Spoons and Late Antique Dining Habits

Ellen Swift is currently researching the design and function of Roman spoons, which she will present a paper on at the forthcoming Roman Archaeology Conference in Reading. In her research she uses both design theory and the empirical study of artefacts to further our understanding of Roman everyday living.

Roman texts tell us that cochlear spoons were used for eggs and shellfish but, by looking at the wear marks on the objects, Ellen has been able to demonstrate that they had a much wider range of uses. Some early Roman cochlear spoons have edges worn flat from use on flat surfaces, while later on, there is an increase in both the size of the spoon bowl, and in the incidence of smoothly curving wear. This kind of wear pattern suggests everyday use of the spoons in bowls rather than on plates.

Figure 05c (A009)

Roman cochlear spoon showing clear flat wear on edge of bowl. From Augst (courtesy of Romermuseum Augst).
© Ellen Swift.

Late Roman spoons in particular have larger, deeper bowls, more angled handles, and a deeper off-set between the handle and the bowl. All these features make them more suitable for use with liquids, and Ellen suggests that using spoons for the individual consumption of liquids may have been a new type of dining behaviour in the late Roman period.


Late Roman spoon with a pear-shaped bowl, British Museum. (Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen. Source.)

Ellen has also looked at the wear marks on spoons that show left-handed and right-handed use. Examples of both types of wear exist, but the spoons that show left-handed wear are most interesting. In Roman culture, it was unacceptable to eat with your left hand—as it is in many cultures today. We have for instance instructions in written sources saying that children should be discouraged if they start to use the left hand for eating. However, the archaeological examples show us that despite this Roman cultural prejudice against left-handedness within the sources, not everyone became habituated to eating using their right hand.

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Folding spoon (Reproduced by kind permission of the Trustees of The British Museum).

The incidence of left-handed wear also tells us that these particular spoons are likely to have been personal possessions individually owned and used, as use in common would tend to produce either right-handed or mixed wear patterns. Personal use is corroborated by other evidence, too, such as the existence of a number of folding spoons that could be carried on the person, and spoons found individually in late antique burials.

Ellen’s research was funded in part by the British Academy.

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