Object: Key


Figure 1    Roman Iron key from Classics Collection of the Sam Noble Museum

Iron Key
Germany: Taunus Mountains, Limes Region
Likely first to sixth century AD
Materials: Iron

Romans were one of the earliest people to use locks and keys to protect their belongings. Locks and keys were such a popular method of security that keys are one of the most common finds at Roman sites.  Locks are less commonly found, as they were not always made of metal and so do not preserve as well.  Lock construction was largely uniform throughout the ancient world, but keys varied greatly. Making a key began the same way as making a knife handle.  Instead of a adding a blade, a locksmith would add the bit and teeth.

This key from the Sam Noble Museum is an example of a slide-key. The lock this key would open was elaborate.  Slide-key locks had several tumblers arranged in patterns that fell into holes in the bolt. The bit of the key, which enters the lock, has teeth on its side in the same pattern as the tumblers. The teeth on the key push up the tumblers to free the bolt and slide it to the side, unlocking the lock.  Unfortunately, the teeth from the key at the Sam Noble Museum have eroded away with time.

The keyholes for slide-keys are L-shaped.  These L-shaped locks are depicted in some Roman reliefs. There are two forms of slide-keys, and the museum key is the smaller type.  These small keys have close-set teeth arranged in various patterns on the straight bit.  The handle is flat and broad with an eye hole at the end opposite the teeth.  The hole on the handle allowed the keys to be put on a ring, much like our modern keychains.  The teeth on the key were likely cut into the bit using a punch or chisel.  Bit teeth could be rectangular or triangular.  Though this key at the museum is made of iron, there were also many keys of this type made of bronze.  The small slide-key is common in Germany and Roman Britain.  This key was found near the limes in the Taunus Mountain area.  Similar keys have been found in Germany at Neuss, Saalburg, Arnsburg, Feldberg, Hofheim, and Zugmantel.

Keys were used to lock many types of things, including chests and boxes. The arca (household safe) was locked and the key kept by the head of the household.  Safes usually held money, jewelry, and other expensive items. A pyxis (jewelry casket) was used to keep jewelry, coins, and other keys safe. Another container was the capsa, a cylindrical wooden vessel that held scrolls or other items. The capsa were kept locked if they held important objects or documents. These are just a few of the items Romans kept under lock and key. Often only the metal hardware for these boxes and containers survives because most boxes were made of perishable wood.  Sometimes not even the locks survive because they could also be made of wood. A few boxes made of other materials have survived, and we can see where the locks and hinges were placed.

[Chelsea Cinotto]

Works Cited

Kozloff, Arielle P.

1993 “Keys of Ancient Rome.” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 80 (9): 368-375.

Manning, W.H.

1985 Catalogue of the Romano-British Iron Tools, Fittings, and Weapons in the British Museum. London: British Museum Press.

Simpson, Grace

2000 Roman Weapons, Tools, Bronze Equipment and Brooches from Neuss – Novaesium Excavations 1955-1972. BAR International Series 862.

         England: Biddles Ltd.

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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