhD focused on images of personifications in ancient art, while her postdoctoral project on anatomical votives was conducted as part of a Leverhulme-funded project ‘Changing Beliefs of the Human Body’ at the University of Cambridge. She has published on a range of body-related topics including classical hybrids, the restoration of ancient sculpted bodies, and Roman votive images of ‘open torsos’ with visible intestines. With Katharina Rebay-Salisbury and Marie Louise Stig Sorensen, she edited Body Parts and Bodies Whole. Changing Relations and Meanings (2010, Oxbow). Her new book is entitled Votive Body Parts in Greek and Roman Religion (2017, Cambridge). With Emma-Jayne Graham she is co-founder of The Votives Project.

Paula James’ research has focused on issues of bodily integrity in Ovid’s myths of metamorphosis, from the transformation of Arachne into a living loom, to the flaying of Marsyas so that his organs resemble the lyre he has challenged by playing the flute. She also looks at rigid representations of bodies, such as the interplay between flesh, stone and ivory in Ovid’s Pygmalion, and the tensions set up by the dual identity of gods, nymphs and other numinous creatures who can be both corporeal and fluid: Ovid’s Myth of Pygmalion on Screen: In Pursuit of the Perfect Woman (Continuum). More recently she has been working on an article on the hermaphroditic qualities displayed by the naiad Salmacis, who is elemental, corporeal and also bends gender attributes at will, as well as exploring the definitions of being human in the light of the rise of robots in fiction, fantasy and fact.

Helen King’s research focuses on the female body in both medicine and myth. In addition to studying the ancient body, she is interested in how ancient medical texts have been used, particularly in Europe from the Renaissance until the nineteenth century. She is also interested in the body/mind nexus, and in working with medical practitioners from various fields. Her 2013 book The One-Sex Body on Trial: The Classical and Early Modern Evidence (Ashgate) challenges Thomas Laqueur’s model of a move from a ‘one-sex’ to a ‘two-sex’ model of the body in the eighteenth century. She was an invited speaker at the 2013 international workshop "The matrix of the world: cultural constructions of the uterus" organised by the "Sapienza" Università di Roma and the Cluster of Excellence "Asia and Europe" of the University of Heidelberg. Watch her short film on Using insights from the past to improve patient health. Helen was recently Lead Educator on the Health and Well-Being in the Ancient World MOOC, which began in 2017.

Phil Perkins works on the Etruscan body. He focuses on three main areas. First, ancient accounts of the ‘differentness’ of the Etruscans and the story in Herodotus that they migrated to Tuscany from modern day Turkey have attracted the attention of molecular biologists with an interest in the long-term history of the development of human populations. If ancient accounts were to be correct then it should be possible to detect this history of migration and ‘differentness’ in DNA; he examines DNA studies to ensure that they remain consistent with the archaeological record. Second, in 2011, excavations at Poggio Colla found an Etruscan depiction of a woman in childbirth - the first of its kind. This led him to research representations of childbirth in the ancient Mediterranean. Finally, for many years he has worked on Etruscan settlement patterns, and this is naturally accompanied by the study of Etruscan burial patterns

James Robson is interested in attitudes towards sex and the body in Greek culture in general and the comic plays of Aristophanes in particular. He has written on topics as diverse as bestiality, sexual assault, cross-dressing, obscenity and sex appeal as well as the ways in which the sexuality of Aristophanes’ plays have been reconfigured in modern translations and stagings. His books include Sex and Sexuality in Classical Athens (2013, Edinburgh University Press) and Sex in Antiquity: Exploring Gender in the Ancient World (2015, Routledge: co-edited with Mark Masterson and Nancy Rabinowitz).

Ursula Rothe’s research is centred on dress in the Roman Empire. She considers the way people dressed and adorned their bodies in the ancient world as a prism through which to gain an insight into their self-constructed identities, reflecting aspects such as status, ethnicity, gender, age and occupation. Her main work to date has been in Rome’s northern provinces, where there is a wealth of material for dress in the form of grave portraits. She is interested in what people’s dress choices in these images, coupled with the grave inscriptions, can tell us about cultural groupings and orientations in those regions and the extent of their identification with Rome. She is currently working on a monograph on the Roman toga.

Katy Soar’s research concerns the role of performance within society, with a particular focus on the Bronze Age of Crete. She is interested in how the body can be used to generate meaning, identities and social relations through movement and performance. Recent work has focused on the use of performance in the funerary arena and on the Minoan practice of bull-leaping, and she is currently working on an edited volume about archaeological approaches to dance.

Postgraduate students working on the ancient body:

Shirley Elderfield, Sensing the Oracle: a Druid Key to Intersensoriality at Dodona (started 2016)

Elizabeth Webb, Audience Sensory Experience in Thucydides’ 'History of the Peloponnesian War' (started 2016)

Stuart McKie, The Social Significance of Curse Tablets in the Latin West (submitted 2016)

Rebecca Fallas, Infertility, blame and responsibility in the Hippocratic Corpus (completed 2016)

Recent publications on the ancient body:

Bodies of Evidence
Senses of the Empire
Sex in Antiquity
Votive Body Parts