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!

11 thoughts on “Rethinking that ‘Roman Swiss Army Knife’

  1. Googling at random, I find forks used in kitchen: “Kitchen forks trace their origins back to the time of the Greeks. These forks were fairly large with two tines that aided in the carving and serving of meat. The tines prevented meat from twisting or moving during carving and allowed food to slide off more easily than it would with a knife.”

    And a bronze one: “Fancy rich people also used silver spoons, and forks like this bronze one (it’s a myth that forks were not invented until much later, but Roman forks may have been mainly used for serving and cooking” (with a picture from St. Germain en Laye, France):

    Also: “There is no evidence that table-forks were used. The slender bronze implement resembling a hay-fork, H, is one of two in the Guildhall which were probably kitchen implements, as certainly were the flesh-hooks of which there are several in that museum. These are iron implements, consisting of a handled stem •from 8 to 15 ins. long, to which several curved claw-like prongs are riveted.”

    The matter definitively requires further investigation.

  2. Thank you for the plug!

    As far as I know, the definitive history of the fork has yet to be written, but the conventional history is that the utensil is first and foremost an Eastern invention and that it came rather late into Europe. The story of Maria Argyropoulina scandalizing the Venetian court with her forks in the early 11th century might be apocryphal, but the outlines bear out with respect to the origins of the fork being centered in the Byzantine Empire. Granted, fork-like things must have been used very early on a large scale for roasting animals, etc., but as far as a personal tableware sort of item, I think the early medieval date sounds much better than 2nd or 3rd century.

    The date provided by these ancient “Swiss Army” utensils seems incredibly early for not just a fork, but such a complicated adaptation of it. I’d reckon the artisans designing eating utensils walked before they could run! (I.e. master the fork per se, then get complicated with it!)

    The decorative details on these utensils don’t seem particularly Roman to me. Romanesque, maybe. But they look very different from other examples of 2nd-3rd century silverware.

    I am not a philologist, but as far as I know, but fork comes from the Latin furca, or pitchfork. I’ll let the etymologists work that out further, but it is interesting the source term is not for an eating utensil.

    I am troubled also by the lack of provenance for any of the ancient ‘Swiss Army’ utensils that have appeared in the recent news stories. The one from the Fitzwilliam has the tremendously vague (and sad) origin of “Mediterranean.”

    It makes me wonder on what basis these utensils are dated. I have ordered the articles cited by the Fitzwilliam catalogue on the utensils…mostly just out of curiosity. I’ll let you know if anything else turns up.

  3. There’s an interesting discussion (in French) going on at passion-histoire:

    … which includes some info from the Antiquaries Journal on the piece which seems to be the one at the Fitzwilliam.

    Looking back at the Armillum page with more neurons firing, it seems to me that we actually only have three examples of this sort of implement (not the ‘six’ that the photos might suggest) … four photos are of the same one from England; there is also one from Lioblen, Bulgaria (which doesn’t seem to exist on the interweb except in context with this knife), which may or may not have a fork, and one from Ventimiglia, Italy, which does exist, but I find no other mention of this particular knife (it too has a fork).

  4. filologanoga’s comment raises a point that occurred to me: the fork as tableware might be relatively late, but how sure can we be that the fork on the multi-tool is an eating-fork of the kind we know? The basic idea of the fork (in the form of bidents and tridents) was certainly available in the ancient mediterranean world, and it seems to me not implausible that such a tool might have been found useful and incorporated in a travelling kit as this kind of tool must presumably have been. (Of course, this does not address Francesca Tronchin’s points about design and decoration.)

    1. as far as i’m aware, the forks of which you speak would be used in a ‘carving’ context (i.e. to hold the meat while you slice it) or perhaps a ‘serving’ context … neither one of those purposes seem fulfilled by this and i’m not sure what purpose a fork of this size would serve other than for ‘dining’ (in most situations — especially military — the spoon and knife would be sufficient, no?) . One thing that did cross my mind while waiting for the lights to change the other day was that perhaps this was actually something surgical/medical in nature …

      1. I was thinking of it as perhaps a tool for handling cooked or cooking (i. e., hot) food vel sim. It’s also not entirely impossible, of course, that odd eating-forks were experimented with before they caught on, even if that seems unlikely.

        BTW, are we sure (if the find context is not clear) that these were military? I can equally see such a thing among the possessions of other kinds of traveller.

  5. It seems as though the French discussion is focusing on the same issue that troubles me the most about attributing this object to the 2nd-3rd century: the lack of provenance. Without that, or without some other substantiating evidence, I have no clue how that date was determined.

    I’m still waiting for InterLibrary Loan to get me the publications cited on the Museum’s catalogue. Once I have any more info, I’ll be sure to share.

    And indeed I don’t want to sound as though I don’t believe fork-like implements were around before the medieval period. I just doubt the use of small forks as tableware–and especially multi-tool forks–being used as early as the High Empire.

    I see no reason for attributing this tool to a military owner other than we have started to call it a “Roman Swiss-army knife.”

  6. Like to read this post. According to me he is right saying that 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.

  7. Any update in this matter? Anyone have any additional information since this article was posted and these comments were posted? I see this ‘Army Knife’ is making the social media rounds again.

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