The Roman ‘Safety Pin’ or Fibula

19th October 2015 — 15 Comments

Mrs. John went along to a talk at her local Embroiderers’ Guild and when she arrived home proceeded to tell me that the speaker’s subject was a New Yorker by the name of Walter Hunt. Don’t worry, I’d never heard of him either!

The descendant of the fibula

The Safety Pin – Descendant of the Roman Fibula – © JW

Diligent research in the archives – with the help of Mr. Google – told me more. Mr Hunt is often described as ‘the inventor of the safety pin’ (in the 1900’s), but most detectorists know that the safety pin, or devices virtually identical to it, had been in use for more than 2,500 years. Greece and Rome had its own forms of safety pins and clasp called the FIBULA (ancient brooch). There are so many different varieties that they are often used to accurately date an entire archaeological find. The fibula is an ancient precursor to the safety pin and used in the ancient world to keep togas, cloaks, hoods and other kinds of clothing fastened in place.

They come in different sizes and it is thought by many scholars that the size of a fibula in Rome may have indicated rank. Indeed, they were rare and costly items reserved for the rich. Most fibulae are made of bronze or iron, but some were encrusted with jewels and decorated with enamel.


My Roman Fibulae – © John Winter

The fibulae I have uncovered are brooches known as La Tène and are simple in form, but quite sturdy in construction. One is shown with minimal decoration. They were all found minus the pin and derive the name La Tène from a Swiss archaeological site discovered in 1857. These are quite a common detectorist find, which suggests that they were easily lost. Anyway, our friend Walter improved on the original design. Maybe this is why I haven’t found any safety pins in any of my detecting forays!

Here’s a fine example of a Polden Hill type brooch from the UKDFD, which has an open catch plate of trumpet motifs. The bow and wings are also finely decorated. The spring is concealed within the casing and the whole is almost intact with only the tip missing. The overall length is 70 mm.


© UKDFD 1827 – Click to Enlarge

Eric’s Dream Find

One of my all-time favourite brooches was found by detectorist Eric Kirman in 1996, which adorned the cover of a Searcher magazine. If you want to know how it felt finding a brooch of that magnificence then Eric’s comment when cleaning may help: “If Pamela Anderson had walked into the kitchen naked just then, I would have ignored her!”


The 96% Gold brooch found by Eric – Courtesy of The Searcher – Click to Enlarge

This blog will end with a little trivia, which I found interesting. You may have heard of the expression ‘pin money’, meaning a small sum allotted by a husband for his wife’s use, or money for incidental items. When the term was first used in about the 14th century ‘pin money’ was just that. Today, mass production has made pins an inexpensive purchase.


Detectorists Series 2

Andy’s been thinking about internet dating. Not for him, but for his friend Lance who’s still not over the departure of his ex-wife. A mysterious stranger arrives to tempt the Danebury Metal Detecting Club in more ways than one.

Date: Thursday 29th October 2015 : NB: Details may change.

Time: 10:00pm

Channel: BBC Four

Length: 30 minutes



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15 responses to The Roman ‘Safety Pin’ or Fibula

  1. Another excellent article John thank you!

  2. Thanks John more thought provoking help from Mrs. John, you both make a great team.

  3. Great article John I have always looked at them as brooches but your explanations makes a lot more sense as they are essentially safety pins. Great read

    • The fibula, precursor of the safety pin is essentially a brooch and fastener, but didn’t provide a secure fixing when you consider the number found by detectorists.

  4. Thank you John for providing a welcome addition to my in-box at work this morning, it was sitting like a little jewel amongst all the spam, and general detritus I find on a Monday morning!

    • That’s a lovely ‘speech’ Nick.
      You also started my day on a positive note.

      Thanks also to DiggerDave, Keith and Randy for dropping by and leaving a comment … and Bob! 🙂

  5. thanks again John for the excellent information.

  6. But then again did the Romans invent The fibula, or did they copy the idea of other people ,they did with most things ,thats the question

  7. From such a humble beginning. Have we really advanced that much from the original pin? Thanks me son interesting read.

  8. I enjoyed reading that after just getting in from a 16hr day that a small up on blog members john ..hope so as you deserve it with what you do

  9. With all the lost and broken fibulae being found, it must have been a revealing and embarrassing experience for the toga wearers!

  10. Our ancestors didn’t have the power of Patent Copyright back then and the modern counterpart is basically a copy of what had already been created!

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