Posts Tagged 'Knife'

Object: Knife and Sheath

Figure 1    Crooked Knife and Sheath from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History
Figure 1 Knife and Sheath from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Knife and Sheath
North America
Materials: Iron, hide, wood

This particular object is a small curved iron knife approximately 8 3/4 inches in length and 1 1/4 inches in width at its widest point on the wooden handle and resides in the Ethnology Collection at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. According to Museum records, this knife is believed to have come from the North American region and was used by the Inuit.

Figure 2   Map of the Inuit peoples, photo courtesy of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Canada’s National Inuit Organization.

Figure 2   Map of the Inuit peoples, photo courtesy of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Canada’s National Inuit Organization.

The term “Inuit” refers to native peoples of the Arctic and Sub-Arctic regions when specific tribal affiliation cannot be determined. Based on research, however, one can see the similarities that this knife shares with quite a few different, regional tribal locations. First, this knife shares a similar form, including a curved blade attached to a straight handle, with the Yupik people. This same knife style, however, was also emulated by a tribe much farther to the southeast, the Tahltan of British Columbia. Second, Native Alaskans made and continue to make many different types of knives. These curved blades are primarily employed in the carving of wood or bone in order to make tools, wearable items, or artwork. A curved, long blade would be much easier to use for carved items because of their ability to make precision cuts, rather than the Ulu knife, which is normally associated with the term “Alaskan knife.” Ulu knives are better suited to chopping and don’t have the carving power of a curved blade, such as the one in the Ethnology Collection would have.

Figure 2    "Inuit Ulu", Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -
Figure 3 “Inuit Ulu”, Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

The knife in the Ethnology Collection also has a crooked sheath to go with the curved blade. The sheath is made out of leather, although it is unclear what animal hide was used to make the leather. Most similar blades either do not have their original sheath, or the sheath is made from another material such as wood or ivory.

While the specific identification of this knife is unknown, it is without a doubt from the Inuit peoples of the Arctic and Sub-Arctic regions of North America. It also illustrates an excellent example of how the form (the curved blade) of an object can directly relate to the function (precise carving).

[Connor Daggett]



Museum of Inuit Art:

British Museum, Arctic Peoples:

Canadian Museum of History, First Peoples:

The Dennos Museum Center, Inuit Gallery: 



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.

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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