Thursday, January 12, 2012

A radiocarbon-dated bone anvil

Antiquity: Project Gallery

Erika Gál & László Bartosiewicz

Bone anvils incorporate information on agriculture, metallurgy and bone manufacturing alike. Made from metapodials and other robust bones of large ungulates (cattle, horse and sometimes camel) they may be carefully shaped or barely modified. Used for support during the reparation of serrated iron sickles they bear characteristic serial use wear. The serrated sickle was an important technical innovation. It needs little (albeit special) maintenance and is efficient in reducing grain loss during harvest.
The first evidence for bone anvils, originally described as rasps/files, comes from Olbia in south-central Ukraine. Olbia was founded in the sixth century BC and it continued in existence until the fourth century AD. Similar finds were reported from the contemporaneous sites of Phanagoreia and Neapolis on the Black Sea coast (Semenov 1964: 186). These settlements were preceded by indigenous Iron Age occupation and were inhabited during the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic periods as well as the Roman period. The precise absolute date of those bone anvils is unknown. Since Semenov's work additional unpublished specimens have become known from settlements in the Pontic region connected with Greek and Roman colonisation (Ekaterina Antipina pers. comm.).

The true function of these modified bones has only recently been clarified through ethnographic studies in Spain (Esteban Nadal & Carbonell Roure 2004). Medieval to modern parallels are known from southern France, Spain, Portugal and Morocco (Rodet-Belarbi et al. 2007). In Eastern and Central Europe, Roman period examples have been reported from Romania (Beldiman & Sztancs 2009) and both early and late medieval specimens are known from Hungary (Gál et al. 2010).
Dating the bone anvil
The example from southern Italy presented in this paper was found in the chora of Metaponto (Basilicata) in a mid-second century BC–first century AD kiln deposit at the site of Pantanello. This corresponds to the Roman Republican period, i.e. the late Hellenistic period in relative chronological terms. Since, to our knowledge, no absolute dates have ever been established for this type of artefact, the chronological position of the anvil was sought by radiocarbon dating.
The 161.5mm long anvil (PZ 80-191B-1) is a faceted cattle metacarpus (Figure 1). Both the dorsal and palmar surfaces and the proximal epiphysis were cut flat. The lateral and medial sides were polished. It is the anatomically flat, palmar surface that bears most of the typical patterned marks left by the maintenance of serrated sickles (Gál 2010: 79).
An AMS date obtained for the anvil (SUERC-30885) gave a measurement of 2070±35 BP (Figure 2). This corresponds to a period calibrated (at 95.4% certainty) to 190 BC–AD 10. The calibrated age ranges were determined from the University of Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit calibration program (OxCal3). This is the earliest known Roman period bone anvil, followed by similar finds from Romania found in first–second century AD contexts (Beldiman & Sztancs 2009). The radiocarbon date also confirmed the typo-chronological dating of the Pantanello kiln deposit.
Evidence of improved harvest through bone manufacturing
The Pantanello anvil offers indirect evidence for the use of serrated iron sickles in Late Hellenistic–Roman Republican period Italy. Since iron blades are often corroded beyond recognition in archaeological deposits, the wide geographical and chronological distribution of well-preserved bone anvils has the potential of becoming a good proxy for tracing technological spread across the Mediterranean and Central Europe: this is a "modern", eminently non-prehistoric bone artefact, part of a tool kit invented in the footsteps of iron working.
Within the distribution area of known bone anvils, the Pantanello specimen fills a gap, both chronological and geographic, between the eastern Hellenistic tradition, the Visigothic period (fifth–sixth century AD) in Spain and the Middle Ages in both Iberia and Hungary (Figure 3). As of today, the haphazard pattern of geographical distribution seems to indicate observer bias. These non-spectacular tools are unlikely to be spotted unless all refuse bone is carefully identified. Arguably, increasing awareness of this modest-looking artefact type will help trace technical change in European agriculture. Additional cases from North Africa and the Near East would also be of great interest.


Professor John Coleman Carter (University of Texas, USA) is sincerely acknowledged for the invitation to work at Metaponto, supporting our analyses and commenting on the manuscript. AMS measurement was kindly provided by Professor Gordon T. Cook (Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre AMS Facility, UK).


  • BELDIMAN, C. & D.-M. SZTANCS. 2009. Skeletal technologies, metal working and wheat harvesting: ancient bone and antler anvils for manufacturing toothed iron sickles discovered in Romania. 7th Meeting of the Worked Bone Research Group. 7–11 September 2009, Wrocław, Poland: 34–37.
  • ESTEBAN NADAL, M. & E. CARBONELL ROURE. 2004. Saw-toothed sickles and bone anvils: a medieval technique from Spain. Antiquity 78: 637–46.
  • GÁL, E. 2010. Bone artifacts from the Chora of Metaponto, in L. Bartosiewicz (ed.) Archaeozoology at Pantanello and five other sites: 71–86. Austin (TX): University of Texas Press.
  • GÁL, E., E. KOVÁCS, I. KOVÁTS & G. ZIMBORÁN. 2010. Kora középkori csontüllök Magyarországról: egy újabb példa az állatcsontok hasznosítására, in J. Gömöri & A. Kőrösi (ed.) Csont és bőr: 117–126. Budapest: Magyar Tudományos Akadémia VEAB Soproni Tudós Társasága.
  • RODET-BELARBI, I., M. ESTEBAN NADAL, V. FOREST, M. MORENO-GARCIA & C. PIMENTA. 2007. Des aiguisoirs/polissoirs aux enclumes en os: l'histographie des os piquetés. Archéologie Médiévale 37: 157–67.
  • SEMENOV, S. A. 1964. Prehistoric technology. London: Cory Adams & Nackay.


*Author for correspondence
  • Erika Gál*
    Archaeological Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, 1014 Budapest, Úri u. 49, Hungary (Email:
  • László Bartosiewicz
    Archaeological Research Institute of the Eötvös Loránd University, 1088 Budapest, Múzeum krt. 4/B, Hungary (Email: