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7.3 Patterns in the distribution of decorated samian vessels

7.3.1 Introduction

Investigating the proportions of decorated vessels, as opposed to plain ware vessels, among samian assemblages proved instructive during Phase 1 of this project. The value of this approach has become clearer with ongoing research. In discussing the samian from the canabae at Caerleon, Brian Hartley noted that, '... there is an unusually high proportion of decorated to plain ware, even for a site with clear military connections, at 27.9% ... this is a matter needing further consideration and it calls for statistics for a wide range of types of site' (2000, 182). It has been possible during Phase 2 of the project to assemble a wide range of data of the type that Brian Hartley has called for and to assess the results in the following section.

Decorated samian forms include bowls, beakers and jars, plus some other, much rarer, forms (cf. Oswald and Pryce 1920; Webster 1996). Among assemblages from sites, decorated bowls constitute the main element within the decorated samian, with only occasional examples of beakers and jars occurring. These bowls are the large familiar forms: the carinated Drag. 29 of the 1st century AD; the hemispherical bowl, Drag. 37, dating from the Flavian period to the end of the samian industries in the 3rd century; and the cylindrical bowl Drag. 30 which, though less common, spanned, essentially, the whole of the manufacturing period from the early 1st century AD. Archaeologists of the Roman period have invariably considered decorated samian vessels to have been comparatively valued items in the Roman pottery repertoire. On the whole it has been largely taken as given that decorated vessels had a premium over plain forms at the time, and hence the decorated forms are viewed as likely to be an index of wealth and status.

The question of perceptions of decorated vessels has been discussed elsewhere (Willis 1997a, 38-41; 1998a, 85-6, 105), with the conclusion that there are several sound reasons for suspecting that decorated vessels would have been more expensive, more prized and indicators of status within, at least, some realms. Significantly, decorated vessels will have been more expensive in terms of resources, both to produce and transport, than was the case with plain forms. Evidence from two instances of graffiti indicates that a decorated samian bowl cost about the equivalent of one day's pay for a soldier, and that a plain samian vessel was around half this cost (Darling 1998, 169). In addition, when one considers the widespread 'imitation' of samian forms undertaken by local potters in Britain, it is apparent that it is these forms that are reproduced with greatest frequency in local fabrics, not the plain ware forms (Willis 1997c). However, it is the form(s) of these vessels (i.e. the bowl shapes) that were closely copied in these cases, not the decoration. This suggests it was not necessarily the decoration on these vessels that was most important to consumers, rather that they were bowls (Willis 1997c). How samian vessels may have been regarded in the past had, until recently, been an under-explored domain. This, as with other artefact types, is a matter for investigation rather than presumption, and will have been context-dependent. The present study identifies strong trends in the incidence of the decorated forms at sites in Britain. These trends evidently indicate, if not differential access to these types, then consistent patterning in their consumption relating to site type.

During Phase 1 of this project it was posited that if decorated samian vessels were valued more highly than other vessels both in terms of cost and cultural evaluation, the incidence of such items may be useful as an index of site status, as well as of site 'identity' (cf. Evans 1996b, 57).

As part of the work for Phase 1, the percentage within samian groups formed by decorated vessels was calculated for a sample of 41 assemblages (these being instances where appropriate data, conducive to the production of such figures, had been published). This study established that there were marked differences between the proportions of decorated vessels occurring at different types of site. Major civil centres and sites associated with the Roman military, for instance, had significantly higher proportions of decorated samian, relative to plain samian, than other types of site. Conversely, samian assemblages from smaller nucleated sites and rural sites were found to have markedly lower percentages of decorated forms (Willis 1998a, Table 3). In other words there was a higher consumption of decorated bowls at military sites and sites at the top of the settlement hierarchy, implying that such types were probably particularly associated with wealth, social display and identity.

While this work revealed a clear structure in this respect, some trends in the evidence suggested avenues for further enquiry. Phase 2 of the project has enabled a much larger sample of assemblages to be assessed, allowing these trends to be explored more fully (cf. Willis 1998a, 105).

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