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 fragment. 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 enormously. 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.