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White chalky earth from Bethlehem, Palestine, 1920-1930

This tablet of white chalky earth from the Milk Grotto in the holy city of Bethlehem was intended to be eaten. The eating of earth sounds unusual but is by no means uncommon and has a long history. Sometimes eaten in times of desperate famine, earth eating (known as geophagy) is particularly associated with pregnant and nursing women. Pregnancy and lactation require a higher nutritional intake. In areas where the diet is traditionally poor, cravings for additional nutrition can be assisted by eating clay tablets, which can contain a range of essential elements such as potassium, zinc and magnesium. That this clay was said to come from the site where Christians believe the Virgin Mary stopped to breastfeed Jesus as they fled to Egypt would have given it a special significance. It may well have been brought back from a religious pilgrimage. The earth is shown here with a similar example (A669205).

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Glossary: breast feeding

The process of synthesising milk from the breasts, usually a child from its mother.

Glossary: pilgrimage

No description.

Glossary: terra sigillata

A form of clay from the Greek islands of Lemnos or Samos. Until the 1700s, terra sigillata was used as a medicine and seen as a general cure for bodily impurities.