BMCR 2008.05.31

Roman Pottery in the Archaeological Record

, Roman pottery in the archaeological record. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xviii, 430 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521865417 $95.00.

Table of Contents

In a very theoretical book Peña examines the “life cycle” of Roman pottery and how the Romans used, reused, and repaired their containers in order to understand the effect of such actions on what we find in excavations (p. 2); he argues that such understanding is essential before we can interpret what is found. His method is to present a model and then add “real world” excavated examples and literary and epigraphic information to explain how that model might have worked in the Roman period. Although an attempt to make these cases as broadly applicable as possible often results in turgid prose, the book will be stimulating reading to classical archaeologists who work with excavated pottery, particularly from urban and domestic sites. At least, it should raise questions of how long various categories of pottery were used, how often they were reused, and what we can learn from the way they were discarded (much Roman pottery is found in construction fills rather than in middens). Peña hopes that the book will be of interest to a broad group of individuals who work with archaeological ceramics. While that is possible, many of the behaviors he discusses (or the evidence for them) seem unique to the Roman world.

Chapter 1, “A Model of the Life Cycle of Roman Pottery,” introduces the reader to Peña’s model (6-8). It builds on one set out by Michael Schiffer, who investigated how the archaeological record was formed by behavioral practices inherent in a specific culture.1 Schiffer’s original model for the life cycle of objects envisioned the following behaviors: procurement, manufacture, use, maintenance, and discard. Peña’s adds distribution, prime use and reuse, recycling, and reclamation to produce an eight-stage cycle. In this chapter, Peña also defines each of the behaviors included in his model (8-13), discusses the limitations of his study, and assesses some critiques of this type of formation model by post-processual archaeologists (13-16).

In Chapter 2, “Background Considerations,” Peña explains the types of evidence that are available to elucidate the behavioral practices included in his model, including textual, representational, archaeological, and comparative (i.e. ethnographic, ethnohistorical, and ethnoarchaeological) evidence (17-20). For non-pottery specialists, Peña provides basic information on the functional categories of Roman pottery and defines what he means by dolia, amphoras, lamps, cookwares, utilitarian vessels, and tablewares (20-27). At the close of the chapter, he explores briefly the value of pottery in understanding the Roman economy (27-31).

Chapters 3-10 are the heart of the book. They explore the behaviors expected in the model and clearly reflect Peña’s concerns. “Manufacturing and Distribution” (32-33) are of little importance in the formation of the archaeological record because Roman pottery was made in specialized, usually isolated, workshops and sold elsewhere. “Use life” (39-60) is largely speculative. The evidence of dated tituli picti on wine amphoras found in Pompeii, Rome (Castro Pretorio), and Carthage is limited but instructive: in every case the proportion of inscribed vessels is very small, but 25-50% of the inscribed amphoras were more than a decade old (at Castro Pretorio 9 out of 22 were more than 50 years old). This point leads naturally to “Reuse of amphoras as packaging” (61-118) and “Reuse of amphoras for other purposes” (119-192). In the former the evidence is drawn mostly from shipwrecks. Peña also speculates that amphoras were reused to hold sand ballast on return voyages from Ostia, a practice that wreaks havoc with any economic interpretation based on distribution! “Reuse of other categories” of pottery is only 15 pages long.

Peña argues that “Maintenance and repair” (209-249), that is cleaning, relining, and repair, were important in the formation of archaeological contexts, but it is difficult to see how: these practices seem limited to dolia (found primarily on rural estates) and fine wares. “Recycling” (250-271) on the other hand, is one of the ways the Mediterranean Roman record differs most notably from those of other cultures. Peña points to literary evidence for the use of ceramic dust as a flavoring agent for wine but most uses are architectural (pottery broken up and used as flooring or wall-facing, ground and used as aggregate in waterproof cement or concrete, used as temper in architectural terracottas [although ‘argillaceous material’ could be siltstone]) or used for a variety of construction engineering purposes beginning with landfills and drains. Aside from the recycling of Dressel 1, 2-4 and 6 amphoras in landfills, there is scant evidence for what kind of ceramic would be employed in these ways (tiles and bricks are possible as well as amphoras and other vessels), but Peña is surely correct that the materials were specifically chosen for each purpose. One can cite the use of Kapitän II amphora necks instead of waterpipes to make drains or as bellows (attested at both Corinth and Ephesos) or the use of Classical fine wares as filler in Roman mudbrick at Corinth. No one should interpret the pottery from such recycling as indicative of trade, but it is questionable whether the withdrawal of such material from general circulation much affected the record of an urban site. “Discard and reclamation” (272-318) arguably describes the most important actions in the whole book. Here Peña’s attention is focused on refuse (garbage) disposal and where it took place (corner of the garden, street, outside town). While he mentions the dumping of pottery into “natural depositional basins” such as pits, wells, and within building foundations (urban contexts 283, rural sites 291), this activity, surely the most widespread source of Roman pottery from modern excavations, receives only passing attention.

In Chapter 11, “Modeling the Formation of the Roman Pottery Record,” Peña brings together the information presented in the previous chapters. While Chapter 1 included a general diagram for the author’s model, in the concluding chapter he presents specific diagrams for the life cycle of each of the functional groups in his study (322-331). He illustrates how the different behavioral practices discussed in the preceding chapters affected the life cycle of each of these groups. For example, because dolia were so large and thick-walled, they were not subject to recycling in the way that amphoras and cooking wares were. Moreover, the large size and high price of dolia gave them a long prime-use life of twenty-five years compared to lamps, for which he postulates a short prime-use life of six months. Unlike lamps, dolia were often repaired, presumably because they were not easily acquired and relatively expensive. Peña also explores the life cycle of different classes of amphoras to show the variation that would have existed within a single functional group (331-337) and develops a typology for understanding pottery deposits (337-341). The following section, “The Effects of Different Behavioral Practices on the Pottery Record,” discusses the implications that behaviors have for our interpretation of the pottery record (341-347). For example, because certain classes of Roman amphoras were frequently recycled and thus taken out of the archaeological context, these classes would be under-represented (and other classes over-represented). Conclusions regarding trade between two areas based on the presence of such amphoras might therefore be flawed. This section is a necessary read for anyone working on pottery studies. The chapter concludes with directions for further research on Roman pottery (347-351), suggesting other data pottery specialists should be recording, and a general conclusion (351-352).

The volume closes with an appendix listing the various amphora types (classes to Peña) referred to in the text (with notes of other names and chronology), maps showing the sites mentioned, extensive notes identified by chapter, a bibliography and a separate index of ancient texts, and a subject index. The text is sparsely illustrated, mainly with photographs of uneven quality.

What Peña says about amphoras and their selective reuse is very interesting and needs to be taken into account. The question of refuse disposal in both urban sites and country farmsteads is new and thought provoking although it is disappointing that some early studies that provided such evidence were missed, e.g. Ettlinger and Simonett, Römische Keramik aus dem Schütthügel von Vindonissa, (Gesellschaft von Vindonissa 3), Basel 1952. The book is disappointing in other ways. Despite Peña’s efforts to provide “real world” examples, the book is much heavier on theory than on practice. The sections on lamps and cooking pots are perfunctory. In general, the “archaeological record” is neglected. It is fine to adduce specific problems, but a discussion of what effect the behaviors discussed in the book may have had on what we find in a typical construction fill is lacking: in the excavations at Palatine East or in the Terme del Nuotatore at Ostia (not cited in the bibliography) have the 1st-century wine amphoras been systematically removed? Are the amphoras consistently older than the other pottery found in the same levels? Tombs, other ritual uses, and wells (three types of contexts that directly reflect personal actions in the Roman world) have not even made it into the index. Although the bibliography for such contexts is enormous, a summary of what material such actions remove from the general record would have been as useful for readers unfamiliar with Roman practices as the discussion of the reuse of amphoras. .The book provides a good starting point for further discussion: Peña’s examples come primarily from Italy and Britain, and it will be interesting to see how far they are matched in other parts of the Empire. A workshop planned by Mark Lawall and John Lund for summer 2008 at the Danish Archaeological Institute in Athens could be the first of several regional discussions to test Peña’s model and the behaviors he discusses both in space and in time.


1. Michael B. Schiffer. 1972. “Archaeological Context and Systemic Context,” American Antiquity 37:156-165.