Roman brooches with a fastening pin are also known as fibulae (singular fibula). There is a large variety of different shapes and sizes.
Some Roman brooches were functional and used, like a safety-pin, to secure clothing but others were purely decorative and attached to clothing for their appearance.
Roman brooches were made from a wide range of different substances including copper alloy and precious metals, sometimes with inlaid enamels, glass, semi-precious stones or a contrasting metal. They had a metal pin for attachment to clothes.
A Roman brooch from Beachamwell. (© NCC)
In the Norfolk Heritage Explorer database there are many different types of Roman brooch recorded. The earliest types were simple - like modern safety pins. They have different types of pin mechanism (some were hinged, with a separate pin) and different types of bow - the front part of the brooch which could be decorated. An example from Beachamwell demonstrates how the front of the brooch could be decorated (NHER 31126
A Roman plate brooch in the shape of an amphora from Gayton Thorpe. (© NCC)
One important type of Roman brooch was the 'plate’ brooch. This had a flat surface suitable for decoration, like a modern badge, but came in all different shapes and sizes. One example from Gayton Thorpe is in the shape of an amphora or storage vessel (NHER 31560
). Two have been found at Hockwold-cum-Wilton - one in the shape of a horse and rider and another in the shape of a stag (NHER 5587
). A final example comes from Beeston with Bittering. This is in the shape of a running hound (NHER 4084
). These were probably more for ornament than use: they are usually quite small with not enough room between the plate and pin to hold thick layers of cloth. Frequently these brooches were decorated with brightly coloured enamels. Sometimes they were set with small stones like the disc brooch from Carleton Rode (NHER 38692
A Roman plate brooch in the shape of a horse and rider from Hockwold-cum-Wilton. (© NCC)
Archaeologists use the small differences in Roman brooches to sort them into types. They can them put them in date order. Although brooches were sometimes kept for a long time they are relatively abundant and it is usually possible to arrive at a general period of use, if not a close date.
A Hod Hill military Roman brooch from Stradsett. (© NCC)
Some brooches were made specifically for the military and we find these commonly on the sites of forts but also in civilian settlements. A Hod Hill type military brooch has been found at Stradsett (NHER 39567
). Brooches found in forts occupied during the mid 1st century conquest of southern Britain are similar to those from continental forts of the same period.
A Roman metal brooch mould from Brancaster. (© NCC)
Brooches were made either by hammering a piece of metal into the right shape or by casting molten metal in a mould. Most brooch moulds were made of fired clay. A model was used to make these clay moulds. One of these models was found in Grimston (NHER 43198
). Three metal brooch moulds, the only ones found in the entire Roman Empire, have been found in Norfolk. One comes from Brancaster (NHER 1003
). These could have produced hundreds of brooches in a very short time. Most were probably melted down and made into new moulds once the originals went out of fashion.
Children making Roman brooches at Attleborough Library Heritage Family Fun Day. (© NCC)Make your own Roman plate brooch
You can have a go at making your own brooch using the templates which are based on brooches found at Attleborough (NHER 29896) or Watton (NHER 29080) or you can use your imagination and make your own shape.
You will need:
Pencil and paper
Colouring pencils, crayons or felt tip pens
Badge back or safety pin
Templates for making Roman plate brooches. (© NCC)
1. Decide which Roman brooch to make. Print out the template.
2. Colour in your design. You could use one colour to make it look like copper, silver or gold. You could use bright colours to imitate enamels. Or you could use your imagination.
3. Stick the coloured brooch onto a piece of stiff card.
4. Carefully cut around the outline of the brooch.
5. Attach a badge back or safety pin to the back of the card.
Finished Roman plate brooches. (© NCC)
M. Dennis (NLA), 27 April 2007.