Saturday, September 10, 2016

Some Very Preliminary Thoughts about Footprints on Roman Roof Tiles

Just pulling together some thoughts after a Twitter conversation, (collected here on my Storify of footprints), with @rogueclassicist and @Caroline Lawrence. We've had a least one similar conversation before. The question of the function of footprints on tiles, if there was one, has been focus of the debate, and the possibility of an apotropaic function seems to be at the heart of it in my recollection.

[caveat - I checked my ancient citations and the Poggio Civitate reference because they were quick and easy, the rest comes from my imperfect memory]

A variety of footprints have been identified pressed into the top (always?) surface of roof tiles/tegulae. Many of these are the tracks of animals, but there are also human footprints ranging from the small prints of children to those of adults.
I suspect that the animal tracks are accidental, created by animals wandering across tiles as they are laid out in the open to dry before firing. The/some of the human footprints perhaps represent a different phenomenon. Human footprints could be accidental. For example, at the Etruscan site Poggio Civitate there are human prints preserved in roof tiles laid out in the workshop to dry. This structure was destroyed by an accidental fire and in a rush to flee the burning building, people ran across the still soft tiles. The form of the tracks indicates that these individuals were running. (E. Nielsen, 1991) But not all prints suggest an obvious and accidental reason for their presence.
Recent excavations conducted by the Sangro Valley Project have produced a tile fragment preserves traces, albeit faint, of boot print with hobnails. There is nothing about this impression that suggests rapid movement, or even an actual step being taken. Should we imagine that someone was loitering about and decided to push his foot into the tile just because he could?
In addition to the footprints of adults, there are a number (how many?) of tiles that preserve the footprints of children. Now, surely children are likely to push a foot or a hand into a drying tile just to do it. But this then begs the question of whether children were present in tile production areas. This could be an interesting area of research into the lives of children and the spaces they inhabited in the Roman world. One could also imagine that perhaps these are the footprints not of free born children but perhaps the children of slaves.
If, however, these prints are not accidental or minor incidents of vandalism, why are they on tiles? One possible reason for these impressions is apotropaic. Could these footprints represent religio-magic attempt to ensure either a successful firing process or to add a layer of protection to the roof constructed from the fired tiles, (or even a combination of both)?
In Roman culture there is an apotropaic/good luck function associated with human feet. In Petronius’ Satryicon (30.5), we see Ascyltos and Encolpius admonished by a slave to step into Trimalchio’s dining room with dextro pede. Roman brides were customarily carried over the threshold of their new husbands’ homes to ensure that they would not misstep and bring bad fortune to the marriage right at the start. Vitruvius (de Architectura 3.4) also comments that temple staircases are designed with an odd number of steps to ensure a fortuitous arrival on the podium.

By the time of the Roman Empire terra sigillata vases were being impressed with maker’s marks in the form of a footprint, planta pedis (literally the “sole of a foot), typically containing the name or initials of the manufacturer. Why do these manufacturers’ stamps take the form of a foot? Is it for good luck in the firing process?

Any other thoughts out there? Any references? Other examples of footprints on tiles? 


  1. This is great! The pes dexter is extremely important in Ancient Rome and even determines the shape of shop fronts (see this article Pes Dexter) but the tiles under discussion were mostly roof tiles! Still, the roof forms a boundary between two spaces and would need protecting, which is why a few apotropaic tiles could be useful.

    However, when I spoke to Peter Warry at a Roman Finds Conference in Reading, he said the footprints were
    a) easily explainable as tiles were left out for at least a week to dry in a wide area, probably only roped off. Children and animals could easily scamper across.
    b) if the marks were meant to be intentional, they would be clearer and better.
    c) in later periods where tile manufacturers begin to dry tiles inside the kilns, (i.e. where animals and children would not have access), the footprints disappear entirely.

    1. Thanks for the response and the Twitter convo!
      I agree that the potential for random footprints is very high and I think this explains the animal prints quite nicely. But I do continue to wonder about the children's footprints. It would be interesting to look at the potential age range of what we are assuming to be children's prints (is this even possible? I have no idea, a question for a forensic anthropologist). If they are just accidental prints, or children being children, it does lead to some interesting questions about the spaces children had access to in areas of manufacture.
      I don't agree that the marks would have been better impressed if they were meant to be intentional (as apotropaic marks. I can totally imagine a child quite intentionally putting their foot on a soft tile just to do it! Somewhere there is a concrete sidewalk that has my name scratched in it with the toe of my black and white saddle shoes from my childhood.). There are all sorts of examples of shoddily impressed stamps on tiles and pottery out there.
      That's interesting that the marks seem to disappear in later periods. I wasn't aware that kiln drying became a standard practice. This also leads me to wonder how well documented such tiles are. My sense from personal experience and a very cursory trawl through research database suggest that we all think these are really cool but that no one has really collected them systematically.