Chris Blair-Myers

All that glisters (with apologies to the Bard)!

Samian ware may be considered by some to be the most desirable Roman ceramic, yet all too often what you find is not what it appears to be. Picking a red slipped sherd from the soil then finding you have orange fingers is a sure sign that you have a sherd of Red-Brown colour coated Oxford ware.

Imports from the East Gaulish Samian kilns were at their peak in the mid-late third century, but had almost ceased by the beginning of the fourth – quite why is unclear. The colour and forms were still popular in Britannia, and a new production centre based in the Oxford region started to find a wider market for their red-brown colour coated wares.

Production may have started in the mid third century using Samian forms, sometimes with white slip decoration and some even mimicking the stamped makers marks with blundered or illegible versions. Copies of the flanged bowl (Drag.38) proved to be particularly popular with several sherds of this form being found at our site in Otford. Perhaps more on these in a later article.

Orange fingers? The slip on some Oxford products seem to be poorly sintered and prone to degrading in some soil types. With several of the Otford finds the slip will come off with even fairly gentle washing, so care has to be taken with sherds which have been decorated with a white slip.

The Oxford kilns may not have come up with an array of new forms. By the fourth century development took the route of embellishment, with the introduction of cordoned and highly decorated varieties in a very ‘British’ style.

Example of a cordoned, stamped and rouletted decoration found at Otford.

The sherd shown above was found at the bottom of the demolition layer, in the room with the painted plaster walls, at Otford. An excellent example of a cordoned, stamped and rouletted decoration which is typical of the mid-late 4th century colour coated Oxford ware.

The Oxford kilns and wares were studied exhaustively by Christopher Young and published in 1977*. The sherd is from a double cordoned carinated bowl (type 84), from kiln wasters he was able to identify the particular kiln that produced the bowl. this was done via the rosette and demi rosette stamps, which are unique to the Marsh Baldon kilns a little north east of Dorchester. 

The drawn profile is based on Young and shown below. Note that the pattern repeat is conjecture and the pink block is the sherd found at Otford shown in the photograph above. The bowl is approximately 17cms wide.

Oxford slip ware cordoned carinated bowl modified Young type C84

This is a popular design and has been found in a number of stratified locations. It can be securely dated to 340 – 400+ AD.  Finding this sherd beneath the demolition layer provides useful dating evidence for the demolition of the villa, which had to be at some point after 340 AD more probably sometime after 400. This dovetails well with the coin finds on the site which appear to form a cluster in the late 4th century.

*Christopher Young’s publication The Roman Pottery Industry of the Oxford Region has been revised and reprinted in 2000. It is published by BAR British Series 43.  The price of new copy can be a bit eye watering, but at 391 pages it is pretty chunky… and not a quick read. It is also profusely illustrated.

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