Study Group for Roman Pottery

National Research Framework

Summary of the Objectives of Roman Pottery Research

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Collated and Edited by Steven Willis - October 1997


The objectives of Roman pottery research must be centred around the development of its established wide-ranging contribution as outlined above (Section 1.2). There is now a general awareness amongst the archaeological community of what pottery analysis can achieve and it is the purpose of this Document to present clearly both considered research priorities and (where appropriate) how practitioners in the field believe these goals may be most efficiently accomplished.

It is important to stress that pottery research is not an ancillary domain within Roman studies, but one which regularly identifies and interprets highly pertinent phenomena and patterns within the archaeological record of the period. Hence the results of Roman pottery research regularly suggest new ways of understanding and evaluating social and economic organization, etc. during this period which directly feed into perceptions of the Roman period (eg. Millett 1990; 1995; Hanson 1994). Moreover, as this Framework indicates, Roman pottery studies are able to target and address specific research questions with the expectation of worthwhile results and, in turn, propose new avenues for enquiry. Equally, and of not least importance, they may be linked in thematic studies with other types of evidence to engage broad issues.

The key contribution of Roman pottery study lies in addressing recognized academic objectives. In practice this is accomplished through a variety of methodological approaches and means including, for instance, the publication of new kiln groups, analyses of type-distributions, quantitative and synthetic studies, petrological and geochemical work, computer assisted assessments, and site specific investigations. In fact it is normal for publications, especially reports on specific collections (which form the majority of Roman pottery publications), to contain a number of methodological approaches designed to extract different types of information from the material. By employing various techniques recent work on Roman pottery has convincingly established that pottery data can reveal much about the nature of social organization and cultural practice during this era. In addition to its familiar role as a key index of date and of trading/exchange connections, work of recent years has begun to significantly fulfil many of the broader expectations of this resource stated in the late 1970s and 1980s (eg. Young 1980; Millett 1979; 1987a). This can be seen in the majority of reports on excavated material published over the last few years which attempt to address or comment upon a wide range of relevant questions as a matter of course (eg. Hurst 1985; Greene 1993; Groves 1993; Evans forthcoming).

In addition, specific and synthetic research work has demonstrated that pottery data can be effectively employed to reveal significant insights into the nature of society during our period: for instance, through identifying potential macro-economic patterns (eg. Marsh 1981; Going 1992), social groupings (eg. Evans 1988), the ethnic composition of the Roman army and its movements (Swan 1992; In Press; Swan & Bidwell In Press), cultural preferences in the consumption of material culture (eg. Willis 1997a), functional aspects of pottery use (eg. Evans 1995a), site hierarchy and status (eg. Millett 1980; Booth 1991), models of Romanization and the 'end of Roman Britain' (eg. Cooper 1996).

The study of Roman pottery must relate to changing research perspectives, methods and questions within Roman archaeology in Britain and across the Empire, and indeed within archaeology generally. The outlook of Roman pottery specialists has been a constantly adapting one, reflecting wider changes within the study of the Roman period. It is believed that the current Document demonstrates a strong awareness of the dynamic possibilities for pottery work in the near future.

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