A ‘potted’ history of samian wareJuly 12, 2012 About my museum job, Blogs, Collections online
Project Assistant, Verity Anthony, describes her work digitising the Museum of London’s collection of samian ware for Collections Online.
The Museum of London has an extensive collection of Roman samian ware, approximately 25,000-30,000 pieces, either on display in the Roman London gallery or in our Ceramic and Glass Store.
About 14,000 of these are decorated pieces, and it is this part of the collection which I’m currently working on; photographing the pieces, marking them with their correct accession number and photographing or scanning them, before updating the digital records for all the pieces. The scope of the collection is such that at various times work has previously been done to record the items, including a catalogue of the material produced in the late 1970s.
Without the knowledge gained from this previous work, including the identification of type, date and place of production, the task of readying the material for inclusion on Collections Online would have been unfathomable. Extensive work done in 2001, by Roz Sherris in the Department of Archaeological Collections and Archive, ensured that this existing information was already uploaded to our database, enabling me to to identify the pieces I was working on and update the records.
Roman samian ware is an expensive tableware distinctive for its red/orange colouring, which is found extensively throughout the Roman empire.
The pottery is an early example of mass production in factories in South Gaul (France), then later in Central and East Gaul. To produce the decorated pots a mould was made using punches to create the decoration in relief. A potter would then press damp clay into the mould, using a potter’s wheel, to produce an even surface and to ensure the decoration was properly imprinted. The clay was left to dry out, causing it to shrink away from the side of the mould so it could be easily removed. Before firing the pot, it would have been covered in a slip (a suspension of clay in water), which when fired in a kiln would produce the distinctive colour and glossy finish of the pots, in a range of forms, including bowls and jars.
The first batch of samian I worked on – which has just been made available online – are not only decorated, but are also all examples of stamped pieces. Stamps were most commonly put on to the pots by the potter – which we often see imprinted into the centre of the bowl’s interior – but also by the mould maker, who added the stamp to the exterior of the pot with a punch or incision.
I am currently working on more of the Museum’s collection of decorated samian ware, which will be made available on Collections Online later in the year, so look out for another blog where I will be looking at how we can date the pottery, using the decoration.