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This exhibit about the early history of Western medicine was held at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and the University of Michigan Library from 10 February through 30 April 2017. The catalogue explores twenty centuries of medical history as illustrated by a broad selection of archaeological artifacts; Graeco-Roman, Islamic, and Medieval manuscripts; and early printed books. It includes five essays and a total of 80 entries that are illustrated and described.
Traditionally, libraries mostly deal with textual objects, whereas museums are conceived as the repositories of the archaeological and artistic record. This catalogue, however, is an attempt to establish a dialog between the world of the library and that of the museum by exploring how medical texts, as transmitted throughout the centuries on different support materials (papyrus, parchment/vellum, and paper) and formats (scroll and codex), help us illuminate, contextualize, and even shape, the meaning of three-dimensional artifacts. For example, the archaeologist can endlessly speculate about the actual application of certain cosmetic or medical instruments. Forceps, bifurcated hooks, ear probes, and spoon probes might suggest a number of uses, both cosmetic and medical. But only when we read Aulus Cornelius Celsus (fl. 25 ad) vividly describing how to use a probe to assess the damage of a fistula, or Paul of Aegina (ca. 625–ca. 690 ad) recommending the use of tweezers to extract a hair from the eye affected by conjunctivitis, that we fully understand the context in which these tools were used.
Certainly, the University of Michigan is one among very few locations in North America capable of hosting such an ambitious and broad project. The history of medicine collection, held in U-M’s Special Collections Library, is indeed an extraordinary gathering of rare books, consisting of more than 8,500 volumes, including a substantial number of holdings from the 15th through the 18th centuries. In addition to the archaeological artifacts held by the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, there are sixty-one ancient magical gemstones which, with a combination of magical spells and allusive images, were used, for example, to expel demons and obtain protection and treatment against particular ailments. It is not an exaggeration to state that these medical amulets became the initial inspiration for this exhibition. In addition to these, it became clear that the Kelsey would be a great resource for not only these medical gemstones but also for other ancient artifacts documenting the healing powers attributed to religion and magic in antiquity, such as the probes described above.
Many of these artifacts came to the Kelsey as the result of the University of Michigan excavations (1924–1935) at the Egyptian town, Karanis, one of many that Ptolemy II Philadelphos (284–246 bc) founded in the Fayum region in order to exploit its agricultural resources. In short, each object from Karanis included in this catalogue is part of the record of daily life in this Graeco-Roman town, whose habitation extended from its foundation in the mid-3rd century bc until the end of the 6th century ad. And the Karanis excavations were also the foundations of what eventually became the largest repository of papyri in North America: U-M Library’s Papyrology Collection. Specifically, the Papyrology Collection has contributed to this catalogue with a fascinating selection of eight Greek and Coptic papyri that perfectly illustrate the various ways whereby we might define medicine in antiquity. For example, a 2nd century ad papyrus fragment of Dioscorides’ On Materia Medica represents an early stage in the transmission of a medical text that would be quickly canonized within academic circles, whereas a very different type of healing is depicted in a papyrus used to repel fever and other diseases by uttering a magical spell.
152 pages • 125 full-color images • hardcover • 12 x 9 • $35.00