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8.4.4 The potential function/s of samian mortaria types; the potential significance of the archaeology of the form

All three of the specialised samian mortaria forms were potentially for use in social situations and may have been no less socially visible than other samian forms. They may have been employed for specific purposes at the dining table in the course of meals. The fact that the three samian mortaria forms emerged at the same time in the second half of the 2nd century might signal that there had been a development in dining practice or cuisine. Indeed, it is during this period that coarse ware mortaria also become particularly popular (cf. Rush 1997). All three of the samian forms share the same general appearance of samian vessels and Drag. 43 and Drag. 45 at least had extra, elaborated features, with barbotine decoration or zoomorphic spouts respectively, enhancing their visual impact.

Conventionally, mortaria of the Roman period are taken to be mixing and grinding vessels associated with 'standard' Roman cuisine (cf. Webster 1969, 10). Samian mortaria may relate to particular culinary practices. Herein lies an important potential strand of their archaeological significance. There is no evident precedent in the Iron Age of north-west Europe for these vessels (cf. Okun 1989, 44). This led Reece to state about mortaria that, 'whatever they were used for seems to be a new process in the kitchen but one which gradually catches on in Britain' (1988, 27). Thus their occurrence at sites has been seen as an index of changed food preparation practices and of altering dietary norms (e.g. Baatz 1977). However, since ceramic mortaria were seemingly more popular in Britain than in Roman Gaul, Spain or Italy (cf. Hartley 1998), this rather implies that the class cannot necessarily be regarded as diagnostic of a Roman style of diet.

The use of these vessels, however, in every instance will have been context related, and it cannot be assumed that they were invariably employed as mixing and grinding vessels, nor simply with regard to food. On the other hand the presence of dense grit on the interior surface was evidently for trituration; it is very frequently found to have been worn (e.g. examples from Great Chesterford, Essex), often heavily, with the red-slipped surface also worn away. They had flanges or changes in the angle of their walls that would have facilitated them being held firmly if used for mixing or grinding. Similarly these vessels were robust and would therefore be able to survive pressure and attrition. Thus it would seem that their attributes were consistent with a mixing and/or grinding function. There are references to such vessels by Cato and Columella, with the former mentioning the mortarium and bread making, and the latter noting the preparation of food using mortaria. Graffiti on vessels of this form from La Graufesenque and Corbridge describe them as mortars (Kay Hartley, pers. comm.). On the other hand, the presence of spouts would be unnecessary if it were dry foods that were being prepared (see below), and it may be observed that if these vessels were indeed mortars, then remarkably few pestles have been found. In practice, grinding and food preparation may have been the most common use of this vessel type (samian and non-samian) in most regions. It is likely however, that they were often employed in a pragmatic manner, conditioned by circumstances.

Jeremy Evans has recently noted the conspicuously high frequency of mortaria (principally coarse ware mortaria) at rural sites in Wales and the north of England (e.g. Evans 1995c). He has suggested (pers. comm.) that local communities were employing these vessels for a traditional use, previously performed with a different type of container. It occurs to the present author that an explanation for this pattern in Wales and northern Britain may relate to Felix Oswald's suggestion made in the 1940s (Oswald 1944) that the typology of mortaria happened to make them highly suitable for the production of milk products (curds and whey, yoghurt, cheeses, etc.). Oswald suggested that because of their size, durability, open form, spouts (for draining curds and whey) and trituration grits, where bacteria could reside in niches (to facilitate milk fermentation), they were highly suited to such an end. This potential use might account for their adoption among rural communities where milk products may have been generated. Provisional investigations of food residues permeating the fabric of mortaria have shown the presence of animal proteins in several instances (e.g. work by John Evans); more studies of this sort are required in order to establish patterns, or indeed a lack of patterning. Bearing these points in mind, though, this may be an instance of the adoption of a Roman material form by sectors of the provincial community for a use other than its conventionally ascribed function. In this connection it is relevant to note that samian mortaria occur widely at sites lower down the social hierarchy, that is, at 'Small Towns', roadside settlements and at rural sites (see below). This pattern of distribution differs somewhat from that of coarse ware mortaria which according to Rush was more centred upon military sites and the main urban centres (Rush 1997). More work needs to be undertaken to establish how the distribution of samian mortaria mirrors or differs from that of coarse ware mortaria, from which their uses may well have differed.

Dickinson (1997c) notes in the case of samian mortaria at York that, 'Whether they were all used for culinary purposes or whether they also had some industrial or even ritual use must remain an unanswered question for the present' (1997c, 944 and 947). The suggestion that these vessels may have been used in ritual practices finds an echo in the instance of two Drag. 45 mortaria found in the Carrawburgh mithraeum; like York, a site associated with the Roman army. The vessels were found in two discrete deposits, one by the door, the other in the area of the apse, and were fragmented but largely reconstructable. It was observed in the report that the vessels' lion-head spouts will have been significant within the context of the worship of Mithras (Richmond and Gillam 1951, 70-1). Other evidence of ritual deposits/structured deposition was recorded at this site (see Appendix 8.1).

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