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CAC3045 : Human Dissection in Antiquity (stage 3) (Inactive)

  • Inactive for Year: 2020/21
  • Module Leader(s): Dr Thomas Rütten
  • Owning School: History, Classics and Archaeology
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus
Semester 1 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0


Ancient medicine is one of the most important and influential achievements of classical civilization. The practice of human dissection is at the core of ancient medicine’s legacy to the modern world. It constitutes a cultural practice, in which medicine, science, religion, philosophy, law, and politics converge. Its history mirrors the history of Greek and Roman medicine on a micro level.

We will be looking at early Greek speculations about the human body (pre-Socratic natural philosophers), at the growth of anatomical knowledge through chance observation (Hippocratic authors) and zootomy (Aristotle), at the rise of human anatomy in Hellenistic Alexandria (Herophilos, Erasistratos), the fall of human anatomy thereafter, its critics (Roman doctors and church fathers) and propagators (author of the pseudonymous Hippocratic letters), as well as its most devoted spokesman Galen of Pergamon who wasn’t able, however, to revive the practice of human dissection. We will also be looking at the rebirth of ancient anatomy and human dissection in Renaissance Italy, especially in the work of Vesalius.

The module aims to enable students to study an aspect of (ancient) culture from a variety of angles: history of science, medicine, religion, philosophy (natural philosophy, moral philosophy, and epistemology), law, and society.

The course further aims to:
1. Provide students with a sound knowledge of the origins and development of Greek and Roman anatomy and the numerous ways in which it is embedded in ancient societies and cultures.
2. Provide insight into the ways the Greeks and Romans dealt with death, dead bodies, and cultural taboos surrounding them.
3. Develop the students’ skills of analysis, interpretation and evaluation of texts and secondary sources, and further develop their skills of written and oral communication, particularly in seminars.
4. Develop the students’ capacity for independent study in independent student study groups and enhance their team spirit.
5. Confront students with their own bodies, mortality, ideas about dying and death, and personal sense of decency vis-a-vis the dead body.

Outline Of Syllabus

1. Introduction - Ancient cultural practices surrounding the dead body
2. Cultural and epistemological obstacles to human dissection in Classical and Hellenistic Times
3. Comparative anatomy (Hippocratic Corpus, Aristotle)
4. Herophilus and human dissection
5. How to write a documentary commentary and an essay
6. Erasistratus and human dissection
7. Reverberations of the anatomical revolution (Ps.-Hippocrates, Celsus, Tertullian)
8. Rufus of Ephesus and the taboo of human dissection
9. Galen, the devoted anatomist and would-be dissector of human corpses
10. Vesalius and the triumph of human dissection
11. Imagining human dissection: Rembrandt's The Anatomy of Dr Tulp, 1632
12. Recap and Questions and Answers

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Guided Independent StudyAssessment preparation and completion581:0058:0050% of guided independent study
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesLecture122:0024:00N/A
Guided Independent StudyDirected research and reading541:0054:0020% of guided independent study
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching81:008:00Seminars
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesFieldwork12:002:00Fieldtrip to RVI
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesDrop-in/surgery21:002:00N/A
Guided Independent StudyIndependent study521:0052:0030% of guided independent study
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

Lectures are used:
•       to introduce the types, characteristics and distribution of evidence for or against the ancient practice of human dissection
•       to introduce the methods by which this evidence can be most effectively used in gaining knowledge about ancient anatomy
•       to draw attention to key aspects of this evidence for further, independent study
•       to discuss the interpretation of the evidence, and the problems involved in its interpretation
•       to recommend secondary readings relevant to the interpretive problems raised, and highlight essential arguments and controversies in these readings
•       to challenge students to consider both the preconceptions they may have about the dead human body, and how these preconceptions may shape their interpretation of ancient anatomical practices and their epistemological, ethical, religious, legal, cultural, and scientific contexts.
•       to provide focussed instruction and practice in developing specific research skills assessed in the module (e.g. constructing a bibliography for an essay, structuring an essay, constructing an argument, referencing it and composing a narrative)
Seminars are used:
•       to allow students to discuss a prescribed piece of secondary literature in a small group, in a conversation structured by seminar questions distributed in advance
•       to give students the opportunity to articulate their own arguments about an aspect of human dissection in ancient times
•       to provide a supportive and constructive environment for developing, sharing and evaluating ideas that could form the basis for the coursework essay

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Essay1M753000 word essay due semester one assessment period
Essay1M251000 word documentary commentary due semester one
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

The knowledge and skills outcomes, being mostly connected with the social, cultural etc. contexts of dissection in antiquity and beyond, are best tested through case studies, which students can pursue over a longer period of time. This makes submitted work the best form of assessment.
The documentary commentary tests the students’ abilty to isolate and analyse the relevant features of source texts.

Submitted work tests intended knowledge and skills outcomes, develops key skills in research, reading and writing.

All Erasmus students at Newcastle University are expected to do the same assessment as students registered for a degree.
Study-abroad, non-Erasmus exchange and Loyola students spending semester 1 only are required to finish their assessment while in Newcastle. This will take the form of an alternative assessment, as outlined in the formats below:

Modules assessed by Coursework and Exam:
The normal alternative form of assessment for all semester 1 non-EU study abroad students will be one essay in addition to the other coursework assessment (the length of the essay should be adjusted in order to comply with the assessment tariff); to be submitted no later than 12pm Friday of week 12. The essays should be set so as to assure coverage of the course content to date.

Modules assessed by Exam only:
The normal alternative form of assessment for all semester 1 non-EU study abroad students will be two 2,000 word written exercises; to be submitted no later than 12pm Friday of week 12. The essays should be set so as to assure coverage of the course content to date.

Modules assessed by Coursework only:
All semester 1 non-EU study abroad students will be expected to complete the standard assessment for the module; to be submitted no later than 12pm Friday of week 12. The essays should be set so as to assure coverage of the course content to date.
Study-abroad, non-Erasmus exchange and Loyola students spending the whole academic year or semester 2 are required to complete the standard assessment as set out in the MOF under all circumstances.

Reading Lists