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9.3 The role of ceramic vessels as grave goods

In the case of cremation burials ceramic vessels were frequently used to contain the cremated bones and ashes. When ceramic vessels were used for this purpose it is clear that the great majority of vessels employed in this manner were closed forms, normally jars, but occasionally flagons and beaker type forms were used (cf. Philpott 1991, 30). Samian vessels were hardly ever used to contain cremated remains. Only a small proportion of samian vessels, of course, were closed forms, but where closed samian forms occur in graves they were seemingly not used for this purpose (cf. Appendix 9.1). It seems that samian vessels were appropriate for grave furnishing, but not for the housing of cremated remains.

Cremation burials with a cinerary urn and no other pottery are not infrequently encountered. Often, however, among the archaeologically visible cremations of the Roman period, particularly in the south-east of England, pottery vessels occur as grave 'furniture' in small groups, as they sometimes do with inhumations. Where more than a single vessel occurs there is often a combination of dish/es and/or beaker/s, with cup/s and/or flagon/s (cf. Philpott 1991, tables 10 and 11), as, for instance, at Each End, Ash, Kent, 1992 (Savage 1998, 134). Samian vessels in graves are examples of these types. Savage (1998) notes that these 'ceramic suites' are something of a 'standard pattern', which is true for Kent and, indeed, elsewhere in south-east England. The number of vessels present within a grave shows variation (Philpott 1991, 32), but the great majority have between one and four vessels, including the cinerary urn.

Vessels placed in graves seem clearly to relate to eating (in the form of dishes and platters) and drinking (cups, beaker and liquid containers) if, that is, one follows the conventional interpretation as to what such forms represent in terms of function (cf. Going 1988). Even, on occasions, these vessels and other items are arranged in a manner suggesting a place setting for a meal. This was apparently so in the case of cremation Grave 2 at Grange Road, Winchester (Biddle 1967, 231 and 246). The remains of foodstuffs included in graves in the form of animal bones or marine mollusc shells commonly occur (cf. Appendix 9.1). Conventionally, the occurrence of ceramic grave goods, and sometimes glass or metal versions of these generic forms, and of food, is interpreted as representing a meal, or even a banquet, provided for the dead person on their journey to the underworld (e.g. Biddle 1967; Hicks 1998). Biddulph has pointed out that this established interpretation of the presence of such vessels is based on a rather one-dimensional view, founded on a series of assumptions (2002). He urges caution when discussing the presence of pottery in graves, highlighting the potential for ceramic vessels within such contexts to have various meanings.

Not infrequently, samian vessels present in graves occur inverted, overlaying other vessels, usually closed forms, and will have performed a 'covering' role. Coarse ware types were also employed sporadically in this way. It is not known why this was undertaken by mourners and whether vessels included in this way are best seen as lids or whether they were regarded by mourners as still retaining a potential for their previous functions.

Ultimately the role of grave goods, as understood by mourners/those actively including the pots etc., may have varied and been multiple-faceted. Analysis and interpretation of the purpose of pottery in graves should aim to build from first principles, avoiding assumptions. It is certain, though, that rites involving the inclusion of pottery with burials were widely practised in the south of England in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD and that samian types were differentially selected for inclusion within graves.

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