Portrait of Dr Ellen Swift FSA

Dr Ellen Swift FSA

Reader in Archaeology


Dr Ellen Swift studied at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London for her BA, MA, and PhD. 

Grant-funded research undertaken by Ellen as Principal Investigator includes a Leverhulme Research Fellowship in 2013, and AHRC project ‘Roman and Late Antique Artefacts from Egypt’ in 2017-19. She is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

Research interests

Ellen has wide research interests in artefact studies, the late to post-Roman transition in the West, and Roman and late antique art. She has worked on artefacts from both the north-western provinces of the Roman empire, and from Roman and Late Antique Egypt.


Ellen Swift teaches Roman archaeology, Roman art, and late antiquity.



  • Swift, E. (2014). Design, Function and Use-Wear in Spoons: Reconstructing Everyday Roman Social Practice. Journal of Roman Archaeology [Online] 27:203-237. Available at: http://doi.org/10.1017/S1047759414001214.
  • Swift, E. (2013). The Analysis of Reused Material Culture in Late Antique Studies. Late Antique Archaeology [Online] 9:91-119. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/22134522-12340006.
  • Swift, E. (2012). Object Biography, Re-use and Recycling in the Late to Post-Roman Transition Period and beyond: Rings Made from Romano-British Bracelets. Britannia [Online] 43:167-215. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0068113X12000281.
    Documenting a phenomenon that has previously been overlooked, this article examines the later stages of object biography in relation to Romano-British bracelets, namely, their modification and subsequent re-use as smaller rings. Re-use is shown to occur widely and is particularly associated with the late fourth to early fifth centuries a.d., with cut-down bracelets also found in early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. The making of smaller rings from late Roman bracelets is demonstrated to be part of a wider phenomenon of re-use, repair and recycling at the end of the Roman period in Britain, with attendant implications of cultural and economic change. It is proposed that the transformation of these artefacts was accompanied by changes in meaning which undermine the apparent continuity that is seen in the extended lifespan of the original object. This in turn illuminates the way that wider cultural norms were gradually eroded in the fifth century. Through the study of these artefacts a new perspective is provided on the transition to post-Roman Britain and the relationship between this and the early Anglo-Saxon period.
  • Swift, E. (2010). Identifying Migrant Communities: A Contextual Analysis of Grave Assemblages from Continental Late Roman Cemeteries. Britannia 41:1-46.
  • Alwis, A. and Swift, E. (2010). The Role of Late Antique Art in Early Christian Worship: A Reconsideration of the Iconography of the Starry Sky in the So-called ‘Mausoleum’ of Galla Placidia, Ravenna. Papers of the British School of Rome [Online] 78:193-217. Available at: http://www.bsr.ac.uk/the-papers-%E2%80%93-vol-78-2010.
  • Swift, E. (2004). Dress Accessories, Culture and Identity in the Late Roman Period. Antiquité Tardive [Online] 12:217-222. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1484/J.AT.2.300075.
    This paper focuses on the importance of assessing cultural practices associated with objects, as well as the appearance of objects themselves, in an evaluation of their meaning in the past. Focusing on Roman dress accessories, it investigates the relationship between dress and identity in some detail. Case-studies are used to illustrate the key points, drawing upon a data base of artefacts in grave assemblages. The paper documents the existence of established cultural conventions in the occurrence and positioning of artefacts at burial, for example, the wearing of finger-rings and bracelets of different materials in specific positions. These trends are argued to illustrate the significance of material culture in the past in shaping cultural identities.
  • Swift, E. (2003). Late Roman Bead Necklaces and Bracelets. Journal of Roman Archaeology 16:336-349.
    Based on a close study of a substantial number of grave contexts, this article makes a significant contribution to the study of Roman jewellery. It highlights the importance of testing assumptions drawn from literary evidence through the examination of archaeological material. It provides significant evidence for the accurate reconstruction of Roman necklaces, and the spread and customisation of Roman cultural trends in the Western Empire. Finally, it puts forward evidence for a significant correlation between some types of beads and the graves of children, and discusses how this can be interpreted. It moves beyond the usual analysis of Roman jewellery as a high-status signifier to examine in a more nuanced way than hitherto the social functions of Roman jewellery.


  • Swift, E. (2017). Roman Artefacts and Society: Design, Behaviour and Experience. [Online]. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Available at: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/roman-artefacts-and-society-9780198785262?q=Roman%20Artefacts%20and%20Society:%20design,%20behaviour%20and%20experience&lang=en&cc=gb.
    In this book, the author uses design theory, previously neglected in Roman archaeology, to investigate Roman artefacts in a new way, making a significant contribution to both Roman social history, and our understanding of the relationships that exist between artefacts and people. It is grounded in extensive data collection and the close study of artefacts from museum collections and archives. The concept of ‘affordances’—features of an artefact that make possible, and incline users towards, particular uses for functional artefacts— is an important one for the approach taken. This concept is carefully evaluated by considering affordances in relation to other sources of evidence such as use-wear, archaeological context, the end-products resulting from artefact use, and experimental reconstruction. The book then considers how we can use artefacts to understand aspects of Roman behaviour and experience, including discrepant experiences according to factors such as age, social position, and left- or right-handedness, which are fostered through artefact design. The relationship between production and users is also explored, investigating both what particular production methods make possible in terms of user experience, and also examining production constraints that have unintended consequences for users. The book examines topics such as the perceived agency of objects, differences in social practice across the provinces, cultural change and development in daily practice, and the persistence of tradition and social convention. It shows that design intentions, everyday habits of use, and the constraints of production processes each contribute to the reproduction and transformation of material culture. Artefact types explored in the case-studies include locks and keys, pens, shears, glass vessels, dice, boxes, and finger-rings, using material mainly drawn from the north-western Roman provinces, with some material also from Roman Egypt.
  • Swift, E. (2009). Style and Function in Roman Decoration: Living with Objects and Interiors. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.
    This important book puts forward a new interpretation of Roman decorative art, focusing on the function of decoration in the social context. It examines the key areas of social display and conspicuous consumption in the Roman world: social space, entertainment, and dress, and discusses the significance of the decoration of objects and interiors within these contexts, drawing examples from both Rome and its environs, and the Western Roman Provinces, from the early Imperial period to late antiquity. Focusing on specific examples,including mosaics and other interior decor, silver plate, glass and pottery vessels, and jewellery and other dress accessories, Swift demonstrates the importance of decoration in creating and maintaining social networks and identities and fostering appropriate social behaviour, and its role in perpetuating social convention and social norms. It is argued that our understanding of stylistic change and the relationship between this and the wider social context in the art of the Roman period is greatly enhanced by an initial focus on the particular social relationships fostered by decorated objects and spaces. The book demonstrates that an examination of so-called 'minor art' is fundamental in any understanding of the relationship between art and its social context, and aims to reinvigorate debate on the value of decoration and ornament in the Roman period and beyond.
  • Swift, E. (2008). Roman Dress Accessories. Buckinghamshire: Shire Publications.
    This books provides an introduction to Roman dress accessories - defined here as what would today be called costume jewellery (non-precious metal jewellery). Using new evidence from finds, production areas, distributions and the location of workshops are examined. The interpretation of dress accessories is introduced, with reference to the depiction of objects in Roman art. Brooches, bracelets, beads, necklaces, rings, earrings, hairpins and belt sets are explained in detail, and the most popular types are described and illustrated,enabling the identification of common objects that might be found on an archaeological site or in a museum.
  • Swift, E. (2000). Regionality in Dress Accessories in the Late Roman West. Montagnac: Editions Monique Mergoil.
  • Swift, E. (2000). The End of the Western Roman Empire: An Archaeological Investigation. [Online]. Stroud: Tempus. Available at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Western-Roman-Empire-Archaeological-Investigation/dp/075241478X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1432904886&sr=1-1&keywords=The+End+of+the+Western+Roman+Empire%3A+An+Archaeological+Investigation.
    Based on a range of new archaeological research (most of it carried out by the author herself), this book breaks new ground. It examines changes in the Western provinces in the fourth and early fifth centuries, which ultimately resulted in the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.
    First, the author investigates regional variation within the late Roman West: important differences are found between the heavily militarised provinces of the frontier and those furthur west, and the general shift of focus from one area to another is clearly visible as the fourth century comes to its end. In combination with other burial evidence, the movement of people can be traced through the objects they were wearing, and the activity of the Roman military on the frontiers can be investigated through badges of office - the crossbow brooch and the belt set. Even in the fourth century, the increasing importance of the Germanic-style culture is becoming apparent, corresponding to the breakdown of much Roman-inspired culture in the fifth century.
    All these strands are skillfully brought together in Dr Swift's new account of the end of the Roman West and its legacy to the post-Roman world.

Book section

  • Swift, E. (2017). Design, function and everyday social practice: Artefacts and Roman social history. in: Van Oyen, A. and Pitts, M. eds. Materialising Roman Histories. Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 153-167. Available at: https://www.oxbowbooks.com/oxbow/materialising-roman-histories.html.
  • Swift, E. (2014). The Development of Artefact Studies. in: The Oxford Handbook of Roman Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 1-16. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199697713.013.004.
    This chapter comprises a historiography of Roman artefact study in Britain from the antiquarian period to the present day. It documents the evolution
    of finds catalogues within excavation reports, changing approaches to interpretation, and how and to what extent finds research has been
    incorporated into synthetic studies of Roman Britain. It investigates possible influential factors in the development of artefact research that have
    influenced its nature and status within the wider field of Roman archaeology in Britain. The profile of artefact researchers, persistent traditions of
    scholarship, and the wider academic context are all argued to be important in understanding the current position of artefact research.
  • Swift, E. (2014). Reuse of Glass, Pottery and Copper Alloy Objects in the Late to Post-Roman Transition Period in Britain. in: Haarer, F. K. et al. eds. AD 410: The History and Archaeology of Late and Post-Roman Britain. London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, pp. 130-152. Available at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/AD-410-History-Archaeology-Post-Roman/dp/0907764401/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1432904952&sr=1-1&keywords=AD+410%3A+The+History+and+Archaeology+of+Late+and+Post-Roman+Britain.
  • Swift, E. (2013). Amber. in: Bagnall, R. S. et al. eds. The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, p. N/A. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah06017.
  • Swift, E. (2012). The Archaeology of Adornment and the Toilet in Roman Britain and Gaul. in: Harlow, M. ed. Dress and Identity in the Past: University of Birmingham IAA Interdisciplinary Series: Studies in Archaeology, History, Literature Part 2. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 47-57.
  • Swift, E. (2011). Personal Ornament. in: Allason-Jones, L. ed. Artefacts in Roman Britain: Their Purpose and Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 194-218.
  • Lavan, L., Swift, E. and Putzeys, T. (2008). Material Spatiality in Late Antiquity: Sources, Approaches, and Field Methods. in: Lavan, L. A., Swift, E. V. and Putzeys, T. eds. Objects in Context, Objects in Use: Material Spatiality in Late Antiquity (Late Antique Archaeology 5). Leiden: Brill, pp. 1-44.
    This introduction to the volume discusses sources for the reconstruction of material spatiality, problems with the evidence, potential approaches to interpretation, and methodologies of field archaeology in relation to the recovery of the high quality evidence necessary for spatial approaches to the material.
  • Swift, E. (2008). Decorated Vessels: The Function of Decoration in Late Antiquity. in: Lavan, L. A., Swift, E. V. and Putzeys, T. eds. Objects in Context, Objects in Use: Material Spatiality in Late Antiquity (Late Antique Archaeology 5). Leiden: Brill, pp. 385-412.
    This paper re-integrates decoration with the function of the object and with its social context in Late Antiquity. It examines the way that decoration prescribes the function of objects, for example, through the representation upon an object of the activity for which the object is intended to be used. It is suggested that in some instances decoration may also be matched to the interior decor of a room, i.e., to the context within which an object was used. These correlations of decoration with function and context correspond to Roman ideas of ‘appropriateness’ in decor and, in turn, contribute to the structuring of social identities and social relations in Late Antiquity.
  • Swift, E. (2007). Small Objects, Small Questions? Perceptions of Finds Research in the Academic Community. in: Willis, S. and Hingley, R. eds. Roman Finds: Context and Theory. Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 18-28.
    Debate at recent conferences has touched on a particular area of concern-that unless more people are attracted into the study of Roman finds there will be a shortage of informed specialists in years to come. The situation is, however, unlikely to change unless we try to reach a fuller understanding of the state of finds research and the ways in which it is perceived. It is illuminating, for example, that the problem has been initially raised as that of a future skills shortage in the identification of objects, rather than the constraints on academic enquiry created by the neglect of finds as a serious research area. This paper reports the outcome of a questionnaire (circulated to Roman finds specialists in universities and members of the Roman finds group) on perceptions of Roman finds research and investigates the status of this research in universities. Finds researchers are shown to have a distinctive age/sex profile and finds research itself to be at the margins of academia. It can be argued that the perceived status of finds specialists and finds research, and the consequent numbers of researchers going into and staying in this area, will not change without a critical evaluation of established hierarchies (which encompasses both gender issues and perceptions of academic 'orthodoxy') within academia and more widely within archaeology.
  • Swift, E. (2006). Constructing Roman Identities in Late Antiquity: The North-West Frontier. in: Bowden, W., Gutteridge, A. and Machado, C. eds. Social and political life in late antiquity: Late Antique Archaeology. Leiden: Brill, pp. 95-111.
  • Swift, E. (2003). Transformations in Meaning: amber and glass beads across the Roman frontier. in: Carr, G., Swift, E. V. and Weekes, J. eds. TRAC 2002: Proceedings of the Twelfth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, Kent 2002. Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 48-57.
    This paper considers artefactuality and cultural interaction with reference to dress accessories (in particular beads) which can be shown to be of Germanic influence, but which are found in late Roman contexts. The variant meanings of such Germanic-inspired objects found in burial contexts within the late Roman empire are explored in relation to concepts of value and consumption, with the conclusion that connections between the cultural style of objects and the cultural identity of the consumer should not be simply assumed.

Conference or workshop item

  • Baker, P., Carr, G. and Swift, E. Co-organised (with Drs. G. Carr and E. Swift) The Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference (TRAC) 2002 University of Kent. in: The Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference (TRAC) 2002.

Edited book

  • Lavan, L.A., Swift, E.V. and Putzeys, T. eds. (2008). Objects in Context, Objects in Use: Material Spatiality in Late Antiquity (Late Antique Archaeology 5). [Online]. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill. Available at: http://www.brill.com/objects-context-objects-use.
  • Carr, G., Swift, E.V. and Weekes, J. eds. (2003). TRAC 2002: Proceedings of the Twelfth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, Canterbury 2002. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
    A collection of papers on a wide range of themes in Roman archaeology, with a strong interdisciplinary flavour and commitmtent to theoretical approaches in archaeology
  • Carruthers, M. et al. eds. (2002). TRAC 2001: Proceedings of the Eleventh Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, Glasgow 2001. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
    Conference proceedings comprising 11 papers representative of current themes in Roman archaeology and sharing a commitment to a theoretically informed approach to the subject.


  • Swift, E. (2013). Book Review. Britannia [Online] 44:406-407. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0068113X13000159.
  • Swift, E. (2012). Book Review. Classical Review [Online] 62:300-302. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0009840X11003982.
  • Swift, E. (2011). Book Review. Journal of Roman Archaeology 24:817-818.
  • Swift, E. (2011). Book Review. Journal of Roman Studies [Online] 101:313-314. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0075435811000724.
  • Swift, E. (2007). The Impossible Subject of Women in Roman Britain. Journal of Roman Archaeology 20:542-544.
    Review of L.Allason-Jones Women in Roman Britain
  • Swift, E. (2007). Book Review. Britannia 38:377-378.
  • Swift, E. (2006). Book Review. Classical Bulletin 82:292-294.
  • Swift, E. (2004). Book Review. Britannia [Online] 35:363-364. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4128649?origin=crossref&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.
    Peeters, Leuven, 2002. ISBN 9 0429 1246 4
  • Swift, E. (2002). Book Review: Eastern Cemetery of Roman London/ A Romano-British Cemetery on Watling Street. Britannia [Online] 33:394-395. Available at: http://www.dx.doi.org/10.2307/1558879.


  • Swift, E. (2019). Re-evaluating the Quoit Brooch Style: Economic and Cultural Transformations in the Fifth Century AD: with an updated catalogue of known QBS artefacts. Medieval Archaeology 63.
    Quoit Brooch Style material, produced from the early 5th century onwards, has previously been considered mostly from a stylistic point of view, leaving much scope for further investigation. In addition, the known corpus of material has been much expanded through newly excavated and metal-detected finds. In this article, I bring together the known extant material for the first time, and document important evidence relating to contextual dating, gender associations, manufacture (including new compositional analysis of c 75 objects), repair, and reuse. The article questions previous interpretations of Quoit Brooch Style material relating to Germanic mercenaries and/or post-Romano-British political entities. It interprets the earliest material as part of wider trends elsewhere, in Britain and in Continental northwestern Europe, for the production of material imitating late Roman symbols of power. It presents new evidence for connectivity with Continental Europe via the western Channel route in the 5th century. A detailed investigation of individual artefacts shows that many Quoit Brooch Style objects were reused, sometimes being subjected to extensive repair and modification. This provides new insights into the 5th century metal economy, for instance, acute problems in the availability of new metal objects in southeastern Britain in the middle years of the 5th century. Compositional analysis contributes further to our understanding of metal supply in the 5th century and relationships with the post-Roman West. Insights are provided into wider cultural transformations in the 5th century and the gradual loss of value that occurred for Roman-style objects.
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