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A terracotta sculpture in a shape with a long, round bottom and a straight, three-pointed top. There are carved horizontal waving lines along the middle of the piece. There is a round, teardrop shape just above the center. It is yellow with red specks.

A terracotta sculpture on a grey background. It is in a shape with a long, round bottom and a straight, three-pointed top. There is a flat line along the edges that surround the 3D features of the middle. There are carved horizontal waving lines along the middle of the piece. There is a round, teardrop shape just above the center. It is mustard yellow with red specks.

Identification and Creation

Object Number
Votive Terracotta Uterus
Work Type
3rd-1st century BCE
Hellenistic period
Persistent Link

Physical Descriptions

12.5 x 8.0 x 3.9 cm

Acquisition and Rights

Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Transfer from the Department of the Classics, Harvard University, Bequest of Henry W. Haynes, 1912
Accession Year
Object Number
Asian and Mediterranean Art

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Votive terracotta uterus. Buff clay, porous, with gritty black impurities. Most likely from a sanctuary votive deposit in Etruria (central Italy). Such terracotta uteri may have been given either as a request for health or as an offering of thanks before or after childbirth. Remnants of red paint are visible, suggesting the votive was painted, as was common. Models of uteri varied, which is unsurprising considering there is scant evidence for human dissection in antiquity; however, some sort of ribbed effect, as seen here, was especially common, perhaps signifying muscles contracting in third-stage labor. Because of the variety of forms, as well as uncertainty about ancient understandings of the uterus, it is debated whether such votives indeed represent uteri or other internal organs, such as the bladder or stomach.

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: 3620 University Study Gallery, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 08/17/2017 - 01/07/2018

Verification Level

This record was created from historic documentation and may not have been reviewed by a curator; it may be inaccurate or incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art at