Identifying “mystery” artefacts

The size of the Petrie Collection means that many objects – especially those from the Roman period – have not been given an identification in terms of function. Part of our work on this project is to try to update this basic information and provide further details on some of the more understudied objects. However some of these artefacts can appear so mysterious, that we initially had no idea of their function.

One example is UC71153, dated to the Roman period, and described on the museum catalogue as a “cosmetic” tool of unknown function.

Bone tool with decoration in the form of Venus, Roman period, Petrie Museum UC71153. [Photo: Jo Stoner].
Examination showed it to be 17.3 cm long and decorated with a carved figure of Aphrodite or Venus at one end. It has slight damage to one side but overall is fairly complete, with holes around the figure’s neck where decoration representing a necklace would have originally been attached. Below the figure is a long shaft which was smoothed from wear, with a carved loop at the end decorated with a crude finial. The use of Venus as decoration, the goddess of beauty, implies an association with a female owner and perhaps even use within the toilet. Venus certainly features on other toilet objects, such as the famous Projecta Casket which would have originally been used by a wealthy lady to contain her cosmetic tools and products in the fourth century AD.

The Projecta Casket, silver, part of the fourth century Esquiline Treasure Hoard from Rome, 1866,1229.1 British Museum. The lid features the image of Venus bathing, reflecting the intended use context of the object. [Photo (c) British Museum].
In terms of the use of this bone object, we were stumped. The wear patterns of the main shaft suggested that this was integral to the function of the tool, rather than the loop which one might initially assume to be the main focal point of the object. By contrast the loop, whilst showing general wear, did not reveal any distinctive patterns that might imply suspension. However, when we started to look to comparative material elsewhere, we found that there are a number of similar objects in other museum collections.

Fingerkunkel, or decorative distaff, AD 560-660, Archäologisches Museum der WWU Münster [Image: source].
This object has the same distinctive form as the bone tool from the Petrie, with a similar female figure at one end. It has been positively identified as a decorative distaff – also known by the German name “Fingerkunkel”. A distaff was a piece of spinning equipment that held the unspun wool. The loop would sit over one of the spinner’s fingers whilst the drop spindle (which twisted and spun the wool into fibre) was worked using the other hand. We know of these objects from as early as the Hellenistic period, such as the example below on a woman’s gravestone from Crete, dating to 200-50 BC. Throughout antiquity, spinning was considered to be the ideal activity of the respectable woman, and was thus considered along with the tools associated with the activity, as symbolic of the virtuous female.

Marble funerary stele from Crete showing a woman with spinning equipment. The looped distaff bearing wool can be seen to the left of the figure. 200BC-50BC, British Museum 1843,0531.3 BM. [Photo (c) British Museum].
Examples of these small-scale distaffs have also been found in the Roman period levels of the Terrace Houses at Ephesus, modern day Turkey. Elisabeth Trinkl, in discussing these finds, suggests that these objects are symbolic of the social role of their female owner during her lifetime. It demonstrated her role as domina or matron – the female head of the household who was in charge of the other wool working activities within the home. This certainly explains their presence as symbols of status on female gravestones of the Roman period , especially those from Palmyra, modern day Syria.

Palmyrene funerary relief of Ba’altega, who holds a small fingerkunkel, or distaff, in her left hand, AD 150, Harvard Art Museum 1908.3. [Photo: Harvard Art Museums].
What’s particularly interesting is that Trinkl notes the examples from Ephesus show no signs of wear and thus were not used as practical tools. However, if we look to the example from the Petrie Museum, we find clear wear on the main shaft of the fingerkunkel, where cross hatched lines have been smoothed away to form a shiny surface.

Detail of the shaft of the fingerkunkel, showing the worn shiny surface. [Photo: Jo Stoner].
Furthermore the inner surface of the loop is also shiny. This all suggests that our object was indeed used by its owner – the cross hatched surface of the bone would have provided grip for the attached wool, and the bone loop seemingly regularly worn on the finger. In this example at least, it suggests an object that held not only a symbolic value relating to female status, but also a useful function within the home and the life of its owner. More broadly, it also reveals links in material culture between the Roman province of Egypt and places like Asia Minor. These material connections are something that we will explore further in some forthcoming posts!


Trinkl, E. (2014) “Artifacts found inside the Terrace Houses of Ephesus, Turkey”, in C. Gillis & M.-L. B. Nosch (eds) ancient Textiles: Production, Craft and Society (Oxford & Philadelphia: Oxbow Books) 81-86.

Konig, G.G. (1987) “Die Fingerkunkel aus Grab 156”, in K. Roth-Rubi & H. R. Sennhauser (eds) Verenamunster Zurzach: Ausgrabungen und Bauuntersuchung 1 (Zurich: Verlag der Fachvereine) 129-141.