Forensics: The anatomy of crime closes 21 June. Until then, visitors to Wellcome Collection are asked to respond to the forensics principle “every contact leaves a trace” by putting their personal belongings in an evidence bag and photographing them, to explore how a sense of identity can be evidenced. Jessica Hughes takes a look at how personal belongings have previously been used as conduits of self.
What does it feel like to hand over your most treasured possession and then walk away?
When people in the past were sick or facing some kind of personal crisis, they often went straight to their local sanctuary to make an offering to the deity. Sometimes this gift was a specially-made object, like a statuette or a model of the sick body part, but often it was one of their own personal belongings – maybe a necklace or a pair of earrings; a favourite cup; a childhood toy.
These votive objects were, first and foremost, pawns in a sacred transaction. The worshipper gave them to the god as a plea for help, or sometimes as a thank-offering for a favour already received. But they were also types of Self Evidence, which formed traces of the worshipper long after the person had left the sanctuary. Remember me, the object would have silently urged. Don’t forget to help me – this is who I am.
We constantly find votive objects in the archaeological record: hairpins, dolls, mirrors, little boxes for medicines or cosmetics. We also discover traces of them in written texts. Some ancient Greek poems talk about people bringing the cherished tools of their trade to the sanctuary when they had become too old for work. We read about an ex-courtesan giving her mirror to Aphrodite; an elderly carpenter dedicating his tools to Athena; and fishermen leaving their nets in the sanctuary of Poseidon.
I sometimes wonder whether any of these ancient dedicants regretted leaving their possessions behind – whether on occasions they thought wistfully of their old belongings, remembering how it felt to touch them, to smell them. Perhaps they sometimes went back to the sanctuary to observe these objects in their new context, carefully arranged amongst other votives on the floor, or pinned up on the precinct wall.
If so, the effect of seeing their familiar belongings in such a different setting must have been quite a jolt; perhaps not too dissimilar to the feeling we get when we glimpse our own watches and packs of chewing gum inside plastic evidence bags. Detached from our possessions in this way, we can’t help but consider them through the eyes of others.
What do other people make of these things? How can anyone possibly hope to recreate me, the complex web of stories that is me, from these mundane physical traces of my daily existence?
Votives do still get dedicated today, and many of the objects photographed in the Self Evidence booth at Wellcome Collection find close counterparts in modern churches and sanctuaries. When I went to the sanctuary of the Madonna di Bonaria in Sardinia last summer, the priest there told me about a drawer overflowing with photographs which the church didn’t have room to display.
Photos are now the most popular type of offering at many Italian sanctuaries, having taken over from the more traditional painted tavolette of decades gone by. Other people choose to dedicate watches, phones, pens, wedding rings – items that would not look out of place in a forensic laboratory. Echoing the votive offerings, objects in a forensic context are also reaching out as traces of their erstwhile owners; a silent, disembodied plea for help.
Like the objects photographed in the Self Evidence project, these mundane, everyday items are made special by their constant proximity to their owner, becoming infused with identity and even functioning as extensions of the self. Regardless of their economic value, they are very hard to part with. What better gift could there be for a saint or god?
Jessica is a lecturer in Classical Studies at The Open University and an author on The Votives Project website.
Find out more about our project, Self Evidence. Take part until 21 June 2015.