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12.4 Samian and structured deposits in 'secular' locations: discussion and examples

The criteria for defining ritual or special deposits away from religious sites and other potentially sacred locations (e.g. watery places) have been discussed, particularly from the British Iron Age (e.g. Wait 1985; Hill 1995), but less often for the Roman era (Fulford 2000). This is a problematic and complicated area, since deposits are so varied and definition will depend on interpretation and some assumption. Here we might define unusual groups of material which do not appear like the artefact debris encountered in by far the majority of settlement contexts as 'structured' if intentional selection has seemingly determined the composition of a group. In the case of samian this might be through the presence of whole or near complete vessels, unusual proportions of certain types, associations between samian vessels, and through the occurrence of samian with other finds indicative of selection. Such attributes may distinguish these deposits (to employ some short-hand) from de facto deposits and secondary rubbish (cf. Schiffer 1976). Yet individual sherds might have been regarded as sufficiently symbolic or have been defined by past actors as 'representative' and so structured deposits are not limited to the incidence of whole pots or substantial parts (cf. Chapman 2000).

Thus detecting structured deposits may not be easy; so often the archaeological record can be equivocal. There are, nonetheless, an increasing number of 'identified' examples of symbolic or ritual deposition in the Roman era away from religious foci, that is temples and shrines (Clarke 1997; Fulford 2000).

Structured deposits at settlements and elsewhere are not abnormal, but a variation (albeit uncommon) within the range of types of deposits likely to be encountered in the archaeological record. What lies behind them is less clear. Certainly they represent 'events', such as, potentially, gifts or items relating to feasting. These events may be bound up with rituals developed out of such domains as:

  1. uncertainty in the world, such as life/death, weather, security, food, productivity and reproduction;
  2. life-course thresholds, such as status and life passages to do with births, adulthood/maturity, marriage and death;
  3. acknowledgements, celebrations and thanks (to the gods), for life, harvest, and cured ill health, etc.

Samian is markedly prominent among many such deposits (e.g. Willis 1997a; 1998a). Structured deposits warrant analytical attention since they provide an opportunity to interpret how the people of the time acted and may have thought. Some examples are assessed here.

A pit group from Pit l 20008, fill 20009 in Area L, contained an apparent structured deposit. Samian was far from prominent among the finds which included 11 complete or near complete pottery vessels. The date range of the group is c. AD 55-80. The group size was 10.7kg, less than 1% of which is samian; the EVE total is 12.48, 1% of which is samian. In fact there were only two sherds of samian among this group.

Stead and Rigby (1986, 47, 257-9) noted that the composition of certain pit fills at Baldock included complete pots which appeared to have been deliberately selected, and noted that these resembled burial groups in the limited range of types represented. It is possible that the pits, or at least some of them, were filled water holes/pits. The creation of these groups, for whatever reason, was an endemic practice at this site through time and space.

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