Who made it, where, and when

Who made it, where, and when? - learning to identify samian
Joanna Bird
The fact that we can produce answers to the above questions, sometimes from a very
small piece of stamped or decorated samian, is a testament to the value of samian
ware as an archaeological resource, and to the patient research and efforts of many
scholars, both professional and amateur, over more than a century. Samian can now
provide valuable insights into the history and archaeology of Roman Britain and the
northern provinces for researchers in a variety of fields. The most obvious of these is
dating: apart from coins and inscriptions, samian is more closely dateable than other
finds, with the added advantage of normally occurring in considerable quantities.
Samian may also provide some indication of a site's status, an avenue recently
explored by Maggi Darling, while related aspects such as literacy might be suggested
by the presence of samian inkwells, as Steven Willis has shown. It is now becoming
clear too that samian might have been selected for the relevance of its iconography to
certain aspects of a site, such as the group of bowls with arena motifs found outside
the London amphitheatre, or the Bacchic bowls sometimes recorded from the ritual
filling of wells and shafts. Other areas where samian can be illuminating include the
ancient economy, with the study of the volume and fluctuations of trade and
distribution over time; and our understanding of Roman pottery technology and the
organisation of potters' workshops. It is therefore essential that our accumulated
knowledge of samian should not now be lost for lack of funds and effort, and how to
ensure that it is passed on is the problem to be addressed today.
Some years ago Peter Webster organised a series of short courses on samian for
English Heritage, and at the end one of the participants asked us how long it had
taken to reach a degree of expertise in the subject: Brian Hartley's answer to this,
given with a twinkle in his eye, was 'I think we would all agree that the first twenty
years were the hardest'. Like Brian, I have no wish to be discouraging but I think it is
important to be realistic and to emphasise that a good working knowledge of samian
is not something to be picked up at a single day school, and that it does require a
considerable degree of dedication and commitment on the part of someone
undertaking it. That said, a series of day-schools or short courses, similar to those
Peter arranged, can provide a good basic grounding in the subject, especially if there
is plenty of pottery around to work on. Beyond this, however, it is essential that the
students take the opportunity to handle as much samian as possible, preferably
where they can check their identifications with a specialist. My own studies began as
an undergraduate, working on samian from Barri Jones's excavations with a collection
of the basic books from the university library; later, when I was working on pottery
from London, I was supervised and guided by Brian Hartley. More recently I have
acted as a mentor myself, and this does seem to be the best way of helping a
beginner to gain knowledge and confidence. One way in which this supervised
experience might be gained would be for the serious students to join a group of us
recording museum collections of samian; in this way the students would be able to
handle - and ask questions about - a lot of material, while helping at the same time to
advance the subject and to begin to build up their own collection of rubbings.
The detailed study of samian can be divided conveniently into four areas: the
identification of forms; the recognition of fabrics; the identification of potters’ stamps;
and the attribution of decorated ware.
The form typologies are readily available in a number of publications, most recently in
Peter Webster's handbook for the CBA. Oswald & Pryce, originally published in 1920
and reprinted in 1965, remains the most comprehensive, since it includes many of the
uncommon East Gaulish forms catalogued by Ludowici. Hermet (1934) adds some
less common South Gaulish forms, and Philippe Bet and his colleagues have published
a new and expanded typology for Lezoux in the SFECAG Lezoux volume (1989).
Stanfield’s two papers on unusual forms, published in the Archaeological Journal in
1929 and 1936, are still invaluable. As these publications show, the samian potters
produced a far wider range of forms in the same fabric than potters in other
workshops. This creates difficulties, particularly for beginners, in identifying forms
from very small sherds. Here there is no real substitute for simply handling as much
samian as possible, paying attention to the minute details of rim, footring or profile
that are characteristic of individual forms, and learning to see the whole from the
To some extent the study of forms goes with that of fabrics, since different repertoires
of forms were produced at different kiln-sites and at different periods. Fabrics are not
easy; the many samian potteries produced fabrics that, superficially at least, look
very similar, and to distinguish them takes time and practice. With experience, it isn't
just the eyes that do the work but also the ears - a bag full of Neronian South Gaulish
samian has a very different sound from a bag of Antonine Central Gaulish - and the
hands, distinguishing the fabrics as much by texture, weight and thickness as by
visual appearance. The National Roman Fabric Reference Collection provides a good
starting point, but the accompanying publication, though containing excellent verbal
descriptions, does not have satisfactory illustrations, and the Collection does not
provide the sheer quantity of samian necessary to become familiar with all the
variations that might be produced even by one kiln-site. Perhaps even more than
with forms, it is important to handle as much as possible, not just in order to become
familiar with the fabrics themselves but also to recognise the effects of wear and soil
conditions. The use of a good hand-lens or a petrological microscope will help
The study of stamps and decorated ware is more complex. Stamps will probably
always remain the field of one or two specialists, and for this reason as much as any
other it is vital that the database established for the Leeds Index is kept up-to-date
after publication - the first two of the projected nine volumes are due to appear this
summer. The Index will make it possible for those working on samian to identify at
least a proportion of their stamps for themselves, and it will include guidelines to help
the inexperienced to use it, while the database will enable more sophisticated
searches to be made. Once more, though, there is no substitute for handling the
material. Identifying stamps is not just a question of reading the letters and
matching them with an entry in the Index; the potters used various formulae and
symbols as well as their names, and some of them broke, chipped and recut their
dies, all features which are covered in the Index and its database but which need
patience and experience to recognise. Furthermore, homonymous potters worked at
different sites, so here too the form and, particularly, the fabric are important.
Handling plenty of stamps also enables one to learn to recognise how the same stamp
can appear differently on different forms - cramped or missing both ends on a Drag
27 cup, for example, or stretched and distorted over the high kick of a Drag 31 bowl.
The attribution of decorated ware is a huge field in its own right, and perhaps the one
that many beginners find the most daunting. But it isn't essential from the outset to
be able to recognise an elbow as Hercules, or to distinguish a bear's paw from a lion's
- though it is surprising how this knowledge imperceptibly builds up. As with stamps,
the first thing to establish is the kiln-site, and this is done initially from the fabric and,
with increasing experience, from the style of the decoration. There are now several
corpora of figure- and motif-types which can help in attributing a bowl to a potter or
group of potters, but it is important to be aware that some - notably Oswald's figuretypes index - are old and inevitably somewhat out of date. A further problem is
posed by the very variable quality of these publications, particularly where
illustrations are concerned: some, such as the recent publications on the Trier and
Rheinzabern potteries, are exemplary, with excellent photographs or drawings; others
are, to put it mildly, much less so. This is one of the fields where current work, such
as the Mainz database of South Gaulish ovolos, is proving so valuable, and ideally this
should be extended to the potteries of Central and East Gaul. Perhaps some of our
future specialists will pick up these batons, and devise others of equal value.
To end with a few recommendations. I have emphasised the importance of handling
as much samian as possible, preferably with some supervision and guidance. In
addition to this, there are now collections, in museums and with excavating units,
where there are both large samian assemblages and recent catalogues, and perhaps
some of these could be made available for students to use. There is also the problem
of the bibliography on samian, which is enormous, and some guidance to at least the
core elements is desirable. Many of the older but still essential works are difficult to
obtain, and for this reason we should perhaps consider a programme of scanning.
This may not be straightforward, as we would need to include publications from
several European countries with a variety of copyright laws, but the difficulties should
not be insurmountable. There is also the further factor that many of these works are
not in English, and I remember from Peter Webster’s courses that this was perceived
as a problem by some of the students. I don’t think it need be; for much samian, as
with other Roman pottery, a great deal of information is provided by the illustrations.
This is true too for decorated ware, though the caption or catalogue entry is also
important. I am sure that committed students will soon learn their way round the
basic vocabulary in French or German - I had learned the German word for ovolo long
before I could have asked my way to a railway station.