Roman Toilet Utensils

Principal investigator: Chloe Bolsover
Level: Masters degree

~~My research will be for my MA dissertation in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter. The duration of my project will be from late March to September 2018. I will be considering the function of Roman toiletry articles in Britain. There is a general assumption that these implements are mainly for cosmetic use, perhaps because they appear similar to modern equivalents (Crummy and Eckardt, 2008: 15). Morrison's 2013 paper, however, raised the likely possibility that toiletry items served more than one function. It is suggested, for example, that tweezers could have been used to alleviate pain caused by optical diseases such as trachoma. Medical tweezers have been found in London and reputed to be made by bronze smith Agathangelus (Crummy and Eckardt, 2008: 158). The presence of examples such as Chatelaine brooches and nail-cleaner strap ends imply that these articles could have been seen to indicate high status of individuals, if they were worn ostentatiously on the body. This further highlights the need to address the issue of toiletry items being multi-functional.
My second line of inquiry is to consider how the presence of toiletry items changed after Roman conquest. There was a notable increase in the presence of toiletry items post-conquest compared to the very late Iron Age where these articles were rare (Carr, 2006: 72-73). This elevation was perhaps linked to a possible change in identity. Carr attempts to explain this phenomenon through 'creolisation'. Whilst this model is successful in highlighting interactions between different cultures, it is limiting due to its dichotomous stance as it only considers 'Romans' and 'Britons'. Since Carr is only considering one specific area of Britain- Essex and Hertfordshire-it is possible that experiences of the Roman invasion were different elsewhere. Crummy and Eckardt's work endeavours to encompass the entire province, through considering spatial and social distribution of toiletry items. The research is meticulous and incredibly useful, yet due to the large amount of evidence to discuss, a focused discussion on changing identity is reduced to simply ascribing toiletry items to different tribes. Since these tribes were recorded by Roman etic observers, this approach is problematic as British societies may have differed from these assumed social groups. Rather, discrepant experiences within different areas as proposed by Mattingly's 2004 paper is useful when considering variations in toiletry items. The model succeeds in surpassing the issues surrounding binary categories of 'Roman' and 'Briton' since it takes into account the complex situation in Britain surrounding the Roman invasion.
It is important that these issues surrounding toiletry items are brought into focus as the approaches of previous scholarship has limited possibilities of their multi-functional qualities. In more or less the first paragraph, Crummy and Eckardt (2008) and Carr (2006) label these implements as having 'cosmetic' functions. There are occasions where they do concede that toiletry instruments may have other uses, but these are merely hinted at and not sufficiently explored. Therefore, by considering the presence of toiletry items in different contexts, we may be able to consider their different uses and meanings to various individuals and social groups across the province. Morrison's article is a promising start to this approach and to extend it would aid in illuminating this under-represented aspect of material culture. My research will be of interest to those intrigued by how small finds can aid in providing interpretations of identity for those living in Britain during the investigative period. This project will also be of interest to those who are fascinated by the transition between the Late Iron Age and Roman archaeology in Britain, as the presence of toiletry items changes significantly during the Roman period.
Moreover, I plan to use data from the Portable Antiquities Scheme since I require recent finds to aid in my analysis. I am already using another database, yet it is ten years out of date and provides rather general locations of finds. The way that the PAS records its data is beneficial for my project as I would like my research to be as up to date as possible and to be able to produce models of where toiletry articles are found in Britain.

Referee: Professor Martin Pitts

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