Exhibit of the Week: Roman trumpet brooch

Roman trumpet brooch in the Scarborough Collections.
Roman trumpet brooch in the Scarborough Collections.

The next time you’re getting dressed, reflect for a moment on something you probably take completely for granted: the range of tools and techniques you use to make sure your clothing actually stays securely on your body.

Within the next 24 hours, you’ll almost certainly use at least one button, zip, hook-and-eye, press-stud or buckle. If you’re the outdoorsy type, you’ll most likely have a dazzling array of high-tech clips, toggles, elasticated drawstrings and Velcro to help insulate you against the elements.

But many of these items which are so useful and yet we take so much for granted are relatively modern – functional buttons with buttonholes have been in use only since the Middle Ages, while the indispensible zip fastener as we know it today wasn’t invented until the early 20th century.

Our earlier ancestors had to content themselves with far simpler methods of securing their garments, such as the Roman trumpet brooch which is our exhibit from the Scarborough Collections today, and which probably protected its wearer against those chilly North Sea winds by holding a cloak in place.

The brooches we are familiar with today, of course, are mostly entirely decorative items, usually worn by women on the front shoulder or chest area.

Roman brooches, though, were functional pins more akin to the modern safety pin than to jewellery, and as such are fairly common finds at archaeological sites. Worn by both sexes and also known as fibulae (in the singular, fibula – the same word denoted the calf bone because they were thought to resemble one another), they were brought to this country by the invading Romans in 43 AD. Over the next 300-odd years of Roman occupation, fashions changed, and with it, the types of brooch.

Most elaborate and decorative was the ‘dragonesque’ fibula, styled in the shape of a serpent or dragon, and influenced by the native Celts so recently conquered by the Roman invaders. The Romans also enjoyed, as we still do today, adopting animal forms for decoration, a type known to today’s archaeologists as zoomorphic. These might be horses, birds, fish, wild boars, dogs or, with a touch of gentle Roman humour, ducks or rabbits.

By far the most common though was the so-called ‘trumpet’ brooch, such as our exhibit today, and so named because the head of the brooch which contained and protected the spring or hinge on which the pin swivelled resembles a trumpet.

Made like many Roman brooches of bronze, a copper alloy, it has acquired the green patina often known as verdigris which is common to copper which has been exposed to the elements – think of the Statue of Liberty or, in a couple of years’ time, Scarborough’s new copper-clad lifeboat house. Most Roman brooches were made of either bronze or iron, or a mixture of both – occasionally, they might be silver or gold, denoting the higher status of the wearer. The bronze ones are by far the most common finds these days, as the iron brooches didn’t survive as well. Bronze brooches may have been ‘tinned’ at the time of manufacture – plated to give them the appearance of silver.

The brooch has been reported to and assessed by the Portable Antiquities Scheme, the government-funded body to which members of the public are encouraged to voluntarily submit small finds like this one for recording. It tells us that it weighs 16g and dates from somewhere between 75AD and 175AD.

It’s a recent acquisition by Scarborough Museums Trust, having been found on local cultivated land by a metal detectorist.

If you’re interested in archaeology, why not join the trust at its free day-long Festival of Archaeology on Saturday? At the Rotunda between 10.30am and 5pm you can see demonstrations of ancient crafts from flintknapping to cheesemaking, make a coil pot, and learn how to look at the landscape with an archaeological eye, amongst many other activities.

The Roman trumpet brooch is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact collections manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.