Object: Shears


Figure 1   Roman shears from the Classics Collection of the Sam Noble Museum

Iron Shears or Clippers
Germany: Mainz Region
Likely first to sixth century AD
Materials: Iron

These Roman shears were found in Mainz.  Today, Mainz is the capital of Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany. Mainz is on the west bank of the Rhine and was part of the Roman Empire’s northern frontier along the limes Germanicus. The Romans built a fort here in the first century B.C. These shears are one of the many iron objects created by the Romans.  Iron working in the Roman Empire was a major industry.  Iron objects ranged from weapons to everyday tools.  Iron weapons include spears, swords, and knives.  Iron tools included knives for food, adze heads, axe heads, keys, and shears.

To begin the process of making an iron object, iron ore must first be obtained.  Iron ore occurs naturally and is one of the most abundant metals.  Iron ore was collected from multiple places throughout the Roman Empire.  Noricum (a Celtic kingdom in modern Austria and part of Slovenia), Spain, and Britain were major sources of iron.  Iron can be collected from the surface, through open-cast quarrying, and from underground mining.  Open-cast quarrying was the most popular method and was practiced at both large and small scales.

After obtaining iron ore, the next step was to smelt the iron. Iron-smelting sites were often close to ore extraction sites.  It was more efficient to smelt ore locally since 60% of iron ore is waste.  After smelting, only the smaller amount of useable iron was left to transport. Romans primarily used charcoal as the fuel source for iron-smelting. Other fuel sources, such as coal, will contaminate iron and so were not commonly used. Dry wood had to be converted to charcoal before it was used for smelting.

Preparation of iron ore involved washing, roasting, and grading.  After washing, the ore was roasted to produce iron oxide.  Oxygen and any mineral impurities were then removed from the iron oxide to produce iron.  The separated mineral impurities are known as slag, which is the waste product left over from smelting.

There were three different types of Roman furnaces. These furnaces included a simple bowl furnace, a domed or pot furnace, and a shaft furnace.  During the Imperial Period, when the shears at the Sam Noble Museum were likely made, the shaft furnace was most commonly used. Shaft furnaces were hollow cylinders with an arched opening at the bottom. The bottom opening was for draining out slag and pumping air into the fire using bellows.

When iron is heated over 1674° F (912° C) it becomes malleable.  Iron is first placed into the fire until it reaches around 1832°-2012° F (1000°-1100° C), when the metal glows red from the heat.  After it is hot enough, the iron is placed on an anvil to be worked until it loses heat and achieves the desired shape.  Iron can be heated in the fire multiple times to keep it malleable so it can be reworked if needed.  After it cools, the iron hardens into a strong, durable object.  The process of obtaining iron ore and working it is very complex.  This brief description does not delve into all the chemical changes that occur within the iron.

Since iron objects were used in all parts of life, there were blacksmiths in most Roman towns and cities.  Blacksmiths were called ferrarrii. A fabrica workshop for producing weapons was found in Hofheim in Hesse, Germany.   These fabrica were the production sites for goods for the Roman army, including many iron items.  A large clay hearth was found at Hofheim with deposits of coal and iron slag.  Another area of the fabrica had tools, weapons, iron fittings, wire, bars, and round and flat pieces of iron.  Shears like these at the Sam Noble Museum could have been made at this workshop or one similar to it.

Shears were one of the many iron tools Romans manufactured. Shears were found throughout the Roman Empire, including these from Germany.  Large shears were used for cutting wool and fur from animals.  However, Romans also used shears for the tasks we use scissors for today, including personal grooming.  Though Romans did have hinged scissors, they were very rare and most people used shears for their grooming. These shears at the museum are 10 inches (25.4 cm) long, 3 inches (7.6 cm) wide, and the spring section is 1 inch (2.5 cm) high.  The Sam Noble shears are similar to shears found in Dorset, England and Neuss, Germany. These types of shears were used for shearing sheep, cutting cloth, and other such tasks.

Roman shears were rarely decorated since they were utilitarian tools. The blades of shears vary in length and shape. The differences in blades seem to result from different intended functions for the shears.  There are two spring types: a u-shaped loop and an omega-shaped loop.  The shears from England are u-shaped.  The shears at the Sam Noble Museum are the omega-shaped loop.  Both types produce a strong spring to move the blades together to cut.

Shears for cloth cutting and sheep shearing were depicted in Roman artwork.  Sometimes shears were used as the symbol of sheep shearers and they appear in art along with cloth merchants. Interestingly, men are always shown holding the shears even if women are also depicted.  Yet in the burials around Trier, Germany, shears are found in graves of both sexes, indicating that both sexes likely used shears even though only men were depicted holding them.

To see a modern example of a Roman bloomery furnace, watch this video:

[Chelsea Cinotto]

Works Cited

Eckardt, Hella and Nina Crummy

2008 Styling the Body in Late Iron Age and Roman Britain: A Contextual Approach to Toilet Instruments. Monographies Instrumentum 36. Montagnac: Editions Monique Mergoil.

Sim, D. and J. Kaminski

2012  Roman Imperial Armour: The Production of Early Imperial Military Armour. Wales: Oxbow Books.

Manning, W.H.

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

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.

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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