Roman Oreos

By Carolyn La Rocco

I am a second year PhD student in the School of Classics at the University of St Andrews. I am doing a PhD about Roman archaeology, and have been in quarantine here in Scotland for the last two months due to the shutdown caused by COVID-19. I’ve been staying busy, working on my PhD as much as possible given the limited access to research material, and teaching Roman History tutorials every week.

As most of us do at some point, one day I decided to take a break and check social media. I came across a work by Judith Klausner, where she had carved a portrait out of an Oreo, in the style of an ancient Greek or Roman cameo. You can find this Oreo and her other work on her website. I recommend checking it out – she has done a lot of Oreo portraits and other cool work with food!

I have spent a lot of time studying ancient cameos, and a lot of time eating Oreos… I love to create, so as soon as I saw this, I thought it was such a nice idea, combining some of my favourite things: Classics, food, and art. It also didn’t hurt that it would be a good way to take my mind off of the COVID-19 situation, so I decided to give it a try. 🙂

Coincidentally, my mother had sent me a care package a week or two before, which included a pack of Oreos, so I got started right away.

The first one I created was directly inspired by Judith Klausner’s, and took a few hours to make, using a sewing needle.

Here you can (hopefully) see the ‘brush strokes’ from the needle, and the sort of ‘stippling’ I used for the facial hair.

oreo cookie and needle on a kitchen surface

This was the end result:

Oreo cookie, with a side-view portrait of a mans head carved into the filling.

Though mine does not look as good as Judith Klausner’s, I had such a fun time, and wanted to make another one. I decided to change things up a bit, however.

I love studying coins, and used to work digitising them in the Heberden Coin Room at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Because of the subject of my PhD, however, I don’t get to work with them as much as I’d like anymore. This gave me this idea that a portrait from a coin would be a cool idea for the next Oreo, and I decided to look for a coin that I wanted to carve.

I also knew that I wanted my next Oreo portrait to be of a female subject. (Though things have improved, there’s definitely still not enough female representation in Classics).

For my next portrait, then, I chose to work off of a denarius of the Roman Empress Faustina the Elder that I had seen on Instagram. The coin is from the personal collection of @decimusclaudius. I thought this was such a beautiful coin, and really shows off her distinctive hairstyle.

Working with the same sewing needle and a small screwdriver this time, I created my second Oreo portrait.

Here is a brief overview of the process, in case you are interested or want to try. I start by removing a thin layer. (The Oreos I used were double-stuffed, this might not be necessary with regular Oreos.) I remove more around the top/sides to create the portrait’s general shape. I then slowly remove the filling in places, smoothing it in others, and adding some back to create detail for the hair, eyes, etc.

It may take some trial and error, but eventually, you wind up with something like this:

comparing carved oreo cookie to picture of original coin

I really loved how this one turned out, and decided to keep going. They do take a few hours each, but I have found it helpful to have something to be so focused on for a bit as a break from the general anxiety of the times, or when I reach a point in my academic work where I’m not being productive anymore.

My friends also seem to enjoy them, and sometimes come by my window to see them. Here you can see I had finished the first, and was part of the way through the second.

Carolyn holding up two carved oreos to a window, for a visitor to see

My PhD here in St Andrews focuses on Roman and Visigothic Spain, so for my next Oreo, I wanted a related portrait subject. I decided on a coin of the Emperor Hadrian (emperor 117-138 CE), who was born in Baetica and is particularly well associated with Itálica there. The final result was this:

This brings us to the present day. At the moment, I am working on a fourth Oreo, this time based off of an orichalcum sestertius of Antoninus Pius, (emperor 138-161 CE, Hadrian’s successor and Faustina the Elder’s husband) that I found in National Museums Scotland’s online collection.

It’s not finished yet, but hey, we’re not going anywhere anytime soon… I’ve got plenty of time (and Oreos) left.

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