So, you’re on your first archaeological dig, and you spot a piece of pottery. What clues can tell you if it’s Roman? And how can you tell what type of pot it once was?
Across the country, our community of Venturers have been helping us investigate a whole range of Roman sites. Together, we’ve found all sorts of vessels – from sturdy amphorae to decorative bowls.
In East Yorkshire, we unearthed 605 sherds of Roman pottery. Meanwhile inIn Sedgefield, we’ve just recovered two almost complete Roman jars. But it’s rare that you find them so complete. Usually, you find sherds (fragments) which then get sent off to a pottery specialist who can accurately identify what kind of vessel it once belonged to, and how old it was. But when you’re in the field, it’s still really helpful to be able to recognise Roman pottery, and guesstimate roughly what type of vessel it might have been.
So, based on the thousands of sherds of Roman pottery found by our community of Venturers across our sites, let’s take a look at how you recognise the most common, basic types that turn up on archaeological sites in Britain.
1. Samian ware (Terra Sigillata)
First of all, let’s start with the idea of ‘fine wares’ (the fancy stuff you use on special occasions or if you’re really rich) and ‘coarse wares’ (cooking pots, mixing bowls, and everyday dishes which are generally cheap, roughly made, and more readily discarded).
Samian ware is the finest of the fine! It’s deep red shiny gloss is very distinctive, and at the time it was among the most desirable crockery anywhere in the Roman empire. Popular in Britain, it was actually an imported product (primarily from Gaul) and is found predominantly in forts and wealthy or influential settlements. The vessels came in various forms from cups, bowls, platters, and jars to inkwells. Some are stamped Samian (great for dating!), but others are decorated by pressing the clay into a mould.
Over the years, we’ve found a whole range of Samian ware vessels, including cups, decorated bowls and even a rather fancy hybrid Samian mortarium (more on mortaria below) which seems to have been occasionally used for mixing and grinding substances.
What to look for: Samian ware is very distinguished, and fine rather than chunky. It’s normally a deep red, made with very fine clay with very few inclusions, decorated with figures or leafy patterns, and buffed to achieve a high gloss.
2. ‘Fake’ Samian ware
What happens when you fancy some of the trendiest, most expensive tablewares, but can’t afford to import some Samian ware in your fancy big villa in Roman Britain? Why, you get some imitation Samian ware of course!
‘Fake’ Samian came about as a result of local taste and demand in Britain mainly produced between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Basically in an attempt to reproduce it here in Britain, but with inferior British clay and techniques, the result just wasn’t as good. It was mainly produced at just two places in Britain: Pulborough (Sussex) and Colchester. The imitated pottery from Pulborough was probably based on finished bowls that were produced in Gaul, whilst at Colchester there were actual Samian kilns whose material was much more similar to the Gaulish. we found at least one sherd as the Samian has some white inclusions near the base.
What to look for: Reddish ceramics with decorative relief that look very similar to Samian ware, but just not quite as refined! Sometimes has occasional white inclusions (as in example above), or have a slightly blistered or pimply surface
Big, chunky and shaped like torpedoes, amphora were the plastic bags and packing crates of the Roman period. Mostly used for transporting non-local goods (such as wine, olive oil and really stinky fish sauce called garum) long distances across land and sea, they are one of the more famous varieties of Roman pottery.
Although we’re yet to find anything quite like the Kefalonian shipwreck where thousands of intact amphora and their goods were discovered in 2019, we’re still pretty chuffed to have found a couple of sherds in East Yorkshire! One of them was the rim of a type known as a Dressel 20, which probably carried oil from southern Spain. It’s a fairly rare discovery in rural Yorkshire as this sort of pottery is more usually found at roadside settlements, towns and forts!
What to look out for: a very thick rough sandy fabric, typically a light reddish brown or grey in colour. It’s body is globular, (wide and round), the rim is gently rounded and handles are circular and go from the neck to shoulder. Body sherds can be often mistaken for stones.
Greywares are the bread and butter of Roman pottery. Mainly used in kitchens for food preparation and storage, it’s probably the most common type of coarse ware found on Romano-British sites. But because it’s usually produced locally, it varies across the country depending on the local clays and preferences of the local potters.
For example, on our dig in East Yorkshire, our Venturers found what’s known as ‘Crambeck wares’. These coarse, sandy greywares are locally produced near Crambeck (Yorkshire).
What to look out for: from light grey to almost black with little or no decoration with sandy or fine grey fabrics.
5. Black burnished wares
Black burnished wares are a form of coarse grey wares that are distinct in their own right, which are burnished (hence the name) to provide a semi-shiny surface. They are frequently found on sites throughout Britain, but within England they are predominately produced in two main kiln sites. The type known as BB1 is produced in the south-east at Dorset (Wareham/Poole Harbour region), and the type known as BB2 is produced in Thames estuary (Kent/ Essex region). Both types include a range of vessels, like standard everted-rim jars, bowls, dishes etc). There are a vast diversity of BB1 shapes, and many of them are copies of Gallo-Belgic pottery comprising of, but not restricted to, folded beakers, flagons, paterae (shallow bowl) and even ceramic table legs. Many of them have a rather neat lattice decoration!
What to look out for: coarse-textured, hand-formed, black sandy fabric with quartz/shale inclusions and burnished surfaces.
Need to grind up some herbs, grains or pigments? Mortaria are basically a heavy-duty mixing bowl or basin with a prominent rim and spout, much like a mortar and pestle. But what makes it really distinct is the grit embedded on the inside mainly for grinding food or paints. It is mainly dated to AD 40-160 and it had a wide distribution around western Mediterranean, Gaul (France), the Rhineland and Southern Britain.
What to look out for: a hard, rough textured, light brown or- pink with plenty of brown and red inclusions such as feldspar and quartz.
7. Nene valley (colour coated) wares
As the name suggests, this pottery comes from the Nene Valley in Cambridgeshire. They produced all sorts of fancy fine wares, ranging from flagons, bottles, and jugs, to Castor boxes (vessel with a lid) and some of that good old imitation Samian ware. Some are of these vessels are very ornate, and are often decorated with religious or hunting scenes, and human figures.
The pieces we’ve found on our sites are similar enough, but could also have come from Lincolnshire or the continent, but most probably dates from the late 200s-300s.
What to look out for: A fine table ware with a pale, smooth, hard textured fabric, with a darker colour coat, often with painted decoration.
8. Late Iron Age – Roman
Where you find Roman pottery, you normally find Iron Age or transitional pottery too, because traditional late Iron Age pottery was still being used and produced alongside the ‘Romanised’ wares long after the Roman conquest.
In East Yorkshire, for example, our community of Venturers found quite a few sherds which suggest some of the more traditional potteries were still being used on the site.
What to look for: hand-made rather than wheel-thrown, usually black or reduced colour, irregular fired surfaces with coarse rock/ grit/ shell inclusions. Often with thumbprints still visible!
But is it even Roman?
Of course, it’s just as possible that the pottery sherd you’ve excavated is prehistoric, or medieval. So how do you tell? There are three questions you can ask yourself:
- Is it wheel thrown? As a general rule, most Roman pottery is made on a potter’s wheel, which leaves grooves on the inside. Iron Age and prehistoric pottery isn’t.
- Is it well-fired? In comparison to the prehistoric, the firing technology got a lot more advanced in the Roman period; the Romans could fire pottery at higher temperatures in kilns (sometimes in industrial quantities), which resulted in better quality, more durable pots.
- Is it dipped in slip, or glazed? Many Roman vessels were dipped into a slip which improved its quality and made it smoother.
Finally, what happens to all the sherds Roman sherds?
Looking at the different forms of pottery can help us start to characterise what type of site we have. For example, the mixture of pottery we found at our Roman site in East Yorkshire included quite a lot of ‘fancy wares’ with lots of similarities to the collection found at some of the big fortified settlements, like at York, despite being in a rural location. Our pottery expert Ian Rowlandson think that this suggests the settlement was no ordinary rural or domestic settlement – it may have been a staging post with close links to the forts.
Pottery can also help us date a site, using fancy scientific techniques, like thermoluminescence dating, in the lab, or expert knowledge of the different styles, materials and technologies used over time.
But even though we know we’re going to send our pottery finds off to an expert who will give us all the answers after the dig is complete, it still helps to be able to broadly categorise things while we’re in the field. Even if you can only recognise these eight common types of Roman pottery, you’ll be able to start building up a basic impression of what was happening on your site, and when!
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