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Roman pottery


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Roman potters provided a comprehensive range of vessels for table and kitchen use, and for storage and transport. At the top of the quality scale were vessels with a smooth glossy surface designed for the table, notably the bright red terra sigillāta, or Samian ware, mass‐produced in Italy (Arretine ware) and elsewhere from the 1st cent. bc. Elaborately decorated cups and beakers with coloured surface coatings were used alongside this dinner service, while ornate pottery oil lamps provided light. Most Roman pots were plain earthenware vessels designed for everyday household cooking and storage. The only really specialized forms were amphorae, used for transporting wine and oil, globular dōlia, employed on farms for storage and fermentation, and mortāria, large bowls suitable for grinding and mixing. Many Roman buildings were constructed (wholly or partly) from bricks and roofed with ceramic tiles, while specialized clay elements aided the construction of bath‐buildings and vaulted ceilings (see building materials).

The study of pottery reveals details of technology and methods of manufacture, and the analysis of patterns of production and distribution illuminates aspects of society and the economy. Pottery production ranged from a part‐time activity that supplemented farming to full‐time employment for specialized craft workers. Most vessels were formed on a potter's wheel and fired in carefully constructed kilns. Some industries made ranges of forms, others concentrated on particular categories. Distribution patterns of wares varied enormously; Italian terra sigillata could be found throughout the empire, whereas unspecialized kitchen wares might supply only a single town and its environs.

Rome conquered areas of Italy that already possessed well‐established ceramic traditions—Celtic, Etruscan, and Greek. The kitchen and storage vessels made in most conquered areas resembled those of Italy, and they were normally adopted by the invaders once permanent garrison forts had been established. Name‐stamps on terra sigillata, lamps and mortaria all confirm that some manufacturers either migrated to new provinces or set up branch workshops, presumably to avoid high transport costs involved in supplying distant markets. We are well informed about the diffusion of terra sigillata production from Italy to the provinces.

Roman military units included skilled artisans who often established facilities for the manufacture of bricks and roof tiles, commonly stamped with the name of their unit or legion. If local pottery supplies were inadequate, they also turned their hands to potting. Since many soldiers had been recruited in Italy or heavily Romanized provinces, most vessel forms made by military potters are closely comparable to those found in Italy itself. Military production tended to be short‐lived, for when frontier areas were stabilized, supplies could be brought safely from non‐military sources in the hinterland. Alternatively, civilian potters might set up production in a military region in order to take advantage of new markets created by forts and the civilian settlements (canabae) which grew up around them.

Subjects: Classical Studies.


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