Thursday, December 7, 2017


Ellen Swift, Roman Artefacts and Society: Design, Behaviour and Experience. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xi, 305. ISBN 9780198785262. $135.00.

Reviewed by Stefanie Hoss, University of Cologne (

Version at BMCR home site

This thought-provoking book introduces design and craft theory to explain the development of the form of Roman artefacts and the manner in which they were used, and how this in turn influenced both individuals and the wider Roman society (mainly of the northwestern provinces of the Roman Empire). The author uses the introduction to present the theoretical background of the concept, and then devotes each of the following four chapters to their function, experience, users, and production; a conclusion follows. In each of the chapters, different groups of artefacts are presented to illuminate various facets of the theory.

The book is better suited to advanced students and researchers with some experience in material studies. While the pertinent points of the artefact groups are always explained in a manner that allows even those not hitherto acquainted with them to understand the relevant facts, it helps to have some knowledge of the current research discussions on material culture, especially the theoretical models.

In the Introduction, Swift begins by stating that in Roman archaeology, objects have mostly been studied for their social significance, which privileges the non-functional aspects over the functional ones. Swift's theory is mainly developed from design and craft theory as first introduced by Beth Preston.1 In a summary of the form-function relationship, Swift shows that most objects are used for different functions during their lifecycle, and that approximate functionality (rather than perfect functionality) is adequate to use most of them in an everyday manner (an example is a dripping teapot of a shape pleasing to the eyes). Swift concludes that often other values (such as for instance a visually pleasing shape or social significance) rather than pure functionality also determine the form of an object.

Swift proposes 'affordance' as a concept that, while allowing for various uses, will encourage specific uses more than others. Because of its heat-retaining material and handle, the main affordance of a teacup is the drinking of a hot beverage—but it can also be used for other purposes, e.g. as a cookie-cutter or storage container. Swift also defines the twin concepts of 'proper function' (drinking of a hot beverage) and 'system function' (cookie-cutter, etc.) to differentiate between the intended use made of an object and the divergent uses also possible.

Some artefacts also affect behaviour, as their 'proper' function limits and constrains certain actions, while facilitating and fostering others. In this manner, artefacts stimulate certain behaviours, interacting with people on a subconscious level (pp. 11-13). Swift points out that artefact design is never neutral, but always aimed at specific users (pp.13-16). Because of this, it is often exclusive of other groups such as, for instance, left-handed individuals or those without the 'proper' cultural knowledge. This tends to make the use of these objects difficult and alienating for the excluded individuals, who may even seem ridiculous when using these objects. In this manner, artefacts can maintain social prejudices and power relations.

In the second chapter on function, the categories of affordances and system function are investigated. In the first of two case studies on tools, Swift can demonstrate that in the case of pens, the differences in the shape of the nib results in different scripts, conforming to differences observed in examples of scripts through the Roman period, showing that a change—even a small one—in the shape of a tool can result in a visible change in the product. Up to now, changes in Roman script were explained by rather abstract changes in fashion. The example also demonstrates the importance of differentiating affordance into making possible and making easy. While the former results in approximate functions, the latter is especially important for tools, where optimal performance was the ideal. This case study also shows that several objects used in conjunction (writing surface, pen, ink, paper or vellum) determine the end product (the script) and that changes in one may lead to changes in the others, but certainly always change the product. This is an example of the reflexive relationship between 'proper' and 'system' functions, demonstrating that many changes in fashion are not mirroring changes in Zeitgeist, but result from incremental changes in objects for entirely different (e.g. practical) reasons.

In the next case study, shears are studied in minute detail, allowing Swift to form the first typology of Roman shears. Her classifications describe the shears' various typical affordances in cutting. Comparing these affordances with those of early 20th-century shears allows Swift to determine the main use for each type, a question that had hitherto not been solved.

The third chapter examines changes of behaviour with the help of several artefact groups and their affordances. Swift can show a change in wine drinking vessels from smaller, personal vessels in the 1st century to larger, communal vessels in Late Antiquity. This implies a change in behaviour from drinking from individual cups to sharing a beaker with several persons, a much more convivial method of drinking. While this had already been demonstrated by Daniel Keller, he reached his conclusion with the help of a dated find context in Petra, where the vessels were in their original use, the room having collapsed due to an earthquake.2 The fact that Keller and Swift independently draw the same conclusion through different methods and from data found in different regions naturally only strengthens the result. Artefacts thus promote and at the same time record a change in behaviour and probably social mores over time.

Artefacts can also record unchanging behaviours, as in the case of Roman locks, which could only be closed from the outside, suggesting a use on chests, cupboards and storage-rooms rather than the outer doors of houses. The keys also could not be easily retracted from the locks when they were unlocked, probably resulting in them being kept in the locks. This facet of Roman everyday behaviour is only known through the material record, and has a number of interesting consequences, such as the fact that Roman houses were probably not locked or that the archaeological find of a key in the lock suggests that the storage room or chest it guarded had been empty.

Artefacts also can demonstrate differences in the experience of similar objects in different social strata: dice made from more expensive materials such as ivory, jet, amber, rock crystal and glass are more regular than those made of bone and non-precious stone. Amber, glass and rock crystal also had the added advantage of translucency, visibly demonstrating that they were not loaded. In contrast, many bone dice were irregular, the most common irregularity being 'flat' dice, in which one axis is shorter than the others, resulting in the higher probability of the dice falling on one of two sides. As this mostly connects the numbers 1 and 6, Swift suggests that games played with these dice would have more extreme gains and losses and thus be more exciting. These differences in dice might have fostered both different attitudes towards gaming and differences in the knowledge of the laws of probability, separating the elites and ordinary people.

The fourth chapter deals with design-decisions intentionally aimed at different users. Swift first studies finger rings with motifs, initially establishing the correlation between age/sex and inner diameter of the ring, thus supporting Alex Furger's study with a much larger data set and the additional use of data from depictions of rings worn and burials with rings, where the age and sex of the buried were determined.3 Going a step further, this is followed by an examination of the motifs most common with certain ring sizes, corresponding to ages and genders. The results show that while motifs may have multiple meanings, social conventions governed the suitability of the choices for the different ages and genders.

The second case study of this chapter is concerned with objects that are able to show either left- or right-handedness. Swift briefly explains the Roman bias towards right-handedness and names a few Roman objects that are made to be used right-handed, such as the codex, tools, weapons, and spoons with inscriptions. Among them are zoomorphic, enamelled brooches, as their subject is often facing sideways and has to be 'correctly' fastened, which is easier for a right-handed person because of the direction of the pin on the back. In this manner, artefacts promote social norms like right-handedness. Other designs presuppose a specific cultural knowledge in order to be able use them 'correctly', such as the cosmetic grinders found in Britain (see BMCR 2011.08.38).4 or wooden boxes with lids, which show clear regional variation in the construction of the lid that is related to pre-Roman traditions. This may have contributed to feelings of alienation for those unused to opening a box in an unfamiliar manner, and feelings of (slight) superiority for those able to do it in contexts where these boxes would have seemed exotic. Artefacts thus not only categorize people into different groups (e.g. age, gender, handedness, region) by their appearances, but also by their use.

The fifth chapter deals with the relationship between production process and user experience. Here, the case study on dice is taken up again, showing that the 'flat' bone dice were a result of a highly standardized production process that accounted for the size and shape of the available bone material. Swift can also make a plausible case that this shape came to be seen as normal and was copied in other materials. This example illuminates how material properties influenced production methods, and how both factors resulted in affordances that affected how the objects functioned in a social context (p. 211). These unintended consequences can then become normative, or at least one possible norm, as the non-bone 'flat' dice show. The second case study of this chapter looks into the capacity of moulded square glass bottles from Britain and Germania Inferior. These seem to cluster around the Roman measure of a sexarius (or a multiple or fraction of it). Swift can thus demonstrate the intention—which, because of material properties, was not always successful – to make bottles standardized in capacity, which may have been sold with their contents for a fixed price. She remarks that being able to divide up large consignments into standardized smaller portions for daily consumption would have been especially practical for the army (p. 225). Both studies in this chapter demonstrate the recalcitrant agency of materials, which in Roman times tended to undo the human intention to standardize particular objects in order to make a specific experience (gaming, buying liquids) similar for large numbers of people.

A conclusion sums up the results of the chapters, and seven appendices at the end list the original data for the artefacts used in the larger studies.

The method introduced in this book, namely to pay a high level of attention to specific affordances of each object and their connotations in order to fully understand their role in the shaping of Roman life is convincing. Swift's study allows us to draw wider conclusions about the society of the northwestern Roman provinces in general, for instance by charting how artefacts can cement societal prejudice and power-relations or facilitate the performance of new behaviours, document social change, and record differences in the experience of life for people of different ages, genders and classes.

As to the affordances of the book itself, the appendices are clearly set out; many artefacts are pictured, while many others (or similar representatives) can be easily found on the site of the Portable Antiquities Scheme; and I could not fault the editing.


1.   Preston, Beth (2012) Philosophy of Material Culture. Action, Function, and Mind. New York: Routledge.
2.   Keller, Daniel (2006), "Die Gläser aus Petra", in: Keller, D. and M. Grawehr (eds.), Petra ez-Zantur III. Ergebnisse des Schweizerisch-Liechtensteinischen Ausgrabungen. Part 1, Mainz: Phillipp von Zabern: Terra Archaeologica 5, 1- 253.
3.   Furger, Alex (1990), "Exkurs 3: Ringgrössen", in: Riha, Emilie, Der römische Schmuck aus Augst und Kaiseraugst, Augst: Römermuseum Augst (Forschungen in Augst 10), 40-51.
4.   Jackson, Ralph (2010), Cosmetic Sets of Late Iron Age and Roman Britain.London: British Museum Press.

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