Enslaved American Silversmiths?

portrait of paul revere holding a silver teapot he has made

The use of slaves in making has attracted careful attention from scholars of North American material culture, for example Catherine Bishir’s Crafting Lives (2013), and Glenn Adamson’s Craft: An American History (2021). We also have decades of fine scholarship on the use of enslaved West African ironworkers in colonial North America. The importance of enslaved blacksmiths is well established and reflected in major museum collections. The brutal lives and deaths of slaves at iron foundries and iron ore mines have been documented, including their exposure to heavy metal toxins. However, there is comparatively little written about workers of non-ferrous metals.[1]

In Bishir’s detailed study of New Bern, NC, the silversmiths were all free, including the literally named Freeman Woods. Adamson paints on a far broader canvas. He introduces us to Native American silversmiths, such as Slender Maker of Silver, and reminds us that “When we are faced with an 18th-century teapot or high chest in a museum, it is usually impossible to know whether or not it was made partly with enslaved labor.” Adamson is certainly referring to a silver teapot: He begins his book with a portrait of Paul Revere (Boston MFA 30.781), painted in 1768 holding in his left hand a silver teapot that he has crafted, not unlike Agatho. Like Agatho, too, Revere is shown with the tools of his trade, with which he is about to decorate and engrave the teapot.[2]

A coffeepot crafted by Revere just a year after Copley painted his portrait is in the Yale University Art Gallery (2016.158.1).[3] Paul Revere learnt his craft from his father, Apollos Rivoire (later Paul Revere Sr.), who had been an indentured servant as an apprentice to John Coney. The Reveres owned no slaves. This also appears to be the case with other silversmiths of the period, for example Richard van Dyck (1717-70) and Myers Myers (1723-95), who worked in New York City. The 1703 census is the only record that silversmiths in New York owned slaves. Three of thirteen silversmiths at that time each owned a single female slave, almost certainly a housekeeper. Otherwise, there is no evidence that any New York silversmith ever used slaves in their workshops.[4]

Many silversmiths owned slaves. For example, the probate inventory of Charleston silversmith Thomas You (d. 1786) lists seventeen slaves, but none is said to have been a smith.[5] I am aware only very few instances where it is explicitly stated that slaves were trained silversmiths or goldsmiths (the terms are used interchangeably). One is Abraham, who was owned and trained by the Charleston silversmith Alexander Petrie (d. 1768).[6] It is possible that further information may be found in the account book of Austen and Laurens, slave traders in Charleston, now at Yale.[7] Newport, a goldsmith from Newport, RI, owned and trained by Isaac Anthony, was reported as a runaway in 1749. Four years later, another Newport smith, advertised in a Boston newspaper that he wishes to sell an unnamed goldsmith, possibly the same Newport, but probably not.[8]

[1] K. W. Bruwelheide et al., “Restoring identity to people and place: Reanalysis of human skeletal remains from a cemetery at Catoctin Furnace, Maryland,” Historical Archaeology 54 (2020), 110-37.

[2] C. W. Bishir, Crafting Lives. African American artisans in North Bern, North Carolina (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2013); G. Adamson, Craft: An American History (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2021). For the portrait of Revere, by John Singleton Copley, see: https://collections.mfa.org/objects/32401

[3] Yale Art Gallery has many pieces of silver fashioned by Revere, including a silver teapot made in 1795 (1930-959).

[4] K. Hillen McKinsey, New York City Silversmiths and their Patrons, 1687-1750, Unpublished dissertation, University of Delaware 1984. We cannot be so certain that they did not have indentured servants – workers who were contracted to provide unpaid labor for a period of time, usually five to seven years, in payment of a debt – since this form of servitude was so very common among early immigrants. Debt bondage was usually related to the cost of their passage to North America.

[5] H. Nowell Brazier, “The most elegant and general assortment of plate:” The market for imported and locally-made sterling silver, consumer activism, and national identity in Charleston, 1760–1790, Unpublished dissertation, University of South Carolina, 2009, 31-2.

[6] B. S. Culp, “Mr. Petrie’s ‘Shop on the Bay’,” Antiques and Fine Art (2007), 250-5.

[7] Yale University, Beinecke Library: GEN MSS VOL 184 (folio)

[8] Yale University databases: https://slavery.yale.edu/links/subscription-databases

Roman Silversmiths

An etching of the Monumentum Liviae, a burial chamber built and maintained by and for slaves and freed slaves of the imperial household

In our last post we met Agatho, a silversmith who lived at the time of Augustus. At exactly the time Agatho died (c. 25 CE), Livia, the widow of Augustus, maintained a columbarium, a burial chamber, used exclusively for interring her own slaves and freedmen and those of her immediate family who lived in or near Rome (and not at their vast estates elsewhere). This facility, today called the Monumentum Liviae, was run by some of her Rome-based slaves and freedmen. The dead included three freed and two enslaved goldsmiths (aurifices), a silversmith (argentarius), an enslaved gilder (inaurator) who belonged to one of Livia’s freed smiths, and a margaritarius, who set her pearls in gold or silver. All of these precious metal workers were men, but there is a record of the burial at contemporary imperial columbarium, the Monumentum Marcellae, of an enslaved female silver-worker who belonged to an unspecified Augusta, probably not Livia. Here there were three more silversmiths and another named as a chaser or engraver (caelator), a silversmith who raised designs on metalwork or carved designs into them. Agatho is portrayed with the tools of the chaser, and a cup with a raised figure.[1]

As we can understand from this partial list of jobs, the production of silver goods was broken down into many sub-specialisms of greater and lesser skill. We have not so far mentioned others, like vascularii, who shaped sheet metal into forms; flaturarii, who cast and attached basic elements, like handles and bases; crustarii, who cast and attached more decorative elements; and tritores, polishers. We even have an account by St. Augustine of how silversmiths worked, a metaphor for polytheistic religion, where many gods looked after specialist areas.

“We laugh indeed when we see pagan gods distributed by the whimsy of human opinion to tasks divided amongst them, just like … craftsmen in the quarter of the silversmiths, where one vessel passes through the hands of many artisans in order to come out perfect, even though it could have been completed by one perfect artisan. But it was thought necessary for a multitude of artisans to be consulted for no other reason than this, namely so that each artisan might learn one part of an art quickly and easily, and so that they would not all be compelled, slowly and with difficulty, to become perfect in a whole art.”[2] 

Augustine does not tell us about enslaved silversmiths, but we can be sure that four centuries after Agatho’s death, many such artisans were enslaved or freed. We know a great deal about slavery in Augustine’s time from his own writings, including a letter discovered in the 1980s that details the mechanics of the later Roman slave trade, describing “an endless river” of people.

We might imagine that slaves of the imperial household were relatively well cared for in life, since some care and thought was afforded to them in death. However, we should not doubt that most enslaved artisans led hard lives, frequently undertaking dangerous tasks in poor working conditions. They worked with materials and undertook processes that damaged their eyes and teeth, skin, hands and wrists, joints and backs, lungs and organs. Repetitive tasks caused fractured bones, joint deterioration and arthritis. Anyone working with metals risked serious burns, respiratory damage, and the many consequences of heavy metal poisoning. We shall return to this in our next post, looking at a single object and the health consequences of its production.

[1] D. E. Strong, Greek and Roman Gold and Silver Plate (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966), 7, 14-16. Strong also comments on the Guilds of Silversmiths in Rome and other cities, and the fact that Nero is supposed to have created 150-200 new buildings for a silversmiths quarter. On the Monumentum Liviae, see Susan Treggiari, “Jobs in the household of Livia,” Papers of the British School at Rome 43 (1975), 48-77, at 54-5, 68, and note 91. See also J. M. C. Toynbee, “Some notes on artists in the Roman world, 5: Metal-workers, gem-engravers and medallists,” Latomus 9/iv (1950), 389-94, at 390, for Protogenes and Zeuxis, two freedmen employed as silversmiths in Augustus’ household. Toynbee comments on the fact that many such artisans, like Agatho, had Greek names.

[2] Augustine, De Civ. Dei 7.4; cited by Cameron Hawkins, Roman Artisans and the Urban Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 66. Pace Augustine, it is likely that a silversmith worked his way through the skills, as a trainee chef might in a kitchen, before settling on his specialism.

This is the second of three posts that formed part of a short lunchtime lecture delivered at the Humanities Institute, Pennsylavania State University, in February 2023.

Agatho the Silversmith

Funeral portrait carved for Agatho in around 25 CE,

In an earlier post we drew attention to the exhibition Hear Me Now! which has recently closed at the Met. There is no known Roman equivalent of David Drake, known as Dave. Although we know so little about him, still the details of Dave’s life can be contested. All we know for certain about Agatho the silversmith is what he had carved into his funeral portrait (c. 25 CE), which is now in the Getty Villa.[1] An inscription below his bust reads “Publius Curtilius Agatho, freedman of Publius, silversmith,” reminding us that Agatho lived and died with his former master’s name preceding his own, but also that he was proud of his trade. Agatho is shown holding a smith’s mallet and chisel, and also a small silver cup, presumably one he made himself. We can just make up a raised design of a figure, which may be a dancing satyr, not unlike the design on a silver wine cup, the Vicarello Goblet, made at exactly this time and now displayed in the Cleveland Museum of Art.[2]

The number of Roman slaves who could be granted freedom – manumitted – in any year was restricted in Agatho’s lifetime. After 4 CE (Lex Aelia Sentia), according to the wish of the emperor Augustus (d. 14 CE), the master must be at least twenty, and the slave at least thirty years old, at the time of manumission. By the age of thirty, we might guess that Agatho had been a silversmith for two decades. We can also guess that part of the price of his freedom was a legally-binding commitment to providing Publius Curtilius with a proportion of his skilled labor for free for the rest of his life (operae libertorum); by “his life,” I mean Agatho’s life, for the gift of free labor might be inherited by Publius’ heir if that was specified in the contract that Agatho signed. In other words, skilled freedmen like Agatho might be offered the opportunity to purchase their freedom for credit rather than cash; and although legally they were freedmen, only death would free them of their debt of work.

Agatho would have owed only part of his time to Publius. If Agatho earned enough money from other work, then he may have been able to delegate his operae libertorum to a silversmith of equal skill, perhaps one he trained himself, whom he paid. That skilled worker could not have been another of Publius Curtilius’s slaves, of course. This may have included Agatho’s own children, if they were before Agatho’s manumission. Any child Agatho fathered after his manumission would be freeborn, although not without some restrictions to what he might achieve as a citizen. Finally, if Agatho made enough money, as a freedman he would be permitted to own his own and train his own slaves. There are 197 references in Justinian’s Digest of Roman law concerning operae libertorum that address these various scenarios.[3]

[1] Grave Relief of a Silversmith, Getty Villa: https://www.getty.edu/art/collection/object/104034

[2] John D. Cooney. “The Vicarello Goblet”, The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 54/ii (1967), 36-41, which notes traces the history of the goblet since its discovery in 1862 and notes that basic analysis of the silver was undertaken in 1966/7.

[3] Cameron Hawkins, Roman Artisans and the Urban Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 130-91.

This is the first of three posts that formed part of a short lunchtime lecture delivered at the Humanities Institute, Pennsylavania State University, in February 2023.

Pewter in Late Roman Britain

Pewter jug in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Pewter in Late Roman Britain       

Tin was less abundant and more expensive than lead in late Roman Britain, but it was still mined and widely available. Objects manufactured in tin-lead alloys, called pewter in English, were increasingly common. Of the more than 400 pewter vessels known from Roman Britain, most have been dated to the fourth century. Moreover, the high tin alloys are dated earliest, with increasingly leaded alloys predominating in the late third and fourth centuries. A higher proportion of lead than tin made pewter vessels both more durable and less expensive, but also to most purchasers less desirable. Pewter ingots were made and circulated. However, there is clear evidence for conscious choices made by pewter smiths, with different alloys employed in the casting of parts of vessels, for example the base of a dish having a higher lead content, whether for hardness and support or because the upper part with higher tin content would be more apparent to a viewer. The distribution of pewter finds suggests an active industry in the east of England, near Cambridge, where there are no tin or lead mines, but also activity in and near Bath, the Mendips, and further southwest, where there are both.[i]

            The increased number of metal objects, including those in lead and pewter, may indicate increasing wealth in Roman Britain in the fourth century, and perhaps even a wealthier middling sort, beneath those who built ever more and larger villas in that century, frequently with beautiful mosaics. However, it is most clearly an indication of the abundance of lead available, whether from new smelting or the recycling of existing materials. This lead, and pewter, made its way to northwestern Europe, where it has been identified in numerous contexts from the fourth century until the tenth, including pewter mounts from the Viking ship burial at Gokstad (dated CE 895-903).[ii]

[i] N. Beagrie, ‘The Romano-British pewter industry’, Britannia 20 (1989), 169-91; R. Poulton and E. Scott, ‘The hoarding, deposition and use of pewter in Roman Britain’, Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference 4 (1993), 115-32; J. Hall, ‘Public, personal or private? Roman lead-alloy ingots from Battersea’, in ‘Hidden histories and records of antiquity’: Essays on Saxon and Medieval London for John Clark (London, 2014), 116-21; Bayley, ‘Roman non-ferrous metalworking’, 332, 334, 336-7. A new study is promised based on the British Museum collection: L. Smith, Pewter in Roman Britain (London, forthcoming).

[ii] U. Pedersen et al., ‘Lead isotope analysis of pewter mounts from the Viking ship burial at Gokstad: On the origin and use of raw materials’, Archaeometry 58, suppl. 1 (2016), 148-63. For Roman-period finds in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, see Beagrie, ‘Romano-British pewter’, 179-81.

Ice cores

A scientist studying an ice core exctracted from Law Dome glacier, Antarctica

Just a note on something icy on a hot summer day. As we wrote in New Rome, in a section excerpted in Lapham’s Quarterly, Roman age smelting of silver-lead ore has left signals across the North Atlantic world in the form of anthropogenic heavy metal contamination of soil, sediment, and ice. Cores extracted from glaciers in Greenland and the Arctic show a sudden and dramatic rise in the deposition of atmospheric lead pollutants between c. 100 BCE and CE 100.

Lead is released by the smelting of a range of metallic ores, including those mined for copper and gold, tin, zinc, and silver, and from lead itself. In each location the levels of lead pollutants fall away rapidly toward 400, only beginning to rise again after 800, and not reaching Roman levels until c. 1700. In none of these locations is there any evidence for contemporary mining and smelting of metallic ores, which would have produced the contamination.

Roman-age pollution in the North Atlantic world is the direct result of fluctuations in the intensity of smelting that took place thousands of kilometers to the south, releasing into the atmosphere lead aerosol particles that were conveyed great distances within the northern hemisphere’s atmospheric transport system and deposited by precipitation. The origin of the lead in Greenlandic ice has been confirmed by geochemistry (isotope analysis). Spain was the source of up to 70 percent of the heavy metal pollution at its peak in the first century. Contamination is far greater the closer one gets to its source. In an ice core taken from the Col du Dôme glacier in the French Alps, the magnitude of lead contamination is one hundred times greater than that recorded in Greenland in the first century BCE, reaching a lower peak in c. 100, before falling steadily and dramatically to its lowest point in the sixth century.

In contrast, there are no spikes in lead pollution evident in any of ice cores extracted in Antarctica before around 1890. There is a steady, gradual increase in lead concentrations, reflecting the emergence of metallurgy in the southern hemisphere after CE 1500. Concentrations of lead triple from ~0.6pg g-1 in CE 1650 to ~1.8pg g-1 in CE 1885, then triple again to ~5.4pg g-1 before 1900. The isotopic signature of the lead relates it directly to the commencement of silver-lead mining at Broken Hills, and smelting at Port Pirie, in southern Australia.

According to a team of scientists, principally from the Desert Research Institute:

Concentrations remained high until the late 1920s, with a temporary low during the Great Depression (~1932) and again at the end of WWII (~1948) when concentrations dropped back to mid-19th century levels. Concentrations increased rapidly to 5.7 pg g−1 by 1975 and remained elevated until the mid-1990s. Concentrations during the early 21st century were ~3.7 pg g−1 lower than the peak 20th century concentrations but well above background levels before the start of the Industrial Revolution.(1)

This study draws on sixteen separate cores “from widely spaced coastal and interior sites”. It confirms and expands earlier, similar findings from a study of only the Law Dome glacier.(2)

The contrast between northern and southern hemisphere lead pollution highlights the scale and impact of Roman age smelting.


(1) J. McConnell et al., ‘Antarctic-wide array of high-resolution ice core records reveal pervasive lead pollution began in 1889 AD persists today’, Scientific Reports 07/2014: 4: 5848, 5 pages.

(2) P. Vellelonga et al., ‘The lead pollution history of Law Dome, Antarctica, from isotopic measurements on ice cores, 1500 AD to 1989 AD’, Earth and Planetary Science Letters 11 (2002), 291-306