Amazing Artefacts: Smashing Pottery

Andrew Lane

Pots may be comparatively fragile, but once broken the pot shards are almost indestructible and survive in huge quantities on most archaeological sites. This was certainly true at London’s Roman Amphitheatre where a variety of Roman pottery was found ranging from comparatively plain, locally produced kitchenware to beautifully decorated, imported, fine tableware. A valuable source of information about art, trade and technology in the Roman world, pottery can also be an important dating tool for archaeologists.

One of the most characteristic types of Roman pottery is a fine tableware called Samian ware. Manufactured in Gaul, it was imported in huge quantities during the first and second centuries AD and is characterised by its pink-red or orange fabric and glossy red slip finish. Produced in many forms, small undecorated cups, bowls and plates are the most common finds with large, profusely decorated bowls, rarer.

There is a great deal of variety in the decoration from small, repeated geometric patterns, to human figures and animals, with many pots incorporating a range of different motifs. On some pots the decoration is inspired by the games with depictions of battling gladiators and trained athletes fighting against wild animals. Several examples found in the excavation of the amphitheatre are usually on display in the Guildhall Art Gallery, including my favourite piece that was found elsewhere in London.

A small bright red section of broken pottery. It is engraved with figures of people in hats holding shields, presumably in battle.
Gladiators in combat on a shard of imported Samian ware pottery ©MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology)

This shard shows two heavily armed gladiators in the heat of battle. The gladiator on the right is equipped with a small rectangular shield,a plumed helmet and a distinctive short, curved dagger and is probably a thraex. That on the left has the attributes of its common adversary, a myrmillo. Given the comparatively small size of the shard the detailing is amazing. It comes from a bowl similar in form to one in the British Museum that measures 24 cm across and stands 12 cm high (see illustration 2). This was produced using a mould (Illustration 3). Created by a specialist craftsman, the design was cut or incised into the wet clay of the mould and it was then fired. This allowed it to be used over and over again to produce large quantities of finely decorated pots.

A large round bowl of a tan colour, decorated with intricate weaving patterns on its bottom half
Illustration 2: Samian ware bowl decorated with relief found at Bishopsgate in the City of London © The Trustees of the British Museum
Half of a broken bowl mould, seen on its side with the inside of the mould visible, the etchings of patterns and designs are carved in.
Illustration 3: Samian ware mould, British Museum @ Andrew Lane

Archaeologists studying the finds of decorated Samian ware from the amphitheatre found an unusually high percentage inspired by the games. It is tempting to try and explain this. Might this reflect a Roman trade in souvenirs? With large crowds attending the games, a comparatively rare event, what better souvenir could there be than a piece of pottery decorated with a scene from the games. Alternatively, might these shards be associated with the cena libera, a public banquet attended by the combatants on the evening before the games? We may never know. But either way the presence of imported pottery illustrates the importance of trade in the Roman city – some things in the City of London have changed very little over the years!

If you would like to find out a little bit more about the production of a Samian ware pot then enjoy the short film below.

If you enjoyed this take a look at our previous Amazing Artefact, A Well Travelled Roman Stone.