Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 1-1 (May 2009)Stijn Heeren: New views on the forfex of Virilis the veterinarian: shears, emasculator or twitch?

1 Varying interpretations of pairs of pincers

In the Tiel-Passewaaij excavations many metal objects were discovered (Roymans, Derks & Heeren 2007; Heeren 2006). Some large iron tools are connected to daily practices relating to the local economy: three pitch-forks, several knives (some of which could be sickles or small scythes), axes, a chisel, and a pair of shears. Special attention is given here to a large pair of pincers (Fig. 1). The iron pincers are 31 cm. in length and consist of two arms, hinged at one end. The upper part of each arm has a dented rim and the lower part ends with a knob. Following an example from Pompeii, the object was initially seen as a clamp for stretching pieces of leather, since the Pompeii find was associated with two half-moon knives, suitable for scraping leather (Franchi dell'Orto & Varone 1992, 159-161). Such large pincers have previously been interpreted as emasculators (Kolling 1973). The article by Kolling presented an overview of the available evidence, which included several iron pincers, a few decorated pieces in bronze, and a votive altar from Aix-en-Provence. The centre of this altar depicts a large pair of pincers in the centre, clearly recognisable as one of the objects under discussion. To the left, a man with such an object in his left hand is holding the head of a horse, while he has a pair of shears in his right hand, with which he seems to be clipping the mane of the horse’s head. The right part of the altar shows a person holding the bent leg of a horse (Fig. 2). The altar was first published in 1907 by Espérandieu, who described the persons depicted as veterinarians or stable boys, and the central object as a twitch (Espérandieu 1965 (1907), nr. 104, 82).


Fig. 1 Dented pincers of iron, found in Tiel-Passewaaij (length 32 cm.).

A twitch is placed on the upper lip of a horse, in order to sedate the animal. By clenching the many nerves concentrated in the upper lip, the horse settles down and will feel less pain. Both equine veterinarians and farriers use this object when treating difficult horses. Nowadays, most twitches consist of a looped piece of rope connected to a wooden handle: the rope is wound around the upper lip of the horse and the horse’s head is controlled by holding the handle, twitching the rope tighter if necessary. This type of twitch, however, is a relatively recent innovation: a twitch used to be a pair of pincers. Some modern veterinarians prefer the pincers and these are still available in stores today (Fig. 3). The resemblance between this modern twitch on the one hand and the pincers found in Tiel-Passewaaij and presented by Kolling on the other hand is striking indeed.


Fig. 2 The Aix-en-Provence altar showing a pair of pincers and treatment of horses (after Kolling 1973, Tafel 70).

Notwithstanding Espérandieu’s identification of the pincers as a twitch, Kolling believed that the central object on the altar represents a castrating clamp, since he was familiar with the modern twitch as a rope only, and not the pincers. Following Kolling’s article from 1973, the Tiel-Passewaaij pincers were presented to the press as being the oldest emasculator found to date (NRC Handelsblad, March 20th, 2008). As a reaction to that publication, several veterinarians contacted the author and suggested that the object should be seen as a twitch and not as a castration clamp. However, further correspondence made clear that the interpretation of the large pincers as a twitch is not unanimously accepted by all veterinarians. Some still prefer the interpretation as castrating clamps, arguing that the edges of the pincers would squeeze the horse’s upper lip too hard and that the objects are too heavy to be a twitch.


Fig. 3 Modern twitch (picture kindly provided by Nederinum BV, Riding sports gear).

Before it can be established whether these large iron objects are twitches or castration clamps, it is necessary to approach the available evidence systematically. The subject of ancient methods of castration can be summarized in short, since this was already discussed more extensively some years ago (Adams 1990). After that, the arguments for and against an interpretation as a twitch will be put forward.