Recently I posted a picture of the sole Roman crossbow brooch from Berkshire, found in the parish of Welford, on Instagram and asked people “Which way up is correct?” The results of this were about 50/50.
The traditional way to show a crossbow brooch on images is with the axis bar, what we call the head of the brooch, at the top (below top). However, according to Roman iconography it should actually be the other way up (below bottom).
For centuries crossbow brooches were drawn and photographed like the top image. This became the usual way of doing things but also skews the viewers perception of how the brooch is worn. Calling the end with the axis bar the “head” also doesn’t help.
The below image shows several people wearing crossbow brooches. The angle at which they sit implies that the axis bar is at the bottom. However, with mosaics it is often difficult to interpret due to the size of the tiles and skill of the maker.
Frescos are another good source of Roman objects. The fresco below shows a crossbow brooch already attached to the garment. If we presume that the garment is already the correct way up then the brooch with hang with the head at the bottom.
Probably the clearest example of a crossbow brooch being worn is this casket lid. It is obvious that the head of the brooch should be at the bottom rather than the top.
Does it make a huge difference to our understanding of the use of crossbow brooches? Probably not. Their use by Roman officials and the military has been clearly demonstrated (Van Thienen 2017) and more importantly than how they are worn are the different styles of crossbow brooch showing how they developed in different parts of the Empire.
However, it does make a difference to how we understand an objects use. The study of archaeological artefacts is done in tandem with historical and iconographic sources. We can then see how objects were used and what other objects were associated.
This is particularly true in the case of the above fresco where we see a spatula, writing table, ink well, stylus and scroll all in conjunction with each other. Importantly, there is no seal box with these objects. This is one reason they are not thought not to be associated with writing tablets.
In this case, experimental archaeology helps as Colin Andrews (2012) demonstrated that the string impressions in a known Roman wax seal from Wroxeter matched when tying a seal box to a bag rather than a writing tablet. By using a variety of methods we can then come to a better conclusion about the objects use than just by examining the object.
Andrews, C. 2012. Roman Seal Boxes in Britain. Oxford: Archaeopress.
Van Thienen, V. and Lycke, S., 2017. From commodity to singularity: The production of crossbow brooches and the rise of the Late Roman military elite. Journal of Archaeological Science, 82, pp.50-61.