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1.2 Introduction to the project

With the traditional emphasis upon establishing 'dates' from recovered samian, and the pressing imperative from numerous excavators for this information, specialists have been obliged to report this key material from a chronological perspective, with less opportunity for the pursuit of other types of enquiry. The need to provide dates for samian items has become all the more pressing with the increase in archaeological interventions in recent years, the emergence of 'spot-dating' procedures and the obligation of units to produce assessments and other reports of high standard in all cases (even if archaeological works are not then pursued to full publication). Reporting of samian has therefore been preoccupied with questions of dating, coupled with the presentation of typological evidence (especially decorated items and stamps), effectively demonstrating how dates have been arrived at for specific items. The contribution of specialists in dating items, through skilled and often painstaking research, has been vital and immense.

Generally, only limited attention has been paid by either specialists, those reporting pottery assemblages overall, or those responsible for site syntheses, to the considerable potential of samian ware for addressing a wide range of archaeological questions. Several recent publications have, nonetheless, shown how samian information might be used in various ways to shed light upon aspects of the character of, and activities at, sites in Roman Britain (e.g. Groves 1993; King and Millett 1993; Darling 1998; Mudd et al. 1999; Hartley 2000; Leach with Evans 2001). Concomitantly, the past decade or so has seen the appearance of several contributions highlighting methodological approaches and perspectives in the analysis of material culture which can enhance our understanding of the Roman era (e.g. Clarke 1994; Cool and Baxter 1999; Cool et al. 1995; Cooper 2000; Eckardt 2000; Evans 1995a; 1995b; 2001; Hoffmann 1995; Hunter 1998). The present study applies similar approaches in considering aspects of samian ware distribution in Britain. Samian is especially amenable to analytical approaches, given its wide occurrence, its varied but well characterised and changing typology, and its comparatively close dating. These attributes mean that samian is an exceptionally useful artefact class for examining many spheres within Roman Britain.

The remit of this study has been two-fold: to examine samian chronology, and investigate its occurrence in Britain from a contemporary archaeological perspective. The intent has been to provide both information, and demonstrate an approach, of use to a wide constituency with an interest in the Roman era (cf. Section 2).

The present report documents the results of the English Heritage-funded project following its second and main phase of research. The results of Phase 1 of the project have been previously published (Willis 1997b; 1998a). Data and information forthcoming from Phase 1 have been absorbed into the present study accordingly. Phase 1 had shown (i) how various types of information relating to samian could be collected and analysed to provide new insight into the period, and (ii) enabled the chronology of samian to be viewed in a new way, based upon a large sample of securely stratified site groups. Phase 2 has carried forward the exploration of this potential. A substantial number of site collections have been systematically assessed, with a wide range of data being gathered under a number of heads (e.g. proportions of samian present within site assemblages; samian included in burials; wear patterns to samian). The collected dataset is presented and analysed here, and interpretations put forward (Note 2). Presenting the collected data here in a downloadable format also allows independent use of this resource for those interested in this information, perhaps for conducting their own analysis, or for comparison with collections for which they are responsible (go to the ADS archive for downloading). This report also examines the prospect of dating site groups in a straightforward manner, based upon proportions of samian vessel types present.

Drawing on the dataset, and the platform of existing knowledge of samian, the project identifies a series of baseline trends in the evidence via a synthesising and analytical approach. Trends identified relate to fundamental aspects such as the chronology of supply, the character of samian distribution, and consumption patterns at different site types. Since the occurrence of samian is equally as wide and significant across western Europe as it is in Britain, the results of this project are of international relevance and a contribution to Roman studies beyond Britain.

The present study is about samian but may be accurately described as an archaeological project that uses samian ware as evidence for elucidating characteristics of the period.

A key component of the project has been the collation of data upon dated samian groups from a wide range of sites in Britain. The information from these groups has been cast both in an interactive format in Excel (go to section 5.2 and the ADS for downloading) and in a database available for enquiry (go to Query online).

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