aches and ills of the ancients

The ills of ancient humans, traced in their bones and art, tells us how they lived and died and provides a link from their world to ours. …

Disease never seems to arise haphazardly. It usually reflects the circumstances of our lives. Tooth decay, tennis elbow, high blood pressure, cholesterol, are usually precise indicators of the things we do, use, eat or lack thereof. Even the dinosaurs developed arthritis from chronic stress and strain. The study of ancient disease and injury is called palaeopathology, and it has much to say about life in antiquity and in more recent times as well.

---The figure represents a dwarf at the court of Benin. In Edo culture dwarfs were known as the jugglers and acrobats in the Oba court. Sculptures dating back in time (14th -15th century) have served as the model for this figure especially similar figures worked in a realistic style using the famous lost wax technique. The dwarf Benin figure is recognized by its over sized head, its stocky (squat) body, its short arms and legs. The patterns on the torso and on the skirt are familiar to the cast bronze plaques dating back as early as the 15th century. Though related to late works a close stylistic examination make this most probably a late 20th century example of the metal working tradition in Nigeria.--- Read More:

A disease that has always been rare, yet was occasionally portrayed in the ancient world, is acromegaly. It is a pituary abnormality that produces a thickened bulbous nose,coarse lips, prominent brow ridges, and great elongation of the jaw. The pharaoh Akhenaten is said to have had such a pituitary malfunction.

---It has also been claimed that he suffered from acromegaly, a thyroid disorder that can cause longer and thicker bones, oversized jaw (dolicephaly), bilharzia and altered sex characteristics. However, other leading figures of the Amarna period, both royal and otherwise, are shown with some of these features, suggesting a possible religious connotation—though its also possible that his family and court were depicted as similarly formed to Akhenaten as a compliment to him. In addition, in Akhenaten's later reign, art becomes less idiosyncratic. Under the new chief sculptor Thutmose, Akhenaten is depicted as more normal looking. Some claim that his earliest portraits appear the most normal, with a progression towards more elongated and feminine features later in life, suggesting an endocrine disorder of post-pubertal onset,... Read More:

Later rulers of Egypt were also afflicted with acromegaly. From their portrait coins, as well as from the historical record, it is seen that for three hundred years this intensely inbred family repeatedly produced persons with this disorder. Ptolemy I Soter, the first of the line, had prominent low ridges, an enlarged nose and lips, and a heavy, jutting jaw, which were realistically produced on coins.

Read More:

The queen of the land of Punt ( below) is surely suffering from something, but the diagnosis is not clear. This relief, found in the temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari depicts the reigning queen of a country that Hatshepsut visited around 1500 B.C. A reasonable guess is a congenital dislocation of the hips, a condition that causes protruding buttocks.

---It really is sublime -- and not just for architectural reasons: texts chiselled on the walls tell us about this journey to this far-away God's Land, and row after row of painted reliefs picture the adventure all the way from its beginning to its triumphant conclusion. The only thing that it doesn't tell us is where in the world is Punt. Or, for that matter what is wrong with Eti, Queen of Punt (seen above; hobbling, we must imagine, behind her fashionably thin husband, King Perehu). Many different explanations have been offered for her strange appearance, ranging from suffering from an unknown disease (she's been given her own special 'Queen of Punt syndrome') to being simply overweight. None seems quite to fit the bill.--- Read More:

The disease depicted below is fairly straightforward. The Egyptian stela of the New Kingdom portrays a temple official named Ruma. The shriveling of his right leg was probably caused by polio. His disability did not prevent him from rising to high estate, and he performs his priestly duties with serenity.

---Ruma is a Syrian boy who probably had the earliest known case of a disease now known as Polio. When Ruma was 5 years old he got very sick with pain in his head and his leg ached. When he was no better after several days, his father carried the boy to the temple where they believed the priest would cure him with powerful magic (charms, amulets, herbs, and magic drinks). The story of Ruma is seen on a 3,000 year old Egyptian tablet, and is perhaps the earliest pictorial record of Polio. Some thought maybe his leg was just poorly drawn, but the stone tablet (stele) tells the story of Ruma, now a grown man with a withered right leg. And, he is holding a long stick to use as a crutch. The tablet tells that he is a gatekeeper at the te

of Astarte in Egypt.--- Read More:


Disease is humankind’s unwelcome companion. Surprisingly enough, in our great age of science and medical innovation, we are still heir to all the fleshly ills portrayed in ancient works of art, and to many of the diseases of our ancestors.

---This statue was erected in honor of Seneb, an Egyptian dwarf who served under King Pepi II during the 6th Dynasty. A study published in December of 2005 concluded that dwarves, such as Seneb, were respected and even attained high positions in society--- Read More:


---The mask is recognized by an opposition of black and white that bisects the face and a general distortion of facial features specifically the twisted nose and mouth. The color white, symbolic of the spirits of the dead, in this case represents the hope of being cured of illness. The black pigment stands for the sickness and illness that ravages one throughout life. The combination of black against white symbolizes this struggle. It is very rare in Africa to find any work of art that depicts an individual strickened by sickness,infirmity or any type of disease.--- Read More:



A Moche portrait jar, Ca. 550 - 700 A.D.This Moche portrait piece depicts what could be a stroke victim or an individual with a facial abnormality. read more:


This entry was posted in Art History/Antiquity/Anthropology, Feature Article, Ideas/Opinion, Visual Art/Sculpture/etc. and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *