For those of us with a fascination with Roman material culture (and ceramics in particular), it is hard to suppress a little grin of pleasure when the trowel reveals a clean bright glossy red sherd, Samian Ware. A curious name since it does not come from the Greek island of Samos, but from the Gallo Roman kilns of Gaul. It should really be called terra sigillata, sometimes translated as ‘clay with a sealed surface’, but more correctly as ‘clay bearing little images’ [alternative translations are available].
It is made from a very high fired terracotta type fabric sealed with a very fine coat of red slip, and often burnished to a shine before firing. It is far removed from a modern flower pots, and can have an almost porcelain hardness and durability. Samian Ware was produced in vast quantities and distributed throughout the Roman Empire. It can be found in excavations from far flung places such as Hadrian’s Wall to North Africa, and even the Middle East. It is probably the most widely admired and studied of all the Roman ceramic products.
As early as 1896 a German Baltic scholar – Hans Dragendorff – introduced a numbered classification system for types that is still much used today. Forms are often labelled Drag and the type number*.
A Samian sherd in a sealed layer may have quite a story to tell, as might the otherwise rather unassuming shard found in Church field shown below. This was found in a thin occupation layer sitting on a rough courtyard surface at the rear of the north range, buried under a thick layer of demolition material.
The coarse sand particles (trituration) embedded in the surface visible in the second image tell us that this vessel is a mortarium – the most essential tool in the Roman kitchen, used for grinding and mixing herbs and spices. This form is well known with a curving bowl, foot ring and vertical walled upper section, perforated with a pouring hole embellished with the head of a lion. The type is described as Drag 45 and illustrated below. The sherd is represented by the pink section in the profile.
Mortaria were also produced locally. A Samian vessel could suggest a ‘high status’ user if they were prepared to own a relatively expensive imported item for such a mundane task. With much of the trituration having been lost (and most of the slip worn away), this particular vessel had a great deal of use before breaking and being discarded.
It is not just the probable status of the owner that can be gleaned from this small sherd. By studying the composition of the fabric, enough is known of the numerous kiln sites to place this vessel as a product of the kilns at Lezoux in central Gaul. The kilns at Lezoux were exporting huge quantities in the second century, before virtually ceasing production at the beginning of the third. At that time production shifted to new kiln sites in Eastern Gaul using a slightly different clay fabric. Dating for this shard ranges from 170-220 AD allowing for the wear. This is very useful for dating stratigraphic layers, since the courtyard surface upon which it was found must be earlier than 220 and the demolition material that sealed the occupation layer must date to post 220.
With this particular type there is an additional aid to pinning down a date, as the design of the lions head changed over time. With the earlest types the lion actually looks leonine, but towards the end of the lifetime of this type the head looks more bearlike or even a bat! To narrow the date range all we need to do now is find the lion’s head… Back to the trowel it is!
*For an easy read on Roman Samian pottery kilns fabrics and forms try Peter Webster’s, Roman Samian Pottery in Britain Practical handbook in Archaeology 13 1996 published by the Council for British Archaeology.