This item is a circular terracotta stamp, roughly 13 cm in diameter, possibly for leaving an image upon bread. Cast from a mould, it has a sunken figural image in the center, and a banded rope frame around the central image, with another geometric motif along the outer edge (Fig. 1). When pressed into bread, before the leavened loaf would have risen, a relief design would have been left as indicated by the picture of a cast made from the stamp below (Figure 2). The reverse is crudely molded by hand, with several finger prints remaining, and a small square handle was affixed. The central image shows a large bearded figure being grasped around the midriff by a smaller man who appears to be running. A satyr stands in the background holding what appears to be a club.
Very little has been written on bread stamps as an artifact category, with the majority of scholarship dealing with Christian stamps used for the eucharist, and other types of bread distributed during holy days in the Eastern rite up to this day. Stamping bread however has a long history, with New Kingdom frescoes in Egypt attesting to the practice some 3500 years ago, and Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic examples appearing in art and archaeology, from the variety of bread stamps discovered over the years to even the stamped bread itself from Pompeii.
Why stamp bread? Outside of Christian ecclesiastic usage bread was stamped, as were terracotta lamps, tiles, bricks, and amphorae, to indicate the producer, or to attest to the magistrate responsible for their production. This could be particularly important in cases where bread was being distributed to the people as a political act. In addition during Pre-Christian periods bread was stamped with the symbols of various deities and given during religious festivals associated with those gods and goddesses. Lastly some stamps are thought to be purely decorative in nature.
This particular stamp shares many similarities in the framing style and general size with several Ptolemaic examples in the British Museum, dating to 2nd or 1st century BCE Egypt (Figures 3, 4, & 5). The inclusion of a hoofed satyr however, a particularly Roman version of the un-hoofed Greek faun, indicates this piece is likely somewhat later however, after the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE. The image may be a reference to the play The Cyclops by Euripides, in which Odysseus enlists the aid of a faun to help blind the Cyclops, only to be betrayed at the last minute. The club or wooden implement held by the satyr, the figure grasping the much larger, naked, figure, could all be seen in relation to the high point of the play. Given the pseudo-religious nature of theatrical performances in the Greco-Roman world, bread stamped with this image could have been distributed just after the play in a manner similar to the bread distributions after religious festivals.
Stamps such as this, and even more those with personal names attached, provide important insights into the day to day lives of people in antiquity. The food they ate, its significance to them, and a material reminder of the very human nature of the work that archaeology undertakes is all encoded in objects such as this terracotta stamp.
Galavaris, G. (1970). Bread and the liturgy: The symbolism of early Christian and Byzantine bread stamps. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Cotsonis, J. A., Kouroúmali, M., Archbishop Iakovos Collection., Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art & Culture., Hellenic College, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology., & Byzantine Studies Conference. (2012). Greek, Roman and Byzantine objects from the Archbishop Iakovos Collection. Brookline, MA.
The British Museum Online Collections (2014). Retrieved from http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/search.aspx?searchText=bread+stamp&images=true&object=20185