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11. Samian Repaired

11.1 The repair of samian vessels

Most sizeable assemblages of samian pottery include one or more examples of repaired vessels, where lead has been used in antiquity to rejoin fragments of broken samian pots in order to restore them for practical service. This evidence for repair has long been recognised and a note of the number of items with such evidence of repair is now often included in reports on site assemblages. In particular Jo Mills has regularly discussed this aspect, as has Jeremy Evans. The Samian Project has enabled an amount of data on repair to be collected in order to establish a clearer picture of this practice. The significance of studying the repair of samian vessels arises from the fact that this was generally the most regularly repaired pottery type in Britain during the Roman era, this being a measure of the value ascribed to it and of its utility within social worlds. Moreover, the frequency with which samian vessels were repaired could indicate the degree to which the supply of samian to sites and regions may have fallen short of requirements at various times.

The rivet method was undertaken by drilling round holes on conjoining sherds from a broken vessel; metal wire was then threaded through the holes, which was then either joined to create a loop or the ends were cut off and hammered flat, usually on the inside. Rivets were usually of lead which was malleable; occasionally copper alloy or iron rivets were used as an alternative to lead (cf Appendix 11.1). Evans (pers. comm.) has noted that rivets were unsightly (and awkward) but were probably stronger than cleats. Repair with lead was obviously weaker than using other metals. Contrasting with rivet repair, dovetail or 'cleat' x-type lead repairs were more discreet. They were made by cutting short swallow-tail grooves into each conjoining sherd at the point where the sherds joined in order that the 'joined cross' might be secured with molten lead. Jeremy Evans has further suggested that at 'Lowland zone' sites repair was 'invariably of the "cleat" X cut type', whereas the 'Upland zone' is associated with repair via drilled holes and riveting (Evans forthcoming d). It is possible that in the past cleats have been reported as 'rivets'.

In general, a greater proportion of samian vessels were repaired following breakage than were other pottery types of the period; only in certain regions was this not so. The fact that samian was more often repaired than other pottery types has been seen as an indicator that these vessels were particularly valued (Willis 1997b), and were repaired either because of their relatively high cost to replace or because broken samian might, in some localities be difficult to physically replace. Repaired samian vessels occur among assemblages from all types of site indicating their acceptability and utility in various milieux. However, there are differences in the frequency with which repaired vessels occur among assemblages from different site types (as discussed below) and in how often different form types were repaired; these are particularly significant and informative aspects.

The project brings together an analytical survey of the incidence of repair. The evidence is considered to evaluate the degree to which there were regional and site type differences in the occurrence of repair, and whether, when samian was becoming scarce at the end of the importing period, there was an increase in the frequency of repair. Marsh had observed that, 'If any reason for riveting is given at all [in reports] it is usually that the practice resulted from the shortage of samian particularly in the early 3rd century when attempts were made to conserve what little samian remained' (1981, 227). The incidence of mended vessels among site assemblages is also seen as a guide to the prosperity of communities, in so far as a relatively high frequency of repair is associated with a lack of wealth (cf. Dickinson 2000a, 204). These possibilities, in other words whether repaired vessels are to be associated with economic circumstances or whether, indeed, they have a relationship to supply, are critically examined. Further, the possibility that repair was in some way 'centralised' or a specialist trade is discussed.

11.2 Samian typology and repair

One reason why samian was generally more frequently repaired than other wares may relate to its typological range, the nature of the forms in which it was produced and, arising in part from its form(s), its potential functions.

Some forms, especially open forms such as those of plates/platters, dishes and bowls will have been more amenable to repair via the use of lead rivets or cleats than were closed forms such as jars and some beakers, wherein effecting repairs may have been less than straightforward. The great majority of samian vessels were open forms, and so were suitable for repair, while most other pottery industries produced proportionally more closed vessels. Of course, only in a proportion of cases will damage to vessels have been repairable. The frequency with which a particular form type might be repaired will be partly determined by the nature of that form, that is to say, how likely it is to break in a manner that allows for repair via rivets or cleats.

The functions of vessels may have been a factor in decisions about whether they warranted the effort to repair. It might not have been considered worthwhile, for instance, to reconstitute samian cup forms (e.g. Drag. 27 and 33) if they were principally used for drinking, as repaired vessels might allow liquids to seep away (though see Marsh 1981, appendix III).

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Last updated: Mon Mar 7 2005