Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-x24gv Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-05-25T23:21:23.030Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Design, function and use-wear in spoons: reconstructing everyday Roman social practice

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 November 2014

Ellen Swift*
University of Kent, Canterbury,


Image of the first page of this content. For PDF version, please use the ‘Save PDF’ preceeding this image.'
Copyright © Journal of Roman Archaeology L.L.C. 2014

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Tilley, C. et al. (edd.), Handbook of material culture (London 2006)Google Scholar.

2 E.g., Miller, D., Material culture and mass consumption (Oxford 1991)Google Scholar.

3 Shove, E., The design of everyday life (Oxford 2007) 14 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 E.g., Allason-Jones, L., Daily life in Roman Britain (Westport, CT 2008)Google Scholar.

5 See, e.g., Mills, B. J. and Walker, W. H., Memory work: archaeologies of material practices (Santa Fe, NM 2008)Google Scholar.

6 E.g., Strong, D. E. and Brown, D., Roman crafts (London 1976)Google Scholar.

7 Norman, D. A., The design of everyday things (New York 2002)Google Scholar.

8 See most recently the chapters in Allason-Jones, L. (ed.), Artefacts in Roman Britain: their purpose and use (Cambridge 2011)Google Scholar.

9 Miller, D., Artefacts as categories: a study of ceramic variability in India (Cambridge 1985) 5174 Google Scholar.

10 Biddulph, E., “Form and function: the experimental use of Roman Samian ware cups,” OJA 27 (2008) 91100 Google Scholar.

11 Willis, S. H., “Samian pottery: a resource for the study of Roman Britain and beyond,” IntArch 17 (2005) 8.7.Google Scholar See also Evans, J., “Pottery function and finewares in the Roman north,” JRomPotStud 6 (1993) 95118 Google Scholar, for a different kind of evidence produced through use - the sooting of pottery vessels.

12 Smith, L., Pewter tableware: its function, significance, and contribution to our understanding of life in Roman Britain through a case-study of material held in the British Museum (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Reading 2011)Google Scholar.

13 Shove (supra n.3) 7-10. For some specific examples, see Forty, A., Objects of desire: design and society, 1750-1980 (London 1986) 124–28Google Scholar, on office furniture; Rybczynski, W., Home: a short history of an idea (New York 1986) 7085 Google Scholar, on chairs and cultural attitudes to sitting.

14 E.g., Whiteley, N., Design for society (London 1993) 141–42Google Scholar; Cockburn, C., “The material of male power,” in Mackenzie, D. and Wajcman, J. (edd.), The social shaping of technology (Milton Keynes 1985) 139–43Google Scholar, on products designed with men as the putative users.

15 Pickford, I., Silver flatware: English, Irish, and Scottish, 1660-1980 (Woodbridge 1983) 180210 Google Scholar; Goldstein, D., “Implements of eating,” in Coffin, S. D. (ed.), Feeding desire: design and the tools of the table, 1500-2005 (New York 2006) 127 Google Scholar; Moore, S., Spoons 1650-2000 (Princes Risborough 2005) 3234 Google Scholar.

16 Goldstein ibid. 129.

17 Pickford (supra n.15) 19.

18 Goldstein (supra n.15) 139-43.

19 S. von Drachenfels, “The design of table tools and the effect of form on etiquette and table setting,” in Coffin (supra n.15).

20 Johns, C., The Hoxne Late Roman treasure: gold jewellery and silver plate (London 2010) 130–31Google Scholar.

21 Riha, E. and Stern, W. B., Die römischen Löffel aus Augst und Kaiseraugst (Forschungen in Augst 5, 1982)Google Scholar.

22 Ibid. 34.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid. 35.

25 Johns (supra n.20) 104-6; Baratte, F. et al., Le trésor de Carthage (Paris 2002) 5869 Google Scholar.

26 Johns ibid. 98; Mielsch, H., “Miszellen zur spätantiken Toreutik,” AA 1992, 475–78Google Scholar.

27 Johns ibid. 98. For overviews of spoon development, see ibid. 97-106; Martin, M., “Esslöffel,” in Cahn, H. A. and Kaufmann-Heinimann, A. (edd.), Der spätrömische Silberschatz von Kaiseraugst (Derendingen 1984) 7691 Google Scholar; Strong, D. E., Greek and Roman gold and silver plate (London 1966) 155 Google Scholar.

28 For the most comprehensive treatments, see Johns (supra n.20) 106-8, M. Martin, “Weinsiebchen und Toiletgerät,” in Cahn and Kaufmann-Heinimann ibid. 97-132.

29 Martin (supra n.27) 58-67.

30 Johns (supra n.20) 100; Martin ibid. 94; Johns, C. and Potter, T., The Thetford treasure: Roman jewellery and silver (London 1983) 39 Google Scholar.

31 Johns ibid. 37; Martin (supra n.27) 68-75.

32 Johns, C. and Potter, T., “The Canterbury Late Roman treasure,” AntJ 65 (1985) 312–52, cat. nos. 5-6CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 Johns (supra n.20) 103-4.

34 Vroom, J., “The archaeology of late antique dining habits in the Eastern Mediterranean: a preliminary study of the evidence,” in Lavan, L., Swift, E. and Putzeys, T. (edd.), Objects in context, objects in use: material spatiality in late antiquity (Leiden 2007) 351 Google Scholar; Marquardt, J., Mau, A. and Mommsen, T., Das Privatleben der Römer (Leipzig 1886) 316 Google Scholar.

35 Emery, J., European spoons before 1700 (London 1976) 32 Google Scholar; Martin (supra n.27) 92-93; Cool, H. E. M., Eating and drinking in Roman Britain (Cambridge 2006) 102 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 Emery ibid. 21 and 31; Goldstein (supra n.15) 116.

37 Riha and Stern (supra n.21) 10.

38 Martin (supra n.27) 93; Marquardt et al. (supra n.34) 316.

39 Johns (supra n.20) 98.

40 Riha and Stern (supra n.21) 10; Martin 1984 (supra n.27) 92; Moore (supra n.15) 4-5.

41 E.g., Pliny, NH 28.21, 28.63 and 28.67-68, refers to measurements using cochlearia; NH 28.53 to measurement using a ligula. Cf. Marquardt et al. (supra n.34) 315.

42 Johns (supra n.20) 98.

43 Ibid. 100.

44 Riha and Stern (supra n.21) 10.

45 Cool (supra n.35) 50.

46 Cool, H. E. M., “Some notes on spoons and mortaria,” in Croxford, B. et al. (edd.), TRAC 2003 (Oxford 2004) 2930 Google Scholar.

47 Emery (supra n.35) 32: still-life with eggs and thrushes from the villa of Giulia Felice at Pompeii, now in the Naples museum.

48 Vroom (supra n.34) 356.

49 Knudsen, S., “Dining as a fine art: tablewares of the ancient Romans,” in Kondoleon, C. (ed.), Antioch: the lost ancient city (Princeton, NJ 2000) fig. 1Google Scholar; ibid. 182.

50 Emery (supra n.35).

51 Ibid. 5 and 15.

52 Mielsch (supra n.26); Johns (supra n.20) 103-4.

53 Swift, E., Style and function in Roman decoration: living with objects and interiors (Farnham 2009) 133 Google Scholar.

54 von Petrikovits, H., “Frühchristliche Silberlöffel,” in Swoboda-Milenovič, R. M. (ed.), Corolla memoriae Erich Swoboda dedicata (Graz 1966) 179 Google Scholar; Hauser, S. R., Spätantike und frühbyzantinische Silberlöffel (JbAC Ergb. 19; Münster 1992) 83 Google Scholar.

55 Richardson, H., “Derrynavlan and other early church treasures,” J. R. Soc. Ant. Ireland 110 (1980) 96 Google Scholar; Johns and Potter (supra n.30) 54; Hauser ibid. 78.

56 Vroom (supra n.34) 351; see von Petrikovits (supra n.54) 173-82 and Hauser ibid. 78-87, for a discussion.

57 Von Petrikovits ibid. 180; Hauser ibid. 78-87.

58 Von Petrikovits ibid. 180-81.

59 Martin (supra n.27) summarises the debate; cf. also Hauser (supra n.54) 78-87.

60 Hauser ibid. 87 and 79; Böhme, H. W., “Löffelbeigabe in spätrömischen Gräbern nördlich der Alpen,” JbRGZM 17 (1970) 189 Google Scholar.

61 Johns and Potter (supra n.30) 35.

62 E.g., Martin (supra n.27) 67.

63 Pickford (supra n.15) 62-63.

64 Unfortunately, this material could not be removed from the cases to be studied close up.

65 In instances where the spoons are published in major catalogues, they are referred to in the text by the catalogue numbers; other items are referred to by the museum reference number.

66 British Museum accession [acc.] nos. 1872.0402.197, 1892.0901.561, 1928.0703.14, and 1856.0701. 1146; LAARC, ONE94[18203]5018; Riha and Stern (supra n.21) cat. nos. 128 and 132; Canterbury Museum acc. nos. 2300-1.

67 Canterbury Museum acc. no. 2301.

68 LAARC, ONE94[18203]5018.

69 Riha and Stern (supra n.21) cat. no. 132.

70 British Museum acc. no. 1928.0713.14.

71 Riha and Stern (supra n.21) cat. no. 128.

72 LAARC, GPO75[7745]2870; Riha and Stern ibid. cat. nos. 44 and 84.

73 LAARC, LIB82[227]67 and BAR79[0]82; Riha and Stern ibid. cat. nos. 3, 9, 18, 25, 76, 81, 111, 114 and 125; British Museum acc. no. 1892.0901.5561.

74 Riha and Stern ibid., cat. nos. 4, 12, 42 and 48; British Museum acc. no. 1928.1020.1; LAARC, ONE94[18182]4686, GPO75[7745]2870 and WIV88[2132]113; further, less clear examples at Riha and Stern ibid., cat. nos. 22, 31 and 75; LAARC, ONE94[9094]6454 and CKL88[583]75; British Museum acc. nos. 1856.0701.1145 and 1856.0701.225.

75 Biddulph (supra n.10) 94.

76 Willis (supra n.11) Tables 43 and 81.

77 British Museum acc. no. 1978.0102.528.

78 Riha and Stern (supra n.21) cat. nos. 177 and 196.

79 LAARC, NFW74[110]245, British Museum acc. nos. 1866.1203.157 and 1921.0216.47; Riha and Stern ibid., cat. nos. 147, 162, 174, 179, 184-85, 188, 213-14 and 219.

80 Riha and Stern ibid., cat. nos. 162, 174, 179 and 219.

81 Willis (supra n.11) Table 58.

82 The shape of the bowl would in any case make it difficult to achieve contact between a vessel and the rear part of the spoon-bowl, unless inside the lip of a beaker-type shape.

83 E.g., Riha and Stern (supra n.21) cat. nos. 262 and 275.

84 E.g., British Museum acc. nos. 1947.1002.1, 1870.0402.195, and 1866.1229.36; Riha and Stern ibid. cat. nos. 236 and 239-40. Less clear examples: ibid. cat. nos. 245 and 249.

85 Ibid. cat. nos. 254 and 261.

86 In examples with pear-shaped bowl, all from the British Museum acc. nos. 1866.1229.32, 1872. 0725. 1 (in this case the bowl has also become very thin and bent at front right) 1872.0725.2, 1872.0725.3 1946.10.7.14, 1946.10.7.31, 1946.10.7.32, 1946.10.7.33; Johns and Potter (supra n.32) cat. nos. 8-9, 11 and 14 (Canterbury hoard); Johns (supra n.20) cat. nos. 126, 129 and 135 (Hoxne hoard). In examples with oval bowl: Johns (supra n.20) cat. nos. 111, 122, and 112 (Hoxne); less clearly, Johns ibid. cat. no. 124 (Hoxne).

87 Johns (supra n.20) cat. no. 112.

88 Ibid. cat. no. 39.

89 Johns and Potter (supra n.32) cat. no. 12.

90 British Museum acc. no. 1971.0501.1.

91 British Museum acc. no. 1866.1229.32, and Johns (supra n.20) cat. no. 130, also noted by Johns (supra n.20) 236. Unfortunately, these spoons were too fragile to measure at the centre bottom.

92 British Museum acc. no. 1971.0501.1; Johns and Potter (supra n.32) no. 12 (Canterbury hoard).

93 Johns (supra n.20) cat. no. 60.

94 Ibid. 118.

95 That is, with the same decoration: Johns ibid. cat. nos. 53-54.

96 E.g., Kent, J. P. C. and Painter, K. S. (edd.), Wealth of the Roman world: gold and silver A.D. 300-700 (London 1977) cat. no. 35 (Water Newton)Google Scholar.

97 Wallance, D., Shaping America's products (New York 1956) 119 Google Scholar.

98 Kent and Painter (supra n.96) cat. no. 107.

99 Bradley, K., “The Roman family at dinner,” in Nielsen, I. and Nielsen, H. S. (edd.), Meals in a social context: aspects of the communal meal in the Hellenistic and Roman world (Aarhus 1998) 4243 Google Scholar.

100 Guzzo, P. G. (ed.), Argenti a Pompei. Museo archeologico nazionale di Napoli (exh. cat.; Milan 2006) 82, cat. nos. 9-13Google Scholar.

101 Pugsley, P., Roman domestic wood: analysis of the morphology, manufacture and use of selected categories of domestic wooden artefacts with particular reference to the material from Roman Britain (BAR S1118; Oxford 2003) 110 Google Scholar.

102 Mango, M. Mundell, “Silver patera decorated with a frog,” in Buckton, D. (ed.), Byzantium: treasures of Byzantine art and culture from British collections (London 1994) 52 Google Scholar. Cf. Henig, M., A handbook of Roman art (Oxford 1983) 145-46Google Scholar, for examples found at temple sites.

103 Leech, R., Excavations at Catsgore 1970-73: a Romano-British village (Bristol 1982) fig. 81 no. 36Google Scholar.

104 Johns and Potter (supra n.30) cat. nos. 60, 62 and 65.

105 Ibid. 35.

106 Ibid. cat. no. 61 (Thetford); and Johns (supra n.20) cat. nos. 116 and 121 (Hoxne).

107 Johns (supra n.20) cat. no. 120; also noted by Johns (supra n.20) 235.

108 Visible in the photograph at Martin (supra n.27) pl. 26 no. 4. There is some apparent damage to the front/tip part of spoons of this type from Kaiseraugst (e.g., Martin ibid. pl. 19 no. 29). Several show (modern?) repairs to this area, but the circumstances of discovery, in which damage occurred to the hoard, the lack of conservation records, and their inaccessibility for close inspection, all make the spoons from this hoard difficult to assess.

109 Johns (supra n.20) cat. no. 119.

110 Ibid. 235.

111 Martin 1984a, pl. 23 no. 3.

112 Johns (supra n.20) 102.

113 Hauser (supra n.54) pl. 1a; Johns (supra n.20) cat. nos. 62-63 and 113-14.

114 Walters Art Museum acc. no. 57.910, a silver strainer with loop handles terminating in duck heads. For another example, see Drogou, S., “Macedonian metallurgy: an expression of royalty,” in Kottaridi, A. and Walker, S. (edd.), Heracles to Alexander the Great: treasures from the royal capital of Macedon (Oxford 2011) fig. 216, cat. no. 216Google Scholar.

115 I suggest elsewhere that the waterbird theme refers to a use for liquids: Swift (supra n.53) 133.

116 Sherlock, D., “The Roman combination knife and spoon,” JRA 16 (2003) 331–35Google Scholar.

117 Baratte, F. et al., Le trésor de la place Camille-Jouffray à Vienne (Isère) (50e Suppl. à Gallia, 1990) cat. no. 20Google Scholar.

118 E.g., British Museum acc. no. 1928.0713.14, and acc. no. 1946.10.7.32 (Mildenhall); see also Painter, K. S., The Mildenhall Treasure: Roman silver from East Anglia (London 1977) fig. 12Google Scholar.

119 Among those already illustrated, see figs. 5b-c; Riha and Stern (supra n.21) cat. nos. 3 and 9.

120 Ibid. cat. no. 237.

121 Kindly suggested by J. Bayley (pers. comm.).

122 Haldenby, D. and Richards, J. D.. “Charting the effects of plough damage using metal-detected assemblages,” Antiquity 84 [326] (2010) 1152–59 and fig. 1CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

123 Willis (supra n.11) 5.4.21 and Table 81.

124 This type of self-referential decoration is very common in Roman culture: Swift (supra n.53) 123-37.

125 Ibid. 7-8.

126 Also noted by Johns (supra n.20) 100; Martin (supra n.27) 76.

127 Cool 2004; see above p. 207.

128 Johns (supra n.20) 173.

129 On one example from Hoxne the inscription is apparently arranged for left-handed use (i.e., it reads correctly with the handle positioned to the left of the bowl). Unless it is a mistake by the engraver, it shows that design can occasionally be used to challenge cultural convention. See Johns (supra n.20) cat. no. 133, noted by Johns (supra n.20) 127, fig. 5.62. She also observes that 'handed' wear cannot be clearly identified for this spoon.

130 British Museum acc. nos. 1866.1229.32 and 1978.0102.528; Riha and Stern (supra n.21) cat. nos. 147 and 196. Further examples: British Museum acc. nos. 1872.0725.4, 1886.1229.44, 1947.1002.1; Riha and Stern ibid. cat. nos. 56, 81, 177, 180 and 236; LAARC, LOW88[691]<218>; Canterbury Museum SF9.3ii; and possibly Johns and Potter (supra n.30) cat. no. 56. As all but three of these are the very shallow-bowled early spoons of tiny capacity that were almost certainly used for solid or semi-solid foods, the wear is unlikely to be reverse wear created by pushing the spoon bowl away from the user. Since the other types of Late Roman metal spoons considered here generally have much less evidence of wear, at present no clear examples of left-handed use can be noted.

131 LAARC, LOW88[691]218.

132 See above, and Pugsley (supra n.101) 110.

133 Discussed, e.g., by Ellis, S. J. R., “ Pes dexter: superstition and state in the shaping of shop-fronts and street activity in the Roman world,” in Laurence, R. and Newsome, D. J. (edd.), Rome, Ostia, Pompeii: movement and space (Oxford 2011) 166–69Google Scholar.

134 Ellis ibid. 167; Plut., , Mor. 7 Google Scholar.

135 See, e.g., for the Early Roman period, Roller, M. B., Dining posture in ancient Rome: bodies, values, and status (Princeton, NJ 2006)Google Scholar; Bradley (supra n.99). For late antiquity, see Vroom (supra n.34).

136 Those of lower status would be more likely to dine in sitting or even standing positions, in which case handedness in dining would be less obvious: Roller ibid. 92-95.

137 British Museum acc. no. 1856.0701.1152; Sherlock (supra n.113) fig. 6.

138 Johns and Potter (supra n.32) 333.