If you browse auctioneers’ or metal detectorists’ websites, even Etsy or eBay, you may come across things referred to as ‘Celtic woad grinders’. The example seen here comes from Baldock. Leaving aside the fact that the term ‘Celtic’ is today used mainly as a linguistic rather than art historical label and that archaeologists today call them simply ‘cosmetic grinders’, what evidence is there for how their owners used them?

The Baldock cosmetic grinder was found with a pair of tweezers in a ditch excavated on Clothall Common that was infilled some time between AD 180 and AD 200. The ditch formed part of the western boundary of a large trapezoidal enclosure with a roundhouse in its southern part. Although interpreted at the time as a house, the range of later finds from the enclosure – a pit with 33 iron spearheads, votive axeheads and spears, part of a large bronze statue and an iron rattle – suggests that this was religious rather than domestic.

The grinder consists of a crescent-shaped copper alloy trough with a horned animal head (cow or bull) at each end and a central ring underneath. One of the animal heads has a blunt-ended muzzle, the other is more pointed and open-mouthed. Each side of the trough is decorated with three shield-shaped panels containing enamel inlay, red in the centre and light turquoise either side. The top of the grinder has a deep V-sectioned trough with a slightly squared off base, which seems to derive from wear. Its capacity when full would have been about 1.8 ml.

When Reginald Smith first described three examples from Wroxeter in 1918, he was misled by the position of the loop into thinking that they were pendant charms associated with horses as the loops were evidently made to hang from a cord. He compared them with a serrated nose-band or cavesson, used for controlling unruly horses. He distinguished a type with a central suspension loop and one with an end loop; by the 1930s, he had also recognised a ‘solid’ type. The identification as pendants or amulets remained standard until the 1980s, although Ian Stead and Val Rigby had recognised in the 1970s that the troughs and solid pieces belonged together. About twenty complete sets have been found.

During the 1980s, Ralph Jackson recognised that the two elements formed either a rocking pair or a sliding element along the trough part. He concluded that they must have been grinding implements, a miniature mortar and pestle. Their association with other items and personal care, such as tweezers, and their small size made it likely that they were used to grind mineral-based pigments. It was from this work that the wrong idea of the ‘woad applicator’ or ‘woad grinder’ arose: the dye extracted from woad by steeping and boiling the leaves does not need to be dried and can be used as a liquid. The dried powder does not need grinding like minerals.

It is not even certain that Julius Caesar’s description of the Britons (de Bello Gallico V.14) mentions woad. His text reads omnes uero se britanni uitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem (‘Indeed, all the Britons dye themselves with uitrum, which produces a blue colour’). The Latin word uitrum usually means ‘glass’. The first person to translate it as ‘woad’ was Arthur Golding in 1565 and experiments with the plant have shown it not to be effective as a skin decoration. The usual Latin term for woad was isatis (from Greek ἰσάτις). Caesar’s description of ‘blue’ Britons may even derive from the traditional associations of blue in the Classical world with barbarians, ghosts and death and not reflect reality.

A second quote, from Propertius’s Elegies Book II, that has been taken to refer to woad, does not mention uitrum or isatis but just describes the Britons as infectos, ‘stained’, without mentioning a specific dye or colour. Moreover, Pliny (Historia Naturalis XXII.2) describes how the Britons use a plant known as glastum in Gaul, which by which they are aethiopum colorem imitantes (‘imitating the colour of Africans’), so dark rather than blue; the Celtic word glastos means ‘blue’ and survives in Welsh as glas, which refers to a range of colours from sky blue through greenish blue to grass green. Ovid (Amores II.16) talks of uiridesque Britannos (‘and the green Britons’), while Julius Solinus (de Mirabilibus Mundi XXIII) mentions tattooing: inde a pueris uariae animalium effigies incorporantur (‘from childhood, they embed in their bodies various images of animals’). Claudian (de Consulato Stilichonis II.248) gives the personification of Britannia picta genas (‘painted cheeks’, often but unnecessarily translated as ‘tattooed cheeks’).

These texts, written a long way from Britain, are evidence that the Roman aristocracy perceived the Britons as unusually decorated. Solinus’s animalium effigies must be tattoos, as he describes how they grow as the person with them grows; none of the other descriptions are clear about whether the staining is permanent or temporary. However, the cosmetic grinders are evidence that many Britons did stain their skins with coloured materials.

Other cosmetic grinders come from a range of sites dating from the Late Iron Age through to the end of the Roman period, all but four of the more than 1000 known examples having been found in Britain. Most date from the first and second centuries AD, although they sometimes turn up in early medieval graves among collections of ancient Roman objects. They are most common in East Anglia, the Ciuitas Icenorum in the Roman period, although they turn up throughout Britain apart from North Wales, Cornwall and Scotland. They also occur most often on urban sites, including so-called ‘small towns’ like Baldock, particularly in burials and religious contexts.

In a major study published in 2010, Ralph Jackson divided the mortar elements into thirteen types: ten with a central loop, two with an end loop and two examples of three joined into a triangle with no loop. He published evidence that they were case in bronze from lead models (there is an example from Skipton Street, London), with finishing ranging from almost non-existed to smooth polishing, punched decoration and elaboration of the terminals. The wide variation of styles is partly a result of different treatment at the finishing stages, and it is possible that decoration was added following instructions from the buyer.

He also showed that many examples were heavily worn, showing intensive and prolonged use. Some examples have repairs, meaning that they were probably not cheap to replace. The groove or trough of the mortar element often shows wear in the base, as with this example from Baldock. Crescent-shaped pestles with end-loops are always damaged on the convex underside, while those with centre loops show the greatest wear at the centre of the convex side. Rod-shaped pestles have wear at the tips and some are even shortened.

Some examples seem to have entered the archaeological record as votive gifts at temples. At Wicklewood in Norfolk, this was certainly the case, and it is likely that the Baldock example entered the ditch from a clearing-out of temple gifts. Nevertheless, their wider distribution shows that they were relatively common items associated with grooming and body care.

On 18 September 2019, the BBC ran a news story about how a curator at English Heritage had recently recognised the three examples Reginald Smith had described in 1918 as pestles and mortars. Their reporter had evidently not seen any of Ralph Jackson’s publications, beginning in 1985! More worryingly, the report said that they ‘allowed women to achieve their look using charcoal, soot and chalk without importing expensive products like kohl’.

We do not know that these cosmetic grinders were used exclusively by women: one of the sets found in a grave was with a definitely male skeleton. The idea that only woman in Roman Britain would wear makeup is a good example of projecting not only current social norms back into the ancient past but also of assuming that what was standard in Roman Italy – where much of the surviving literature was written – was also standard in the far north of the empire. We know from this literature that some men did wear makeup, but men who were vain about their personal appearance (such as the Emperor Otho) were often mocked. Some writers even complained about women who wore makeup, suggesting that their morals were loose.

We have no way of knowing if men in Late Iron Age and Roman Britain did wear cosmetics and, if they did, what sorts they used. Indeed, Gillian Carr suggested as long ago as 2005 that these peculiarly British cosmetic grinders are evidence that attitudes to makeup were very different here from the rest of the Roman world (perhaps except for Egypt). She even speculated that the pigments were being used to make dyes for tattooing rather than (or along with) temporary makeup. As we have already seen, the literary evidence shows that the Roman upper classes viewed the Britons as having eccentric, even terrifying attitudes to colouring their skin.

This is yet another object that highlights how our own sexist attitudes can unfortunately pervade our interpretations of the past. No, these cosmetic grinders are not ‘hugely important to understanding women’ in Roman Britain, despite the statement by English Heritage’s Cameron Moffett. Instead, they underline the remoteness of Roman Britain and how little we understand of how different it was from today’s United Kingdom.

Written by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

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