The curious case of the buried whetstones
Why did people at the fringe of the Roman empire put sharpening stones beneath their houses? Two Belgian archaeologists may have the answer. Andrew Masterson reports.
In recent years, archaeologists excavating the faint remnants of wooden buildings built in the late first century CE on the fringes of the Roman empire started noticing a very curious phenomenon.
Beneath the primary wooden support posts of buildings identified as houses they found buried whetstones.
The stone tools – essential for sharpening the sickles and scythes on which the community relied for gathering the harvest – were buried too often and too specifically to be the result of simple loss or discard. And they were found only in one small region – the lower Scheldt valley in Gallo-Roman province of Gallia Belgica, now comprising the Belgium’s East and West Flanders, and a bit of the Netherlands.
The finds particularly fascinated two researchers, Sibrecht Reniere and Wim De Clerq of the University of Ghent in Belgium. Their extensive analysis of the buried whetstones appears in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. It reveals a potent, and highly localised, symbolic practice that marked a near-subsistence community struggling to meet not only the taxation demands of their distant Roman overlords but also meld the encompassing narratives of Roman state religion and their own indigenous gods.
“By burying these whetstones, native Gallo-Roman-period farmers removed them from their primary, functional use, but at the same time initiated a new trajectory in their cultural biography,” Reniere and De Clerq write.
“They received a ritual, apotropaic [evil-fighting] function in the course of the domestic life cycle of the house and its inhabitants, connected to the seasonal rhythm of the annual harvest cycle.”
Apart from a couple of isolated examples in Scandanavia, the Gallia Belgica finds – concentrated around the junction of the Scheldt and Lys rivers – are the only first or second century CE whetstones found buried with apparently deliberate symbolic purpose anywhere in Europe.
They are not, however, the only items that men and women of the classical period deployed in or beneath buildings for the purpose of invoking protection. A house, say Reniere and De Clerq, was “not considered to be just a physical structure with practical value, rather, it is viewed as an animate entity with a soul and powers of its own, and an active participant in society”.
In different societies, they note, specific parts of the building – such as the first post installed, the main supports and the threshold – were regarded as particularly important, and objects thus placed beneath them as part of ritual practice. These included pots, grinding stones, axes and perishable items that have long since disappeared.
“Another example is documented in several regions in France, where animal paws are nailed down on stable doors and barns as apotropaic objects in order to protect the flock or the food stock,” they add.
And while pots and grinding stones, sometimes broken, beneath posts or thresholds are reasonably common finds, the whetstones of the lower Scheldt seem to be unique. The archaeologists report finding 99 of them over 30 Gallo-Roman farm sites within the region – almost certainly an under-estimate, because many excavations have taken place only because modern construction works have unearthed evidence of late first century occupation.
The association between the whetstones – all used – and building practice seems beyond doubt, with 50 of the 99 recovered found in the remnants of timber-framed houses, in “construction pits dug for the roof-bearing beams of the new house, post-holes where the post had been removed after abandonment of the house or deepened byre sections”.
None of the house sites excavated had preserved floors, meaning that all the whetstones were buried beneath floor level. Very few of the stones have been found in trenches and ancient garbage dumps, strongly implying that the artefacts weren’t simply discarded or lost, but placed very deliberately.
Life for the people of lower Scheldt valley, the researchers note, cannot have been easy. The soil in the area was poor, so farming was a tough job. Under Roman rule, each family was expected to produce enough food to feed itself, along with a surplus with which to supply other locals and meet Roman taxation demands.
Burying a valuable sharpening tool beneath the house, the researchers suggest, may well have symbolised the determination to meet those obligations.
“Whetstone deposits may reflect a successful harvest, and hence a successful economic subsistence,” they note.
“In this way, they also refer to prosperity and a fruitful physical and social continuation of the household.”
They may also reflect the observation of religious traditions that were observed alongside, or in combination with, those that were imposed by the Roman state.
Whetstones, explain Reniere and De Clerq, have been used as symbols of power and authority for “gods, giants and kings” in tales across Europe, from the Norse to the Germans. In some cultures, a leader in possession of a whetstone was regarded as fulfilment of that leader’s promise to ensure sharp weapons for his people.
“In our study,” they say, “the whetstone might symbolise the responsibility of the leader of the family to keep the tools sharp in order to provide the family with food during the domestic subsistence cycle.
“Meanwhile the concept of power can also be linked to the strength of the main posts in which these objects were concealed, and hence with the strength of the house as a structure, but also the strength of the family inhabiting it.”