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8.7 Wear Patterns on Samian Vessels: Use and Function

8.7.1 Introduction

A small proportion of samian vessels and sherds amongst site assemblages show evidence of wear where localized abrasion has removed the slip and even caused attrition of the fabric of the vessel. This wearing of vessel interiors appears to relate to repeated processes wherein the vessels in question are being subject to a repeated practice, being used, presumably, in the preparation of foodstuffs. Hence attention to wear appearing on vessels can provide a guide to the uses to which they were being put. Samian is a particularly good indicator of repeated use as this can, on the one hand, lead to the conspicuous removal of the distinctive slip, while on the other, the mainly open forms of samian ware were more likely to have their surfaces worn by contact with utensils than are closed forms. Some data on the occurrence of wear upon the interior of samian vessels has been gathered in the course of this Project. The collected data represents, however, a very modest sample. The small size of the sample is due mainly to the fact that information regarding wear upon vessels and sherds has, until recently, not tended to appear in published reports upon excavated sites and their samian. There are two likely reasons for this. To begin with wear is only recognizable in a small proportion of cases, particularly when sherds are quite large, and its occasional presence is not surprising and might therefore be thought unnoteworthy. Secondly, this is an outcome of the way in which samian has been reported in publications: with so much to report from excavations, particularly from military sites and towns full lists of samian, with wear noted, have not been published. The potential value though of this information justifies the mention of wear to samian, in reports.

Examination of wear patterns is a neglected area despite the obvious data this evidence can provide as to the functions that vessels were being put, especially when the evidence is collated. Brenda Dickinson has pointed-out some significant aspects of wear and vessel function in a number of recent reports, while Ed Biddulph (2001) has drawn attention to wear patterns on samian cups in particular, discussing their meaning and conducting experiments using replica samian vessels produced by Gilbert Burroughes (Biddulph 2003). Biddulph has found that modern replica samian is quite resistant to scoring and wear and it is entirely likely that much samian of the Roman era was equally resilient, being robust through firing at high temperature. This may explain why examples of wear are only infrequently identified amongst site assemblages. That samian items with worn interiors are uncommonly encountered may mean that these vessels were generally not used in ways that would substantively abrade them. They would not be abraded if, for instance they were used for containing and presenting foods at a table (such as large bowls) or were used as plates without knives, or as liquid containers/drinking vessels. To leave wear marks, mixing, grinding and stirring processes within samian vessels would also have had to involve hard utensils, perhaps of metal, and/or hard substances requiring effort and pressure to break down or homogenize. Another possibility in accounting for the infrequency of vessels with worn interiors is that only certain selected vessels may have been used for these processes, and so whilst these individual vessels became worn others in a household did not.

8.7.2 Samian forms and wear patterns

Instances of wear noted in the course of the Project are documented in Appendix 8.4 and summarized in Table 58. There are only c. 60 cases recorded here. This low aggregate is largely due to the fact that aspects such as wear have tended to be reported in publications only in recent years; nor were instances exhaustively searched out during this Project. On a more positive note the listing here brings together a body of data recording this aspect probably for the first time in Britain. The sample comes from a wide variety of sites. It needs to be enlarged to ensure that the trends suggested by Table 58 are reliable. More cases are needed from all types of site, but particularly from military sites, extra-mural settlements outside military installations, and major civil centres. Nonetheless some emergent aspects may be highlighted.

8.7.3 Samian forms with few instances of wear (decorated bowls, plain bowls and platters)

One striking feature of the data is the fact that there are few cases of decorated samian bowls (eg. Drag. 29, 30 or 37) showing interior wear. In fact there are only 4 instances, and these are all from just one site, Great Chesterford. This is a minuscule number, considering the huge numbers of such vessels amongst collections. As a proportion of the present sample these instances account for just 7% of the sample. Given that decorated vessels form substantial fractions of samian groups at all types of site (cf. Section 7.3; Tables 35 and 42) it is apparent that the percentage with wear register a disproportionately low total. In other words, decorated bowls were apparently not normally used in ways that would lead to the abrasion of their interior surfaces. This finding is consistent therefore with their being usually employed as tableware containers, for serving and perhaps as drinking vessels either shared or individual. Equally, large plain bowls were seemingly virtually never used in ways that would effect interior wear. There is one exception in the occurrence of four bowls of Drag. 31R from the 1991 excavations at Alchester, which do have worn interiors (Dickinson 2001d, 278); this may be a site specific instance.

Of the other generic forms the data suggest that cups and small plain bowls are associated with wear. Platters such as the common Drag. 15/17, 15/17R, 18 and 18R forms of the first century AD and the later Walters 79 and 79R are represented by just one example in Table 58. Their open nature with comparatively wide floors will have made them unsuitable for mixing, grinding and stirring substances, and so the absence of cases of wear upon these forms is entirely explicable.

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