Silent Stone

The cover of my new Polebridge Press book, The Religious History of Abortion: Patriarchy and the Future of Religion, features a view of the front of the US Supreme Court building. The inscription on the real building reads, “EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER THE LAW.” A group of nine allegorical figures appears in the pediment above the inscription. My cover replaced the allegorical figures with a sculpture of a woman giving birth, which was adapted from an ancient marble plaque.

Mystery surrounds the plaque’s history. Very few images of a woman giving birth have survived from the ancient world. I know of only two in museum catalogs. Pompeii has revealed numerous images of lovemaking, all from the male gaze, but none of births. Normally birth took place in a birthing chair, which was true until the nineteenth century. This image of a woman giving birth in bed is unique.

The plaque’s interpretation is debatable. Is the woman giving birth to twins? The museum description suggests twins or possibly triplets but I think the plaque represents a single birth, showing childbirth’s stages. The woman on the right helps with labor, the woman in the middle assists at the delivery, while the woman on the left holds the newborn. We commonly find such sequential representation in ancient art.

The plaque is marble, deeply carved, and measures 9.9″x13.3″x2.4″. It is on permanent loan to the Science Museum in London but its provenance is unclear. In 1932, Peter Johnston-Saint, an agent for Sir Henry Wellcome, an avid collector of medical artifacts, purchased the plaque in Rome. Exactly from whom is unclear. The museum notes speculate that the dealer was Mariano Rocchi. The museum catalog card notes that the object comes from Ostia, Rome’s ancient seaport. That information probably came from the agent and dealer but trusting an antiquities dealer is always a gamble. At this point the trail goes cold. The loss of information about where this unique marble plaque was found makes it a silent artifact—silent like the voices of women from the ancient world.

Ostia Antica, the modern archaeological site, lies at the mouth (ostia in Latin) of the Tiber. As Rome’s port it was a large and prosperous commercial city. When Rome declined in importance, the harbor was abandoned, silted in, and covered with sand dunes. As a result, the ancient city is wonderfully preserved. When the popes began rebuilding Rome after the medieval period, they often raided Ostia Antica as a source of marble for building churches. In the early nineteenth century, Pius VII organized digs for sculptures at the site.

Professional archaeology began on a grand scale with the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from 1939–1942. Ostia Antica has been continuously excavated since then, except for the interruption of WWII. The University of Texas has participated in these digs under the direction of Michael White, Westar scholar.

Because Johnston-Saint purchased the plaque in 1932, well before the excavations began under Mussolini, it is impossible to ascertain whether the finding was legal or looted. Even more problematic, the plaque was not reported in situ. Museums collect objects from the ancient world for their artistic value, while archaeologists and scholars view objects as artifacts. Finding an object in situ can tell us so much about the culture of which it was a part. We have no way to reconstruct the plaque's use, which makes its interpretation almost impossible. What was its purpose? Is it a burial plaque commemorating a wife who died in childbirth? An advertisement for a midwife? Or something else? We have no clue.

When was the plaque carved? Without knowing where it was found, dating is impossible. It could be any time between the city’s founding and abandonment, 400 bce and 300 bc because those are the dates.

The plaque itself does surrender some clues. The women’s clothing reveals that they were upper-class Romans. In the ancient world, birth was a female experience with no males present. Only if an upper-class woman were in distress would a male doctor be summoned. The absence of males explains why we know so little about ancient birthing practices and have so few images of the process.

The plaque depicts a remarkably calm scene, with no visible distress and no hint of disorder or blood. The mother reclines in a classical nude posture. Clearly the male gaze dominates and it is an idealized male view. We are denied a woman’s view of the depicted birth.

In writing The Religious History of Abortion, I was struck by how few mentions of abortion occur in ancient literature across all languages and cultures, but even more by the thunderous silence of female voices. Such voices are nearly impossible to find. At first glance, our plaque appears to reveal one of a woman’s most intimate experiences. But on closer examination, the plaque goes silent. We do not know where it came from, how it was used, or when it was made. But even more, it depicts a male view of female experience. It is a silent stone.

I chose this image for the pediment of the US Supreme Court building because the majority opinion in the Dobbs v. Jackson decision functions like the plaque—it silences women, erases their experience, and replaces their unique agency with a patriarchal view of pregnancy and childbirth.

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