From the Baltic to the Mediterranean:

Imports on Local Objects in Ancient Italy

By: and Claudia Epley

June 27, 2018

What kinds of objects do you use in your everyday life?  Hairpins, shoelaces, buttons, belt buckles—these are a few that come to mind. Small items associated with our dress and appearance, which most people hardly take notice of despite their role in clothing and self-presentation.

Today, we construct these necessary items of cheap and lightweight materials like plastic, metal, and synthetic fabrics. Mass-produced, these materials shape the nature and durability of our dress, making such objects relatively disposable.

In the ancient past, disposability was not the case for the majority of manufactured objects. Cloth was time-consuming to make, metal was a precious commodity, and mass production was millennia away. Even small artifacts which we would consider disposable were constructed of durable materials made to last and, when finally worn out, re-purposed to make something else.

Figure 1: Diagram of a leech fibula. After Hattatt, labels added by author.

Like us, ancient people used materials which were readily available to them to construct everyday objects. For them, available materials were cloth, bone, stone, and, in the case of ancient Italy, bronze. Jewelry, hair ornaments, and fibulae (safety pin-like brooches) were very commonly constructed of bronze, a metal alloy produced from copper and tin.

Fibulae were an important item of dress throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, and many regional styles and designs are known from archaeological remains. The cultures that lived in Italy in the 1st millennium BCE developed their own local fibulae, including one type called the “leech fibula” (our name, not theirs) that was primarily used by women and girls. The leech fibula gets its name from its form: a single piece of bronze cast in a round, fat shape resembling a leech.

Figure 2: Example of a large leech fibula from the Penn Museum’s collection. MS574a. Photo by author.
Leech fibulae were an essential part of early Etruscan and Faliscan female dress, being used most commonly in pairs to pin the shoulders of their draped garments. Examples found in the Penn Museum collection range from smaller than 2 cm long for the clothing of a small girl to nearly 8 cm, a size which nearly hinders the fibulae’s practical use. This type of fibula is found in most female burials. Examples from the sites of Narce and Vulci are on display in the Etruscan Italy Gallery of the Penn Museum.

The most extraordinary fibulae in the Etruscan Italy Gallery are those that use the typical “leech” form, but in materials other than bronze. We have examples using imported materials; I chose to focus my project on those fibulae made with Baltic amber. These amber fibulae are composed of multiple amber beads, sometimes interspersed with bone or wood spacers, carved and aligned to resemble the leech shape.

Figure 3: Map showing the location of Narce and Vulci. From Turfa 2005. [NEED FULL BIBLIOGRAPHIC REFERENCE]

While these fibulae must have looked stunning in antiquity, when the amber would have been translucent and honey-colored, what makes them truly astonishing is the distance traveled by this amber to be used on a distinctly Italic kind of a very mundane object.

As a Penn Museum Fellow, I conducted the research for my senior Honors project in Classical Studies by researching these fibulae from two perspectives: the amber trade and the meaning of amber. For the project, I spent many hours in the Penn Museum’s Collections Study Room examining examples of these artifacts.

Figure 4: Remains of an amber fibula from the Penn Museum’s collection. MS1252. Photo by author.

I also spent time reading through scholarship on the ancient amber trade. I was able to determine several major routes for the trade of amber from the Baltic through central Europe. The routes used rivers that had outlets to the Mediterranean region in several important trading areas, including at Marseille, France, into the Adriatic Sea on the east coast of Italy, and into the Black Sea.

The second part of my project investigated amber’s medical, mythological, and magical associations as imagined by ancient people. While these inquiries into the abstract meanings of amber were far from conclusive, they do provide a framework for beginning to think about amber as more than a luxury good. Evidence points toward amber’s use as a healing substance, and its use on amulets, and perhaps on fibulae, suggest some kind of protective quality. Additionally, its status as one of the only translucent materials available to ancient people lends itself to unique forms of artistic expression that could take advantage of light’s properties.

Figure 5: Map showing approximate locations of three major river trade routes. Created by author in Google Maps.

There is much room left for work on the amber routes, especially as the routes move from the rivers of central Europe to land and sea routes around the Mediterranean. Additionally, more research can be done on the symbolic, magical, and medicinal connections of amber within ancient Etruscan and Faliscan culture specifically.

Works Cited

Turfa, Jean MacIntosh. 2005. Catalogue of the Etruscan Gallery of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

About Claudia Epley

As an aspiring archaeologist, I spend a lot of time looking at “stuff”—pottery, metal artifacts, and all sorts of other things used by people in the ancient world. Through looking at objects, the “stuff” left over from human activity, I endeavor to learn about ancient people and their relationship to the world around them. My senior projects attempted to do just that, examining artifacts called fibulae from ancient Italy, to learn about how ancient Italians acquired the materials for these objects and how they were used as an expression of the ancient Italian understanding of the natural world.


Claudia Epley is one of three Penn Museum Fellows selected for the 2017-2018 academic year. The Penn Museum Fellows program supports and promotes outstanding undergraduate research utilizing collections, archives, or laboratories in the Penn Museum. Over the course of the year, Fellows conduct research under the supervision of a project advisor, provide support and feedback to one another through peer review, and present the outcomes of their projects at poster sessions and academic symposia.