ROME – In an ancient twist to today’s Made-in-Italy labeling, Romans of some 2,000 years ago took to branding with zeal, putting names, trademarks and other identifying details with meticulous care on items including tableware, plumbing pipes and lead ammunition for slingshots.
The ancients’ passion and pride in labeling their products and possessions is amply documented in an exhibit installed in the towering halls of the ruins of Trajan’s Markets, once an efficient, bustling complex of shops and offices evocative of our modern shopping malls.
Entitled “Made in Roma,” the elaborately detailed show runs until Nov. 20 at the ancient marketplace, a locale that many tourists ignore in their rush to visit the nearby Roman Forum and Colosseum.
Even the very foundations of ancient Rome were labeled. The exhibit opens with brickwork and roof tiles bearing the trademarks of producers, including a group of upper-class Roman women.
Marble slabs bear lead seals attesting to their provenance, including a Corinthian capital found in Augustus’ Forum. Even a plumbing pipe, dug up during excavations for a modern-day tunnel near the Quirinal Hill, not far from the exhibit site, carries the mark of its manufacturer, and dates from around the end of the 2nd century and the start of the 3rd.
Display cases with rows and rows of oil lamps, plates and glassware — the minimalist style of many bowls would look at home on dining tables today — testify to how methodically potters and glassmakers kept tabs on production and inventory. One master kiln operator boasted in details etched on the bottom of a vase that he had churned out 1,540 plates, 300 cups and 790 bowls with handles for six different tableware makers. The markings helped for billing those who used the kiln.
Curators noted that some of the lending museums were initially dismayed when they saw their loaned objects turned sideways or even upside down in the exhibit. The curators explained the unusual positions were needed so visitors could see the initials, names or trademarks on the sides or bottoms of objects. Two tiny glass bottles dating from the 2nd to 3rd centuries and believed to be used to contain mercury, each sport the letters “SCV,” presumably the initials of the glassmaker.
Labeling was also a way to express emotions. Lead projectiles for slingshots carried the names of the ammo producer as well as invective against enemies.
In a sober reminder of how much the empire depended on slave labour is a display case of the equivalent of dog tags, made for a class of human beings considered mere property.
One bronze collar gives instruction to bring back the slave in case of escape from his 5th century master, Scholasticus. A bronze pendant is inscribed with the appeal to “hold me, lest I flee” so the slave could be returned to another master, with the designated “dropping off” point a nymphaeum, a kind of summerhouse in the gardens of a residence.
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Frances D’Emilio is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/fdemilio