From Grandmother's Shears to the Shield of Achilles: A Look at the European Dimension of the Finnish Folk Culture

By Jarva, Eero | Mankind Quarterly, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

From Grandmother's Shears to the Shield of Achilles: A Look at the European Dimension of the Finnish Folk Culture


Jarva, Eero, Mankind Quarterly


The author explores the earliest historical and archaeological record of shears, and uses his findings to discuss how an examination of historical period and Iron Age material culture from wide parts of Central, Eastern and Southern Europe might help to answer questions about the origins of Finnish material culture and ethnicity.

Key Words: European origin of Finnish material culture; European Iron Ages; History of agriculture; Agricultural tools; Sickles; Scissors; Scythes; Rakes; Flails; Harvest techniques; Homeric legend; Achilles Shield.

The Origins of Grandmother's Shears

Perhaps even the young generation knows what shears (Figure 1) are, whereas older people recall the shears in their context as a female instrument used especially in shearing sheep. Shears appear in Finland already among finds dated to the earlier Roman Iron Age provided with their characteristic elliptical handle.2 The basic structure in shears remained relatively unchanged through time,' although there are some time-bound features, such as the handle ending in a loop reminiscent of the Greek letter omega, a feature seemingly appearing in Finland during the Viking Period.4 Regarding the Viking Period finds, there is a prominent feature which differs from the recent practice: shears are found to a marked extent in male burials. It is supposed that small shears would have been used first of all as toilet implements and the greater ones for shearing and textile working.5

Also in Scandinavian countries, shears are found both in male and female burials, for example, in Denmark appearing in a warrior burial dated to the first century BC.B In this case we can surmise that the shears were used for haircutting, because there was also an object identified as a razor. It has been supposed that the beard arid moustache of a man recently discovered near Manchester had been cut by shears.7 In northern Germany the shears are documented to the late La Tene Period,8 but in the southern parts of the continent they can be traced into the earlier La Tene Period, again discovered to a marked extent in warrior burials, which seem to have belonged to a very high social class.9 Even here the earliest examples are provided with a simple elliptical handle, but already during the late La Tene Period the handle is enlarged to an omega-like loop.10 It has been suggested that all Celtic shears would have been used as toilet implements.11

Accordingly, in the light of the archeological evidence composed often of rich warrior burials - the Finnish shears are connected to a common European feature, which can be traced easily to the Celtic cultural area on the northern side of the Alps. The marked masculine and military connection of the shears can be recognized also in the tombs of local Celtic tribes in northern Italy.12

On the other hand, in the light of the information given by Marcus Terentius Varro,L! shears were introduced to the Romans by barbers (tonsores) corning from Sicily 453 years after the foundation of Rome, i.e. at about 300 BC. The author implies that before that time the wool was taken from sheep by plucking (vellere; > vellus, vellimnum meaning wool).14 Among our sources, it is only Calpurnius Siculus who explicitly mentions shears in working wool from sheep, warning about the danger of damaging the skin with sharp shears (ne sit acuta forpice laesa cutis). 5 Varro's information is matched by the written information regarding the Greek world. For example, the habit of shaving followed the model given by Alexander the Great,16 although among the Romans this came later, in the second century BC.17 On the other hand, we hear from Plutarch how in Syracuse early in the fourth century BC Dionysios the elder, famous for his cruelty and suspiciousness, did not allow his hair to be cut with shears but had it burnt off!18

In addition to shearing and caring for personal hygiene, shears were used in the Roman world in various textile tasks. …

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