Friday, August 19, 2011


Ralph Jackson, Cosmetic Sets of Late Iron Age and Roman Britain. London: British Museum Press, 2010. Pp. vi, 224. ISBN 9780861591817. $60.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Stefanie Hoss, Small Finds Archaeology, Nijmegen (

Version at BMCR home site

When asking to review this book, the title misled me into thinking it was about the cosmetic set well-known to archaeologists of the Northwestern provinces of the Roman empire that typically includes bronze tweezers, a nail cleaner and an ear scoop all held on one ring (as none of these implements have a cosmetic use in the strict sense of the word, it seems more logical to call this set 'toilet set' henceforth.1)

The present book turned out to be about a completely different set of artefacts typical of Iron Age and Roman Britain, consisting of small bronze crescent-shaped mini-mortars and pestles used for grinding small amounts of coloured mineral powders, probably applied as colourings for the face—and thus more deservedly bearing the name 'cosmetic set'. The present book is a comprehensive study of this type of instruments, with chapters on typology, decoration, function, manufacture and distribution.

Ralph Jackson is the authority on the subject as he was also the author of the 1985 paper establishing the type and terminology of these unusual objects, which had been mostly misunderstood as strangely shaped pendants until then.2

After the publication of his article, the inevitable followed—aptly expressed by Jackson in the introduction: "Research on a particular artefact type almost invariably results in an upsurge of reported finds." In this case, the increase was particularly remarkable as the paper contained all 99 examples then known while the current book lists a catalogue of 625 pieces comprising the extensive collection of the British Museum as well as those in other museums and private collections throughout Britain. Not included into this catalogue are 61 examples listed on the website of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Doubtless the publication of this book will enhance the effect and further increase those numbers. It might perhaps even help to identify more examples outside of Britain.

As most readers may well be as unfamiliar with these implements as the author of this review was before reading the book, a short description seems appropriate to convey an impression:

The sets of cosmetic grinders are made up from two components, the larger one being the mortar (L between 2 and 13 cm) and the smaller the pestle (L between 2,5 and 8,5 cm). Both have in common a crescent shape and a loop used for hanging. On the inner curve of the mortar, a channelled groove is the intended receptacle for the minerals while the pestle has the shape of a bowed rod to fit this unusual mortar. Both instruments have one loop each (either on the end or in the centre) with which they were hung on a band and carried about the person. When used, the mortar was held with the fingertips of one hand, while the rod-like pestle was held between forefinger and thumb of the other hand and used to crush pellets of coloured minerals into a powder, which could then be bound by oil, water or spittle and applied to the face with the fingers or a small spatula.

The book starts with a short introduction into the history of the research on these objects, which is followed by a chapter on the typology and statistics of the artefact group. The main typological difference lies in the place of the loop on the objects, with some having the loop in the centre and others at one end, but together with the different decorations of the terminals, Jackson can define 13 sub-types for the mortars and two for the pestles. These sub-types are set out in a table with a description, a drawing and the catalogue numbers of the objects belonging to this type, which is a great help to understanding the differences between the sub-types.

In the third chapter on manufacturing and function, Jackson comprehensively describes the process and evidence of casting, cold-working (decorating and polishing), usage and repairs of these objects. The amount of cold-working often varied considerably and sometimes unexpectedly, with some of the simpler pieces being carefully polished and elaborate ones finished quite indifferently. The author notes that one of the distinguishing characteristics of the set is the variety in form and decoration, with even pieces evidently from the same mould decorated differently. He convincingly argues that this individualization of the objects is connected to their use as ostentatious indicators of (relative) wealth carried visibly on the person.

The function of the set was discovered by careful observation of the wear-patterns, mainly to be found on the inner groove of the mortar and the convex underside of the rod of the pestle. The third area of wear was on the inside of the loops, indicating that the implements had been hung from a string and swung freely, as comparisons with other hangers show.

The substance ground in the pestles has not been determined with certainty yet, as no residue found on the inside of the mortar could be confidently identified as belonging to the minerals ground in the mortars. Jackson deduces that the substance had to be prepared in small amounts only and used directly or decanted into another receptacle. Experiments with salt, pepper (and other seeds) as well as small pellets of mineral colourings in a replica set demonstrated that the mineral pellets (including salt) could be ground to a powder quite finely, but that round, hard seeds had the tendency to jump out of the groove. The practise of colouring (parts of) the face with minerals was well known in the Classical world, where a different set of implements (stone palettes and probably wooden pestles) was used to grind the powder. Pellets of colouring minerals have been found in pouches in Egypt and while all of this is circumstantial evidence, the likelihood of the correct identification of the use of the set is very high.

The fourth chapter, written by K. J. Matthews and M. R. Cowell centres on the scientific analysis of the materials used in an attempt to find correlations between the composition of the copper alloys used and the form, decoration and distribution / place of origin of the sets. Unfortunately, the examined objects are mostly comprised of the three usual alloys found in Roman metalwork (bronze, brass and gunmetal) in a fairly random manner.

In the fifth chapter on decoration and meaning, Jackson first examines the most obvious symbolic meaning of the form. The crescent shape of the mortar (connected to the female sphere of the moon), heightened by the combination of the groove and pestle formed a perfect fertility symbol, which served as apotropaic device to ward off the evil eye. This symbolic value was enhanced in some mortars by adding knobbed terminals in the form of a gland to the end of the crescent, a manner of heaping fertility symbols on top each other that is also well known from Roman amulets. Interestingly, this imagery was not used in Iron Age Britain, thus showing that the sets were adaptable to Roman tastes. Typical for Iron Age British imagery are the heads of waterfowl and cattle, which are also often found as terminals on the mortars.

The decoration on the body of the mortar could be made up of several kinds of incised designs (chevrons, zigzags and ring-and-dot designs) or rows of triangles filled with enamel in the champlevé technique. This colourful "tooth" decoration is typical for narrow surfaces like rims and characteristic for Britain, also occurring on brooches, vessels and belt decorations. This chapter is completed by a useful second typology of the different decorations (with drawings).

The author concludes that the manifold variations in form and decoration are probably connected to its function as a kit associated with self-presentation, mentioned above. The wide spectrum from 'small and simple' to 'large and intricate' according to Jackson suggests a broad range from more inexpensive to very expensive sets and thus the use by a fairly wide social group. In general, the decoration seems to be connected to identity, protection and characterization of the individual wearing it.

The sixth chapter on context and distribution begins with a description of the commendable method used by Jackson to increase the numbers of these artefacts. In 1992 he circulated the drawings of his 1985 article amongst museums, county archaeologists, finds specialists and excavators, asking them if they had additional examples in their collections. This led to both a number of correct(ed) identifications in existing collections and a stream of new finds recognized directly, which—together with the start of metal detecting—eventually led to the astonishing multiplication of the number of known examples..

This chapter's analysis begins with a discussion of the various provenances. It is very comprehensive and careful, explaining the different caveats and in addition to that comes with a set of distribution maps and tables that make following the arguments easy. Praiseworthy is also the distinction between detector and excavation finds made in most maps and the maps of the regional distribution of sub-types. Generally speaking, the distribution seems to favour the South-East of Britain, especially East Anglia, with a strong concentration in the tribal territory of the Iceni. As to the different manner of sites, towns and cities are markedly over-represented above rural sites.

The last chapter covers the dating of the finds. Only 61 examples were found in dated contexts and while several have been found in contexts suggesting they had been in use before the Roman conquest, securely dated finds from this era are still missing. A very useful graphic illustration of the dating of the finds from dated contexts shows clearly that while five can be dated pre-conquest, the majority date into the 2nd and 3rd century, with the minimum usage period of the type dating between 100 BC and 400 AD. This

In conclusion it can be said that this study is remarkable in its careful and thorough analysis of the finds themselves, their contexts and distribution. It is an impressive demonstration of how decades spent thinking (on and off) about a subject and discussing it with others from every possible angle can pay off. While the book undoubtedly is very important on its own, reading it in combination with the study by Eckhard and Crummy on toilet sets (see note 1) makes for an especially interesting read as the cultural implications – while of course speculative – seem to point towards different manners of 'styling the body' using different implements. While the use of one set does not exclude the simultaneous use of the other (demonstrated by a cosmetic set found in combination with a toilet set), it seems possible that it was connected to different identities in Roman Britain.


1.   H. Eckhardt, N. Crummy, Styling the Body in Late Iron Age and Roman Britain. A contextual approach to toilet instruments, Montagnac 2008.
2.   Jackson, R. 1985, Cosmetic sets from Late Iron Age and Roman Britain. Britannia 16, 165-92.

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