Roman billhooks

The billhook was in use in Britain before the Roman invasion of 50AD. It was common in most Roman provinces, and probably developed from those used in the earlier Greek civilisation. Those in the Mediterranean probably followed the Greek model, but it is probable that the tool was developed further by Roman iron-masters and blacksmiths to provide a range of tools for different tasks. Cato mentions four different types for use in a vineyard.


Many examples of Roman tools survive, from those found beneath the ashes of Pompeii in Italy, to those found in ruins of Roman villas in Britain and elsewhere. Often illustrated on frescoes or mosaics, or even on statues, a billhook can be seen in the hand of a God (e.g. Saturnus) or a humble vineyard worker...


A wide variety of sizes and shapes of blades survive from the Roman period, both in the UK and continental Europe. Handles were fitted by tang or a socket, and in some cases the handle has survived relatively intact (e.g. Glastonbury (UK) or  Pompeii (IT)). The same shape may be found over a wide area, even several countries, or just limited to a small locality.

Pre-Roman era, Iron Age, tools, including several billhooks, from the Glastonbury Lake Villages in Somerset, England. Similar socketed billhooks are still found today in Morocco and southern Spain.

Roman-British from Camerton, near Bath, Somerset (British Museum collection)

Romano-British from Hod Hill, near Stourpaine, Dorset (British Museum collection)

Not Roman, but a 20th century example from Spain (possibly imported from Morocco). Compared to the British examples above, it shows how this type has remained unchanged for over 2000 years.

This one from Finland, is also 20th century. It shows how without provenance it is difficult to identify either the origins or the age of a tool just by its shape.

This one from 21st century Turkey - it was batch produced in a small village forge - given a few years rust and usage, it would be virtually indistinguishable from those above...

Roman era from Lakenheath (UK) - British Museum collection.

Roman era, Seine & Marne region of France. Note the similarities with the one from Lakenheath (UK) above..

This one also from France - probably Roman, but we will never know!! It was found by a young lad with a metal detector. He posted the images on a French detector's forum, where I found it.  By the time I contacted him he had thrown it away as valueless. He had no idea of its historical value...

This one is from the Swiss Jura region, near Lake Geneva (Pre Roman, Iron Age, lake villages similar to those at Glastonbury existed in this region).

One of the great problems with dating tools that are found out of their context, i.e. without provenance, is that the same type may have been in continuous use for a long period of time. This 12th century manuscript attributed to Gregorius (Dijon, France ref BM MS 0173) shows an identically shaped billhook being used to prune trees...

Detail from above

Roman period 'rebmesser' (vine pruning hooks) from Brauneberg, Leiwen (the Moselle region) Germany

Roman era from the Balkans - actual location unknown as many items are being dug during mine clearance operations and then finding their way via German sellers to the USA.

Roman, 1st century AD, from Egypt. Vine pruning hooks with iron handles with a ring are common throughout the Roman Empire, even in Britain where vines were grown at that time.

A Byzantine (Eastern Roman Empire) vine pruning hook from the late Middle Ages.

A modern copy (by Daegrad Tools) of a Roman era vine pruning hook found at Silchester in Britain.

Roman Billhooks by Sîan Rees
From Chapter 4 of 'Artefacts in Roman Britain: Their Purpose and Use', edited by Lindsay Allason-Jones, 2011. Sîan Rees is the author of 'Agricultural Implements in Prehistoric and Roman Britain'
Roman Bilhooks, Sian Rees.pdf
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