Skip to Main Content

Riley Auer

Ancient Studies
“Illustrating the Unseen: Analogy and Metaphor in an Ancient Gynecological Text”

Riley Auer

Due to societal taboos involving the female body and childbirth throughout the ancient world, women played a primary role in the treatment of so called “female diseases” and an exclusive role in normal childbirth. Male doctors and healers often employed women as intermediaries in the treatment of female clients, and it is generally recognized that doctors such as Hippocrates and Soranus wrote their authoritative treatises on female diseases based upon information given to them by such intermediaries. My research will study the development of female liaisons into full-fledged and acknowledged medical professionals in Imperial Rome. By analyzing documentary evidence, primarily funerary inscriptions of female medical practitioners, and accompanying relief sculptures, I will determine the terms in which they were identified as obstetricians, gynecologists, and midwives, rather than interagents between doctors and patients. Although historians have studied inscriptional evidence, the reliefs accompanying the inscriptions, a potentially rich source of information, have received scant treatment. It is essential that we add this dimension to the study of the early female medical professionals in the Roman Empire. This project will tell the story of the women who self-identified as medical professionals by situating these few surviving women within the wider development professional medicine in the West.

Who are your mentors for your research? How did you arrange to work with this person?
Dr. Molly Jones-Lewis. Ancient Studies Lecturer
Dr. David Rosenbloom. Professor of Ancient Studies and Ancient Studies Chair

How did you arrange to work with them?
Dr. Jones-Lewis is a scholar of ancient medicine and law. She is the perfect mentor for my Undergraduate Research Award (URA) project which focuses on the rising role of professional women in Roman obstetrics and gynecology. I asked Dr. Jones-Lewis to be my thesis mentor on the Ancient Studies Department trip to Turkey during the spring 2015 semester. Over the last year we have shaped and focused my thesis into a philological study of gynecological language in The Gynecology, a second-century CE work by Soranus of Ephesus. When I proposed that I apply for URA funding, we developed a research question closely related to my thesis.

Dr. Rosenbloom and Dr. Jones-Lewis are an amazing support system. They have helped me become a better writer, translator, student, and Classicist. With their help – fine tuning my research process, assisting me with translation, and proofreading my writing – I will produce an insightful URA on the development of female professionalism in medicine using the inscriptions and relief sculptures on tombstones.

How did you know this was the project you wanted to do?
With the help of my fantastic thesis advisor, Dr. Jones-Lewis, I developed my URA question to complement the work I was already doing for my honors thesis. My thesis focuses on how language – terminology, analogy, metaphor, comparison, illustration – was developed to meet the needs of professional midwives and their patients. I asked myself, where can I find the impact of these literary developments in practice? My answer appears on the tombstones of women who are identified as medical practitioners. These women were commemorated with images of them in action (delivering babies, treating patients) or with identifying objects – such as a cupping glass or symbol of the god of healing, Asclepius. This allows us to compare what we see in Soranus’ text to images and epitaphs produced by Soranus’ audience.

Is this your first independent artistic project?
No, last semester I completed an URCAD project focusing on the preliminary results of my undergraduate thesis. The URCAD presentation, titled “Illustrating the Unseen: Analogy and Metaphor in an Ancient Gynecological Text”, was an interdisciplinary project supported by Seeing Science. The goal of the project was to connect student researchers (predominantly scientists) and student artists. Together, Zoe Wang and I created a visual project illustrating the anatomy of Soranus’ work and highlighting several key terms which he used to create specific images for his audience. My URA will be completed in tandem with the completion of my undergraduate thesis work focusing on Soranus.

How much time do you put into this work?
I spend at least 10 hours a week on this project. There is always an article to read, a passage to translate, or a paragraph I can fine tune.

How did you hear about the Undergraduate Research Award (URA) program?
I first heard about the URA through peers in my department who had received the award in previous years.

What academic background did you have before you applied for the URA?
My academic background has been primarily focused within my major – I have taken advanced Greek, Latin, art history, culture, and historic research courses. Without experience translating ancient languages this project would be impossible. Valuable information is lost in translation, such as tone, double meaning, inflection and other grammatical relationships, etc.

Was the URA application difficult to do?
The application was a wonderful challenge, and I greatly underestimated it at first glance. It required a great deal of assistance from advisors; together we fine-tuned my research question, clarified my arguments, and organized my responses. Advisor support is 100 percent the key to success.

What has been the hardest part about your research?
The hardest part of my research is finding material. Because I need to find a very specific kind of objects in museums in Europe, I spent a great deal of time examining museum catalogs and planning out a route and schedule that will allow me to see them all.
Ultimately, this means that I will need to take hundreds of photographs, and translate a large number of tombstones in order to compare them to any reliefs that accompany them.

How does your research relate to your work in other classes?
My work is relevant to my thesis, Ancient Medicine (ANCS 350), Ancient Culture (HIST 456), ancient Greek, and Latin. My thesis developed out of an interest in ancient pharmacuetical botany and female medicine. When I discovered Soranus in Dr. Jones-Lewis’s Ancient Medicine course I instantly knew he was the one. His work addressed all of my areas of interest, and – the real icing on the cake – Gynecology was a Roman text written in Greek. I knew I could use his writing to improve my translation skills and develop a thesis I was really passionate about. Little did I know, learning Greek by translating a series of gynecological texts would cause me to consistently translate average terms as medical ones. For instance, I have the unfortunate habit of translating ὑστέραíᾳ, the Greek word meaning ‘on the next day,’ as ‘uterus’ (ὑστέρα) which makes for some rather interesting and comical translations.

Few things are more rewarding than looking at a text in its original language and seeing beyond the obscurities created through translation, knowing that you are looking back through time to words written by a real person with real objectives. It causes you to become very aware of the “human legacy” and the impact that individuals can have on humanity and time. This connection to the “human legacy” inspires me to pursue classical language and women’s health, and to investigate these topics with deep-seated curiosity and passion.

What else are you involved in on campus?
I am the president of the Ancient Studies Council, a group focused on engaging students in the Classics and sponsoring peer mentorship. The fall 2016 semester will be particularly exciting as we prepare for UMBC’s 50th Anniversary celebrations, Ancient Studies Week, and a series of scheduled events and partnerships.

What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?
The best advice is simply to just go for it. You never know what you are capable of until you have given it your best shot.

What are your career goals?
I am focusing on pursing a PhD in Classics, concentrating on ancient medicine and sex culture.

Did you transfer to UMBC from another institution?
I transferred from Anne Arundel Community College (AACC).

8/3/2016

Get back jack!