Sweat scrapers

Silver strigil, Romano-British

Horn scraper and snuff box, Zulu people, South Africa

[b]Top:[/b] Founding collection; 1884.70.52[br][b]Bottom:[/b] Purchased from W. D. Webster in 1897; 1897.65.4Top: Founding collection; 1884.70.52
Bottom: Purchased from W. D. Webster in 1897; 1897.65.4
The Greeks, Etruscans and Romans used strigils as a tool to clean the skin. They were used before effective soaps had been invented and didn't even require water – bathing was for pleasure rather than for washing. Perfumed oil was applied to the skin, which was then scraped off along with the dirt. Athletes also used them for scraping off the oil with which they anointed themselves, as well as perspiration after exercise. Just as sports stars throw their sweaty towels and shirts into the crowd today, Roman gladiators would bottle their scraped-off sweat and sell it to fans.

Early strigils, such as those found at Corinth dating to the 6th–8th centuries BC, were formed out of rolled sheets of metal, suggesting they were based on earlier reed tools used for the same purpose, such as those Plutarch attributes to the Spartans. Around the 5th century BC, a new form appears, made from a long strip of bronze, which is sharpened at one end to form the blade, and curved back on itself and riveted at the other to form the handle. Many strigils have been dated due to their discovery in graves. This silver example with a wolf's head attached to the handle with copper wire was dug up in London and probably belonged to a wealthy Romano-British resident in from AD 50–300.

The Zulu people of South Africa made this 19th-century strigil. Worn in the hair it is still used as a method of cleaning the skin since both water and cloth are scarce in this area. Strigils were more commonly made of bone or stone so this one, made of light-coloured antelope horn, is quite unusual. Even more unusual its additional feature of an egg-shaped hollow that functioned as a snuff container. Europeans introduced snuff – ground tobacco leaves inhaled through the nose – to Africa. High quality tobacco was grown in South Africa and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and the Zulus used to dry it and mix it to taste with dagga, a local form of hemp. Sniffing tobacco remains popular among the older generations in southern Africa and Nigeria.

© 2011 - The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, England