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 p420  Dolabra

Article by James Yates, M.A., F.R.S.,
on p420 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

DOLABRA, dim. DOLABELLA, (σμίλη, dim. σμιλίον), a chisel, a celt, was used for a variety of purposes in ancient as in modern times. They were frequently employed in making entrenchments and in destroying fortifications (Liv. IX.37, XXI.11; Curt. IX.5;​a Tac. Hist. III.20); and hence they are often found in ancient earth-works and encampments. They abound in our public museums, being known under the equivalent name of "celts" to antiquaries, who, however, generally use the word without understanding its true sense (see Jameson's Etym. Dict. s.v. Celt). Celtes is an old Latin word for a chisel, probably derived from coelo, to engrave. Thus the phrase celte sculpantur in silice occurs in the vulgate version of Job (xix.24), and malleolo et celte literatus silex in an inscription found at Pola (Gruter, p329). These articles are for the most part of bronze, more rarely of hard stone. The sizes and forms which they present, are as various as the uses to which they are applied. The annexed woodcut is designed to show a few of the most remarkable varieties.

[image ALT: An engraving showing the heads of seven chisels.]

Fig. 1 is from a celt found, with several others, at Karnbrê in Cornwall (Borlase, Ant. of Cornwall, III.13). this length was six inches without the haft, which was no doubt of wood, and fixed directly into the socket at the top. It must have been a very effective implement for removing the stones in the wall of a city or fortification, after they had been first shattered and loosened in some degree by the battering-ram. The ear, or loop, which is seen in this and many other celts, would be useful to suspend them from the soldier's girdle, and may also have had a cord or chain attached to it to assist in drawing back the celt whenever it became too firmly wedged between the stones of the wall which it was intended to destroy. Figs. 2 and 3 are from Sir W. Hamilton's collection in the British Museum. These chisels seem best adapted for the use of the carpenter. The celt (fig. 4) which was found in Furness, co. Lancaster (Archaeologia, V. p106), instead of being shaped to receive, or to be inserted into a handle, like the three preceding, is made thick, smooth, and round in the middle, so as to be conveniently manipulated without a handle. It is 9 inches long, and weighs 2 lb. 5 oz. Its sharp edge is like that of a common hatchet, and may have been used for polishing timber. On the other hand, figs. 5, 6, 7, exactly resemble the knife now used by leather-cutters, and therefore illustrate the account given by Julius Pollux, who reckons this same tool, the σμίλη, among the ἐργαλεῖα τοῦ σκυτοτόμου. This instrument was also used for cutting paper, and probably in the same manner (σμίλα χαρτοτόμος, sicila, Philox. Gloss.).

[image ALT: An engraving showing a small hatchet, a meat cleaver, and a rusted knife in its scabbard.]
The following woodcut shows a small bronze celt, fixed into the handle of stag's horn, and therefore exemplifies one of the modes of attaching the metal to its haft. It was evidently adapted for very fine work, and is strongly contrasted with the above-figured celt from Cornwall. It was found in an ancient tomb in Wiltshire (Sir R. C. Hoare's Anc. Wilts. South, pp182, 203). The two other figures in this woodcut represent the knife used in sacrifices, as it is often exhibited on cameos and bas-reliefs, being the scena, sacena, or dolabra pontificalis, mentioned by Festus (s.v. Scena); and the securis dolabrata, or hatchet​b furnished with a chisel (Pallad. De Re Rust. I.43) as sculptured on a funereal monument.

Thayer's Notes:

a The dolabra also appears twice in Book 5 of the Histories of Alexander: 5.6.5 and 5.6.14.

b For the closely related axe and hatchet, see the article Securis, which includes 2 good photographs of bronze secures from archaeological excavations in central Italy.

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Page updated: 26 May 18