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.

Roman footsteps (and whose shoes made them)

Project member Jo Stoner has been collecting data on the Roman shoes and sandals in the Petrie Museum. These shoes are variously made of plant fibres (such as papyrus, grasses, and reeds), leather, or a combination of the two. One pair is even made of cork, perhaps imported into the province from Roman Spain. The shoes and sandals within the collection are in various states of preservation – some examples are incredibly delicate and fragmentary, whilst others are so well preserved they look as though they have just been made.

Remains of a pair of cork soles (UC28147) with traces of red painted decoration. Photo: Jo Stoner

By building on the work of other scholars who have researched Roman shoes (specifically Carol van Driel-Murray and Elizabeth M. Greene ) Jo is measuring the footwear and using their dimensions to try to identify the gender and age of the person who originally wore them. We can then look to see if there are any patterns in terms of style, material, or deposition that occur in relation to the ages or genders of the owners. The method for identifying the wearer of a shoe or sandal is based on two measurements – the length of the shoe and the width of its “waist” (the narrow part that corresponds with the arch of the foot).

A woman’s woven sandal (UC28010) – note the narrow “waist” at the centre where the arch of the foot rests. Photo: Jo Stoner

A couple of things however need to be kept in mind – firstly it is important that the measurements are of the insole, and not the outer shoe or the walking surface, as these are generally bigger than the wearer’s foot. Secondly, it is important to consider the material the item is made from. Greene explains that (as shown by data from various archaeological contexts), leather is liable to shrink over time and during the conservation process. Thus, leather shoes could be up to 2cm smaller than they were originally.

UC28327 – the sole of an adult male’s leather sandal. Photo: Jo Stoner

This produces a range of dimensions that correspond specifically to leather footwear: 10-12cm in length for an infant’s shoe; 12-19cm in length for a child’s shoe; 19-22cm in length for either an adult female’s shoe OR an adolescent male under the age of 14; and 22cm+ for an adult male’s shoe. These measurements are however only for leather goods as they take possible shrinkage into account – therefore Jo has ensured that when looking at measurements for sandals made from vegetable fibres, an additional 2cm is added to these ranges to compensate.

A pair of child’s leather sandals (UC28290). Photo: Jo Stoner

From the above measurement ranges, you will notice a slight problem – the measurements for female shoes and those belonging to adolescent boys overlap, meaning it can be difficult to distinguish exactly who would have been wearing what. This is because the feet of boys below the age of 14 are in the same region as adult women’s shoe sizes, before they continue to grow onto their final adult male size. For shoes in this range, it is important to record the width of the narrow part of the insole – less than 4cm and it was likely a woman’s shoe (although it is not always clear!).

Remains of an infant’s leather shoe (UC28352). Photo: Jo Stoner

Out of 70 shoes selected from the Petrie’s collection, Jo has now assigned an age or gender to 90% of them. The shoes of adult men, women, infants, and children are all well represented. The next step is to try and identify any patterns in terms of decoration of shoes and age and gender, or whether there are deposition patterns that also correspond to the identities of the wearers.


E. Greene (2014) “If the shoe fits: Style and function of children’s shoes from Vindolanda” in R. Collins and F. McIntosh (eds.), Life in the Limes: Studies of the People and Objects of the Roman Frontiers (Oxford: Oxbow) 29-36.

C. van Driel-Murray (1995) “Gender in Question” in P. Rush (ed.) Theoretical Roman Archaeology: Second Conference Proceedings (Aldershot: Avebury) 3-21.

Roman notebooks

Paper as we know it today was not a product used within the Roman period. So what happened when someone wanted to write something down? A variety of materials were used as surfaces on which to write. Writing tablets inlaid with wax on which texts were inscribed are probably amongst the best-known from the Roman period, conjuring images in the popular imagination of Roman school boys practising their grammar exercises. There are in fact an amazing selection of preserved examples of these from Vindolanda, at Hadrian’s Wall in the north of Britain. However, in Roman and late antique Egypt, other materials were more extensively used, of which the Petrie Museum provides some fantastic examples. These include ostraca (essentially pot sherds – n.b. in archaeology they are “sherds”, not “shards”), as well as the better known papyrus, a material made from the fibres of a reed-like plant.

UC32599. Photo: Jo Stoner

In particular, broken pots and amphorae were a ubiquitous presence throughout the Roman Empire thanks to their use in daily life as containers for a variety of foodstuffs. You need only look at the famous Monte Testaccio in Rome, an artificial hill constructed from Roman pottery pieces, for evidence of this! These pottery sherds also provided a smooth, portable – and free – material on which notes could be recorded, or letters written and exchanged. The Petrie collection contains several hundred examples.

On the example above, the ostracon carries a Greek text that begins, “Soter acting through Ammonius […]”, suggesting the text records some sort of semi-official activity, with the rest of the writing illegible. Greek was the main written language in Egypt after the province became a Hellenistic kingdom under Ptolemies after Alexander the Great’s death. By the Roman period, it was used for a variety of documents, with Latin conversely used mainly for imperial business. This ostracon is representative of the majority of examples found in the archaeological record, with a rough but reasonably regular shape that preserves the striations from the throwing of the original pot.

Reverse of UC32599. Photo: Jo Stoner

The reverse reveals a ridged surface with a black coating of resin or bitumen. This was originally the interior of the vessel, with the coating acting as waterproofing to counteract the natural porosity of the ceramic. Other examples show even greater care in shaping the ostracon, with edges carefully chipped to produce smooth neat edges and a regularly shaped writing area. However, a different example contrasts with these regular shaped fragments; it is still far more “pot” than “pot sherd”.

Fragment of pot with remains of Greek text (UC31890). Photo: Jo Stoner

This fragment of Greek text has been written on the upper body of a clay jug or bottle. The text breaks off, suggesting the note was written on the vessel when it was near-complete. Incredibly the original stopper is still in situ, showing the plug of what appears to be palm fibre, held in place with coarse string which ties around the vessel’s arms. It is topped with a complete plaster seal, showing that the vessel was never opened. The seal still bears oval impressions from a stamp.

Original stopper in situ. Photo: Jo Stoner

This object is extraordinary in that it preserves details such as the jug’s neck closure that would usually be lost as soon as the vessel was opened and used. It also preserves organic details such as stopper material and string position that would deteriorate in anything other than the driest or wettest of conditions. However, perhaps most significantly, this object preserves in remarkable detail its two differing functions – that of container, and that of writing surface. It was likely used as a writing surface when complete, with the text relating to the contents of the jug (the remains of the text seem to refer to “produce”).

Another evocative example of the variety of materials used as writing surfaces in Egypt is a large piece of bone which still preserves some textual remains. Dating from the late Roman period, this object is the shoulder blade of an ox. You can see that there are columns of writing, again in Greek, down the centre of the large flat area. These are a list of names with figures beside them, presumably reflecting a set of accounts of some sort.

The large bone “ostracon” UC59422. Photo: Jo Stoner

As a material, this piece of bone shows evidence of having been smoothed and shaped, with the central ridge of bone filed down and the extant edges made more regular in shape. Such alterations served to improve the writing surface, and presumably made it easier to handle and use. Closer inspection of this bone “ostracon” reveals further details. On the reverse are the remains of more writing, with some characters fainter than others and writing orientation visible in a number of directions. There also seem to be layers of writing, meaning this object was used as a palimpsest.

A palimpsest is a document that contains more than one text, written at different times – the surface is written upon and then expunged of its text at a later date, to be reused again as a writing surface. These are known especially of papyri documents, with ink being washed or scraped off to enable the material to be reused. This example here appears to be exactly this sort of kind of artefact – and certainly the smooth polished surface of the bone would aid the removal of older texts. The owners, having found such a suitable object for recording texts clearly realised it could be fruitfully reused. The production of accounts – either in the form of payments made and received, or even stock takes – likely happened at regular intervals, creating an ongoing purpose for this artefact, whose size and shape was considered ideal for the task at hand.

Details of the reverse of UC59422 – traces of text can be seen towards the left edge, as well as on the right and in the centre. Photo: Jo Stoner

In a pre-industrial society such as Roman Egypt, the use, reuse, and recycling of a variety of materials made perfect sense. Notably in these examples, the materials would have been either free or by-products of other activities, meaning there was also an economic impetus to their reuse, alongside any other practical considerations. These examples also highlight for us the changes that objects underwent across their lifespans, with different functions and values existing either consecutively or simultaneously. The reality of the use of such objects often contrasts with our own preconceptions, and artefacts like these really help to emphasise the rich world of meaning and function that relates to the material culture of this period.


Bag Check: Looking at contents 2

The Petrie has a number of different kinds of bags surviving within its Roman collection. These intriguing items provide us with an insight into how people stored and carried possessions or raw materials, and gives us an idea of what everyday life in Roman Egypt looked like.

The bags are made from diverse materials. One bag from the collection (UC59044) is formed of twined vegetable fibres to create a flexible fabric, much like matting. This fabric has then been folded over and stitched along the open edges with a thicker plied cord of the same material. There is also the remains of a thick cord handle that now sits on top of the bag – likely a shoulder strap of some kind.

The woven bag UC59044. Photo: Jo Stoner

Although complete, it is very fragile. The top edge has been left open – and still contains its original contents of long lengths of palm or straw fibres. This raw material is suitable for weaving into baskets or matting, or perhaps more bags. The bag is completely full of this stuff, neatly looped and folded into skeins, and is firm to the touch. Perhaps it had a secondary function as a pillow or some sort of padded support. Unfortunately we don’t have an excavation context for this object, but if it came from a burial (as many of the artefacts in the Petrie Museum do) it might have been funerary furniture used to support the head or feet.

The bag’s contents, still in situ. Photo: Jo Stoner.

A second bag in the Petrie is completely different. Made of leather, it is a small lozenge shaped pouch that bears a resemblance to the shape of modern saddle-bags. The small pouch is formed of two pieces of leather sewn at the edges with natural thread. There is a crease in the leather that shows how the top of the bag was simply folded over to close it. It is much more decorative than the previous woven bag, which is starkly utilitarian in its style. The front has cut out circles finished with corroded copper alloy ring studs. Some of these are now loose in the storage box due to the deterioration of the leather.

Leather bag UC72705. Photo: Jo Stoner.

The box also contains 2 green glass beads – these might be unrelated, or represent further decoration or strapping that is now lost. Excitingly, the contents of this pouch also still survive in situ. They appear to be very fine wood chips or saw dust – the texture is a lot like modern rolling tobacco, as you can see from the loose material in the bottom right corner of the box in the image above.

The mysterious contents of the leather bag. Photo: Jo Stoner.

It seems an unusual material to keep in this attractive bag. However, it could be a part of a fire-making kit, representing the material used to kindle a flame. Fire-making paraphernalia are known from elsewhere in the Roman Empire and from Anglo-Saxon grave contexts in Britain. Additional tools like firesticks could easily represent the missing pieces of this Egyptian assemblage. Leather is certainly an appropriate material for such contents as it is durable, waterproof, and would prevent any of the fine material falling through the gaps that occur in a woven bag. The folded over closure could also feasibly fit over a leather belt, allowing the pouch to be carried on the owner’s person, making its decoration all the more appropriate.

Shining a Light on Organic Survivals

Some of the items preserved in the Petrie’s collection can be pretty surprising and, every so often, a search through the Petrie’s online catalogue can reveal some unexpected delights amongst the more usual ceramic vessels and jewellery fragments.

I took a look at one such example recently during one of our Petrie Museum research days. UC71550 is a cone of animal fat or grease. Incredibly this object, dating from the Roman period, is still sticky and slowly oozing – ensuring it remains stuck fast to the modern glass plate it rests upon.

Blackened grease in the shape of a horn (UC71550). Photo: Jo Stoner.

The fat is blackened with soot or dirt, with a thick plaited piece of string or cord protruding from one end. Egypt is well-known for its excellent preservation conditions when it comes to organic materials – this is why so many examples of papyri and textiles from the Roman period, and earlier, are in collections of Egyptian artefacts. However, this object represents a truly rare and unusual survival.

Top of the cone of grease with rope protruding (UC71550). Photo: Jo Stoner.

It’s in the shape of an animal (likely cattle) horn, which would have been the original container for the grease. There are in fact other horns from the Roman period in the Petrie, giving us an idea of what this object originally looked like.

Roman animal horn with drilled holes (UC71438). Photo: Jo Stoner.

This amazing survival also presents us with a bit of a mystery – what is this object? Perhaps the cord that sticks out of the top represents a wick, making this artefact the remains of an oil lamp, with the horn originally suspended from a hook or sat in a lamp stand. Alternatively, the fat could have been used as lubrication during some sort of commercial activity or industrial process, with the horn a readymade container for the grease and the rope a makeshift brush to apply the fat as necessary.

Whatever the original purpose of this object, its rarity means it represents the kinds of objects that no doubt existed elsewhere in the Roman Empire but just do not normally survive within the archaeological record.

What’s in the box? Looking at contents 1

The excellent preservation conditions of Egypt allow organic materials – such as wood, leather and plant fibres – to survive in a way that they cannot in the damper climates of Europe. Thus the Petrie collection contains a range of objects rarely found elsewhere in the Roman Empire. Furthermore, perishable contents that might otherwise have deteriorated over time are often still in place, providing a valuable insight into artefact assemblages and what different containers might have been used for in Roman Egypt.

There are a number of wooden boxes within the Petrie’s collection that still have their contents extant. These boxes, whilst of different sizes, generally take the same form – of a long rectangular container, often with compartments within, topped with a sliding lid.

Wooden box with compartments containing organic material. Photo: Jo Stoner

One such box in the collection is carved from a solid piece of dark brown wood, and feels heavy and of a good quality. It has decorative incised grooves along the top, and when the top is removed six compartments are revealed. Astonishingly, the contents are still in situ – each compartment is filled with pellets of what appear to be an organic substance. Their texture and colour resemble resin that has been formed into small balls. Furthermore, their presence within a securely lidded box suggests a certain level of value – therefore these small balls of matter might be pellets of incense, or some other desirable aromatic (sadly, having given them a sniff, there is no longer any aroma detectable!).

Another lidded box in the Petrie’s Roman collection reveals a different set of objects within.

Lidded wooden box with scale pans and weight in situ (UC3821a&b). Photo: Jo Stoner.

This item is clearly made to specifically contain a set of scales, parts of which are still found within it (there are several other boxes in the Petrie Museum that have the same pattern of recessed shapes within them, but are missing their contents). This one has one set of scales pans, a bronze weight, and a needle. The pans, which have 3 holes each to accommodate the string that would have attached them to the balance arm, fit the circular recesses in the box perfectly, suggesting they represent the box’s original contents. However the weight – inscribed with a ‘N’ and of the Roman Ungia/Uncia standard – is clearly too small for the rectangular compartments. The third object in the box is a copper alloy needle, again clearly not original to the box but perhaps instead used as a replacement for the original balance and scale arms that are no longer part of the assemblage. The contents of the box might therefore represent a later stage in the life of this piece of equipment, with items added or being repurposed to fill in for the lost or damaged originals.

It is a similar story for the larger box UC80559, a much larger lidded box that contains two levels of carefully shaped recesses for scales pans, balance arms, and weights.

Box UC80559, containing a mismatched scales and balance set; some of the weights are decorated with crosses, helping to date the assemblage to the early Christian period. Note also the ill-fitting scale pans in the tray at the bottom of the image. Photo: Jo Stoner.

The large pans on the inset tray are too large for the circular recesses. However, one loose pan located underneath them fits perfectly, as do the pans stored in the level beneath the tray which also are of a similar colour copper alloy to the loose pan above. This suggests that they actually represent the original contents of the box, with the larger pans a later addition.

Inset tray showing the additional scales pan. The string and S-hook to the left are all modern additions, presumably added to demonstrate how the scales originally functioned. Photo: Jo Stoner.

Many of the weight sections are also empty, with the original contents lost. Their replacements are two coins, along with a very small blue blob of glass, also a weight (UC80570). This weighs only 0.36 grams so must have been used for a light or expensive commodity that would be used in small amounts – perhaps spices or medicines.

One final box is worth mentioning in this context as it also contains a coin. The contents are a true mismatch of items, none of which fit the carved compartments, and consist of 2 scales pans, some sort of wooden fitting (perhaps used in a balance), a melon bead, a rod of glass, and a coin dated to the Ptolemaic period.

Box UC3824 a&b with contents in situ. photo: Jo Stoner.
Corroded Ptolemaic coin (UC3825). Photo: Jo Stoner.

The coin is badly corroded, but weighs 4.94 grams, very close to that of the N-inscribed Uncia weight mentioned above, which weighs 4.72 grams. This Ptolemaic coin also has an irregular shape despite the corrosion, with one distinct flat edge – this might represent the coin being clipped to adjust the weight and ensure its suitability for use in the scales set.

There are many more examples of containers that still have their contents within the Petrie, providing us with a valuable insight into the life span of objects, and the way assemblages can change over time to meet the different needs of their owners. We’ll bring you some more examples of objects and their contents in some future posts!



Spot the bonus find

As the project looks at (amongst other things) domestic artefacts and dress accessories from Roman Egypt, Ellen and I often find ourselves rummaging through boxes of miscellaneous beads and jewellery fragments on our research days at the Petrie. As well as beads, some boxes also contain pendants and amulets, bits of original and modern stringing, spinning whorls, fragments of carved bone, scraps of textile, moulded glass, finger rings, and earrings. These often come all together in one container, sometimes from one tomb, and have not been touched since they were packed up after excavation. These kinds of boxes can be intimidating in terms of their quantity of artefacts…but also very exciting. It’s like an archaeological lucky dip.

A box of miscellaneous beads and other items. Photo: Jo Stoner.

However, sometimes you can find some bonus extras hiding within these collections. These might be in the form of “organic” beads – what appear to be balled up leaves threaded on to string, perhaps as part of the funerary ritual. Or the surprise might be in another form….can you spot the bonus find in the image below?

Here’s a closer look.

A beetle! Long dead it seems, but well preserved – it’s gold appearance makes it perfectly suited for its surroundings. We think it probably came from Egypt with the other finds. Perhaps this beetle became part of this specific assemblage during the Roman period, or perhaps it was a contemporary of Petrie himself during the dig. When we get a spare moment, we plan to try to identify the species. If you know what kind of beetle this is, let us know! (John, Paul, George, or Ringo are not acceptable answers).

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