London’s Roman Tools: Craft, Agriculture and Experience in an Ancient City

Owen Humphreys, London’s Roman Tools: Craft, Agriculture and Experience in an Ancient City, Archaeology of Roman Britain 3 (Oxford: BAR Publishing, 2021). 9781407357386.

Reviewed by Tim Penn, University of Oxford,

Humphreys’ book is dedicated to “Sarah, and everyone else who won’t read it but might look at the pictures.” But anyone who just looks at the pictures is missing out. The archaeological study of tools has until now been dominated by typological approaches that attempt to map changes in tool form and use through time. This approach is undoubtedly valuable, but as Humphreys notes, most people in the past, especially in pre-industrial societies, worked manual jobs, and tools can therefore also provide a window onto social life and lived experience. The present volume sets out to do just that, using a corpus of 837 metal tools, mostly made of iron, though a few copper alloy implements are also discussed.

This book comprises two main parts. The first (Chapters 1–13) discusses the material from London in its wider context and the implications this has for Roman craft in society. The second (Chapters 14–15) is a typological analysis, which provides valuable information for specialists working on tool finds across the Roman world, but here I focus on the discursive chapters because of their implications for wider debates in Roman archaeology, such as around Romanization or economic organization and specialization.

The introduction in Chapter 1 sketches the historical development of Roman London and underlines the diversity of the ancient city’s population. From this point on, Humphreys is clearly intent on putting craftspeople—not just objects—at the forefront of his study. The author then outlines a range of methodological considerations inherent in the study, including a desire to draw on multiple continental European traditions of studying tools which have not yet been fully utilized in Britain, as well as a desire to avoid Latin terms because of problems with mapping text onto material culture. This chapter also argues that tools were active participants in the creation and negotiation of (past) societies, yet rejects an approach which views objects as possessing discrete agency.

Chapter 2 outlines the data sources and additional notes on approaches adopted in the book. As the author makes clear, most objects discussed herein are held in the Museum of London Core Collection, supplemented by a range of other smaller collections (e.g., the Museum of London Archaeology, British Museum, Bank of England Museum). Many of these pieces have not been published elsewhere, and the data presented are largely derived from the author’s personal survey. The distribution of finds across London reveals a heavy bias towards the Walbrook Valley, reflecting depositional practices that saw ground levels in this part of the city periodically raised by dumping of huge masses of material; tools, therefore, provide only a very limited guide to the locations of crafts in Roman London. Turning to chronology, only about a third of the tools covered in this book can be assigned a depositional date, and these are skewed heavily towards the late 1st century CE because of reliable stratigraphy at the Bloomberg site, where many of them were found; progressively fewer can be attributed to later periods. On a methodological level, Humphreys’ approach emphasizes the functional categories for objects first outlined by Nina Crummy, and most tools covered by this study were for woodworking, agriculture, metalwork, and leatherwork.[1]

Chapter 3 offers an excursus on tool manufacture and manufacturers in Roman London. This chapter is articulated around an analysis of the origins of the tools from the city, based on their style, but also on makers’ marks, which together allow us to attempt to provenance tools, some of which were probably from the continent and others of which—like some late Roman axes—may even have been made outside the Empire. Humphreys finds that these show a mix of imports from high quality continental manufacturing and those made by local toolmakers. The principal insight to emerge from this study is the diversity of Roman London—the large number of tools unknown in pre-Roman London is taken as evidence for a largely immigrant population of Roman craftspeople, some of whom may have been soldiers.

The next nine chapters discuss the tools associated with different kinds of industrial activity, in descending order according to the number of tools provided. These chapters employ a consistent structure following the chaîne opératoire, from the production or extraction of raw materials, through the various stages of production. This systematic approach means that most of these chapters, especially the earlier ones, provide not just insights into the specific tool assemblages from London, but also a crash course into what we know about each craft in the Roman period. Notable also are the very many useful diagrams which explain actual tool usage.

Chapter 4, “Woodworking,” discusses the activity with which the largest proportion of tools found in London may be linked. As Humphreys acknowledges, woodworking is really an array of allied trades: sawyers, wagon builders, ship caulkers, coopers, chest-makers, inlayers, etc., all of which would have been necessary in the economic life of the city. Timber was probably sourced locally (oak, hazel, box) and imported (silver fir, spruce, larch). Analysis of each of the principal forms of woodworking unfolds within the framework of debates around two hypothesized groups of carpenters—local and foreign—with tools serving as a proxy for social dynamics. Of particular interest is a discussion of ownership based on evidence including overall range of tools, customization, and makers’ marks, which all point to the conclusion that woodworkers used a relatively limited toolset and probably often worked in communal environments, meaning they had to be able to mark their own tools so as not to lose them.

Chapter 5, “Agriculture, Horticulture and Gardening,” shows that the agricultural tools from London provide evidence for cultivation both on small plots (i.e., allotments and vegetable gardens) and perhaps in fields, though the ploughs that underpin this latter hypothesis could have been stored, rather than used, in the city. The small size of most surviving tools could reflect the types of plants under cultivation, though the author also notes that larger tools were perhaps more likely to be recycled. Another key insight to emerge from this chapter is the notion that small finds, including tools, can help to break down the rural/urban dichotomy, as the presence of agricultural implements in cities may indicate that some inhabitants commuted to work in the fields.

Chapter 6, “Metalworking,” again emphasizes the broad meaning of the term metalworkers–ranging from experts to occasional DIY enthusiasts, working with varied materials. This chapter also provides a rundown on metal sources from across Britannia and beyond, which were supplemented by recycling. Metalworking locations may be identified through deposits of production waste, but this material only tells part of the story, and we need to study metalworking tools to gain access to the dizzying array of processes and techniques employed by metalworkers (casting, forging, “machining,” gilding, soldering, etc.). It should be noted, however, that not all known metalworking tools are represented in Roman London, which Humphreys suggests may reflect a craft community which valued displaying skilled use of a more restricted range of tools.

Chapter 7, “Leatherworking,” explores the range of linked but distinct tasks involved in this trade, from the preparation of hides to tanning, cutting, stitching, and so on, all which Humphreys suggests were all taking place in Roman London. Not all relevant tools are discussed (most notably, shears and needles are left out), but Humphreys’ analysis demonstrates that the toolkit expanded after the conquest, yet remained simple enough that “amateurs and newcomers” may not have needed large amounts of specialist equipment to get started in the trade.

Chapter 8, “Masonry and Stoneworking,” surveys stone and ceramic building material (CBM) manufacture, as well as plastering, starting with the sources of materials and moving on to the individual trades. Only twenty-two relevant tools are attested from Roman London, but these provide the basis for a wide-ranging discussion of how the built environment of the city was produced, and emphasizes that many of the building materials, CBM included, came from relatively far away.

Subsequent chapters concentrate on activities which, though industrially and economically significant, are less well represented among the tools from Roman London. Chapter 9, “Pottery Making,” offers a brief overview of material supply and pottery-making sites in London. Significant here is the peripheral nature of much pottery manufacturing, with most of this appearing to take place on the edge of the city. As Humphreys notes, it is difficult to identify pottery shaping and decorating tools due to the generic, multi-purpose nature of most metal implements used in making ceramics–the exception being several kinds of spatulas; others made from organic materials are unlikely to survive in the archaeological record.

Chapter 10, “Animal Husbandry,” primarily discusses curry combs and an elaborately decorated copper alloy object which is interpreted as a twitch, but leaves aside the more controversial “ox goads.”[2] This chapter is a valuable synthesis, but the small number of tools constrains the author to spend as much space discussing the general background of the tools as the tools themselves. Additionally, the possible twitch, which bears a series of protomes iconographically linked to the cult of Attis-Cybele, remains problematic. In modern veterinary practice, a twitch is used to calm horses through sensory stimulation, but the elaborate decoration and a series of teeth on the inside may have rendered the object difficult to handle and/or likely to cause contusions on the patient or handler.

Chapter 11, “Bone-, Antler-, Ivory- and Horn-Working,” faces similar challenges to the study of pottery-working tools: the generic nature of these implements means they are archaeologically indistinguishable from those used for woodwork. While a useful map of working debris from around London hints at where these activities took place, debris does not necessarily equate with workshop locations; this may have been an itinerant practice. Most of the evidence for tools discussed here is indirect, like a drilled cattle scapula from Southwark, highlighting the challenges of dividing tools between work types as there is a great deal of overlap.

Chapter 12, “Glassworking,” summarizes recent work by Angela Wardle, which shows small-scale and possibly itinerant glassworking at various locations around London.[3] However, as the author acknowledges, the tools—tongs, shears, pincers, etc.—we have at present do not add much to our understanding because of their functional ambiguity. In terms of original research, these briefer chapters add much less than what went before, and their value lies in providing a strong and concise overview of craft and industry in Roman London, drawing on supporting evidence.

Conclusions are presented in Chapter 13. This chapter effectively restates and summarizes the arguments in the previous chapters, while emphasizing the value of a typo-social approach to tools. This section also emphasizes the many avenues for future work, especially as the data from London do not allow for an analysis of social distribution, but data from other sites might.

Chapter 14 presents an exhaustive typological analysis of the tools from Roman London, divided into 56 different types. Tools are introduced with notes on their technical characteristics and function, quantified and split into further subtypes. This is the part of the book which will prove most useful as a reference work on a day-to-day basis for colleagues seeking to identify metal objects. The comparanda cited are non-exhaustive, but they are nevertheless generous in places. It should, however, be noted again here—as indeed the author admits—that most material from London is unstratified, so some non-Roman finds are probably included. Chapter 15 closes the volume with a systematic catalogue, as well as black and white plates combining photographs and line drawings.

It will not be possible to undertake serious research on the archaeology of Roman tools without heavy reference to this book. Humphreys’ impressive work sets forth huge quantities of data which were previously unavailable. He is rightly cautious in flagging the limits to our knowledge of functionally ambiguous tools, but nevertheless manages to provide a useful overview of many of the craft activities taking place in Roman Britain. Throughout, he does an excellent job of showing that Britain’s time within the Roman Empire resulted in the arrival of a whole host of new craft practices, enabled by a range of tools not previously known there. At the same time, this reader was left with some reservations about what we can say about who used these tools. Roman London was undoubtedly a diverse place. But pots, famously, are not people, and neither are tools, meaning that attributing their use to specific groups is problematic, especially without strong contextual evidence, which is lacking from London. It should also be noted that most of the photographs, especially of the tools, are in black and white, which occasionally renders them difficult to read. Additionally, some of the distribution maps are confusing due to the use of uniform legends, which sometimes left this reader looking for features not present on a given map. These are very minor quibbles, though, and do not detract from the importance of this volume. Do yourself a favour: don’t just look at the pictures.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Artefacts at Work (1–18))
2. London’s Roman Tools (19–26)
3. Manufacture: Style, Provenance and Practice (27–45)
4. Woodwork (46–77)
5. Agriculture, Horticulture and Gardening (79–91)
6. Metalwork (92–119)
7. Leatherwork (120–43)
8. Masonry and Stonework (144–53)
9. Pottery-Making (154–59)
10. Animal Husbandry (160–63)
11. Bone-, Antler-, Ivory- and Horn-Working (164–65)
12. Glassworking (166–67)
13. Conclusions, Reflections and Future Directions (168–74)
14. Typology (175–303)
15. Catalogue and Plates (304–467)


[1] N. Crummy, The Roman Small Finds from Excavations in Colchester from Colchester 1971-9 (Colchester: Colchester Archaeological Trust, 1983).

[2] H. Eckhardt, Writing and Power in the Roman World: Literacies and Material Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), p. 32.

[3] A. Wardle, Glassworking in the Margins of Roman London: Excavations at 35 Basinghall Street, Museum of London Archaeology Monograph 70 (London: Museum of London Archaeology, 2015).


1. What is the biggest insight you feel your book provides to the study of Roman tools?

What I want people to take away from the book is that tools are not just mundane and meaningless objects. Like any other type of artefact, they can be used as a window into past societies. Obviously they have a lot to tell us about technology and production, but I hope I have shown that we can move beyond that to talk about more abstract aspects of society such as lived experience and identity. As an object category they present interpretative challenges, but also opportunities.

2. Can we refine our understanding of what functionally ambiguous tools were used for by drawing on evidence and assemblages from workshops elsewhere in the Roman world?

As with any artefact we need to maximize any evidence we can get hold of. Tools are rarely found as part of coherent functional assemblages, but when they are the information is invaluable. I’m thinking of examples like the Titelberg hoard where writing tools and pottery making implements were found together, which may suggest that styli and spatulas had a role in pottery making, or the carpenter’s bag from Herculaneum which contained a type of chisel I would otherwise have thought was more likely to have been used in metalworking. Of course, “functionally ambiguous tools” would encompass both objects of currently unknown function, which we may one day be able to give a definitive identification, and general purpose tools that could have been used in multiple ways. The latter will always be ambiguous.

3. How can future research continue to explore the experience of using tools in the ancient world?

I think “experience” has been a useful framework for me in relating this material back to individuals in a specific time and place, but we can do more with it. Individual experience of work is fundamental to grand social theories such as Marxism, but archaeological studies of technology and manufacture have taken something of a back seat in our discussions of the ancient world. We’ve been content to leave the big questions to other people, despite the drive for theories of “practice.” Future research has an extensive suite of unexplored evidence to draw on if we make a serious push to integrate these themes into our work. There are other classes of artefact to be studied, such as textiles, working tools, or waste products. I’m particularly interested in the contribution that scientific analyses like x-radiography, microscopic examination, XRF, ZooMS and the like can make, and experimental archaeology is of course possible. These can be explored in any time period or place and we especially need studies bringing together assemblages from smaller rural sites. However, what is most important is an acknowledgement that the technical data that these studies produce are no less valid as evidence for ancient life at micro and macro scales than anything else we have.

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