Study Group for Roman Pottery

National Research Framework


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Collated and Edited by Steven Willis - October 1997; selectively revised 2002


1.1 The Need for a Research Framework for Roman Pottery Study

Roman pottery studies provide a major source of information for the Roman period in Britain representing a key asset for advancing knowledge and addressing specific questions. The Study Group for Roman Pottery regards it as essential that work within this field is well focused upon agreed short and long term objectives which are achievable.

The present Document, together with its four regional companion Frameworks, addresses the acknowledged need to clearly define academic objectives for the subject, partly in response to the English Heritage research frameworks initiative (Olivier 1996). The benefit of this exercise is broad. Firstly it has enabled the Group and its members to clarify the explicit academic goals of their work at a local and national level and to structure these within formal reference documents (ie. these Frameworks). Secondly this response is designed to assist English Heritage, Historic Scotland, CADW, Local Government Archaeologists and other interested parties in evaluating project proposals and other prospective work. The opportunity has also been taken to highlight research and publication priorities relating to the subject, this being an integral part of the exercise. In addition the Document outlines the necessary infrastructure that is required in order that Roman pottery studies in Britain be conducted cost-effectively whilst maintaining the highest professional standards.

In a number of ways the present Document, although not aimed at entirely similar ends, complements the previous examination of research strategy in this field (Fulford & Huddleston 1991; see also Greene 1992). Many of the conclusions of the Fulford and Huddleston review remain valid, whilst the majority of its recommendations have yet to be seen through to completion.

1.2 The contribution of Roman Pottery Studies

1.2.1 The Broad Contribution. Roman pottery continues to represent a rich potential for investigating the archaeology and history of the Roman period in Britain both through pottery specific studies and in integrated work combined with other classes of evidence. Its current value in addressing academic questions in integrated and thematic research has a broad and sound foundation based upon past concerted study and publication. Its practitioners represent a highly (and diversely) skilled professional group.

Roman pottery study represents a significant element of Roman studies, which are in turn identified as a major historical and cultural resource within British and European society. To take but two examples:

(i) Roman pottery studies have provided the vast bulk of the information for our expanded interpretation of the Romano-British economy over the last three decades.

(ii) At an educational level, the Roman period is identified as a National Curriculum subject; pottery, the most common surviving artefact of the period, represents a valuable educational resource which students of all ages and backgrounds can readily relate to.

1.2.2 The Specific Contribution. Pottery offers a unique insight into Romano-British economy and society from an archaeological perspective for the following reasons:

(i) It is ubiquitous in the period, appearing on most types of site, and this, coupled with its near indestructibility by post-depositional processes, results in recovered assemblages which have a strong relationship with assemblages in use during the period. (It is not subject to the problems created by the recycling of glass and metalwork during this period).

(ii) Its raw material and added temper can often be sourced by means of a range of visual, petrological and geochemical methods. This information can, in turn, be compared with typological methods of assigning origins. The consequence is that much light can be thrown on trade generally and the sources of supply of individual sites.

(iii) The nature of the raw material is such that there are few constraints on the form, function and decoration of the vessels produced; in other words pottery, during its manufacture, is a highly plastic medium. Hence all of these elements (ie. form, fabric, decoration and function) of vessels represent cultural information encoded into the vessels by their makers and users. The study of these elements, therefore, holds great potential for illuminating the society which gave rise to them.

The specific contribution of pottery research to Romano-British archaeology, predicated on these factors, can be identified at a number of levels. First, intrinsically, in terms of what it reveals regarding technology and the nature of production, as well as pottery function and use, and cultural traditions.

Secondly, at the site specific level, in terms of its great assistance in establishing chronology, identifying intra-site zones relating, for instance to function and status, characterizing site economy and trading connections, elucidating site formation processes, etc.

Third, regionally / provincially, through inter-site studies, for instance, of patterns of exchange and economy.

1.2.3 The Emergence of a Strong Discipline. Recent decades have seen the emergence of a wide and robust discipline, founded on a number of landmark publications which have done much to establish a fairly reliable national chronology: these include Gillam's Types of Roman coarse pottery vessels in Northern Britain (1957; 1968), his seminal article on Black Burnished Ware (1976) and the studies of (most of) the major industries (Fulford 1975; Williams 1977; Young 1977; Lyne & Jefferies 1979; Howe et al. 1980; Monaghan 1987). This period also witnessed great advances in our knowledge of the sources of Roman pottery types, through a range of petrological researches, most notably those of Peacock and Williams at Southampton University; this has formed the base for studies of supply and distribution. Work influenced either directly or indirectly by Hodder, and particularly his framework for the economic interpretation of quantified data (eg. Hodder 1974a; 1974b; 1976), has proceeded to analyse the distribution and economics of the regionally important industries of the province (eg. Fulford 1975; Young 1977; Lyne & Jefferies 1979; Evans 1988; 1989). Knowledge of pottery assemblages from military sites has greatly expanded with much progress being made in understanding the supply of pottery to the army and its use (eg. Gillam 1973; Darling 1977; Bidwell 1979; 1985; Dannell & Wild 1987; Webster 1991; Holbrook & Bidwell 1992; Greene 1977; 1993; Zienkiewicz 1992; 1993; Manning 1993; Monaghan 1993). Some detailed studies for regions and towns have been conducted (eg. Going 1987; Pollard 1988; Marney 1989; Holbrook & Bidwell 1991; Davies et al. 1994) though are still lacking for most areas. During this time too a series of edited volumes containing wide ranging papers have appeared; these have become essential reading and reference sources for Romanists and represent a major contribution (eg. Detsicas 1973; Dore & Greene 1977; Peacock 1977; Arthur & Marsh 1978; Millett 1979; Anderson & Anderson 1981).

This period has also seen a range of significant events. These include: the publication of the RCHME kilns volume (Swan 1984); the formation of the national Study Group for Roman Pottery in the early 1970s and the institution of its annual Journal; the production of the Department of Environment Guidelines (Young 1980) - now in need of revision - and the recent institution of the National Fabric Collection. These developments though represent only some of the most prominent achievements, while the amount of reports and studies published in this period constitutes a very extensive and extremely valuable asset.

1.3 The Production of Regional Research Frameworks for Roman Pottery Study and of a National Synthesis

In September 1994 the Study Group for Roman Pottery received a request from English Heritage for a copy of its existing Framework. The Group did not have an agreed policy document of this sort and the national committee of the Group decided to rectify this gap as soon as possible. It was agreed that the Framework include the study of Roman Pottery throughout the United Kingdom. Evaluations relating to specific themes and specialisms (including urban pottery assemblages; rural assemblages; Samian; kiln studies; and the National Fabric Collection) were drawn up by experienced 'expert' individuals within the Group, being subsequently discussed at the annual national Group Conference in April 1995; these evaluations inform the relevant sections of the present report (Sections 3.3; 4.2; 4.4; 4.5; & 5.3).

During the summer of 1995 the four existing regional sub-groups of the national body met to begin drawing up regional frameworks for Southern, Western, Northern and Eastern (East Midlands & East Anglia) Britain. It had been felt that this was an appropriate way to tackle what is evidently a large task, having the advantage of tapping local and regional awareness in a manner which is now recommended by English Heritage (Olivier 1996). The four regions in themselves amount to very large areas with many interested contributors and a great variety of issues to be addressed; hence the drafting process included much discussion and circulation of drafts, resulting, it is hoped, in well considered collaborative academic statements. The Regional Documents were finalized between July and November 1996. The national Framework was finalized in the spring of 1997 following an equivalent process of consultation and draft circulation. This document was collated and edited by Dr Steven Willis who also co-ordinated the editing of the regional statements. Two senior Group members (Dr Jeremy Evans & the Group President, Maggi Darling) were empowered by the Study Group committee to formally approve the final drafts of the five Framework Documents.

The result is that the Group now has an interlocking matrix of thematic statements and regional frameworks which should be conceived of both has 'stand-alone' statements and as integral components of the National Framework covering the United Kingdom. It is these companion Regional Documents which contain the essential detailed information upon which the National Framework draws; the latter should not be regarded as a substitute or proxy for them.

1.4 Aims of the Research Framework Documents

The principal aim of the Documents is to provide a statement of the broad academic objectives of Roman pottery research (Section 2). This perspective, combined within the Framework as a whole, including the Regional Documents, forms a basis (i) from which to determine research priorities for future work and (ii) against which the opportunities/options presented by threats to the archaeological record, of whatever sort, can be assessed. Hence in terms of the recent English Heritage definition of documents of this type (Olivier 1996, 5) the present Documents most closely equate to a research framework, though they also contain points relating to management issues.

In addition the Documents have a number of other important aims. In particular they identify the necessary research conditions or infrastructure required in order for advances to be made in the next 10 years (Section 3). They are also designed to identify lacunae in our knowledge and suggest how these may be remedied. They contain recommendations for future research, fieldwork and publication, and suggest potential areas for synthetic study, in a number of cases suggesting linked research in which pottery analysis is but one component. Similarly it is recognized that thematic pottery projects can be of enhanced value with, for instance, certain geographical areas and subjects benefiting if the study of pottery from a number of sites was combined, rather than being published individually. Such work may be a more effective way of publishing material and addressing academic questions.

As a highly relevant dimension to this exercise the opportunity is taken to briefly stress the need to ensure the maintenance of the acknowledged high standards of work achieved by pottery specialists, often in fact the result of previous sustained support and investment from English Heritage and other major funding bodies.

The current Document can be read as effectively defining the current state of knowledge within the field of Roman pottery study in the late 1990s.

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