Object: Knife


Figure 1   Iron knife from the Classics Collection at the Sam Noble Museum

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

Roman blacksmiths made knives and swords in various ways.  Metalworkers would carburize iron, weld different metals together, and quench metals to harden them into weapons.  Mainz style weapons, named after the city in Germany, were quenched when worked. In the 3rd century A.D., Romans began making dagger blades from several bars of iron instead of single bars.  For these blades metalworkers used the pattern-welding (damasking) method where rods of iron were twisted together.  The rods were then hammered, cut up, and re-combined to create a composite blade.

This knife measures 16.25 inches (41.3 cm) long, 1.75 inches (4.4 cm) wide, and .25 of an inch (.6 cm) high. Although this knife seems large, it was likely not used as a weapon.  The blade is eroded but was once straight.  Only one side of the knife has a sharp edge.  The other side is thick with a flat edge.  Most knives used as weapons were sharp on both edges, or at least had a thinner edge, unlike this knife.  The thick edge would make it difficult to use for stabbing.  Additionally, the shape of this knife does not match other Roman knives used in warfare.

Knives were used by the Romans for a variety of reasons other than warfare. Smaller knives like scalpels were used for medical procedures like small surgeries.  The shape of this knife does not match the shape of the larger Roman surgical knives, as this blade is wide and has a short curve up to the tip. So, it was likely not a surgical knife. The large size of this knife means it is unlikely it was used as a multipurpose tool.  Though some Romans carried around knives for small tasks throughout the day, such knives were likely smaller than this one. Romans also used knives in the kitchen for food preparation. This knife’s large size would make it a useful kitchen knife for chopping meat, fruits, and vegetables. Kitchen knives were also used for slaughtering the animals that were used in meals.  Romans did not use knives when eating, so this knife would not have been used during the meals, only in food preparation.

If this knife was used in a Roman military fort, it could have been used to prepare food for the entire garrison.  To have enough food to feed all the soldiers, forts had a millhouse, bakery, kitchen (culina), and dining area.  A kitchen was discovered at the auxiliary fort Stockstadt in Upper Germany.  The room had two round ovens made of red tiles. Cooks would have used this area to create the meals.

The army diet relied on grain as one of the main ingredients.  Fort granaries (horreum) held wheat and corn.  Grain was made into bread, pasta, or porridge.  Army food also included meat and vegetables.  Soldiers ate mutton, pork, beef, goat, young pig, ham, and venison.  Some of the meat was smoked to help preserve it.  Knives would have been used to butcher the animals and then cut the meat into manageable pieces.  Vegetables, fish bones, oyster shells, fruits, and nuts were also found at military forts, indicating these foods were also part of the diet.  Knives were an important tool for creating meals in the Roman forts and in the rest of the Roman world.

[Chelsea Cinotto]

Works Cited

Bishop, M. C. and J. C. N. Coulston

2006 Roman Military Equipment: From the Punic Wars to the Fall of Rome. 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Johnson, Anne

1983 Roman Forts of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD in Britain and the German Provinces. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

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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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