Study Group for Roman Pottery

National Research Framework

Issues and Research Objectives: Themes and Specialist Areas

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Collated and Edited by Steven Willis - October 1997


5.1 Chronology

This is the traditional area of research in Roman pottery study. Whilst the basic chronology of the main Romano-British pottery industries is fairly well understood there is much scope for improving our knowledge of the chronology of many Roman pottery types, even Samian. Chronological refinement, as in other archaeological domains, must be an on-going objective in pottery studies since in principle it enables subtler understanding and interpretation of processes.

Particular periods within the Romano-British era have finer ceramic chronologies than others. Improvement in dating ceramics of the first half of the third century (before c. A.D. 260) must be a priority. As Fulford and Huddleston note, when identified: "well-dated groups must be explored for what they can contribute to our understanding of chronology" (1991, 40).

The implications of Millett's work on dating (1987a; 1987b) emphasizing that the archaeological date range assigned to pottery types is an aggregate date of deposition of the other known examples (not a production date) need to be appreciated widely by Romanists and explored.

5.2 Trade, Supply and Distribution

Investigations concerning the trade, supply and distribution of Roman pottery have been a major growth area in research over the last two decades. This work has contributed greatly to understanding at site, regional and provincial levels (for instance the numerous mortaria reports of Kay Hartley; the specialist pottery reports in Miller et al. 1986; the research of Malcolm Lyne (eg. Lyne 1995)).

Building on existing knowledge and models, a range of priority areas and questions for continuing work can be identified. (The following are not arranged in a priority order).

(i) Marketing mechanisms (both military and non-military) continue to require exploration.

(ii) Possible competition between industries should continue to be investigated.

(iii) The existence of separate marketing/distribution networks existing across the same geography should be explored.

(iv) The supply of Roman pottery to rural sites requires further study to establish whether there are systematic differences in rural distributions, both regional and social. Were, for instance, villas and other high status sites articulated to supply systems in a manner different from farmsteads/lower status settlements‌

(v) Trade flows and the pottery trade: Do flows of pottery say anything about flows of other commodities‌

(vi) An important question for investigation is how far military demand stimulated and sustained a market for regional pottery industries in southern and eastern Britain, north Gaul and the Rhineland. How significant a factor was military demand as opposed to growing civilian markets‌

(vii) Differences in the distribution of imported pottery in civilian and military areas need investigation and characterization.

(viii) Although the national and regional industries are well known, for the most part detailed, accessible, regional studies of distributions only exist for a few areas (cf. Section 1.2.3 above).

5.3 Samian

5.3.1 Importance. Samian studies are a core element of Roman pottery research and, as is well known, are vital for dating associated pottery groups and, in turn, site phases. British specialists have long been at the forefront of progress in this field and such work is of international importance.

5.3.2 Existing Concerns: Training and Updating Corpora.

(i) The need to train a new generation of specialists is becoming a pressing requirement. The extreme rarity of younger people taking up work as specialists in Samian, highlighted by Fulford and Huddleston (1991, 48), is a major problem needing urgent attention, perhaps involving the funding of professional apprenticeships.

(ii) The existing published corpora used by specialists, with the exception of that for Rheinzabern are outdated. The consequences (as noted by Geoff Dannell in his submission to this document) are, firstly, that work by specialists trawling published and archive reports (the latter not often universally available) for necessary details is not cost-effective; secondly, that: "The quality and reliability of specialist Samian reports is questionable"; and thirdly, the possibility of training new specialists is made extremely difficult.

Hence existing corpora need to be updated and in a format allowing for continuous revision. This exercise requires a degree of international co-operation in order to generate reliable information. A potential solution outlined by G. Dannell is included as Appendix 1 of the present Document (below).

(iii) The index of potters' stamps at Leeds, a database of international significance, is viewed as a crucial component of Samian publication and should be supported to publication.

5.3.3 Samian Distribution and Incidence Study. Samian and other fine ware can be useful for locating sites within economic and social hierarchies (eg. Millett 1980; Willis 1997a), and are a potentially sensitive indicator of 'Romanization'. A pilot project based at Durham University investigating Samian distribution from this perspective is currently being funded by English Heritage (Willis 1997b).

5.3.4 Excavated Samian Assemblages: Publication Priorities. Detailed publication of the Samian assemblages from a number of sites is seen as important for the unique and valuable information it will provide.

(i) Newstead: the publication of more Samian from this site and a review of older collections is considered warranted given its occupation sequence and its importance in terms of the northern frontier.

(ii) Piercebridge: Margaret Ward has produced a comprehensive, fully quantified, report on the large assemblage of Samian from the 1970s excavations at this pivotal site which has third century deposits of national significance. Publication of both the site and this report are most desirable.

5.3.5 Quantification of Samian. As the Fulford and Huddleston report emphasised (1991, 38), and as is now widely appreciated, the general lack of quantification of Samian groups in the past is a serious problem requiring amelioration. All future Samian reports should include comprehensive quantification (cf. Fulford & Huddleston 1991, 45), whether this is undertaken by a Samian specialist or the person writing and co-ordinating the pottery report as a whole. This should comprise quantification by sherd count, weight and EVE. It is noteworthy that there are remarkably few published quantified Samian groups from the northern frontier (cf. 3.5.1; Willis 1997b).

There are major groups of well-stratified Samian from earlier published excavations which cannot be easily used for comparison with newly excavated groups due to the absence of either database or quantification. Where still extant these groups represent an available physical archive which should be tapped to enhance current work, and a similar project to that proposed for a national database catalogue of Roman Pottery Collections (3.2) should be envisaged. Databases of selected major groups, once computerised, could be up-dated for changes in individual potters’ dating. The data would produce considerable benefits for the interpretation of current and future groups. A project to identify the major groups and to assess the funding requirements is considered essential.

5.4 'Romanization' / Roman and Native Interaction

Romanization was a multi-faceted set of processes and many of its aspects may be addressed from the ceramic evidence. Existing work shows that pottery study can make a real contribution to discussions on the character, extent and meaning of Romanization/interaction and this should continue to be a key avenue in research.

Expanding work in the field of functional analysis is likely to be useful in so far as it appears that variations in the nature and proportion of different functional types of pottery present within excavated groups provides a good indicator of Romanization (cf. Okun 1989; Evans 1995a).

5.5 Pottery and the Organization of the Roman Army

Pottery studies have an established, rich, potential to inform on aspects of the organization of the Roman army, including its ethnic composition and movements, as Swan's work has demonstrated (Swan 1992; In Press; Swan & Bidwell In Press).

5.6 Functional Trends

The functional composition of Roman pottery groups has, to date rarely received the attention it warrants. This field of study holds much research potential since studies may shed light on the status and nature of sites and areas. More generally it may tell us much about the nature of 'Romanization' (eg. Okun 1989; Meadows 1994; Evans 1995a).

Work in the immediate future should aim at characterizing regional and chronological trends in the functional composition of groups, against which the pattern for specific sites and groups may be compared.

Comment on the functional composition of groups should form a standard part of pottery reports and hence should be written into report designs and proposals. There are obvious linkages between this research field and residue analysis (Section 3.4.2) which holds much scope for discrete, targeted, projects.

5.7 Site Status

The potential of pottery analysis to highlight site status is established and is widely acknowledged as a key contribution of pottery work (cf. Booth 1991). This is another area which holds many possibilities for useful, thematic research.

5.8 Spatial Patterning and Integrated Finds Studies

Work at Usk (Greene 1993) and other sites has demonstrated the value of the ceramic side of spatial approaches. Study of the finds from York (Cool et al. 1995), Shepton Mallet (work by Jane Evans in preparation [Published in 2001]) and elsewhere (eg. Clarke 1994; Hoffman 1994) has demonstrated the value of an integrated approach to the entire finds assemblage (Hanson & Breeze 1991, 75) and ceramics are the key artefact class from which to develop the integrated study of finds assemblages.

Pottery data can now be directly compared with small finds and animal bones through pie-slice analysis (cf. Orton 1992) and, for instance, through straight-forward volumetric analysis where excavators have recorded the volume of soil excavated from archaeological layers. Hence it is possible to start to develop comparisons of full artefact assemblages between different deposits and different sites (Evans forthcoming). This is an exciting prospect for future work.

A number of significant points are worth noting. As observed above (Section 4.5) rural sites are particularly amenable to spatial interrogation. Deeply stratified sites are particularly suited to examining spatial and chronological variations in the composition of their pottery and other finds, and several northern military sites, largely undisturbed by latter activity (eg. Binchester, Newstead, South Shields, Vindolanda), offer particular scope for comparative analyses, not least with other Limes sites.

5.9 Social and Cultural Identity

Work on artefact distributions of the period demonstrates that 'social identity' and 'boundaries' may be identifiable from the mapping of pottery types and fabrics (eg. Evans 1988). Work designed at discerning such patterning needs to be undertaken on a more systematic basis.

5.10 Ritual Sites and Ritual Practice

These are under-researched areas in Roman pottery studies in Britain, though it is fair to say that the identification and investigation of potential ritual activities, especially through the patterning of material culture remains, has generally received only limited attention by Romanists in Britain.

Hill's work on the Middle Iron Age of Wessex (Hill 1995) has demonstrated the widespread incidence of structured discard practices within that context involving pottery and other items. It seems likely that some evidence of similar phenomena will be identifiable on Romano-British sites if looked for (cf. Clarke 1997). Hence ritual and symbolic aspects in pottery distribution, use, deposition, etc. during the Roman era require exploration as a priority in the immediate future. This work is especially pertinent since other dimensions of the archaeological record of the period indicate that such activities were widely undertaken (eg. Casey 1989; Woodward 1992).

5.11 Roman Pottery Production and other Roman Industries

There is now much evidence indicating that the production of Roman pottery frequently took place together with or nearby other industrial manufacture, particularly iron working and glass production, in apparent 'functional zones' (eg. Holme-on-Spalding Moor, East Yorkshire, and Bardown in the Weald). Investigation of the associations between these industries would represent highly significant innovative research, simply because this is such an under-studied sphere.

Magnetometry and other survey might be undertaken to locate kiln sites and other industrial processes on the fringes of military centres, especially on the northern frontier where such activities are suspected but where few locations have been identified and excavated.

To quote the Northern Britain Framework the investigation of environmental factors in the location of kiln sites needs fresh analytical examination and this would make an interesting, discrete, research topic. Similarly exploration of kiln sites' relationships to other elements of the local economy is a potentially enlightening avenue for research.

5.12 The End of the Romano-British Economy

This remains a key field of study, and one in which pottery can play a unique role (eg. Reece 1980; Evans 1983). There is much scope for pottery based study, with the prospect that this will lead us to better comprehend the end of the Roman phenomenon in Britain.

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