Beautiful Roman "Swiss army knife" is star archaeological attraction at Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum

| 21 November 2014

A six-pronged silver invention is the most popular online exhibit in the incredible collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Here's why

A photo of an elaborate silver swiss army knife
© Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge
With a spoon, knife, fork and toothpick, a spike used for deducing meat from the shells of seafood or removing stones from horses’ hooves and a spatula which could have worked as a toothbrush or for scooping paste from bottles, it’s little wonder a highly versatile Roman version of a Swiss army knife has provoked popular intrigue at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Nearly 38,000 visitors have wondered how this implement might have been used 2,000 years ago, making it the most popular object on the museum’s website. And the answer might be less practical than we thought: curators say it’s “hard to avoid” concluding that the neatness of the knife might just have made it a possession Romans wanted to show off with.

“The fact that this is made of silver, and so beautifully crafted, definitely marks it out as a luxury item,” says the museum.

“Most likely it was the possession of a wealthy person who was a frequent traveller – one can imagine him getting it out at an inn and showing off with it, not unlike having the latest type of iPhone, except that this would also have rarity value.”

Although the iron knife blade has corroded, the other handy sections, hinged and riveted onto a flat silver handle, can all be wielded. There is little evidence that Romans set forks at the dinner table, but they may have put them to surgical use.

“Portability seems to be the motive behind these implements,” say curators.

“The Germans call them Reisebestecke or travelling cutlery – like their modern counterparts they are highly portable.

"At the same time, the neatness of design and virtuosity of craftsmanship recalls that of the Swiss army knives today. There is something very attractive about them.”

Bronze knife-spoons are relatively common, but a contraption with this many elements combined is unusual. According to the museum, there are comparable examples in a Swiss private collection, a Bulgarian tomb and northern Italy.

Its culinary capabilities ranged from dissecting lobsters and crabs to crunching snails and walnuts.


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