Materials: Goatskin leather, linen thread, bronze plates
INTRODUCTION – One of the marks of a Roman soldier was his leather belt, balteus or cingulum, an item often richly decorated with metal plates which made him immediately identifiable as a military man. Civilians did not wear such things and it was a common minor punishment for Roman soldiers to be made to stand in the camp with their tunics unbelted.
FELIX VTERE, “use with good luck”, was a popular admonition found on personal and household items in the Roman period. There was a fashion during the later 2nd and first half of the 3rd centuries CE, in the Roman army, for military belts decorated with non-ferrous metal plates (copper alloy or silver) which spelled out this phrase. At least one plate, the letter V, from the beginning of the word “VTERE,” has been found in excavations at Dura Europos, Syria (James 2004, 78)*.
|Aquae Iasae belt plates from the|
Archaeological Museum in Zagreb.
|Design on the back of the reproduction FELIX VTERE|
belt taken from the Vimose baldric.
We can also draw conclusions about the overall thickness of belts from the pins remaining on the backs of belt fittings. Beginning in the mid to late 2nd century pins began to be cast integrally into the backs of the letters and were then mushroomed over on the back to a thickness of about 3mm. The Julius Terentius fresco from Dura Europos shows well the belts of the participants, they are not overly wide but the portion of the belt which goes through the buckle is very long and is caught up in a “swag” on the wearer’s right side with the end left to hang down.
|Julius Terentius fresco.|
CONSTRUCTION OF THE LEATHER PORTION OF THE BELT - The main body of the belt was made from vegetable tanned goatskin which was purchased pre-dyed from a supplier of fine bookbinding leathers. The dolphin design, adapted from the Vimose baldric, was cut into the outer leather. The leather lining was made from vegetable tanned, undyed goatskin and was gilded with 23 karat gold leaf adhered with Kolner’s Miniatum on the areas which would show through the dolphin cutwork. The outer and gilded lining was then stitched together around the dolphin design in colored linen thread. Roman stitch work was fairly fine, so I chose to work the edges at 9 stitches per inch because aesthetically it seem correct to my eye and in harmony with period examples. The dolphins were worked more finely because again it made sense given the size of the figures. To provide additional stability, a piece of thin, tightly woven linen was cut to size to fit the back of the gilded lining, then the edges of the outer were turned in and the belt was sewn along both edges with yellow linen thread. The the outer leather was then drawn up and sewn together along the center back with a plain seam (van Driel-Murray 2001, 346). The “swag” portion of the belt was made from vegetable tanned goatskin dyed yellow. It was also skived along its length, fitted with a piece of linen and sewn up the center back with an edge/flesh stitch. Then it was sewn down both edges, at 9 stitches per inch, with contrasting blue linen thread. The unfinished end of the “swag” was fitted into the end of the left side of the belt and stitched up.
BELT PLATES - As found, the Aquae Iasae set had the letters FELIX complete with the X being hinged to a kidney shaped buckle. The word VTERE was not complete; the final R and E having been lost in antiquity. I created a replacement letter R, drawing elements from the surviving plates and chose to make the letter E based on the surviving one with the loop. The V found at Dura Europos , is almost identical to the V of the Aquae Iasae set, so this drove my decision to recreate this particular belt. Subsequently I have examined a number of individual FELIX VTERE belt set letters lost randomly at discrete locations, and have noted a great deal of similarity between these individual letters and the Aquae Iasae set. I copied the letters to scale from the archaeological report, mounted them on card and used them to cut the letters from brass sheet to use as models for casting. I cast the ten letters, two hinged strap ends, the buckle and tongue in bronze using the sand casting material called Delft Clay and finished them by filing by hand and polishing with a polishing wheel.
CASTING THE BELT PLATES – There is a very detailed illustrated explanation of my casting process ON THIS PAGE, what follows here is a digest.
Moldmaking - I prepared my two part flask using the casting medium Delft Clay, a form of fine grained sand casting. This involved packing both parts of the flask with the Delft Clay, making sure the surfaces were even. I then pressed the metal model, face down, into the clay of the bottom mold and placed a steel plate on top to press it down evenly. Then I placed the top on and gently pressed it in contact with the model. I removed the top, made at least one vent hole with a skewer and a pouring hole with a larger rod. Then I cut a pouring funnel on the topside. I put the two halves back together and placed them by the hearth in preparation for the pour.
Bronze Pouring - I heated the bronze with a MAPP gas torch in a ceramic melting dish in small hearth made of refractory bricks. The melting dish had been seasoned with borax prior to its initial use and as the metal melted I added some additional borax as flux to help it flow more easily. When the metal had melted and formed a distinct ‘button’ shape in the melting dish it was ready to pour. Any additional metal was poured into a small cast iron dish on the side. After a few minutes, the mold was be opened to see if the casting was successful.
Clean Up - The raw casting had flashing lines and sprues which needed to be cut off and filed. Then the plates were rough polished on a bobbing wheel and finely polished with jeweler’s rouge.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER – I fitted the hinged X/buckle plate first by marking the places where the pins on its back would go through the leather. Then I pierced holes to accommodate the pins, trimmed them until they were standing proud above the leather, and then peened them over with a hammer. I then did I, L, E, and F on that side of the belt and V, T, E, R, and E on the other side of the belt. I test fit it and determined where I should pierce the holes for the size adjustment. Then I carefully cut the hole which I will whip stitched around in the future for stability. Finally I put on the two strap ends using the same method as for the belt plates. Then finally after many weeks of work the belt was complete.
WHAT I LEARNED – I have a lot of experience doing investment casting but had not worked extensively with sandcasting before. This project gave me plenty of practice in using the Delft Clay method and I feel I have a much better grasp of its properties now. I look forward to making more belt fittings based on Durene models.
My Laurel is in shoe-making and I have been working leather for many years, however the leather gilding technique is new to me and enjoyable to learn. I am reminded yet again of the delightful properties of goatskin. It is thin but strong and supple, shapes beautifully and is great to sew. I think making some Dura shoes are in order!
* Now in the National Museum in Damascus, Syria.
** This burial has been dated to the 220s CE based upon coins found in the grave.
*** Now in the Musée de l'Arles Antique.
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