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1. The Project

1.1 Samian: definition, archaeological value and international significance

Samian pottery (terra sigillata) describes a type of good quality, mass-produced table ware with a fine red glossy slip and, normally, red fabric which was produced at a number of centres in the Roman Empire between the time of Augustus and the mid 3rd century AD (see Note 1: on the terms 'samian' and 'terra sigillata'). Widely distributed across the Empire and beyond its boundaries, enduring and distinctive, samian has received the detailed attention of scholars of the era for more than a century. Concerted study means that knowledge of its typology and chronology, covering the various forms of this pottery, its decoration and stamps is now fairly refined (e.g. Hartley 1969b; Webster 1996). Samian is a familiar find on sites of the Roman period, widely appreciated to be helpful as a tool for dating. The exceptional character (attributes) of samian pottery have lead to it being regarded somewhat differently to other pottery types and finds, such that its discovery during work in the field, while perhaps routine, nonetheless seems often still to generate comment or minor stir; there is perhaps a certain magic ascribed to samian, as there is with ancient coins, in so far as it is appreciated that study of these sherds can unlock potentially rich information and understanding.

Of particular significance is the wide spread of samian through Europe. It occurs on all types of site, from upland rural sites in northern Britain, such as Forcegarth Pasture South, by High Force (Fairless and Coggins 1986), and villas in the Alentejo, such as São Cucufate (Alarcão et al. 1990), to, of course, major urban centres like Verulamium (Hartley 1972a) and Roman military sites, for example Vechten (Mees 1990), while decorated bowls, for instance, made in the same mould may be found in different provinces. Consistency in sources and typology plus its 'known' chronology link sites across western Europe, in particular, at which it occurs. This holds potential for refining dating and developing comparative studies of patterns of distribution, consumption, etc., province to province. Samian is studied internationally across former Roman provinces and beyond, and hence research findings in one country will have an international impact and value in others.

Samian has long provided a principal means for dating sites of the Roman era and site phases, being regularly recovered during excavations and via surface survey. Dickinson and Croom, for instance, in the report upon excavations at Hardknott, Cumbria, for instance, state: 'The samian ware is of paramount importance in dating the occupation of the fort' (1999, 77). The study of samian has gone hand in hand with the development of Roman studies in Britain and in continental Europe. Developing from pioneering observations and fieldwork in the later 19th century (e.g. Dragendorff 1895) understanding of this pottery in terms of typology and chronology grew through the course of the 20th century, with a distinguished tradition of scholarly research and reporting. A sequence of studies and publications through the 20th century represent landmarks to the benefit of Roman archaeology on an international scale (e.g. Bird 1986a; Déchelette 1904; Knorr 1919; 1952; Hartley 1972b; Hermet 1934; Marsh 1981; Oswald 1936-7; Oswald and Pryce 1920; Oxé and Comfort 1968; Stanfield and Simpson 1958; 1990; Terrisse 1968; Vanderhoeven 1975). Detailed samian lists and inventories of potters and of decorated items have formed a chronological spine to most erstwhile and modern fieldwork reports. Samian evidence has hence provided an essential element in the construction of a chronological framework for understanding the sequence of Roman Britain and the Western Provinces through the early and middle Empire.

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