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Gallery Text

Model body parts were offered at healing sanctuaries to thank a god for healing the limb or organ depicted. Large deposits of these anatomical votives include detailed representations of internal organs such as uteruses and intestines. Unlike the terracotta eye and foot, the copper alloy phallus would have been riveted to something, perhaps in a home, for good luck. Romans often wore amulets in the shape of a phallus to ward off the "evil eye."

Identification and Creation
Object Number
Votive Terracotta Eye
Work Type
4th-2nd century BCE
Iron Age
Persistent Link
Level 3, Room 3700, Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Art, Roman Art
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Physical Descriptions
H. 4.8 x W. 6 x D. 1.2 cm (1 7/8 x 2 3/8 x 1/2 in.)
Pfeiffer-Hartwell Collection, (by 1906), gift; to Harvard University Department of Classics, (1906-1977), transferred; to Fogg Art Museum, 1977.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Transfer from the Department of the Classics, Harvard University, Gift of Pfeiffer-Hartwell Collection
Accession Year
Object Number
Asian and Mediterranean Art
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Votive terracotta eye. Buff clay, porous, with gritty black impurities. Most likely from a sanctuary votive deposit in Etruria (central Italy). Such terracotta eyes may have been given either as a request or as an offering of thanks for healing related to vision, or they may have served as a figurative sign of the god’s attention or as defense against the evil eye.

The practice of creating and dedicating anatomical renderings as votive offerings was widespread in ancient Etruria and Latium, evident from the seventh century BCE onward and most popular in the Hellenistic period (3rd–1st centuries BCE). A variety of body parts were depicted, from whole and half heads, to arms and legs, hands and feet, and fingers and toes, to eyes and ears, female and male genitalia, and breasts, to internal organs, including the uterus, heart, and bladder. Anatomical votives have been found exclusively at sanctuaries, spread over some 300 sites in the Etrusco-Italic region. Similar votives appear also in Greek sanctuaries, though in the shrines of very few gods (e.g., Asklepios), whereas a wide range of the gods worshipped in Etruria and Latium received anatomical votives.

Because very few Etruscan anatomical votives include dedicatory inscriptions, it is uncertain whether they were offered to a god according to a vow (ex voto) to give thanks after a wish had been fulfilled or to encourage the god’s participation in granting a request or prayer. In either case, votives appear to have been offered by individuals as part of a ritual, with considerable numbers of such votives found at or near sanctuary altars and most found grouped in secondary deposits (presumably to make room for new offerings). In the absence of dedicatory inscriptions, the meaning of these anatomical votives is debated. They may have been given more literally for the protection or cure of certain body parts and their capabilities, or they may have represented something more figurative (e.g., ears signifying being heard by the god, eyes as being seen, or hands expressing persistent prayer).

For further reading, see:
Matthias Recke, “Science as Art: Etruscan Anatomical Votives,” in The Etruscan World, ed. Jean MacIntosh Turfa (London: Routledge, 2013), 1068–85.

Matthias Recke and Waltrud Wamser-Krasznai, Kultische Anatomie: Etruskische Körperteil-Votive aus der Antikensammlung der Justus-Liebig-Universität Giessen (Stiftung Ludwig Stieda) (Ingolstadt: Deutsches Medizinhistorisches Museum, 2008).

Jean MacIntosh Turfa, “Anatomical Votives,” in Thesaurus Cultus et Rituum Antiquorum (ThesCRA), vol. 1, Processions – Sacrifices – Libations – Fumigations – Dedications (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2004), 359–68.
Exhibition History

32Q: 3700 Roman, Harvard Art Museums, 11/16/2014 - 01/01/2050

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