Review: Roman Artefacts and Society

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Roman Artefacts and Society: design, behaviour, and experience
Ellen Swift
Oxford University Press, £85
ISBN 978-0198785262
Review: Matthew Fittock

Offering a fresh approach to Roman material culture studies, this book shows how design theory can help us understand the interplay between object design, production, and function, and how this reflects changes in social behaviour and cultural practice in Roman society.

An object’s features could allow it to be used in unintended ways, often by different groups of people. For instance, some finger-rings were not just pieces of jewellery, but also keys that could safeguard personal possessions.

Ellen Swift’s insightful case studies look at what some might consider to be quite mundane objects. Different spoons worn in the same place, for example, demonstrate that people used them to eat in the same way, even though they were designed for different cuisines. Meanwhile, the shape and numbering of dice made of cheap bone and clay give an amusing glimpse of how lowlier Romans were more likely to cheat with loaded dice than the more prideful upper classes, who used transparent and perfectly formed amber or crystal ones.

The book explores the unexpected, socially inspired twists and turns in the life of Roman objects. It leaves the reader with a good introduction to what is a detail-orientated topic. It will be of value to anyone who enjoys closely examining Roman artefacts.

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