Samian Ware (Terra sigillata)

In Britain this distinctive type of Roman pottery is termed 'samian', while on the Continent it is known as 'terra sigillata', which translates literally from the Latin as 'stamped earth'. This is because the bright red pottery is decorated with human, animal and floral figures as well as geometric shapes. Sometimes the potter's name or workshop name is also impressed onto the bowl. Samian Ware was traded throughout the Roman Empire of the time, and sometimes beyond. The origins of Samian ware can be traced to the Megarian bowls first manufactured at Pergamon in the mid second century BC. Roman Terra Sigillata can be divided into two distinct types: the earlier Arretine Ware and the later, mass produced and widely distributed , Samian Ware.

Arretine Ware

This fine, deep red coloured slip pottery with a glossy surface was initially produced between the mid 1st century BC and the mid 1st century AD at and near Arezzo in Tuscany, Italy. Additional workshops were set up in Italy, at Pisa and elsewhere, and also in southern Gaul, particularly at Lyon. The study of stamps and moulds suggests the movement of individual potters between workshops. The forms of these vessels were copies of metal prototypes; some highly decorated.

The industry expanded rapidly in a period when Roman political and military influence was spreading far beyond Italy: for the inhabitants of the first provinces of the Roman Empire in the reign of the Emperor Augustus (reg. 27 BC – AD 14), this tableware, with its precise forms, shiny surface, and, on the decorated vessels, its visual introduction to Classical art and mythology, must have deeply impressed some inhabitants of the new northern provinces of the Empire. Certainly it epitomised certain aspects of Roman taste and technical expertise. Pottery industries in the areas we now call north-east France and Belgium quickly began to copy the shapes of plain Arretine dishes and cups in the wares now known as Gallo-Belgic,[1] and in South and Central Gaul, it was not long before local potters also began to emulate the mould-made decoration and the glossy red slip itself.

The most recognisable decorated Arretine form is Dragendorff 11, a large, deep goblet on a high pedestal base, closely resembling some silver table vessels of the same period, such as the Warren Cup. The iconography, too, tended to match the subjects and styles seen on silver plate, namely mythological and genre scenes, including erotic subjects, and small decorative details of swags, leafy wreaths and ovolo (egg-and-tongue) borders that may be compared with elements of Augustan architectural ornament. The deep form of the Dr.11 allowed the poinçons (stamps) used making the moulds of human and animal figures to be fairly large, often about 5–6 cm high, and the modelling is frequently very accomplished indeed, attracting the interest of modern art-historians as well as archaeologists. Major workshops, such as those of M.Perennius Tigranus, P. Cornelius and Cn. Ateius, stamped their products, and the names of the factory-owners and of the workers within the factories, which often appear on completed bowls and on plain wares, have been extensively studied, as have the forms of the vessels, and the details of their dating and distribution.

Arretine Ware is generally considered finer than later mass produced Samian ware in terms of its forms and decoration.

Samian Ware

After the decline of Arretium production, terra sigillata was made in Gaul from the 1st century AD at La Graufesenque (now Millau, Fr.) and later at other Gallic centres, from where it was exported in large quantities to outlying parts of the Roman Empire, including Britain. The body of the ware was generally cast in a mold. Relief designs, taken from a wide repertory of patterns and figurative scenes, were also cast in molds (which had been impressed with stamps in the desired pattern) and then applied to the vessels. Such are the fluctuations of style in these ornaments, and so frequently are potter’s marks stamped on the vessels, that the wares provide a valuable means of dating the other archaeological material found with them. The quality of the pottery was at the outset high, considering that it was so mass-produced. There was, however, a gradual coarsening both of forms and of the decoration over the four centuries of production.

South Gaulish (La Graufesenque) Samian Ware

Terra sigillata was manufactured at La Graufesenque (nr Millau, Aveyron/FR) from the Augustan period and the products achieved a wide distribution during the Tiberio-Claudian period. The height of the industry is reached during the mid-late 1st century AD, when the distribution covers most of the western Empire, the Mediterranean littoral, and beyond.

South Gaulish (Montans) Samian Ware

Terra sigillata produced at Montans (Tarn/FR) and distributed across western Gaul, northern Spain and Britain during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.

Central Gaulish Samian Ware

Terra sigillata manufacture commenced in Central Gaul from the Augustan period and during the 1st century AD the distinctive micaceous products of Lezoux are distributed across central and western Gaul, and occasionally to southern Britain. The height of the industry was during the 2nd century AD. when the products of Les Martres-de-Veyre and Lezoux (Puy-de-Dôme/FR) had a wide distribution across Gaul, Germany, Britain and the Danube provinces.

East Gaulish Samian Ware

Terra sigillata kiln sites were founded in eastern Gaul from the mid-1st century AD, but production for a wider market is only significant during the 2nd and early-mid 3rd centuries AD. There is evidence from the study of stamps and moulds for the movement of potters between production centres, and craftsmen from Sinzig and Trier (Rheinland-Pfalz/DE) were probably responsible for the small Colchester (Essex/GB) sigillata industry during the mid-late 2nd century AD.

Archaeological Significance

Why is Samian Ware important? For those who deal with it on a day-to-day basis on sites and in the pottery shed it is the ubiquitous ‘red stuff’, which appears in large quantities, and which traditionally has been the subject of special study. The reasons for this attention are not far to seek. Samian is a common find on sites occupied during its period of production, from the 1st to the mid-3rd centuries AD. Not only is this class of pottery readily identifiable, but it has standardised features, which enable comparability across the area within which it was produced and sold. It is perhaps a unique example of large-scale integrated production in a pre-industrial society. The Italian producers’ wares were carried as far as India in the east, to Britain in the west; the Gaulish factories are represented as far south as Meroë in the Sudan, to the Baltic States in the north, while appearing in most of the provinces of the Western Empire. Samian has important social and economic implications for the sites on which it occurs. In addition, its wide distribution, together with the fact that many of the vessels are stamped with the name of the potter or factory that produced them, make it the most closely datable form of Roman pottery. It is, thus, of crucial importance in dating sites by association. And because of the way it was made, samian is also more susceptible to typological and statistical treatment.

The scientific study of samian ware can be traced back to an article published in 1849 by C Roach Smith, ‘The red glazed pottery of the Romans, found in this country and on the continent’, illustrated with plain, clear drawings at a stated scale and described by Oswald and Pryce (1920, 248) as ‘the first scholarly essay on the subject’. In this, Smith points to the importance of the potters’ name stamps, types and ovolos, and concludes that their origins were neither British nor Italian, but Gaulish. Over the second half of the century, important work was progressing on the Continent, too. Hans Dragendorff (1895) produced the first classification of forms and demonstrated the potential of samian ware for dating sites.

Samian ware is conventionally divided into two main types: plain ware and decorated ware. The plain ware comprises a range of cups, dishes and bowls, wheel-made in a number of standard forms. The forms were classified originally by Hans Dragendorff (1895), with the series later extended by scholars such as Déchelette (1904), Knorr (1919) and Walters (1908), and further additions by Ritterling, Curle and Ludowici. Although the numbering system may seem unnecessarily complicated, it is well known and accepted both in Britain and abroad, the best argument against complicating the situation still further by attempting to rationalise and change it. A number of the commonest plain forms tend to be stamped with the potter’s name stamp, normally across the centre of the base. The most up-to-date introductory guide to samian ware is Webster (1996), though this deals only with the commonest forms. For a greater variety of the less common forms, the best source of information, though now slightly out of date, remains Oswald and Pryce (1920). Other useful introductory works include Hartley (1969) and Bulmer (1980).

The commonest type of decorated ware is the mould-made bowl. Other less common types of decoration include barbotine, incision, rouletting and appliqué. Vessels such as beakers, decorated in these ways, are normally illustrated, like plain ware, in profile at 1:4. A full account of the manufacture of decorated bowls in moulds impressed with figure types and other decorative details (poinçons) is given in Webster (1996) and the other introductory works mentioned above. Their importance lies in the fact that, along with potters’ stamps, they are the most closely datable type of samian ware.

Potters had their own repertoire of figure types and motifs. By noting the occurrence of these types and motifs on different bowls, a picture of the potter’s style can be built up. Where the bowl carries a name stamp, the style can be attributed to a particular potter or factory and where similar motifs occur with different name stamps, potters can be linked into contemporary groups who clearly worked together. Even where the style remains anonymous, its occurrence on historically datable sites will enable the date of production of the vessel to be established with some degree of accuracy.

Mould-made bowls were produced in huge numbers. Sometimes bowls appear to have been removed from the mould carelessly before they had dried adequately, leading to smudging or blurring of the decoration. Moulds became dirty and worn in use, as did the poinçons used to make them, leading to loss of detail. Poinçons might break, as might the ends of potters’ stamps. Where these remained in use, the signs of wear and breakage will be seen upon the bowl. When poinçons needed renewing, they could be replaced by the process of surmoulage, taking an impression from an existing mould, or a cast from a type on a bowl. These copies will, naturally, be smaller than the originals, allowing for the shrinkage of the clay of the poinçons in firing, and are likely to lack the crisp detail of the original. The more frequently this has taken place, the more degraded the type will become (Fig.6). The size and degree of degradation of the types and motifs are important to samian research, and can indicate the date of the piece within the lifetime of the potter or workshop.

Samian Copies

Numerous derivative Samian ware industries emerged across the Roman Empire. Late Roman C ware in Asia Minor, Cypriot Red Slip ware manufactured in Cyprus, African Red Slip ware from North Africa, and Egyptian A–C ware, probably produced in Thebes and used throughout Upper Egypt and Nubia from the late 4th to the 7th century AD.

In Britain, some native Samian forms were produced at Pulborough (Sussex), Colchester (Essex) and also at the pottery kilns site in Highgate Woods, to the north of roman Londinium during the second century AD. The product from British Potteries is of a lower quality than Gaulish examples.

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