The recording of samian potters` stamps, past, present and future

The recording of samian potters' stamps, past, present and future
by Brenda Dickinson
Perhaps the first question to be asked, and eventually answered, is why should we
make such a fuss about stamps on archaeological finds, either on samian and other
finewares, or mortaria, or amphorae, or tiles? What use can they be in interpreting
sites and have they any wider applications?
Most stamps on samian are highly visible, if not always legible, placed, as they
usually are, on the inside of plainware vessels or on in the decoration of some bowls.
Unlike the factory marks on porcelain they are rarely hidden underneath the bases of
vessels. It may be that this visibility made them attractive subjects for study in the
first place.
I don’t intend to go into the reasons for stamping samian here, because there is no
quick answer and there are too many anomalies to be explained away.
Interest in samian and samian stamps goes back a long way. In the early nineteenth
century the archaeologist and geologist Edmund Tyrell Artis produced exquisite
drawings of samian from sites in the Nene Valley and Beatrix Potter drew sherds in
the museum at Penrith which showed a remarkable eye for detail. From the midnineteenth century to the present day samian stamps have been published in
excavation reports or in monographs, of varying quality, it must be admitted, and
many without illustrations.
Perhaps the best of all the drawings of samian stamps are the 1,500 published in 1893
by Théophile Habert, under the very apt title La Poterie Antique Parlante, ‘Ancient
Pottery Speaking’. Also accurate and reliable are Wilhelm Ludowici’s drawings of the
stamps from the Rheinzabern kilns, published between 1904 and 1927, as are those
from sites along the various stretches of Limes in Upper Germany and Raetia in the
series Der obergermanisch-raetische Limes des römerreiches (ORL), published
before 1906.
The Instrumentum Domesticum of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL), also
one of the earliest works to record large quantities of samian stamps, does not contain
facsimiles, but has the advantage of using a font which could reproduce ligatured
letters, thus providing possibilities for tentative identification of some stamps. The
same may be said of Allmer and Dissard’s 1892 publication of the stamps from Trion,
an area of Lyon.
Viktor Geissner in 1904 and 1907 listed over 2,000 samian stamps from Mainz and
published some photographs, unfortunately only a small a small proportion of the
total. He had, however, the advantage of being able to use Dragendorff’s numbering
of the differerent forms of vessels, a type-series which did not appear until 1895.
There are lacunae in all these works, the main one being that none of the authors
attempted to date their material, and, Geissner apart, none were able record the precise
forms of the vessels other than by verbal description.
In 1931 there appeared the first synthetic index of samian stamps, published by Dr
Felix Oswald, who was Recorder in the public record office in Nottingham. It is a
remarkable work in many ways, not least because he compiled it all in his spare time,
with the help of his son, and printed and published a run of 275 copies himself, and at
his own expense. Oswald’s Index gave the potter’s name, his workplace, readings of
the stamps (in standard capital letters), the forms which he stamped or signed, the
places where they were found and a broad date for the potter’s activity.
The main drawback to this pioneering work is that it lacks illustrations. Oswald had
intended to illustrate the stamps, but he never found the money or the time to
complete the project. He also admitted that he had not always been able to distinguish
between potters with the same name, working at different times. He also failed to
recognize some of the samian production centres, though, of course, not all the
relevant ones had been located by the1930s. Another drawback is that he was not able
to see personally all the material which he published, and it is not clear just what
proportion he had actually examined, or how much he relied on lists to which he had
access. As he did not indicate the origin of his information, it is difficult to estimate
its reliability.
Nevertheless, Oswald’s Index remained the standard reference work for samian
stamps for the next 30 years, until the late Brian Hartley decided in 1962 that it was in
urgent need of updating, in view of the huge mass of information which had
accumulated in the intervening years. He also wanted to expand the scope of the text
to allow for more detailed recording of individual stamps.
In the new corpus, Names on Terra Sigillata, which we continue privately to call the
Index, a typical potter’s record includes the following information:
The potter’s name, followed when necessary by a number, to distinguish
between potters of the same name.
The pottery/potteries of origin, where known.
Reproductions of the stamps, either from drawings, photographs or rubbings.
The number of the die from which the stamp came: stamps were impressed on
plainware vessels or sometimes in the decoration of moulds, with dies made of
bone, clay or reused sherds, with the stamp legend cut into a flat surface.
These dies could be used again and again, so the record for a particular stamp
will include all the places where it was found. Potters working on any
significant scale would normally have more than one die in use at any given
time and all of those used on plainware (though not all, it seems, on decorated
ware), were unique, and we have distinguished between them by giving all the
dies with the same reading the same number, followed by a letter. So a potter
by the name of Marcus might use a number of dies all reading MARCVSF and
these would be numbered 1a, 1b, etc., while those reading MARCVS would
be numbered 2a, and so on.
As Oswald did, we have recorded the vessel forms on which the stamp appear,
using Dragendorff’s and other later numbered series, such as Déchelette,
Ritterling and Walters, but, in addition, we have we have recorded multiple
examples of stamps against the forms on which they occur.
The provenance of the stamp is followed by its museum inventory number, if
any, or its excavation code, or the name of the collection from which it comes.
We have also included unprovenanced stamps in museums and private
Potters’ records generally end with a discussion of the dating evidence, if there
is any. For potters with large outputs it is sometimes possible to date
individual dies separately so that it can be seen which are early, which overlap
in use and which are late.
The date given to a potter is the range during which he will have worked and
is not necessarily the date of deposition of the pot. Dates are expressed as far
as possible in terms of years, but where it is impossible to be so exact dates
have been recorded in terms of emperors’ reigns.
Stamps in published records which we have not been able to check are
numbered in the same way as the material which we have seen ourselves, so
an unverified MARCVSF will be numbered 1- a, and MARCVS 2- a, etc.,
immediately following the verified dies with the same basic reading. To show
the lettering of these ‘blanks’ Dr Paul Tyers has very kindly created for us a
set of special characters, so it can be seen, for example, if an A is normal, or
whether it has a stop or a vertical stroke instead of a bar, or no bar at all. These
renderings can give some useful clues to the identity of a stamp, if they are
compared with the illustrated stamps.
In addition to these detailed records we have corrected any false attributions
found in publications.
The collecting and processing of all this material took 40 years and the work was
unfinished when Brian Hartley died in 2005. It then stood at over 5,000 pages of
single-column text, and it is estimated that nine volumes in double-column text will
exceed 3,000 pages.
The current project to complete this corpus of stamps is a joint venture between the
Universities of Leeds and Reading and the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum at
Mainz and is funded by the British Academy and the Arts and Humanities Research
Council. The text will eventually be available as a database created by Dr Allard
Mees and housed at Mainz, but first it will be published as a book, as Brian Hartley
intended. The first two of ten volumes were sent to the publisher last week and are
due to appear by the middle of this year.
Once all ten volumes are published I shall bow out: 44 years is long enough to work
on the same project and I need to find a successor. There is already a mass of new
material which has been collected but not yet identified and we need to find someone
to process it and to keep the database up-to-date when it becomes generally available.
The basic identification of potters’ stamps is merely a matter of familiarity and is not
something to be scared of, but neither is it something which can be taught. The
majority of stamps are legible and most will be found in the illustrations of the Index,
so there should be no frantic searching through all available site reports to find
parallels for one’s stamps. Familiarity with the stamps will show that some styles of
lettering were peculiar to certain potteries in certain periods, and this simplifies the
process of searching. The interpretation of the stamp readings, with their various
appendages O(fficina) before the name and F(ecit) or M(anu) after it and other points,
such the recutting of worn letters or the continued use of broken dies, are topics
which can be explained to a new specialist during mentoring sessions. The main
problem is going to be the identification of stamps broken at the beginning and for
these I might be persuaded to look at a limited number of queries.
An ancilliary project, and one which is urgently needed, is a study of fabrics from kiln
sites, along the lines of the one undertaken for arretine products (Klynne 2002), which
could usefully be applied to samian.
To answer the question, why bother about samian stamps? Geoffrey Dannell, in
putting the case for samian in general as a vital tool for the excavator, has answered
that question, but I must just stress that the dating of a large proportion of samian
stamps derives from their presence in reliably-dated historical contexts, such as the
Pompeii Hoard of AD 79, or the pottery shops at Colchester and London, which were
destroyed in the Boudiccan rebellion. But the main evidence comes from those
military sites in the north-west of the Roman Empire which are dated by historical or
epigraphic evidence. In other words, the quality of the evidence is all-important.
The next speaker, Dr Allard Mees, will, demonstrate to you the many ways in which
the information recorded in the Index can be used to answer some of the questions
which have been asked about samian and its relevance to trade and the interpretation
of archaeological sites, as well as its wider social implications.
One of the first criticisms of the Index which will undoubtedly be made is that we did
not see personally collections in the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa, Italy and the
Danube provinces. Our defence is that constraints of time and funding made this
impossible, if we were ever to finish the work. But, like the massive decorated samian
project, there is no reason why the collection and processing of samian stamps should
not go on indefinitely. Sadly, it is clear that very little funding for travel will be
readily available for students of samian, and so the obvious solution would be for
those of us who have the time and inclination to make rubbings of stamps in areas
where coverage in the Index is lacking, and particularly where new potteries have
been found, and hand over our pickings to the next generation of researchers.
In other words, we will collect, you can process.
Allmer & Dissard 1892
A. Allmer & P. Dissard, Inscriptions Antiques. Lyon.
Geissner 1904
V. Geissner, Die im Mainzer Museum befindlichen
Sigillata-Gefässe der nachaugusteischen Zeit und ihre
Stempel. Mainz.
Geissner 1907
V. Geissner, Die im Mainzer Museum befindlichen
Sigillata-Gefässe und ihre Stempel, 1, Nachtrag. Mainz.
Habert 1893
T. Habert, La Poterie Antique Parlante. Paris.
Klynne 2002
A. Klynne, The Prima Porta Garden Archaeological
Project: Terra Sigillata from the Villa of Livia, Rome.
Consumption and Discard in the Early Principate.
Ludowici 1927
W. Ludowici, Stempel-Namen und Bilder römischer
Töpfer, Legions-Ziegel-Stempel, Formen von Sigillata
und anderen Gefässen aus meinen Ausgrabungen in
Rheinzabern 1901-1914. München.
Oswald 1931
F. Oswald, Index of Potters’ Stamps on Terra Sigillata
(“Samian Ware”). Margidunum.