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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Roman Era in Britain

by John Ward

published by Methuen & Co. Ltd.
36 Essex Street W. C., London

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.


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 p194  Chapter XI


HoardsArtisans' and Husbandmen's ToolsDomestic Appliances — CUTLERY, &C.

The products of the Romano-British ironsmith were severely utilitarian and rarely exhibit ornamentation. In this he differed from his medieval and modern successors, as also from his contemporary bronze-smith. It would seem that the capability for ornamental work was practically unknown or disregarded, nevertheless it was used for an immense number of purposes. The iron used was wrought, not cast; the only known example of the latter is a statuette found in a slag-heap of the era at Beauport near Hastings.1

Three noteworthy hoards of iron — one found at Great Chesterford​2 in 1855, and two at Silchester in 1890 and 1900​3 — will give the reader an insight into the ironmongery of the era.​4 The first two were in rubbish-pits and the last in a well, and each apparently consisted of a smith's tools and stock-in‑trade. The latter comprised tools and other articles, finished and unfinished, such as were used by carpenters, farriers, shoemakers, husbandmen and others, domestic appliances, and all sorts of oddments that are best described as 'scrap' — unconsidered pieces of iron collected by the possessors or received in exchange for goods supplied and services rendered. In the aggregate the total number of items in these hoards was nearly three hundred, and included the following:— 22 hammers of various shapes and  p195 sizes, 10 axes, 3 adzes, 3 tongs of different types, 9 socketed chisels, 5 socketed gouges, 3 files or rasps, 1 plane, 1 centre-bit, 1 saw, 1 farrier's tool of a type known as the 'boutoir' in France, 2 dividers or compasses, 4 paring-knives, 2 heavy anvils and an anvil bed, 3 shoemakers' anvils, 2 nail-makers' tools, 2 sates, 1 drift, 1 wringer or hand-lever, 1 shears, 1 turf-cutter, 10 plough coulters, 12 scythes, 17 mowers' anvils, 2 forks (?), 8 large bars of uncertain use, 1 axle-tree (?), 10 felloe-bands, 2 or 3 axle-boxes (?), 1 small wheel, several shoes for staves or poles, several knives and choppers, 1 large gridiron, 1 square girder, 5 or 6 padlocks and 3 keys for the same, 1 lamp, 1 millstone rynd, 8 shackles, 2 horse-shoes and a 'hipposandal,' several bucket-handles and hoops, 3 lengths of chain and a curious object with chains attached to it, 1 large ring, 7 hinges, and 4 holdfasts, the residue consisting of hooks, pieces of straps, bands, and other fragments.

The heavier hammers of the era, as Fig. 55, A, resemble our sledge-hammers, and B, a frequent lighter form, has its 'cross-paned' end blunt as in our joiners' hammers. Both examples are from Silchester, and the former is probably a smith's hammer and the latter a carpenter's. Hammers of the latter form with the 'cross-paned' end sharp were probably masons' walling-hammers. The shaft-holes are often small, and Sir John Evans conjectured that compound hafts with iron ends were used for these. He also observed instances in which the face of the hammer was 'steeled' by a plate of steel welded to it.​5 The Silchester example, C, is an unusual combination of hammer and light pick, and is probably a mason's tool. D, also from Silchester, combines hammer and adze, and resembles a tool used by modern wheelwrights and coopers.

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Fig. 55. Hammers and Axes. (All ⅓)

The two Silchester axes, F and G, represent the ordinary Roman forms. The former approximates to the present American felling axe, and the latter to the Kent axe. These axes vary considerably in size and weight, and doubtless served all the industrial purposes of their modern successors. Other shapes are rarely found. One at Lydney resembles some of the Saxon battle-axes in its crescentic form and long cutting-edge. One in the Guildhall, H, with a spike behind, is certainly a butcher's  p196 pole-axe. The tool, E, from Lakenheath, Suffolk, may be described as an axe-adze, and is not uncommon. The adzes of the era are in general similar to the modern, and Fig. 56, A, from Ardoch, is a typical example. Occasionally they are wider, or are gouge-shaped, a form specially useful for shaping the staves of tubs and barrels. It is hardly possible to draw a line between adzes, hoes, and mattocks. Both axes and mattocks are combined with picks, but neither quite resemble the pick-axes and pick-mattocks of to‑day. Examples of the former have been found at Newstead, B, and of the latter at Aldborough, C, and elsewhere. An implement smaller than the last, but with two sharp prongs behind, has been found at Lydney, Rough Castle, and Caerwent. The Roman pick, pure and simple, seems to have had a single arm like the medieval.

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Fig. 56. Picks, Mattocks, Sickles, Spuds, etc. (All ⅓)

Of smiths' tongs of the simpler sort, Fig. 57, A, is a good example from Silchester. A large variety with the points of the grip turned up at right angles, and the one again turned so as to overlap the other, has been found at Silchester and Newstead. The pincers, B, in the Guildhall, would be indispensable to both carpenters and farriers. Files and rasps have been sparingly found, and D is a small Guildhall example of the latter. A larger flat rasp, with a cranked tang and coarsely serrated on one face, obtained from the first Silchester hoard, is seemingly a carpenter's tool, as also for similar rasp with a straight tang at Aldborough. Drills with tapering square or flat butts are fairly common, and indicate that braces or kindred appliances were in general use, but as no example has come down to us, they were probably of wood, like our old-fashioned braces. G, H, and I — a rimer, a gouge-bit, and apparently a large centre-bit — are certainly carpenters' tools, the first two in the Guildhall and the last from Chesterford. F is a metal drill, also in the Guildhall. J is described as a shoemaker's awl in Ro ach Smith's Illustrations of Roman London. It has a wooden handle and bronze ferrule; and a similar tool has been found at Bar Hill.

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Fig. 57. Pincers, Drills, Chisels, Gouges, etc. (All ⅓)

Five examples of chisels and gouges are shown, and of these, M, from Housesteads, is probably a mason's chisel, the rest, K, L, N, O, all from Silchester, being carpenters' tools. These  p200 are of two varieties, the socketed to receive wooden handles,​6 and those with expanded solid heads, but several in the Guildhall have tangs. The plane associated with the Silchester hoard of 1890​7 was of wood which has perished; but the iron sheathing of the face and sides indicates that it was a jack-plane 13¼ ins. long and 2¼ ins. wide. The blade still remains in position between two transverse rivets extending from side-plate to side-plate, that behind threading a lead roller against which it rests. It was probably secured by a wooden wedge between it and the rivet in front. The remains of two planes of similar size have been found at Caerwent, but they apparently lacked the side-plates.

The 'paring-knives' of the Silchester hoards seem to represent the modern joiners' bench-knives. Each has a convex cutting-edge, 8 or 9 ins. long, and a straight back with a projecting stop at one end and the remains of a long handle at the other. Saws are rarely found perfect. Many seem to have been similar to small billet saws. A tapering hand-saw, 20 ins. long, was found at Great Chesterford, and a very small one with deer-horn handle, at Newstead. The iron tool, Fig. 57, E, with spatula-like ends, is one of several in the Guildhall, and is regarded as a modelling tool, and another has one end only flattened. In the same museum are a hollow punch for making holes in leather, and several trowels with tangs for handles, all closely resembling the modern. Compasses are by no means rare. They were of iron or of bronze, and the latter sometimes had iron points. Occasionally the rivet has a slot for a wedge-shaped cotter by which the joint could be so tightened as to become practically rigid. Fig. 68, H, is an ornamented bronze example from Tingewick, Buckinghamshire.

The smith's anvil of the Great Chesterford hoard is a rectangular block of iron with a projecting tabular face, 7 by 5 ins., and a stout tapering tang below for insertion into a wooden block. The Silchester anvil resembles the modern in having a conical beak at one end, and it has a similar tang to the foregoing.8  p201 Although modern in appearance, it is of a form that goes back to the Bronze Age.​9 A small anvil similar to those used by goldsmiths was found at Rushmore. The Silchester shoemakers' anvils resemble those still in use, and were supported on stems with shouldered tangs for wooden blocks. The mowers' anvils are from 7 to 11 ins. long, the upper third about 1 in. square in section, and tapering below to a point. The shoulder is perforated for one or two strips of iron with their ends horizontally coiled to form supporting brackets. In the Caerwent example (Fig. 57, C) the brackets are of a single strip. Similar anvils are still used for beating the edges of scythes upon, in France, Spain, and Italy, and they are made at Birmingham for exportation to South America. They are driven into the ground and flat stones or pieces of wood are placed under the brackets to give them a firm support.

The scythes of the Great Chesterford hoard were remarkable for their shape and length, which was little short of 7 ft. Like the modern scythes, they had a stiffening ridge at the back, but they differed in their curve. This, instead of being gentle throughout, made a rapid bend at about 17 ins. from the butt, causing this recurved portion to be turned somewhat in the direction of the point. This portion was narrow and ended in a turned-up tang for insertion in the sneed. There must, however, have been some additional means for securing these large blades to their handles. Several scythes found at Newstead were shorter and wider, and their curves less accentuated towards the butt, thus approximating to the modern. A scythe found at Bokerly by General Pitt-Rivers, 2 ft. 5½ ins. long, differed again in its sickle-like shape and in having a socket for the sneed.

Curved knives of various shapes and sizes, and evidently used in agriculture, are of common occurrence. The larger of the form of Fig. 56, D, from Silchester, and E, F, from London, are certainly sickles, and the smaller may have been pruning-hooks. The small size of the Roman and the prehistoric sickles is due to the ancient custom of cutting the ears of cornº from off the straw, handful by handful. A socketed tool less curved than the last and about 1 ft. long, found at Caerwent, may be described  p202 as a bill-hook, and was probably used for slashing off branches. The socketed tools from Rushmore, G and H, are usually described as spuds; they may, however, have been respectively the points of a wooden mattock and pick.

The 'hippo-sandal' of the Silchester hoard of 1890 is a not uncommon object both in this country and in France. It has a remote resemblance to a slipper, with a portion of each side of its sole turned up to form a wing or clip, an ascending tongue with a loop at one end, and the other slightly rising and terminating in a loop or hook. In all these details, however, it varies considerably, and sometimes in lieu of the second, the wings are developed and coalesce with a loop at the junction. Others again may be regarded as half-'sandals,' being narrower, with one side straight and lacking the clip. Two of these — a right and a left — would make a complete 'sandal.' These articles have been regarded as lamp-stands, as skids for wheels, as shoes for the ends of the pole-car or sledge, but the prevailing opinion is that they were temporary shoes for horses with injured hoofs or when going over stony ground. Those in halves may have been for oxen.​10 Horse- and ox-shoes are found on Roman sites, and they differ from the modern chiefly in their smaller size, which is explainable by the well-known fact of the small size of the Romano-British horses and oxen. Horse-shoes with undulating or slightly scolloped sides are rather characteristic of the era.

The gridiron of the same hoard is about 17 by 18 ins. It consists of a rectangular frame, with bars arranged longitudinally and transversely (the central one expanding into a circle), resting on four legs and with a ring at each end. Gridirons are rarely found with Roman remains. There are two in the Lewes Museum, each about 1 ft. square, with four legs, parallel bars, and a straight handle. The curious object with chains in the Great Chesterford hoard was certainly a pot-hanger.​11 The swivel-piece was large and ornamented with a large ring on the summit to receive the supporting beam or bracket; and from it depended a chain, at  p203 the foot of which wasº attached two shorter chains, each ending with a hook. There are the remains of a similar hanger in the Cirencester Museum. An iron folding tripod, 4 ft. 3 ins. high, found at Stanfordbury, Bedfordshire, had a swivelled pot-hanger suspended from its summit.​12 It was associated with a pair of fire-dogs and several bronze cooking utensils.

Other fire-dogs have been found associated with Roman remains at Mount Bures​13 near Colchester, Capel Garmon, Denbighshire,​14 and near Barton, Cambridgeshire.​15 They were all of one type, consisting of two uprights about 2½ ft. high, connected below with a horizontal bar, and resting on four feet, each pair of feet being formed of a curved piece attached to the bottom of the upright. Each upright terminated above in an ox's head with long horns, and facing outwards. The Capel Garmon dog was an elaborate example with the uprights ornamented with series of semicircular loops. These fire-dogs, having double fronts, were adapted for central hearths, in this respect unlike the medieval and later, which usually had single uprights and hook-like projections on the inner sides of these. These were probably placed between the dogs, and held in position by being threaded on the horns, the hooks serving as supports for horizontal spits, and the intervening portions for hanging toasters and other cooking appliances. Bars resting upon the horizontal members of the dogs would usefully support pans and other cooking utensils.

Knives are almost invariably found on our Roman sites, but it is only where they have escaped the extreme effects of oxidization that their good quality and finish can be appreciated. Many have bone handles, but as most are without, it may be inferred that the majority were of wood. They were attached by three methods — by a narrow tang inserted into or passing through the handle; by a plate-tang, the handle being in two halves, one on either side of the plate, and riveted through it; and less frequently and only in the larger knives, by a socket, into which the handle was inserted. Occasionally the handle is of  p204 iron, blade and handle being in a single piece. Some are of bronze, usually in the form of an animal or terminating in an animal's head. Three prevailing shapes of blades can be distinguished, examples of which are shown in Fig. 58, A to I. Those with the curved blades of B, C, and I, and of the rarer shape A, all from London, are specially notable for their careful finish. The handles of these are mostly of bone, ornamented with incised lines or circles, and the plates to which they are riveted usually end in semicircular loops or rings. In rare instances these knives are tanged for tubular handles, as in E, from Rushmore. Knives of this type apparently answer to our table-knives, be they are smaller as a rule, and the handles rarely exceed 3 ins. in length.

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Fig. 58. Knives and Shears. (J, K, L, ⅔; the rest, ⅓)

Straight-bladed knives with tangs are more common. They vary considerably in shape and size, but G, from Rushmore, is representative of the majority. Occasionally they are leaf-shaped, or the back is straight from base to point. The handles were usually of wood, bone handles as in D, a large knife from Lydney, being uncommon; and, to judge from the length of the tangs, they were generally long. We can hardly class with either group the little knives, A and H, both from London. The first is a rare example stamped with the maker's name — OLONDVS F., and its handle appears to have been of wood. The second has an iron handle, and was possibly a surgeon's implement.

Large knives with triangular blades of the shape of F have tangs or sockets, and there is a good example of the former with a bone handle from Arncliffe in the British Museum. They are probably butchers' knives, and this is corroborated by the fact that the knives carved on altars, with other sacrificial implements, are of this shape.

Clasp- or pocket-knives are mostly of the forms of J and K. The former is from Caerwent and has a turned cylindrical bronze handle. The latter is of more frequent occurrence, and its handle is of openwork bronze, representing a hound catching a hare. In the next example, L, from Lydney, the handle is of bone, ornamented withº incised circles, and furnished with a ring for suspension. The Roman clasp-knives lacked the back spring and the nail-groove of the modern.

 p206  Steels were certainly used, for Mr. Roach Smith figured one found in London, of a shape resembling that of a modern flat file, with a bronze handle in the form of a horse's head.​16 The usual implement for the purpose, however, was the whetstone, of which examples are almost invariably found on Roman sites. Any convenient piece of hard sandstone an inch or two in width, and from 4 to 8 or more in length, or a long siliceous pebble, served the end; but sometimes the stone was neatly shaped, and this especially so in the case of small whetstones, which often had a hole for suspension.

Shears are not uncommon, and three examples are given, M, N, O, the first being of bronze from Caerleon, and the other two of iron, from Rushmore and Aldborough respectively. The last is perhaps the more usual form. The other two resemble the modern shears in the circular sweep of their heads — an arrangement which materially increases their elasticity. The rounded notch at the base of each cutting edge of N for cutting cord or twigs is a convenient feature, but the bronze example, M, which possibly is medieval, is unusual in having four on each side. The shears are of all sizes from about 5 ins. to 1 ft. or more, and the smaller were certainly domestic appliances used as our modern scissors, for although the Romans were acquainted with scissors on the lever principle, very few examples have been found in this country, and it is doubtful whether they are Roman at all.

The list of the contents of the Great Chesterford and Silchester hoards by no means exhausts the varied uses of iron. Nails, straps, holdfasts, clamps, sheaths and sockets for door pivots, hinges of various types, hasps, bolts, latches, and joints for tree-pipes, indicate its extensive use in building-construction. The first are invariably found on the sites of buildings and often in abundance, and most closely resemble those of modern joiners and carpenters.​17 Iron padlocks, large keys, lock-escutcheons, chains with links as varied as the modern, bridle-bits and other details of horse-harness, swivels, shackles, goad-heads, swords, daggers,  p207 spear, arrow and bolt heads, and chain and plate‑mail, have all been found, some plentifully, others rarely. Besides these, the excavations of large sites, as those of Silchester and Caerwent, have yielded many iron objects and fragments, the purposes of which are uncertain or quite unknown.

The Author's Notes:

1 Proc. Soc. Ant. 2, xiv, p359.

2 Arch. Jour. xiii, p1.

3 Archaeologia, LII, p742; LIV, p139; LVII, p246.

4 Liger, La Ferronnerieº is a useful book of reference.

5 Archaeologia, LIV, p145.

6 One of four chisels found at Newstead has a haft of deer-horn.

7 Figured in Archaeologia, LIV, 151.

8 These two anvils are figured in Arch. Jour. XIII, plate i; and Archaeologia, LIV, p142.

9 Evans, Ancient Bronze Implements, p182.

10 Brit. Arch. Assoc. l, p251; Archaeologia, LIV, p154. See also Essex Arch. Soc., 1, p108.

11 Arch. Jour. XIII, plate ii. See also Archaeologia, LVI, p242.

12 Collect. Antiq. ii, plate xi.

13 Ib. ii, p25.

14 Arch. Camb. 3, ii, p91.

15 Archaeologia, XIX, p57.

16 Illustrations of Roman London, p141.

17 A series of these is illustrated in Rom. Brit. Buildings and Earthworks, chap. XI.

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