Educational pack for “Sounds of Roman Egypt” exhibition

If you are planning a visit with children to the Sounds of Roman Egypt exhibition at the Petrie Museum, then we have some materials for you!

Tray displaying replica objects. Photo: © Hypercube Photography | Oliver Siddons

We’ve created an activities and resource pack aimed at children studying history and music at Key Stage 2 (7-11 years).

You can download the pack here: SoundsOfRomanEgyptSchoolResourcePack

This pack contains supplementary information and activity sheets relating to the contents of the exhibition – it’s suitable for both school visits and families.

The exhibition runs until the 8th June 2019 (please note the museum is closed over Easter), however the pack includes all the identifying UC numbers for the artefacts in the collection, so the activities can still be completed after the exhibition ends. The objects can be viewed online via the museum’s catalogue:


“Sounds of Roman Egypt” exhibition

On the evening of the 21st January 2019, our project exhibition, Sounds of Roman Egypt opened at the UCL Petrie Museum. We marked the occasion with a Private View, where visitors could see our display for the first time.

Sounds of Roman Egypt display cases in the Petrie Museum. Photo: © Hypercube Photography | Oliver Siddons

Friends, colleagues, supporters, and collaborators joined us to celebrate the completion of this aspect of our project. It was exciting to see the artefacts we have been studying displayed so beautifully, and alongside our replica instruments within the cases. Sound clips of the replica instruments being played to Roman rhythms and accompanying song are available through interactive laptops and complement the replica instruments which are on hand for visitors to handle and play.

Visitor using the laptops to hear the sounds of the replica Roman instruments. Photo: © Hypercube Photography | Oliver Siddons.

We were also joined by musician Alan Bryant who brought a range of percussion instruments to supplement our replicas, which visitors could have a go at playing themselves.

Impromptu jam session at the private view! The Bes bell replica (UC8976) is being played to the left, and bird rattle replica (UC34972) played centre. Photo: © Hypercube Photography | Oliver Siddons.

The evening was a great success and a wonderful way to kick off the exhibition’s run. Sounds of Roman Egypt will be on at the Petrie Museum until the 8th June 2019 and is free to visit. See here for more details:

The booklets which accompany the exhibition. Photo: © Hypercube Photography | Oliver Siddons.

Announcing our Exhibition!

We’ve been working very hard behind the scenes here recently on an exciting part of our project – the temporary exhibition at the Petrie Museum, showcasing our research on the musical instruments in their collection and our work creating playable replicas.

The replica instruments. Photo: UCL Petrie Museum.

We are excited to announce that our exhibition opens to the public on the 22nd January 2019!

The exhibition reveals how different instruments were used to create particular experiences, for instance the role of instruments within religious and ritual activities, in the Egyptian home, and in processions and performances. Sound-making objects were important not only for entertainment, but also had practical uses in everyday life, for instance as toys, protective amulets, and alert or alarm sounds.

Project replica terracotta rattle, likely a child’s. Photo: Jo Stoner.

The replicas (discussed in blog posts here and and here, and based upon the sound-making artefacts within the Petrie’s collection) form an integral part of the exhibition. We have used this display as an opportunity to show the processes and technologies involved in their creation – from laser-scanning and creation of 3D virtual models by Kent Archaeology technician Lloyd Bosworth, to 3D printing. The craft replicas produced by University of Kent technicians Georgia Wright and George Morris, and local jeweller Justin Richardson in materials like ceramic, wood, and bronze are also included.

The original Bes bell which will feature in the exhibition alongside its modern replica. Photo: Ellen Swift.

Visitors will see the original Roman instruments displayed alongside some of the modern replicas, and learn about how they were used in the Roman period. Some replicas are also available to be handled and played, with additional sound recordings providing an evocative illustration of the sounds of Roman Egyptian life.

These sound recordings were created using computer software that mimics the acoustic qualities of specific interior and exterior spaces. Information on Roman buildings from archaeological excavations in Egypt has been used to allow us to hear the sounds of the instruments as though they were being played within these ancient spaces. Further evidence from ancient sources, such as musical texts from papyri documents, has allowed authentic tunes, rhythms and scales to be replicated. See below for a preview of one of the replica sets of cymbals (based on UC35798) played with one hand in the Paeonic 5/8 rhythm!

A lot of work has gone into the production of this exhibition from writing text for information panels (and making sure it is the correct length to fit the space!), to selecting which artefacts would be best to display (taking into account factors such as their state of preservation), to programming the computers with sound clips via a user-friendly interface. We also sourced an Arabic translator to ensure that non-English speaking visitors could benefit from the display. We are thus incredibly excited to share this event with you!

The 3D printed panpipes which will feature in the exhibition alongside their original Roman counterpart. Photo: Jo Stoner.

Finally there will be a series of public workshops based around our replica instruments aimed at both families and the general public to accompany the exhibition – please see here for further details. These workshops provide an opportunity to try out the full range of replica objects, hear live demonstrations, and learn how to play some ancient rhythms. A Key Stage 2 schools-pack with additional materials will also be available to download from the Petrie Museum website.

The exhibition is located in the pottery gallery of the Petrie Museum – further information including opening hours and the museum’s location can be found here.

Red threads & amulets

As we have seen in previous posts, organic materials like textiles and wood survive much better archaeologically in the hot and sandy Egyptian environment, compared to elsewhere in the Roman Empire. In fact, a brief look through the online catalogue for the museum shows that many of the beads from the Roman period still feature the original thread on which they were strung! Thus we have sections of beads that appear in their original order when originally worn as necklaces and other jewellery pieces.

Section of a Roman necklace (UC74089) from Qau, still on its original stringing. Photo: Jo stoner.

What is also apparent is that coloured string or cord was commonly used as decorative bands on which beads and other pendants were suspended, to form necklaces and bracelets. The decorative nature of such threads can be seen in UC27846i (below). In this example from Roman period Lahun, black fibres have been knotted with those coloured a yellowish ochre to form a striking pattern which complements the striped shells used as beads.

Section of two-tone decorative string with shell beads, from Roman Lahun (UC27846i). Photo: Jo Stoner.

Another significant use of colour is the presence of red string in bracelets and necklaces. UC64872 is a thick piece of very loosely spun wool, dyed a vibrant shade of red and strung with a cu alloy disc shaped pendant. The wool has been knotted to form a large loop, big enough for a child or small adult’s necklace.

Thick, red-dyed wool (possibly a necklace) suspended with a cu alloy pendant (UC64872). Photo: Jo Stoner.

The vivid colour is striking; red dyes in Roman Egypt included the mineral ochre, as well as plant dyes from madder (rubia tinctorum), safflower (carthamus tinctorious), henna (Lawsonia inermis), and alkanet (Alkanna tinctoria). An insect-based dye, similar to modern cochineal and using beetles of the kermes genus, was also used to produce a vivid crimson red. By looking at the numbers of red stringed artefacts in the Petrie’s Roman collection, it becomes clear that there is a meaningful preference for this colour. Out of 101 artefacts featuring string, red was the second most popular colour after natural or undyed string. There is also a clear correlation between the use of red dyed string, and artefacts relating to personal adornment. Such colour choices can begin to be explained by evidence from the textual record.

Red materials, both man-made and natural (like dung) appear in spells from the Greek Magical Papyri; descriptions from Pliny the Elder also describes the use of red cloth and flies in magical spells (Natural History, 30.27; 30.30). The late antique Gaulish writer Marcellus Empiricus’ prescribed red wool stuffed into the ear for earache (De Medicamentiis 9.14.37). Other Roman writers reveal that red threads had a specific protective or ‘apotropaic’ role in the early Christian period. A 2nd c. AD description by Clement of Alexandria decried those who worshipped, “dread tufts of tawny wool” (Stromata 7.4), whilst the fourth-century Bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, provides a description of artefacts similar to those in the Petrie Museum:

“[…] what shall we say about the amulets and the bells which are hung upon the hand, and the scarlet woof [spun wool], and the other things full of extreme folly; when they ought to invest the child with nothing else save the protection of the Cross […] while the thread, and the woof, and the other amulets of that kind are entrusted with the child’s safety […]”

(Homily 12 on 1 Corinthians 4.6: PG 61.05)

Fragment of red string, adorned with a moulded lead cross pendant (UC71826). Photo: Jo Stoner.

Therefore it appears that in the early Christian period, red wool was used as an amulet to protect the wearer, especially in the cases of children who were naturally more at risk to death and disease. They were often worn around the wrist, a size which correlates to the examples in the collection.

This use is also reinforced by the presence of amuletic pendants in the form of protective symbols – the use of the cross as such is described by John Chrysostom himself and features above on UC71826. Other examples in the Petrie also use similar symbols, such as the “evil eye” – used to attract the envious looks of others which would otherwise injure the wearer. This is seen as a decorative device on the single bead strung into the red thread of UC51608, below.

Section of spun red thread, with a single “crumb” bead featuring eye-motifs (UC51608). Photo: Jo Stoner.

Thus, the presence of red threads in the Petrie, preserved by the exceptional conditions in Egypt, reveals a social practice known of throughout Egypt and the Greek East from textual sources. Notably many of these artefacts were excavated from Roman cemeteries; it seems particularly appropriate that such protective devices were worn by the dead as they made their final journey to the afterlife.

Experimental archaeology, instruments, and Vindolanda: TRACamp 2018

A couple of weeks ago, the project’s replica instruments (accompanied by Ellen and myself) got the opportunity to be played at an authentic Roman site. We were lucky enough to attend TRACamp at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall – an event run by the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference which combined papers on research using experimental archaeology, with a day of workshops and live demonstrations for members of the public who visited the site.

The site of Vindolanda, on Hadrian’s Wall – with amazing weather! Photo: Jo Stoner

We gave our paper on the processes of reconstruction for making the replica musical instruments from the Petrie, alongside papers from other researchers. Topics were diverse and ranged from the issues of working with modern craftsmen to reproduce Roman glass bangles (Tatiana Ivleva), to the production processes used by Roman potters (Graham Taylor), to the role of technology in reproducing light levels within Roman houses (Lucia Michielin) – the full list of speakers can be found here. The day was incredibly useful and provided a great opportunity to hear about the benefits and challenges that others working with both old and new technologies have encountered during their experimentations. The second day at the site saw us set up an interactive instrument session within the reconstructed Temple of the Nymphs near the museum in Vindolanda. The location was beautiful and also provided us with a great opportunity to hear the instruments played outdoors in a different environment.

The Temple of the Nymphs, where our instrument workshop was located, next to the stream in Vindolanda Museum. Photo:

The Temple is situated next to a stream, and the cymbals, clappers, and panpipes could all be clearly heard above the sound of the water, and as far as the workshop tents on the other side of the outdoor area. Members of the public had the opportunity to visit and learn about the different rhythms used in the Roman period, and to try them out on the percussion replicas – the pottery rattles, wooden clappers, and brass cymbals.

Ellen Swift playing the finger cymbals inside the reconstructed Temple of the Nymphs, Vindolanda. Photo: Jo Stoner

Visitors also learned about the processes involved in scanning and 3D printing the panpipes, as well as being able to have a go at playing them! By numbering each pipe on the replica, we were able to create instructions for playing a simple tune – the end phrase of the theme Ode to Joy by Beethoven – which many people successfully had a go at! Some of the insights that visitors provided us with were great – whilst discussing bells we had a fruitful conversation about modern practices of placing bells on horses to repel evil spirits. Many people also had suggestions about how the wooden clappers were originally tied together based on the extant holes – something we are still mulling over.

Some visitors to the Temple of the Nymphs try out some Roman rhythms on the wooden clappers. Photo:

Whilst this was happening, other stalls on the site were offering further interactive events – and we managed to sneak out to take a look ourselves. Food specialist Sally Grainger had brought a range of different garum based sauces for visitors to try.

Food specialist Sally Grainger, with some of her fish sauce (garum). Photo:

One was in the form of a vinaigrette, mixed with olive oil, honey, black pepper, and reduced grape juice to produce a sweet and sour dip that was served with melon. The garum itself was potent but tasty! Smelling very similar to Thai fish sauce, it was rich in umami savouriness – something we learnt was thanks to the high levels of nitrogen that ensured its protein-based flavour.

Clothing expert Faith Morgan with a very willing model. Photo:

One of the other stalls included reconstructed late Roman clothing – various tunics, cloaks, and mantles for men, women and children – all made based on patterns and dimensions from archaeological remains by clothing specialist and Kent alumnus Faith Morgan. These were available for visitors to try on, and set up next to reenactor Michael Gasparro who was on hand to create intricate Roman hairstyles for willing participants. The weather was beautifully clear but rather cold….which ensured that some of the conference attendees took the opportunity to try on the replica clothing! This resulted in an impromptu procession across the Vindolanda site, with our replica musical instruments a key part of it. The aim was to evoke the contexts and behaviours in which many of our instruments would have been originally used – for example, in religious processions and ritual activities.

The procession participants playing the Roman instruments in the fort of Vindolanda. Photo:

It was a real treat to be able to hear the sounds of our Roman replicas drift across the original Roman fort and towards Hadrian’s wall. To see more photos from the two-day event, along with the full list of speakers and workshops, see


Some percussive discoveries

So far we’ve done a lot of work on the instruments held in the Petrie’s collection – our reconstructions of the bells, cymbals, wooden clappers, rattles, and panpipes form the core of this element of the project. These objects were selected for study as they had already been identified as musical instruments, or were clearly recognisable as such. However, our investigations of the Roman and late antique collections have revealed some additional – and previously unidentified – instruments!

3 pieces of pierced decorated bone with some original stringing, described on the Petrie Museum catalogue as “fittings”, but which we have now identified as a type of musical instrument. [Photo: Jo Stoner].
UC71328 refers to three associated pieces of bone within the Petrie. The largest piece is reminiscent of a handle, with a section decorated with carvings and cruciform designs. With it are also two pieces of square bone, each carved on one side with crossed and parallel lines. Each has two medium-sized holes drilled along one edge. These correspond with the holes drilled in the end of the larger bone segment. One of the holes even has the remains of some original thread in it, suggesting  the pieces were originally attached to each other, with the square plaques fixed to the main piece through the holes. This disarticulated artefact has no excavation information so we no longer know which site the item comes from. The catalogue does however date the artefact as Byzantine, a designation likely based on the inclusion of crosses within the carved design which suggests a Christianised cultural context. The catalogue also describes these pieces as fittings, and certainly many bone fragments within the Petrie Museum appear to have originally been fixed to larger objects, for example as decorative plaques for furniture.

However during the course of our research into comparative examples of instruments from Roman Egypt, we found this in the British Museum’s collection:

A wooden clapper in the British Museum (acc. no. 1914,0902.2), late antique in date, excavated from Antinoupolis, Egypt. Note the use of string to tie the separate sections together, and the incised cross and line decoration. [Photo: (c) British Museum].
This artefact is a clapper – a percussion instrument – from late antique Egypt. The object makes a noise when shaken from side to side in the hand, as the square plaques tied on to the end of the main handle element move and hit the central piece of wood. This instrument differs in design to the other kinds of clapper we have studied as part of our reconstructions, which instead are larger and rounder, with their hollow centre creating a loud sound when the two elements are struck together.

This example from the British Museum was excavated at Antinoupolis and the similarity to the bone pieces in the Petrie collection is striking. They feature the same drilled hole placement, the use of string to connect the separate pieces, and even the same incised crossed and parallel line design on the square plaques. The main difference is the material (wood rather than bone) and the lack of decoration on the handle. In fact, this similarity in decoration on the square clapper plaques has allowed us to make an additional new identification in the Petrie collection.

Piece of decorated and pierced wood from the Petrie Museum (UC69739) which was likely part of a clapper. [Photo: Jo Stoner].
UC69739 is a wooden square pierced with two holes along one edge. Again there is no excavation context but the item, dated as Byzantine, is described on the catalogue as a lid to a box. However, we can see that this wooden square is almost identical in design and decoration to the clappers set in the British Museum and the newly identified set in the Petrie, above. Thus it seems this little square was also once a part of a similar percussion instrument! These kinds of clappers were likely used in religious contexts, as well as during more general musical performances, within Roman and Byzantine Egypt. It’s exciting to see new identifications are still being made within the Petrie’s collections of artefacts, and that the reassessment of mysterious or unidentified artefacts can provide fruitful results.

You can search the Petrie Museum’s collection yourself online through their website – take a look here:

Recording the replica instruments – with some clips!

We’ve been really busy over the past few weeks since the last of the replica instruments was completed. One of our most significant milestones is to have made a series of professional sound recordings using our instruments at the University of Kent’s School of Music and Fine Art sound recording studio!

The project sound recording team (from L to R): Ellen Swift, David Walsh, April Pudsey, Ada Nifosi, and Jo Stoner. (Photo: April Pudsey).

In total, we made approximately 70 individual recordings which served to record the noise each instrument made, including where possible their dynamic range (i.e. the quietest and loudest noises they can make). We set up microphones and decibel readers within the studio at both 1 and 4 metres distance so we have recordings of how each instrument sounds to both the player and someone standing nearby. This kind of data also allows us to consider the audibility of each instrument and the way that sounds would have carried.

The studio during recording. David is recording the decibel readings at the four metre mark; Ada is playing the long armed cymbals, which are based on UC35798 from the Petrie. (Photo: Jo Stoner).

We also recorded certain instruments playing rhythms and tunes recorded in documentary texts from Graeco-Roman Egypt. For example, the percussion instruments such as the wooden clappers were used to play a Paeonic rhythm which uses 5 beats to a bar (rather than the 4 beats we are used to in the modern period) and is attested in ancient evidence. We also played combinations of instruments together, to replicate the sounds of real performances. We were lucky to have the expertise of Frank Walker, the SMFA sound technician who made our recordings and guided us through the process.

Our ever-patient sound technician Frank Walker, as viewed through the recording studio glass. (Photo: Jo Stoner).

The technology available at Kent’s SMFA allowed us to create acoustic models of specific spaces. This means that the instruments we have recorded have been adjusted to mimic the effect of being played, for example, within a 2.5 x 11.8 metre open-air courtyard – as has been found archaeologically at the town of Tebtunis in Roman Egypt. Thus we have created similar acoustic effects to the original use contexts of the instruments.

The sound desk used to record the instruments playing. (Photo: April Pudsey)

Of course, we couldn’t describe these recordings without providing a couple of snippets for you to hear!

The first is a recording of a pair of cymbals with decorated handles, based on UC35798 from the Petrie Museum. These were clapped together with one hand, in the Paeonic 5/8 rhythm.


The second recording is of the 3D printed panpipes based on UC33270 from the Petrie.

[DUST TO DUST – by John Kirkpatrick – Copyright © English Folk Dance and Song Society]

This is a clip from a song, ‘Dust to Dust’,  written by folk musician John Kirkpatrick, in the Locrian mode. He wrote the song to draw attention to the existence of this scale, previously overlooked by English folk musicians. It is the same scale as the ancient Greek one which the replica is tuned to, and can thus be played successfully on our pipes, although the ancient Greek equivalent has a different name. The song is sung by a grave-digger discussing his work.

Despite the player not being a professional, we nonetheless get an evocative idea of the kinds of tunes originally played on such instruments. We have many more recordings from this session, several of which will feature in our final exhibition at the Petrie Museum, opening January 2019.

Our thanks go to John Kirkpatrick for allowing us to use his material in these recordings.

The metal replicas

We now nearly have a full set of project replicas! All the replica metal cymbals and bells have now been finished by Justin Richardson and we are ready for the next stage of research.

The full set of metal replica instruments. (Photo: Jo Stoner)

The metal replicas include 3 sets of cymbals, each pair finished in a different way to reflect the originals. Two pairs – the ones with the high shine finish – were created by shaping a flat disk of alloy over a mould, with the edges hammered slightly to mimic the caulked finish of the originals.

The replicas of cymbals UC33269 (a+b) attached to metal handles. the edges of the cymbals have been hammered to mimic the originals’ caulked edges. (Photo: Jo Stoner)

One pair has been attached to metal handles allowing the cymbals to be easily held and hit against each other, as seen in visual sources from the period. Another pair – these ones cast rather than hammered – are also attached to handles in the same manner, mimicking a specific example in the British Museum. Compared to the unattached pair, the handles allow a much louder sound to be created by banging the handles on the forearm of the player.

The replica of cymbals UC35798, made using the casting method. The handles they are attached to replicate those in the British Museum (EA26260). (Photo: Jo Stoner)

The range of bells with bracelets attached have been created to mimic not only the materials but also the size. The iron bracelets accurately reflect the diameters of the originals which would have been worn by small children; the bells themselves make delicate tinkling sounds.

The replica bell with iron child’s bracelet (UC58450). (Photo: Jo Stoner)

The Bes bell – one of our favourites – looks really impressive. Thanks to the laser scanning process, all the details have been preserved in the cast replica, including the thinned and worn ring at the back of the bell. This kind of wear pattern shows that the bell was originally rung side-to-side. Justin has also added some engraved detail to the headdress decoration which sparkles when it catches the light, and giving an insight into what the brand new original may have looked like.

The Bes bell (UC8976) replica – note the replicated worn suspension ring. (Photo: Jo Stoner).

The bell with the gilded suspension ring has also been recreated. The series of loops attached to the top make it difficult to swing the bell to create any significant sound; instead it is most effective when holding onto the loop attached to the body of the bell itself. This kind of information will help us to interpret the original’s method of use and the range of sounds it likely made. The other similar bell (UC35794) makes a surprising and unpleasantly high pitch noise when rung.

Replica of bell UC33261, with gilded suspension ring. (Photo: Jo Stoner).

Not all of the bells had the clappers in place. Where possible we have recreated the originals exactly, using steel and copper alloy clappers to reflect those used on the extant originals, thus ensuring all the bells can now produce a sound. These metal replicas join the rest of our completed reconstructed instruments  – the craft-made reed and 3D printed panpipes, pottery and 3D printed rattles, and the 3D printed clappers. We now have quite the selection! The final replica yet to be finished is a pair of clappers that are being carved using a wood router, using the data from the laser scan – this should arrive by the end of June.

Our next step is to record these replicas playing. We intend to use the sound recording studio at Kent’s School of Music and Fine Arts in Chatham to record the instruments playing in an interior space. The software available means we can specify the size of the room the instruments are played in along with the presence of soft furnishings, plastered surfaces, and different temperatures. We will also record the instruments playing in an outside open space, to mimic their use in a processional context.

These recording sessions are scheduled for later in the month – we will be recording our progress and will update the blog as soon as we have some preliminary results.

Looking at beads

Ellen Swift has been investigating the beads within the Petrie’s Roman collection, to see what we can learn about the lives of these artefacts through analysis of their style and manufacturing techniques.
Evidence of bead-making has been found in Egypt at Alexandria, with scholars believing that many bead types found in Egypt were made there. In order to decide where a bead may have been made, we need to identify the technique of manufacture – this is because different techniques were used in various geographical areas. For example, in Alexandria it is thought that there was a production centre for beads with complex patterns made from mosaic canes, such as the example below.
Beads (UC6772) made from glass mosaic canes. [Photo: Petrie Museum]
Occasionally however, manufacturing evidence suggests a more exotic location, and we were excited to discover some Indo-Pacific beads, not previously identified as such, in the Petrie Museum collection. These beads are made from drawn tubes of glass. Instead of pressing these into moulds and then cutting them into individual beads or segmented sections of bead – as would be the norm for Roman production – the tubes have been cut into individual beads. Furthermore, the ends have been heat-rounded to remove any sharp edges, which results in the surface of the bead around the hole looking a bit melted. This specific technique links them to production in Asia.
The Petrie Indo-Pacific beads are mainly small green drawn cylinders with the distinctive heat-rounded ends, and probably originated in Sri Lanka. They occur in assemblages UC74124/UC74125 and UC74134 from Qau, a site in Egypt.
Bead assemblage UC74134, showing the heat-rounded edges of the Sri Lankan beads. [Photo: Ellen Swift].
In assemblage UC74124/UC74125 they appear to have been strung separately to the Roman turquoise blue cylinder beads that are the other main bead type present. The turquoise Roman beads have many string fragments preserved, however there are no string fragments in the Indo-Pacific beads. In assemblage UC74134 green glass and white shell disc beads may have been combined in one necklace.
Bead assemblage UC74125, showing the green Indo-Pacific beads alongside strung blue Roman beads. [Photo: Ellen Swift].

It is difficult to know whether the owners of these beads regarded them as exotic and special items, as they are quite similar in shape and colour to other beads available at Qau. It is only the detailed observation of the manufacturing method, which was not used in the production of Roman beads, that allows them to be identified as an imported foreign product.

The beads will have arrived via the Red Sea port of Berenike where similar Indo-Pacific beads have also been found (see Then-Obłuska 2015), and their presence at Qau illustrates something of how such trade goods became distributed more widely in Egypt. Excavations at Berenike have also revealed the presence of other exotic consumables such as black pepper and precious gems (Sidebotham 2011), demonstrating the extent of trade between Roman Egypt, India, and Sri Lanka.

Map showing the location of the port of Berenike, on the Red Sea. [Photo source]
Our initial identifications were kindly confirmed by Marilee Wood and Joanne Then-Obłuska. 


Sidebotham, S. (2011) Berenike and the Ancient Maritime Spice Route (Berkeley & Los Angeles, California: University of California Press).

Then-Obłuska, J. (2015) “Cross-cultural encounters at the Red Sea Port of Berenike, Egypt. Preliminary assessment”, Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean 24, 735-777.

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.