[Back] [Forward] [Contents] [Home]

9. Samian and Human Burials

9.1 Introduction

This section examines the presence of samian vessels within graves and explores characteristics of samian ware among grave goods. The archaeology of burials in the Roman period is complex. There are no simple patterns or interpretations. There are regional and chronological variations in burial rites, with some regions having meagre numbers of burials of this period identified to date. Moreover, archaeologists have come to realise that interpreting the remains that survive to be excavated needs to be approached with caution regarding what the evidence represents (Millett 1993a; Biddulph 2002). Not least, burial events involve symbolism which may not be readily apparent to archaeologists. Each burial will be the result of a unique configuration of human events, actions, practice and sentiment; every burial marks a human status passage and attitudes of the living. Within these processes and actions, nonetheless, the chance exists of identifying patterns instructive of beliefs and cultural definitions. It has been possible, of course, to identify repeated aspects in burials and cemeteries, and, with provisos, these are recognised as 'rites'. Samian vessels are known to occur as occasional inclusions within graves, being placed items along with other grave goods. This section looks at the presence of samian in burials with a view to establishing whether any trends can be recognised. Certain aspects are examined, such as the chronology of samian within graves, the types of vessel being included and their condition. Data on the occurrence of samian within burials have been systematically collected, drawing on a sample of 30 cemeteries/burial environments. These sites are located in the south of Britain, which is the area in which the majority of graves of the Roman era are presently known. The presence of samian at these environments is listed in Appendix 9.1, and this sample is analysed in the following sections.

Samian within graves in Britain is an area which has seen little previous synthetic study, and is largely uncharacterised within the literature. Examination of the evidence in the course of the present study shows that there are a series of strong and striking patterns in the incidence of samian as a grave good. This patterning occurs over a wide geographical area and through time, and is outlined in the following sections. These trends in the occurrence of this pottery occur despite the 'uniqueness' of each human burial, the existence of the sub-regional burial 'traditions', and of other cultural variables. This suggests the existence of some broad over-arching social definitions of samian ware from place to place and through time, and of what was appropriate in terms of samian within the milieux of death, funerals, burial and the after-life. Accordingly, a number of implications can be highlighted.

9.2 The chronology of samian as an inclusion within graves

The inclusion of pottery in graves of the Roman era develops from the La Tène III practice of burials with ceramics. Samian occurs mainly in graves dating to the period during which the ware was being imported into Britain in large quantities, which was its period of most intense use. Hence the majority of graves with samian date to the period c. AD 50-200. Graves dating to the Claudian period or earlier that contain samian or early sigillata are rare in Britain. A cremation at the New Cemetery site, Heybridge, Essex, contained an Arretine platter used to cover the top of the cremation urn (Appendix 9.1; Wickenden 1986; Kenrick 1986), but this is an unusual instance. Samian is very rare as a grave good at the King Harry Lane cemetery spanning the early to middle 1st century AD (Stead and Rigby 1989), and among the burials at Stanway, south-west of Colchester dating, broadly, to the mid 1st century (Philip and Nina Crummy, pers. comm.). This might in part be thought to reflect the fact that only very modest amounts of samian were entering Britain in the pre-Conquest period, while the quantities may not have been particularly large during the Claudian period. However, the infrequency of samian at the King Harry Lane site would seem to reflect an exercise of 'cultural preference' as graves contained Gallo-Belgic fine wares, emblematic perhaps of social affinities between Iron Age Hertfordshire and the region of north-east Gaul (cf. Willis 1998a).

Tuffreau-Libre and Jacques likewise noted that samian was rarely found in early to mid 1st century AD graves in the Atrébatic region of north-east Gaul (1985, 143).

By the Flavian period, samian becomes much more common (or rather visible) as a grave good, reflecting its wide social distribution and import in very large quantities at this time. Samian becomes less common as a grave good from around c. AD 200. This in part reflects a decline in the supply of samian to Britain from this date, but is also related to other developments. At around this time there is a general shift away from cremation to inhumation, with less grave goods being included in the inhumation grave; an alteration in the rites of funerals must have been under way. Where ceramic items are present associated with inhumations, they occur in ones and twos, as at the Butt Road cemetery, Colchester (cf. Crummy et al. 1993). Similarly, in the case of York, Monaghan notes that the majority of pottery found in sepulchral deposits is not known to be associated with inhumations (1998, 851). The spread of Christianity during the 3rd and 4th centuries will have been a further factor, since this religion did not sanction grave goods. The absence of samian vessels from the eastern cemetery, London, has provoked discussion (Barber and Bowsher 2000, 122 and 124); the simplest explanation is a chronological one, in so far as sections of the cemetery excavated contained burials which post-date the main floruit of importation of samian to Britain. This might not be the entire answer in this case, since a proportion of ceramic vessels used as grave goods around Britain during the Roman era are markedly 'old' (cf. 9.5.3). Not least among such 'old' vessels are samian forms, such that it is not entirely uncommon to find 2nd century samian items in 3rd and even 4th century graves, but this was not so in the case of London's eastern cemetery on the evidence to date; this case is considered further below (in Section 9.5.4).

[Back] [Forward] [Contents] [Home]

© Internet Archaeology URL: http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue17/1/9.1_2.html
Last updated: Mon Mar 7 2005