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Editor Mike Pitts
Essential items of dress
Romans wore togas - or so theatre and Â½lm would convince us. Commoner in Britain were brooch-fastened tunics. Justine Bayley and Sarnia Butcher have just completed a major study of the once shiny little pins
Though cloaks were standard dress from the 1st century AD, wool or linen clothes have not survived from Roman Britain. Metal brooches, however, are very common. There are probably some 30,000 in museums and private collections. Originally there would have been far more: what we have is just the tip of the iceberg.
These fasteners have been intensively studied. As a result, we know much about the changes in styles, how they were made and the varied materials that went into them.
At first most were utilitarian safety-pin shapes made from one piece of wire bent round to form a simple spring. This was based on the La Tène type brooches common throughout Europe in the later Iron Age.
All sorts of variations developed, both to the pin mechanism (some were hinged, with a separate pin) and to the â€˜bowâ€™, widened to give more scope for decoration. As more elaborate cast decoration evolved the spring and pin were made separately; this also enabled the use of cheaper leaded alloys for the brooch. The â€˜plateâ€™ brooches, with a flat surface suitable for decoration, were another development. These were probably more for ornament than use: they are usually quite small with insufficient room between the plate and pin to hold thick layers of cloth.
These variations developed in numerous different ways, and we use the small differences to sort the brooches into types. A chronology has been built up from finds in dated deposits: although brooches were sometimes kept for a long time they are relatively abundant and it is usually possible to arrive at a general period of use, if not a close date. Brooch types often show limited areas of use, narrowing the region of manufacture. Analysis has shown the metal alloy varies with type (see end feature).
Military cloaks were fastened with brooches, so the Roman army had an important influence on brooch design. The armyâ€™s brooches are sophisticated, usually with limited relief decoration. Brooches found in forts occupied during the mid-1st century conquest of southern Britain are similar to those from continental forts of the same period. The Aucissa, a hinged brooch, is the most general type; this name (and occasionally others), presumed to indicate the manufacturer, was sometimes stamped on the brooch. The type was soon widely spread in southern Britain, in civilian as well as military contexts. Meanwhile British manufacturers were adopting its form as well as continuing to make simple one-piece brooches, of which the Colchester type is the best known. Both the continental imports and the British products of this period were made of brass, in contrast to the bronze of earlier Iron Age brooches.
Brooches found in Britain datable to the later 1st century show greater diversity in form and decoration. Derivatives of the Colchester brooch were now being made of leaded bronze, presumably a cheaper metal, but not malleable so that the pin-spring had to be made separately of an unleaded alloy. Another development of the same type, found almost entirely in south western Britain, is nearly always hinged. These were still quite plain brooches, with a few simple mouldings, but new types such as the trumpet and headstud are much more decorative. In contrast to the conquest period, virtually all these new types were made in Britain: very few examples are found elsewhere.
The standard trumpet brooch appears at this time in the northern military area of Britain, usually made of brass or gunmetal. Other trumpet types, slightly devolved and usually less well moulded, are leaded bronzes, and more often found in the civilian south. The headstud group shows similar traits: a finely detailed type is typically of brass or gunmetal but the simpler variants, usually with the headloop cast in one with the brooch, are of leaded bronze. Moulds for these have been found in the Mendip lead-mining area. Other decorative British products of this period include â€˜umbonateâ€™ disc brooches. Numerous other designs continued to evolve well into the 2nd century.
Parallel developments were taking place on the continent, most strikingly seen in the plate brooch types, a few of which are found on British sites. Study of the much greater numbers found in their native area â€“ the Roman provinces in Germany, the Low Countries, eastern France and Switzerland â€“ shows a consistent development in the technique of enamel decoration. At first each colour was in separate small cells, then in larger fields containing different colours juxtaposed and finally the whole surface was enamelled in all-over patterns including millefiori. Another distinctive group showed various animals â€“ mythical and real â€“ in outline, with the flat surface enamelled in abstract patterns. Examples of these zoomorphic brooches are the stag and fish.
The 2nd century saw the maximum development of decorative brooches, and it seems they went out of fashion in the later Empire (3rd to 4th centuries). However brooches continued to be used by some people, especially the army, and they still bore limited decoration. Two main groups are found all over the western Empire, most often on military sites, and though more standardised than the earlier production they still show changes in design and distribution.
Knee brooches developed in the later 2nd and 3rd centuries, when they were superseded by the very widespread crossbow types. Within these groups there are forms found across the western provinces and beyond, implying large scale manufacture, while others are confined to smaller areas. Some knee and crossbow types are found mainly in Britain, in both forts and civil sites, presumably local products. By the later 4th century the developed crossbow is common in Britain and across the Empire, increasingly in civilian as well as military contexts, and some show elaborate decoration. While most were of a standard alloy of leaded bronze some were gilded or made in gold or silver. This type is seen on statues of high officials and even Emperors. Brooches were in fashion again.
For more details, see the authorsâ€™ Roman Brooches in Britain: a Technological & Typological Study Based on the Richborough Collection, to be published by the Society of Antiquaries. Now retired, Sarnia Butcher spent her working life as an inspector of ancient monuments with English Heritage and its predecessors. Her interest in brooches began at Nornour, Isles of Scilly, where many were found
How to make a roman brooch
Though iron, silver and even gold were also used, most Roman brooches were made from copper alloys. The common alloys were bronze (copper + tin), leaded bronze (copper + tin + lead) and brass (copper + zinc), though up to a quarter of brooches were made of other copper alloys containing different amounts of tin, zinc and/or lead, such as gunmetal (copper + zinc + tin). Each alloy has a distinct colour so the alloy used would have been obvious to all. Brass was effectively a Roman introduction, though it was first imported into Britain just before the conquest. Its golden colour made it more valuable than copper or bronze, and it was initially used mainly for ritual objects and brooches, as well as military fittings and coins. Analyses have shown that each brooch type or design was made from a single alloy or a limited range. This holds good wherever the brooch is found. For example, Aucissa brooches from France and Britain and identical brooches from Israel are all pure brasses. Ore mixes had a variety of effects. Lead, for example, made a cheaper alloy but one unsuitable for sprung pins.
Brooches were made either by hammering a piece of metal into the right shape or by casting molten metal in a mould. The moulds most archaeologists are familiar with are made of fired clay. Those for Romano-British brooches are normally two-piece moulds formed round a pattern. By taking the mould apart, the pattern could be removed and re-used to make another mould â€“ the beginning of mass production! The re-assembled moulds were used once, broken to remove the casting and thrown away. It is surprising therefore to find so few. A reason for this may be provided by two recent finds from Norfolk of metal two-piece moulds. These could have produced hundreds of brooches in a very short time. Most were probably melted down and made into new moulds once the originals went out of fashion.
A third of all Roman brooches found in Britain have some applied decoration, and most of the rest have relief decoration that is cast in, chased, punched or engraved. About half the applied decoration is champlevÃ© enamel and a further third tinning, a thin coating of a tin-rich alloy covering some or all of the broochâ€™s surface (often erroneously described as silvering). Sometimes tinning was combined with other metal inlays to produce a real polychrome effect. The enamel on British-made brooches is usually of the type described as simple â€“ one colour in each field â€“ but occasionally juxtaposed enamel blocks of contrasting colour were used, in the fashion seen on brooches made on the continent. More complex enamelling, such as spots inserted into an enamel field, or millefiori (in which slices were cut from bundles of different coloured rods fused together) are normally only found on continental brooches. Other types of decoration include beaded silver wires or repoussÃ©-decorated brass sheets soldered to the surface of brooches, and glass â€˜gemsâ€™.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005