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5. Samian Dating and Chronology Explored

5.1 Samian and chronology

Samian makes a vital contribution to the dating of associated Roman pottery groups and other finds. In turn it is a core element in the dating of site sequences, phases and periods. The information yield of this ware in respect of dating remains of great importance, despite the greatly improved knowledge we now have regarding coarse ware types (a knowledge that should not be underestimated). The chronological information provided by samian is likely to remain highly significant as increasingly more sophisticated questions are asked of the archaeological record of the period.

In order to engage with the areas outlined in Sections 2 and 4, a series of appropriate methodologies were devised (Willis 2000e). Data relating to a wide range of aspects were collected, comprising the dataset, a key component of which being the Samian Frequency Spreadsheets, designed primarily, as a tool for considering samian chronology, though they can be used to examine other aspects such as trends relating to form types.

5.1.1 Developing approaches to dating samian groups: need and possibility

As the number of archaeological interventions increases (cf. Darvill and Russell 2002) the demand for reliable information on the date of archaeologically recovered samian assemblages becomes ever more pressing. This is occurring at a time when the number of acknowledged, active, specialists in the field has not increased. Hence the demand for samian dates is considerable, but the present capacity to supply them is limited. Consequently, improving the facility for dating samian assemblages should enable excavators, coarse pottery specialists, etc., to gain broadly reliable information without recourse to the few hard-pressed samian specialists, when basic chronological information only is required, as, for instance, with assessments.

The samian project dataset holds a clear potential for developing a method of dating samian groups which supplements the traditional concentration and perhaps over reliance on stamps and decorated pieces. The method involves analysis of the samian forms, including the plain ware forms, within groups. This is apposite, as plain forms invariably constitute the bulk of all samian groups. The method will not supplant the importance of ascertaining the dates of stamps, decorated sherds and other pieces by specialists but should provide a means of dating a site group or assemblage, and can be readily used by any non-specialist.

Attention to the dating potential of plain forms is timely given the recent shift in the nature of field interventions, for the majority of Roman period sites now being investigated belong to types of site that normally yield the largest proportions of plain forms, as opposed to decorated forms. This aspect, perhaps, needs some clarification. While the amount of archaeological fieldwork undertaken in Britain has increased in recent years there has also been an alteration in the balance of the types of site of the Roman period being investigated. These changes have implications in terms of the character of the artefacts recovered and apropos establishing dates. Until recent years, prior to the institution of PPG 16 legislation, forts, major towns and villas were the main focus of fieldwork (Evans 1995a; cf. Hingley 1989). These types of site, especially forts and towns, as outlined below (e.g. Section 7), generally yield samian with much greater frequency than do other types of site, typically resulting in larger samples of samian ware. Moreover, such sites, as, again, documented below (Section 7), produce substantially higher proportions of decorated forms among the recovered samian assemblages than is the case with 'Small Towns', smaller nucleated centres, roadside settlements and sites in the countryside. However, as a result of policies aimed at conservation and preservation in situ, less work of any scale is now being conducted at Roman forts and urban sites these days (Darvill et al. 1998; Darvill and Russell 2002), with a few specific exceptions, such as the fort of Segedunum (Wallsend) and in London. The site of the new City and County Museum, Lincoln, is a case in point. This is located within the area of the Roman fortress and subsequent colonia where, by design, 95% of the area and archaeology is being preserved, with only 5% excavation. In contrast, more fieldwork is now being conducted at exactly those sites with proportionately more plain forms, namely the smaller centres and rural sites. Indeed work at these types of site is burgeoning. Though some of these interventions are of modest scale, others are vast projects, as at Heybridge, Elms Farm, Essex (Atkinson and Preston 1998) and Westhawk Farm, Ashford, Kent (Booth and Lawrence 2000; Booth 2001). Archaeological coverage of both green- and brownfield sites is routinely locating remains of this character, in the countryside and in and around smaller modern centres. Such sites often yield few coins and other datable non-ceramic finds, and so there is an increased dependence upon samian and coarse pottery as a source of dating.

Developing accessible means of dating samian groups is therefore appropriate given these circumstances. There is, though, a further consideration, since it has been observed that the generation of dedicated samian specialists, who have served Roman archaeology so admirably through the past decades, are moving towards retirement (Fulford and Huddleston 1991, 48; Willis 2004, 5.3). There is no younger cohort of samian specialists, simply one or two younger individuals who are specialists. Hence an increasing amount of material requires dating, but, imminently there will be a dearth of specialists to provide these dates. The development of a readily accessible and practicable means of dating is, accordingly, timely.

Delineating the potential of dating via forms, particularly plain forms, and defining the scope for the use of this approach has been one of the areas investigated by the project.

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