Ancient Images of a Mother Giving Birth Found

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An archaeological excavation in Italy's Mugello Valley, has turned up a unique find: two images of a woman giving birth.
Phil Perkins

THE GIST

- The discovery might be the earliest representation of childbirth in western art.

- The two images were found on a small fragment from a ceramic vessel that is more than 2,600 years old.

- The woman in the image could be a representation of an Etruscan goddess of fertility.

An international team of archaeologists has unearthed what might be the earliest representation of childbirth in western art, they announced today.

Consisting of two images of a woman giving birth to a child, the intimate scene was found on a small fragment from a ceramic vessel that is more than 2,600 years old.

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It was excavated by William Nutt, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Texas at Arlington who is legally blind.

About 1-3/4 x 1-1/4 inches (4 x 3 cm), the fragment was part of a vessel made of bucchero, a typically Etruscan black pottery.

The image show the head and shoulders of a baby emerging from a mother. Portrayed with her face in profile and a long ponytail running down her back, the woman has her knees and one arm raised.

The image could be the earliest representation of childbirth in western art, according to Phil Perkins, professor of archaeology at the Open University, in Milton Keynes, England.

"Such images are rare in ancient and classical art. A few, much later Greek and Roman images are known, but this one dates to about 600 B.C.," Perkins, who first identified the scene, told Discovery News.

A fun loving and eclectic people who among other things taught the French how to make wine, the Romans how to build roads, and introduced the art of writing into Europe, the Etruscans began to flourish around 900 B.C., and dominated much of Italy for five centuries.

Known for their art, agriculture, fine metalworking and commerce, they begun to decline during the fifth century B.C., as the Romans grew in power. By 300-100 B.C., they eventually became absorbed into the Roman empire.

Since their puzzling, non-Indo-European language was virtually extinguished (they left no literature to document their society),the Etruscans have long been considered one of antiquity's great enigmas.

Indeed, much of what we know about them comes from their cemeteries: only the richly decorated tombs they left behind have provided clues to fully reconstruct their history.

Poggio Colla is one of the few sites offering insight of the Etruscan life in a non-funerary context. It spans most of Etruscan history, being occupied from the seventh to the second century B.C.

Centering on the acropolis, a roughly rectangular plateau, the site was also home to a sanctuary: numerous votive deposits indicate that for some part of its history, it was a sacred spot to a divinity or divinities.

The abundance of weaving tools and a stunning deposit of gold jewelry discovered in previous excavations, have suggested that the patron divinity may have been female.

In this view, the ancient depiction of childbirth becomes even more interesting, according to Greg Warden, professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the Meadows School of the Arts at SMU and a director of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project.

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"Might it have some connection to the cult, to the kind of worship that went on at the hilltop sanctuary?," Warden wondered.

Perkins speculated that the woman giving birth could be a representation of an Etruscan goddess, suggesting that Poggio Colla was the location of a cult-site for an Etruscan fertility goddess.

"She would represent a new Etruscan myth, as we know of no Etruscan goddess who gives birth in Etruscan mythology," Perkins said.

The finding, which will be detailed at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Philadelphia in January, is "a most exciting discovery" according to Larissa Bonfante, a world-renowned expert on the Etruscan civilization.

"She could be a goddess, probably apotropaic ," Bonfante told Discovery News.