Samian Ware: From the pottery to the table

Detail of a Samian ware bowl

The Roman period is famous for many things like gladiators, mosaics and emperors, but it is also known for the introduction of a red glossy pottery, called Terra Sigillata or known under its more familiar name as Samian ware. This pottery was made in the first and second centuries in south, east and central Gaul, now modern day France and Germany. Some pieces are plain, but many are highly decorated with animals, plants and figures. Samian ware not only gives us an insight into the fashions of the Roman Empire, but it also has a very important job in helping archaeologists date Roman sites.

Potteries


Black and red glossy pottery, similar to Samian ware was first made in Italy; however the majority of pottery which we know as Samian was made in factories in France and Germany. We know where a lot of Samian ware was made because each pottery used decoration individual to them. Some of the main potteries like at La Graufesenque and Lezoux in France and Rheinzabern in Germany would export Samian ware in massive quantities across the Roman Empire. Many pieces were brought to Britain and would be seen and used on dining tables across the land. Stamped base of a Samian ware ceramic vessel

Not only do archaeologists know where Samian was made, but in some cases they even know the potter who made it! For example, at La Graufesenque it is known that over 600 potters worked on the site. Pottery found on many archaeological sites in Britain names a number of firms who exported pottery from there. The names of potters can be found in many cases stamped to the base of vessels. This was done by using a stamp which had the name in reverse, so that when it was stamped, the name came out the right way on the vessel.

How they were made


Samian ware came in many different forms; the majority coming into Britain were plain and decorated bowls with dishes and cups also being popular. A moulded bowl would be made by first baking clay stamps with figures, leaves and geometric patterns. This would then be impressed on the inside of a clay mould. Once the mould had been fired it could be used over and over again to make more bowls. However, as only one mould could be used at a time, the potteries needed hundreds.

Samian bowl with images of a stag, lion, bear and a man on horseback Other types of decoration were made by sticking separate clay figures or small plaques onto the vessel. Some decoration was cut in with a metal tool, and others were created on a potter's wheel. Some of the decoration had animals like deer, bears, dogs and hares; others would have figures like the Roman God of wine, Bacchus and Diana, the Goddess of hunting.

Samian ware was more expensive than other types of pottery and tended to be only used for the presentation of food. The decorated bowls were more expensive as there was more work to them, they would be found in the larger and more important villas. Samian ware has been found at local sites such as Brough and Shiptonthorpe as well as further away like the Pompeii 'hoard', a collection of excavated vessels still packed in a crate which had arrived at the town when the Mount Vesuvius erupted on 23rd August in 79 A.D.