London’s Roman Tools: craft, agriculture and experience in an ancient city

This new study of tools from Roman London is a hefty volume, but it more than justifies the bookshelf space. Thorough coverage of dozens of crafts and tool types will ensure that it becomes a standard reference work for artefact specialists, but this book also addresses broader issues associated with crafts and technology, and provides a fascinating account of the working lives of many of Roman London’s inhabitants.

Thematic chapters cover various different spheres of work (e.g. woodwork, pottery-making, animal husbandry, etc), broken down into more closely defined craft practices where possible. Tools are flexibly integrated into the discussion, alongside craft waste, finished products, written sources, iconography, and so forth. The treatment of these subsidiary classes of evidence is inevitably less comprehensive, but adds a great deal of value when reconstructing the details of craft practice and the economic and social networks within which craftspeople functioned. So, for example, a single croze iron, a specialised cooperage tool, forms the nucleus for a wider discussion that fleshes out the cooper’s toolkit (with axes, saws, planes, etc), reconstructs working practices, identifies a local cooper named Junius mentioned on a writing tablet, explores the status of associated officials, vintners, or merchants using barrel stamps, and considers the range of products (including barrels, buckets, and tankards) made of local and imported (probably recycled) woods.

London’s tool assemblage is large and diverse, including likely imports and unusual or even unique items. This reflects Roman London’s cosmopolitan character and complex economy, as well as the excellent preservation of artefacts from waterlogged deposits. There is a large chapter on typology and an illustrated catalogue of the 837 hand tools studied during the author’s PhD research, arranged alphabetically from adzes to wax spatulas. These pages will no doubt be well-thumbed by those seeking to identify and interpret their own finds, and they provide typology galore, comparisons with modern tools, and a useful route into scholarship on similar finds elsewhere in the Roman world.

This well-researched and extensively illustrated book will appeal to anyone interested in Britannia’s largest city or Roman crafts and working lives.

Review by Michael Marshall.
London’s Roman Tools: craft, agriculture and experience in an ancient city, Owen Humphreys, BAR Publishing, £89, ISBN 978-1407357386.