BMCR 2008.05.18

Old Pottery in a New Century

, , , Old Pottery in a New Century: innovating perspectives on Roman pottery studies: atti del convegno internazionale di studi, Catania, 22-24 aprile 2004. Monografie dell'Istituto per i beni archeologici e monumentali; 1. Catania: [publisher not identified], 2006. 589 pages: illustrations, maps; 30 cm. ISBN 9788889375037 €100.00.

Table of Contents

This lengthy volume presents the collected papers from a convention at Catania that dealt with the study of Imperial ceramics from the later years of the Republic into the seventh century CE. The three editors’ stated interest is the new methods of inquiry that have developed in the last twenty-five years, particularly those that evaluate ceramics as evidence for regional economies within the empire. Their goal was to move beyond the traditional typological and chronological studies that dominated earlier scholarship on Roman pottery, and to use the pottery in ways that first became widely propagated through D.P.S. Peacock’s seminal study of 1982.1 They hoped thus to summarize the state of research on Roman pottery at the turn of the millennium and to raise questions for future research.

This is a daunting read (although few will read it in its entirety); it presents thirty-eight papers (many “case-studies”), as well an introduction and two concluding essays, one by the editors, and a second by Susan Alcock connecting the study of Roman pottery to the larger picture of the Roman economy. The result is a compendium of tightly focused progress reports on research on Roman pottery. While grouped into six topical areas, the papers jump around the Empire. Each paper has an extensive bibliography, including, in many cases, citations of hard-to-locate regional publications. Illustrations are relatively limited. The text is clean, with only a few typos, but the grayscale used for the graphs are often hard to read. This is a book for the scholar conversant with contemporary scholarship on Roman pottery, for whom the papers will be very useful sources for the next few years.

I provide a summary of some of the chapters, which are divided into topical areas as indicated below. The individual papers fit more or less into these areas, although they vary as to the “innovation” of their approaches to Roman ceramics.

The first topical group, entitled “Interpretative Approaches to Ceramics,” has eight papers, including an interesting study by J. Principal of imported Italic Late Hellenistic black-gloss wares in northeast Iberia. He applies J.-P. Morel’s hypothesis that there were divergent Hellenic and a-Hellenic ceramic traditions in ancient Italy, to the Late Hellenistic imported Italian fine wares found in NE Iberia, where there was competition for the import market on the part of two fabrics, Campanian Campana A and Etruscan Campana B.2 As he notes, the a-Hellenic “revolution” seems to have occurred by the early first century BCE, with the dominance of Campana B preparing the way for Italian terra sigillata. Principal finds that the shapes in the western Mediterranean move from primarily bowls in the third century to increasing numbers of plates in the second and first centuries (accompanied by a gradual marginalization of cups with handles), a progression originally noted by M. Bats in Provence.3 As Bats suggested, these changes in ceramic shapes suggest changes in diet.

K. Roth-Rubi examines the thin-walled wares found in the western and eastern Mediterranean as indications of Romanization, presenting the finds from the early legionary camp of Dangstetten (c. 20-11 BC) as exempla of what would be found in a western site of this period. She notes that all the thin-walled vases at Dangstetten seem from their fabric to have come from Lyon, and that this ceramic class is much more common in the early and middle Augustan contexts at military camps than in native centers. She remarks that the spread of thin-walled wares to the eastern Mediterranean seems to occur in the same years. It would therefore seem that the class is an indication of Roman presence, or at least of interest in Roman drinking habits and, by transferal, behavior.

E. Schindler Kaudelka and U. Fastner present an overview of their corpus of Italian terra sigillata with appliqués found in Noricum. Applied decoration was common on the rims of Italian terra sigillata vases from the end of the first decade of the first century into the first half of the second century. The authors point out some of the advantages of their computer-aided three-dimensional drawings, highlighting an interesting new technique. They note that, by collecting this corpus in a province with a large number of vases with appliqués, they were able to refine the chronology of various types, as well as to create a comprehensive classification; improved knowledge of appliqués and the various workshops producing them may prove useful in tracing trade patterns in the first and second centuries.

D. Malfitana offers a wide-ranging conceptual examination of relief decoration on Roman pottery, contending that the subjects of such decoration were often determined by the cultural, religious, and political beliefs of the (regional) society that made and used the pottery on which they appear. He focuses on the Herakles scenes on Corinthian relief cups of the second and third centuries, suggesting that the absence of the Herakles-Geryon story is due to its association with the cult of Hercules Victor in Rome following the destruction of Corinth in 146 BCE.

In an overview of third-century African red-slip (ARS) wares from Tunisia, Michael Mackensen notes that, despite the pioneering work by Peacock, Bejaoui and Ben Lazreg in the 80s, little more is known today of production centers, because they still remain unexcavated.4 He provides an overview of current knowledge of the various ARS fabrics and their production centers, and especially calls for excavation of Sidi Marzouk Tounsi in central Tunisia, since that seems to have been a major production center during the third century.

The first section of the text is concluded by Helena Fracchia’s report on her and M. Gualtieri’s excavations of a villa rustica owned by the Gellii from the late first century on at Ossaia near Cortona. This made lamps, bricks and roof tiles, but Fracchia notes that there is also evidence for two local fine ware workshops that made an orange slipped fine ware from the late first century well into the second, and which seems to have served as the table ware for the area. As she notes, the absence of imported fine pottery has often been used to assert a decline in this region after the first century, but it now seems that local pottery kept imports at a minimum. The evidence from Ossaia suggests that the Val di Chiana remained prosperous well into the middle Imperial period. Fracchia also documents a strong presence of Tortorella’s Late Sigillata from Central Northern Italy (aka Middle Adriatic Terra Sigillata) from the later second into the fifth century.5 It would appear that Ossaia was one of the production centers for this ware. Again this ware seems to have limited the import of ARS ware, and, again, she notes that the absence of ceramic imports has suggested that the region was in decline during the Late Empire, a hypothesis that now needs re-examination.

The second topical grouping of papers, “Models of Distribution and their interpretation,” deals with issues of distribution of pottery. The first paper, by P. Bes and J. Poblome, presents a summary of the ICRATES spatial database, begun in January of 2004 and using GIS to study ceramic production and distribution in the eastern Mediterranean under the Roman Empire. This database attempts to evaluate pottery consumption in Imperial times in the eastern Mediterranean quantitatively; the paper is a case study illustrating the possibilities of what the database can show us about red table wares in Greece from the Late Hellenistic through the early Empire (or c. 60 BCE-c. 150 CE). The results are interesting, although the database is currently limited to eleven (urban) sites and four surveys in Achaia, as well as the pottery found at Stobi in Macedonia. In general the statistics derived from the analysis are promising for providing some future assessment of wares in use in a province at a particular time, but currently this database is a work in progress.

A. Klynne’s “Consumption of Italian Sigillata,” despite its title, deals with the identification of the manufacturing centers of Early Italian terra sigillata found in Latium/Central Italy, mainly as illustrated by the author’s experiences excavating Livia’s villa at Prima Porta. He notes that there are a number of local terra sigillatas made in Central Italy, and that these are often misidentified by visual analysis. In general, precise identification of the products of particular production centers of ITS is very difficult without laboratory analysis. Klynne presents a number of examples of identification errors he has made and makes the welcome suggestion that a webpage be created providing color images of samples and close descriptions of the various fabrics used in Italy for terra sigillata that can be consulted by excavations.

A. Martin’s “Italian Sigillata in the East” considers the finds at Ephesos and Olympia and points to an interesting difference between the two sites. At Ephesos, Italian terra sigillata is imported as a luxury ware in the first half of the first century, while at Olympia it is a dominant table ware from around 50-150. Martin surveys other sites in Asia Minor and Greece and concludes that we have two different markets here, with Olympia representing a trans-Adriatic trade and Ephesus a luxury trade.

J. Poblome’s “Mixed Feelings on Greece and Asia Minor in the Third Century AD” assesses the ceramic evidence for this difficult period and finds that the effects of the Civil Wars on regional economies vary. In general, he observes that regional fabrics predominated in the tableware of this period, which probably indicates some disruption of trade. Poblome feels ceramic evidence could be used to refine economic history in this period.

J. Lund’s “Writing Long-term History with Potsherds” urges further use of quantified evidence in ceramic studies. He applies Fentriss’ and Perkins’ theory of pottery as an index of well-being to the finds from the University of Aarhus’ excavations in Western Cyprus, finding that it shows a decline in the region from the mid-second to the fourth century , as seen in the pottery record (but also in the rarity of building).

S. Mencheilli and M. Pasquinucci then present an overview of the ceramic history of the Vada Volterrana near Livorno in the Imperial period. This coastal site includes well-developed architectural remains and served as the port for Volterra. During the Republican period pottery was manufactured there. In the Imperial period there are two ceramic phases, the first lasting from the late first century to the early fourth, during which Italian terra sigillata and other local wares seem to have predominated. After a partial abandonment, the second phase lasted from the second half of the fourth into the seventh century and was dominated by African red slip. This study dovetails nicely with Fracchia’s, providing evidence for pottery use patterns at a coastal site in central Italy, as opposed to her inland Ossaia.

This section concludes with L. Vaag’s consideration of whether known Imperial plagues are evident in the pottery record. He notes, interestingly, that ceramic evidence suggests that the Antonine plague wasn’t as devastating as thought, while decline in amounts of ceramics suggests that the Justinianic plague had a strong effect on the population of certain regions. In general, he concludes that there are probably other ways to interpret decline in trade in and use of ceramics than as the results of natural disasters.

The third section of the text deals with the production of and trade in transport amphorae and comprises six papers. G. Finkielsztejn leads off this section with a very useful overview of our current knowledge of amphorae in the southern Levant, offering suggestions for future investigation.

M. Lawall follows with a survey of western amphorae of Hellenistic date found at sites in the eastern Mediterranean, noting that his study is one of several, citing especially the work of N. Rauh.6 Lawall notes that western amphorae are rarely found in the eastern Mediterranean until the Hellenistic period. He observes that large numbers of western amphorae appear in the east during the first century BCE, but mainly in the southeast Aegean. The Adriatic coastal regions of Greece are closely tied to Italy also. This ties in well with Martin’s earlier observations about western fine wares in the same regions. T. Bezeczky continues the topic covered by Lawall, with specific reference to the amphorae at Ephesos in the first century BCE. He notes there are a good number of western amphorae in Ephesus during this period, mainly coming from the Adriatic, but only beginning in the late second century, and increasing in the first century BCE. He points out, however, that western imports never comprise more than 20% of the amphorae and may have primarily supplied westerners resident in the busy emporium. D. Williams concludes this section with an account of the digital database for Roman amphorae established at the Archaeology Data Service at York, with much help acknowledged from many other institutions, notably the Universities of Rome and Barcelona. This will provide information on fabric types, including petrographic and chemical analyses, and distribution. Around 200 amphorae types are currently listed and classified. This database will be available on-line and on CD-Rom, and will include color images of thin-sections. Fig. 1 provides a sample type page for the database, which promises to be an indispensable tool.

The fourth section comprises five papers under the rubric “Social Roles of Pottery: Contextual and Functional Analyses.” The first two deal with interpretation of ceramics collected in surveys. P. Bes, J. Poblome and J. Bintliff all participated in the survey in Boeotia in the 1980s and 90s. Their paper examines the ceramics collected at the towns of Tanagra and Thespiae, where the assemblages were quite different, but both altered by the presence of dumped material to fertilize fields (“manuring”). The study tries to explain those differences. In addition, the authors examine applications of the Null hypothesis to their finds.

The next paper, by N. Rauh and R. Rothaus, provides an overview of the methodologies used in their survey of western Rough Cilicia from 1996 to 2004. They carefully explain how they arrived at their database, which is posted online (but which took me a while to find), and which they call the Chronotype database system. It is indeed a fine recording model. The authors provide a good account of various approaches and problems in different kinds of surveys. In Rough Cilicia they examined both urban and rural sites, as well as areas with very different topographies. Based on this experience, Rauh and Rothaus provide a number of suggestions about how to perform a meaningful survey.

The third paper in this section, by E. De Sena and E. Rivello, examines a garbage dump on the outskirts of Ostia. They note that Imperial garbage dumps in Italy have been too little studied, especially since the laws regulating them survive. The case study here involves a dump excavated in 1986-88 which has a primary deposit of around 75, then two secondary dumpings lasting into the first quarter of the second century. The authors observe that broken ceramics were sometimes used to level locales before building, citing the Terme del Nuotatore at Ostia. As they note, urban dumps are a potentially rich source of information for refining knowledge of a period’s economy, since large amounts of waste were generated in antiquity, and land fills often have a limited history.

The last two papers in this section study the use of ceramics in Roman funerary rites. K. Slane and M. Walbank examine Robinson’s painted tomb at Corinth, which was built in the early second century and used into the third, then refurbished and used from the later 3rd into the fifth century. The pottery found in it appears to date mainly to the second and fourth centuries, and includes fine wares and cook wares that may have been reused for ritual funerary meals over long periods of time. Unguentaria and lamps were commonly associated with the interments of the second and third centuries, while the fourth-century burials have only a cup or jug. The other six chamber tombs in this group were disturbed but also contained pottery of the same types found in the Painted Tomb. The authors note that Corinth’s funerary practices were closely tied to Italy, and they try to arrive at a normal funerary assemblage of the Imperial age.

K. Winther Jacobsen focuses on the ceramics found in Hellenistic and Roman tombs on Cyprus, examining mainly the finds in two tombs at Marion/Arsinoe and Skouriotissa. She notes that these and other Cypriot tombs contain little sigillata but lots of utilitarian wares, including food dishes and unguentaria. Lamps first appear in the Roman period, but she concludes that there is little sign that burial customs changed from Hellenistic to Roman times.

The fifth section deals with Roman Sicily. D. Malfitana opens with a summary of the relatively unstudied state of Imperial ceramics on Sicily, although he notes that some recent work provides information on the Imperial period. Only Early Italian terra sigillata has received much attention, with four studies in the past twenty years.7 He observes, however, that the evidence for Early Italian terra sigillata is relatively scant except for a few sites (and, for example, that Morgantina, which had only a few hundred inhabitants by the end of the first century BCE, has one of the largest lists of Italian terra sigillata known on Sicily). Sicily made thin-walled wares and hemispherical relief bowls in the first century BCE; these have received some preliminary study but need more attention. He points out the problems of the continuing use of the misleading term “presigillata” (which I now call “Republican red gloss”) for red table wares that predate the arrival of Early Italian terra sigillata on Sicily in the 20s BCE. Malfitana correctly notes that we need more intensive study of pottery on Sicily in the Republican and Imperial periods, including the use of archeometry to define fabrics and statistical approaches that attempt to define commercial patterns.

The second paper in this section echoes some of Malfitana’s suggestions. J. Hayes, who is currently studying the pottery excavated at Campanaio in southwestern Sicily, points out the strong need for research to define the local wares of Roman Sicily. As he notes, the imported Italian terra sigillata and African red-slip wares found on the island are reasonably well known, but local red wares remain little known. Thin-walled wares need to be defined in terms of local and imported production. We also need to define the production of utilitarian wares on the island. Which wares can be considered local, which regional? What were the roles of Catania and Syracuse as production centers?

The remaining papers in this section are examinations of finds at specific sites, including Kale Akte on the north coast, a site with an episodic history lasting into the fifth century.8 G. Distefano provides a useful summary of developed Imperial wares found in the region of Camarina on the southeastern coast of Sicily, with a detailed account of a very Late Antique (seventh- or eighth-century?) amphora with relief scenes of the New Testament.

A particularly interesting paper examines a third-century villa site at San Gregorio on Capo d’Orlando near Messina, which was abandoned after an earthquake in the later fourth or early fifth century. The villa’s bath was then remodeled into a pottery that produced utilitarian and table wares (imitations of ARS) into the seventh century. Thin section analysis here revealed what probably were three local fabrics and a fourth regional one. A fifth fabric was probably Calabrese, from across the straits of Messina.

R. Patanè provides an analysis of the Hellenistic/Republican wares found at Centuripe, where many kilns as well as a dump have been found. It appears that Campana C black gloss table ware and lamps were made there (as also at Morgantina and Syracuse), but there are no signs of production of Republican red gloss (“presigillata”) or thin-walled wares. Instead those wares seem to have been supplied in the first century BCE by Syracuse (or nearby Katane?). The suggestion that the pottery industry may have been seasonal is interesting, as is the suggestion that the wares were then shipped out with grain whose production occupied the potters during spring and summer. Both of these hypotheses are, however, unprovable.

An informative paper examines the Later Roman to Late Antique pottery in the Museo di Modica south of Syracuse. The vases come from tombs from various locales in the region and date from the second to the seventh century. The authors conclude that they have several local imitations of ARS ware and also present a good number of utilitarian vases, especially pitchers. Unfortunately, virtually none of these vases are closely dated, due to their provenances, but the paper illustrates that future research into local Sicilian ceramics of the Imperial age would be fruitful. The final section of papers deals with archeometry and its uses in the study of ceramics. S. Zabehlicky-Scheffenegger provides a brief overview of some of the limits and problems of archeometry, but the most notable paper is Gloria Olcese’s overview of the use of archeometry in studying Roman ceramics, summarizing ten years of archeometrical research in Italy since her ground-breaking conference of 1994.9 She notes that some problems remain. We need to create geological fingerprints of regions before local production areas can be defined. Even then it can be difficult. She cites the example of Campana A, where vases produced in Naples and on Ischia currently cannot be distinguished. Her summary primarily focuses on Republican and early Imperial wares, indicating the need for study of both regional table wares and utilitarian pottery of the middle and later Empire. She ends by stating that she is creating a database of archeological and archeometrical data that she would like to make Mediterranean-wide. This will hopefully be posted on the web.

This section ends with two case studies on the use of XRF, the first on Italian terra sigillata, and the second on ARS in the area of Catania (Sicily).

The papers conclude with a long and philosophical essay by the three editors on the future of scholarship on Roman ceramics, calling for more web databases with standardized reporting of data, and for more and varied analyses of pottery evidence, including considerations of the socioeconomic structures that condition the nature of and production of ceramics. One thing I particularly agree with is their call for more regional studies of pottery production (and consumption).

A final essay by S. Alcock considers the broader use of data collected in pottery studies to create a clearer picture of Imperial economics and society. She too calls for more regional studies of pottery manufacture and use. These, as she notes, if and when defined, can help us to understand better how the Roman Empire worked as a social and economic institution.


1. D.P.S. Peacock, Pottery in the Roman world: an ethnoarchaeological approach (New York, 1982).

2. J.-P. Morel, “Les Céramiques de l’Epoque Hellenistique en Italie: Hellenisme et Anhellenisme” in Akten des XIII. Internationalen Kongresses für Klassische Archaeologie (Berlin 1988) 161-171.

3. M. Bats, Vaiselle et Alimentation à Olbia de Provence (v. 350-v. 50 av. JC.): modéles culturels et catégories céramiques. Revue archéologique de Narbonnaise suppl. 18 (Paris 1988)

4. D.P.S. Peacock, F. Bejaoui and N. Ben Lazreg “Roman pottery production in central Tunisia,” JRA 3 (1990) 59-84.

5. S. Tortorella, “Considerazioni sulla sigillata tarda dell’Italia centro-settrionale,” StMisc 30 (1995) 323-35

6. Most recently N. Rauh, Merchants, Sailors and Pirates in the Roman World (Charleston SC 2003).

7. Most recently D. Malfitana, “Italian sigillata imported to Sicily: the evidence of the stamps” in J. Poblome, P. Talloen, R. Brulet, and M. Waelkens, Early Italian Sigillata: The Chronological Framework and Trade Patterns. BABesch suppl. 10 (Leuven-Paris-Dudley MA 2004) 309-336; see also Polito, A.,”La Circolazione della Sigillata Italica Liscia in Sicilia,” QuadMess 7 (2000) 65-9.

8. The same site is the subject of an informative study by A. Lindhagen, “Caleacte: Production and Exchange in a North Sicilian Town, c. 500 BC-AD 500” (diss. Lund, 2006).

9. Olcese, G. (ed.), Ceramica Romana e Archeometria: lo Stato degli Studi (Firenze 1994).