Rethinking that ‘Roman Swiss Army Knife’

Francesca Tronchin has been expressing some doubts about that ‘Roman Swiss Army Knife’ story from the Daily Mail that’s been making the rounds (The Roman Swiss Army Knife 2010 January 30) and has suggested that it’s either a fake or dated too early. On the way into work this a.m. it suddenly struck me that the learned dottoressa must be correct for a very simple reason: the fork wasn’t invented/used as an eating implement (as far as I’m aware) prior to the 8th century or so! Almost all examples of these ‘army knife’ things have a fork of some sort which clearly cannot be second or third century by any stretch of the imagination (and indeed, these things seem to be the only ‘evidence’ of forks being used as eating utensils prior to early medieval times). There is apparently a dinner fork from Constantinople, ca. 400 A.D. at Dumbarton Oaks, but I haven’t been able to track that particular one down. At the DO site there is an online publication describing various collections which includes, on p. 45:

There is also a great rarity,
namely a silver fork of about the sixth century, with
a spirally fluted handle terminating in an animal’s
head; though probably of Sasanian workmanship, it
surely reflects Roman practices of the time. So
uncommon are forks of this period that a distinguished
German scholar some fifty years ago could
argue that since they are shown in representations
of the Last Supper in Cappadocia, the paintings in
question (executed, in fact, in the eleventh century)
could hardly be earlier than the fifteenth or

Sixth century is getting a bit closer to the claimed date for these things, but we have to admit we’re dealing with something which is likely a luxury item; would such practices trickle down from the top of the social heirarchy or percolate up from the lower echelons? Whatever the case, I’m pretty much convinced the given date for our Roman Swiss Army knife is a few centuries (at least) too early. If I’m wrong in my perception about the development of the fork, please point me in the right direction in the comments!

Podcast: Renaissance Thought: the Lost Continent between Logic and the Occult

Seen on Classicists:

Dear all,

in the latest instalment of Classics in Discussion, Peter Mack and Maude Vanhalen discuss ‘Renaissance Thought: the Lost Continent between Logic and the Occult’.

The podcast can be downloaded directly from the Warwick web site

and should also be available soon on iTunesU

Here’s the ‘official description’:

Peter Mack and Maude Vanhalen discuss one of the most vibrant periods in human history.

The European Renaissance is one of those periods in history when everything seemed possible. The rediscovery of Greek texts led to a rebirth of literature and learning. Scholars across Europe and beyond formed a republic of letters, communicating across country and creed in a common language, Latin. Moreover, in this shared intellectual space, the arts and sciences flourished in extraordinary ways. It was the time when Plato rivalled Aristotle, when logic triumphed, when the light of reason pushed away the obscurantist clouds of a bygone age, as a Renaissance writer might put it. The Renaissance also witnessed a great concern with the occult: angels and demon, magic and mysteries were part and parcel of this enlightened age.
And yet, the Renaissance has now largely become a lost continent. The thousands and thousands of texts written in Latin and immortalised through the new invention of printing now lie largely unread and unstudied. For few are those who have enough Latin to peruse them.
But what were the intellectual and political forces which made this age of rediscovery and progress possible? Who were the scholars who brought Greek thought to Italy and the rest of Western Europe? And how did Platonic philosophy pave the way for numerology, demonology, and mysticism?