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8. Samian in Use: Samian Forms, Usage and Practice

8.1 Introduction: samian forms and functional use

As is well known, samian pottery appears in many forms and these span a number of generic classes, as we define them today, such as bowls, dishes, cups, etc. (e.g. Oswald and Pryce 1920; Webster 1996). The database verifies the variety of samian form types that occur. Some form types were more common than others, while some are rare. Forms changed over time, and so only a proportion of samian form types were current in any one period. Hence site samian groups are often composed of a fairly circumscribed number of form types. The development from one type to another is now well characterised (e.g. Drag. 18 to 18/31 to 31). Why forms changed is, of course, a subject for investigation (cf. below).

The character and standardisation of samian forms was intentional, and is consistent with norms and ideas seen in the material culture and literature of the Roman metropolitan world as to how pottery should appear. Kiln site graffiti demonstrates that specific samian forms were evidently designed for certain uses, and hence at this level at least a relationship existed between producers and consumers, albeit theoretical (see Dannell 2002). How consumers defined or used samian vessels in the provinces is another matter, and a focus for attention in this section.

In most cases the generic form classes into which we classify pottery in the western world today (e.g. 'bowl', 'platter' etc.) are recognisable intuitively. Not least, this is because these terms relate to vessel proportions (which can be expressed as ratios between height and diameter (e.g. Orton 1982, 33-6)). How vessels were used in the past is always an area warranting exploration rather than assumption, for this is a domain in which it is possible to slip into ethnocentric and other types of assumption. The literature of the last twenty years examining artefacts and society has emphasised the open possibilities of artefact definitions and functions, with an acknowledgement that artefact use and definitions are context situated (Shanks and Tilley 1987; 1992). The strong emergence of phenomenological perspectives in archaeology have deepened this awareness. One cannot then, normally, be certain about the functions of particular forms and types at any site at any time. Hence it is important to 'work from the ground up' in this field, and to focus on such areas as the context of finds at individual sites and site types (cf. Willis forthcoming a), to search for trends in the data that might indicate repeated practice (see below), and to look at aspects such as vessel wear (Section 8.7). At a general level it is established that samian vessels were particularly prized items (e.g. Section 7). They were evidently intended to serve as table wares and for other functions in which they were socially visible (cf. Section 10). The likelihood is that samian vessels were used with some regularity for drinking and serving in shared/communal meals and at festive events (cf. Hawthorne 1997), while being open to other uses and definitions (cf. Willis 1998b).

The incidence of form types per site type is considered to identify any similarities or differences between types of site, and to assess their potential meaning. Information on the incidence of samian by form housed in the project database can be explored to assist this type of enquiry. The database can be interrogated along a number of lines relating to the incidence of forms. Some case studies are pursued here in order to show the utility of the information in the database. The composition by form of samian assemblages from specific sites is compared with the general patterns suggested by the information in the database. The aggregate data in Excel could be sorted so that the relative frequency of specific forms can be established for any particular year; moreover, this exercise may be undertaken for specific types of site such as rural sites or smaller civil centres, and a case example follows.

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