Votive Body-Parts, Eye Infections and Roman Healing

How a unique collection of finds reveals that the Roman city of Wroxeter had a temple dedicated to a god with the power to cure the eye diseases that were common in Roman times.

Carving of an oculist examining a patient
An oculist examining a patient, depicted in a relief of the 2nd century AD © Museo della Civiltà Romana, Rome/Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library

EYE PIECES

Archaeologists digging in the late Roman levels of the baths basilica at the centre of Wroxeter Roman City, Shropshire, in the 1970s and 1980s were at first baffled by the number of strangely shaped pieces of Roman wall plaster coming to light.

Eventually, however, they came to realise that the pieces had been deliberately shaped like human eyes, and that this was a unique collection from Roman Britain.

In all, there were about 80 eye-shaped pieces. Rounded on the back, they are small enough to be held in the palm of the hand, with a representation of the pupil, the iris and tear-duct chipped into the flat outer face. They had been deliberately fashioned from fragments of plaster taken from the walls of disused and ruined buildings. A small sherd of samian ware had also been cut into the shape of an eye.

The baths basilica at Wroxeter Roman City
The baths basilica at Wroxeter Roman City

GOLD AND BRONZE

But it took two finds from the same part of the site to explain why there were so many plaster eyes here. First, in 1970, a pair of eyes beaten from a sheet of gold was discovered, apparently a votive plaque, with small holes that meant it could be attached to a wall. Then in 1982 part of a pair of sheet bronze eyes was found, also with wall-fixings.

It was common practice to place votive models of body parts in Roman temples, either as thanks for a cure, or in the hope of finding one. The presence of these metal eyes suggests that the plaster eyes had the same function.

COMMON COMPLAINT

Eye diseases seem to have been prevalent in Roman times. Blocks of soluble eye ointment, stamped with the maker’s name, were common in northern Gaul and Britain; and two oculist’s stamps have been found at Wroxeter.

The stamps record a variety of eye ailments, including trachoma – which still leads to blindness in the developing world. The waters of Roman baths may have been a factor in the spread of bacterial eye infections.

An oculist’s stamp
An oculist’s stamp found at Wroxeter Roman City, Shropshire © Shropshire Archives

RECOURSE TO THE GODS

Votive models of all parts of the body are known from other sites, particularly on the Continent, but at Wroxeter only votive eyes have been found. The plaster eyes could not have been attached to a wall, but perhaps they were eagerly clutched in the hands of those in desperate need of a cure, visiting the shrine of a god specialising in eye diseases – a building whose walls would have been covered with metal votive eyes.

No such shrine has yet been identified at Wroxeter, but it must have lain close to the baths basilica. It is likely to have attracted devotees from a considerable distance around, who had heard of its powers.

The eyes are a unique collection in Britain, but similar body-part shrines may yet be found in other parts of the country.

PATRON SAINT

Curiously, just three miles north of Wroxeter, the church in the village of Upton Magna is one of only two in the country dedicated to St Lucia, the patron saint of the blind and those with eye trouble.

According to medieval tradition, her eyes were gouged out before her martyrdom, and she is shown in a stained-glass window there carrying her eyes on a platter. Archaeologists regard this as a coincidence – but it is undoubtedly a strange one. 

 

By Nick Hodgson

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