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7.3.9 The relative frequency of decorated samian vessels at rural sites

Some 13 groups from rural sites are listed in Table 35, supplemented by 8 groups appearing in Tables 37 and 39. The sample of 13 groups from rural sites in Table 41 suggests that the average proportion of decorated vessels present within such groups is around 20% (Table 42). The medial percentage for these 13 groups is consistent, at 21%. Surprisingly, therefore, the average for rural sites is greater than that from the samples from smaller civil centres. Only three of the 13 rural groups have percentages above 28%, two coming from the Snettisham bypass (29% and 33%) with the other site being Maxey (not far from Snettisham). Snettisham has not only a high percentage of decorated vessels over time, but also has some unusual forms represented (Flitcroft 2001; Dickinson 2001a). The samian evidence, therefore, implies a site of some status, though there is no evidence for it developing into a villa in the mid to late Roman period as occurs at some other sites.

The modest percentages of decorated samian at sites such as Haddon Lodge and Tort Hill East (both Cambridgeshire) are likely to be typical of rural farmstead type sites (Table 37). This is also the case with the site at Buildings Farm, on the fringe of modern Great Dunmow, where again the proportions of decorated samian present are modest (Table 37). The latter site lies near to the Roman smaller civil centre at Great Dunmow but is evidently spatially separate from it and appears to represent a rural complex.

The lower frequency of decorated samian vessels at rural sites following (in many instances) their initial prominence was discussed previously (Willis 1998a). It is consistent with a general shift towards utilitarian pottery suites at rural sites from the 2nd century. Jeremy Evans has noted that during the middle and late Roman periods many of these rural sites are characterised by low percentages for all fine wares, with pottery, in contrast to other types of site, not being used to display status (Evans 1995b).

The rural site at Slonk Hill, Shoreham, which has a strong religious-ritual element, has conspicuously high proportions of decorated samian (Table 37) which distinguish it from other rural sites. Whether this high proportion of decorated samian relates to the likely religious-ritual activities at this site is unclear. Many rural sites and smaller civil centres will have had associated shrines/temples which will have helped shape their identity and which may have influenced the types of artefact found in their vicinity. The presence of such foci at rural sites and smaller civil centres is not always apparent; it is not clear what impact the presence of such elements had on samian consumption at rural sites and smaller centres, though samian appears, generally, not to have been particularly associated with temples in Britain.

Consumers at some, though not all, rural sites which later develop into villas acquired high proportions of decorated samian in the years following the Claudian invasion. This was so at Rudston, East Yorkshire, where South Gaulish decorated vessels (13) outnumber the South Gaulish plain vessels represented (Pengelly 1980). This pattern, however, is not sustained at Rudston during the 2nd century (Pengelly 1980, 37; cf. below).

Samples from villas, or from excavations beside such sites, seem generally to yield samian groups with proportions of decorated ware no higher than at more humble farmsteads. At Salford Priors, Warwickshire, where a villa also develops, Dickinson notes that decorated vessels account for only '5% of the samian which, in a large assemblage, would be a reliable indicator of an impoverished, or non-domestic, site' (1999c, 106; Table 39). At Lullingstone villa, Kent, just 2.6% of the 76 samian vessels represented from Southern Gaul were decorated (a curiously low proportion), while the equivalent figure for the Central and East Gaulish samian (311 vessels) is a moderate 13% decorated (Meates 1987; Simpson 1987).

It was noted previously that the samian from Phase II at Fishbourne, during its period of opulence (c. AD 75-100), included a remarkably low proportion of decorated ware (Willis 1998a, 110, table 3; a proportion of 15.7%). A possible explanation put forward for this was that the role of decorated samian bowls on the table was perhaps here fulfilled by higher status vessels in glass or metal, perhaps of silver (1998a, 110; cf. Griffiths 1989, 76; cf. Evans 1995b, 110). Evans (1995b) had suggested that this preference might be true at villa sites generally. The situation might not be straightforward, though, since bronze and silver tarnish and in addition may affect the taste of consumables (cf. Groves 1993, 130-1). Hence metal types might be used to contain dryer foodstuffs and for display, and samian bowls used to eat from or for more liquid foods.

The samples available at present are not ideal but point to a trend. In addition to the low proportions of decorated forms (essentially bowls), noted above, can be cited further cases. At both Whitton, South Glamorgan, and Bignor, West Sussex, during 'proto-villa' phases the proportions of decorated samian are very low (cf. Table 35). This is also the case at Rudston in the period before the construction of the villa, despite the strong showing of decorated ware of 1st century date (Pengelly 1980). Similarly, at Winterton, North Lincolnshire, the proportion of decorated samian during the early phase of the villa is again low at just 15.6% (cf. Table 35). In contrast, apparently more humble rural settlements, to judge from their architecture, have greater proportions of decorated bowls, as at Maxey and Brockworth; this is despite the fact that these bowls were almost certainly more expensive than plain forms (cf. Table 35).

Perhaps therefore the use of non-samian tablewares was fairly widespread among villa society in Britain, especially for large containers. Future study might investigate this question further.

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