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9.4 The frequency of samian vessels in burials

There has been little previous examination of the general frequency of samian vessels in burials, despite their apparent regular occurrence as grave furnishings. In part this is due to the fact that there have been comparatively few synthetic studies of burials in Roman Britain. In addition, the evidence to hand has often been disparate and varies in quality. In the case of York, for instance, Monaghan states that, 'samian is very rarely known to be included in any type of burial, although there are a considerable number of substantially intact samian vessels held in the Yorkshire Museum which may have originated in graves' (1998, 852). A group of burnt samian vessels from Blossom Street are believed to come from 'sepulchral deposits' of some type (Monaghan 1998, 852). In this section an attempt is made to establish the frequency with which graves were furnished with samian vessels, albeit on the basis of a sample of moderate size.

That the composition of each individual group of grave furnishings, from whichever cemetery, varies in detail complicates the search for patterning and has perhaps meant that the potential value of exploring the frequency of samian has not been realised. A review of the incidence of graves with samian among 16 cemetery samples produces the results presented in Table 60. The graves represented are principally cremations, in line with the prevailing rite during the early to mid Roman era. This table is a beginning: a clearer picture will emerge when it becomes possible to add further excavated cemeteries in the future. Of the three cemetery samples listed associated with major civil centres, one is thought to be late Roman and is represented by inhumations; no samian vessels are associated with these burials (cf. 9.2). The other two samples, from Canterbury and Chichester, overlap in date and have similar proportions of graves with samian, specifically 15.4% and 11.5% (cf. Table 60). It is possible that such proportions will prove, with future research, to be typical of cemeteries associated with urban centres/populations. The impression gained is that at these sites samian was a reasonably regular inclusion within grave groups, but such furnishing was not prominent nor frequent; Monaghan's evaluation of the frequency of samian among burials at York (see above) accords with the evidence from these two samples. This occasional presence of samian in graves at urban locations might reflect a basic level of provision in grave goods at major centres, conforming to a rite, or possibly may be a function of modest economic and social standing either of the deceased being interred or among the mourners. The graves of the richer citizens were located perhaps elsewhere, in distinct zones (e.g. by major roadways), and the present sample does not include such zones.

The nine samples from cemeteries associated with smaller centres are, typically, composed of modest numbers of graves. The data from this sample indicate strongly that samian vessels occur in around half the burials from such cemeteries, independent of both their date within the period c. AD 50 to AD 250, and their geographic location. Again, verification of the apparent trend is necessary through the enhancement of the sample as further cemeteries associated with smaller centres are excavated and published. On the basis of the present sample it appears that burials associated with smaller centres ('Small Towns', roadside settlements, etc.) are much more likely to be furnished with samian than is the case with graves associated with major civil centres. This is an interesting finding, given that samian is so strongly represented in settlement deposits at the major civil centres (cf. Section 7). A number of graves have more than one samian vessel present, adding to the prominence of samian from cemeteries of this category. Considering the pottery from, or likely to be from, the cemetery by the roadside settlement at Hassocks, Lyne notes that, for the period c. AD 150-270, samian accounts for around a quarter of all (surviving) cemetery vessels (Lyne 1994, 80), which is a very high proportion given its typical infrequency among settlement deposits from such sites.

There are four cemeteries associated with rural sites for which equivalent data are listed (cf. Table 60). These include the small number of burials at Bancroft which date to the period of the Iron Age-Roman transition, and which may, therefore, be earlier in emphasis than other cemeteries represented in Table 60. Among the twelve inhumation graves excavated at Whitcombe (1965-7), only one contained samian. The other two groups come from Alton, High Street and Boxfield Farm, Chells. At Alton two graves from a total of nine examined contained samian (22.2%) while half of the graves at Boxfield Farm had samian present. These latter two cases suggest that the frequency of samian vessels within graves at rural sites might, generally, be as high as at the smaller civil centres. The high level of frequency of samian among burials at sites 'lower down' the settlement hierarchy demonstrates that this type of pottery was preferentially selected for inclusion in graves. This implies that though samian is an infrequent find within deposits associated with settlement activity at smaller centres and rural sites (cf. Tables 23, 24, 27 and 28), it was widely regarded differentially from other contemporary pottery types and may have been ascribed a valued status.

Among the 30 cemetery environments examined in the course of this study (Appendix 9.1), the numbers of graves with samian were recorded by the type of site or location with which the cemetery was associated. The aggregate numbers of graves with samian are specified in Table 59, which also records the proportion of burials with samian per site type. The data presented in Table 59 emphasise the trends by site type outlined above. This way of presenting the data might over-emphasise the frequency of samian in graves in rural locations by degree since there is a tendency for the more elaborately furnished graves from rural settings (not uncommonly single 'isolated' burials) to be identified, reported and published more often than the simpler burials (and these published graves are among noted burials in Appendix 9.1 on which the table draws). The Bradford Peverell western road link site (Chowne 1987) is excluded from this analysis; this rural site produced one grave with samian together with others of Roman and possibly pre-Roman date (Appendix 9.1).

Cemeteries Associated with:Number of Cemetery EnvironmentsNumber of Burials with Pottery Number of Burials with Samian Vessels PresentProportion of Burials with Samian
Major civil centres





Smaller civil centres





Rural sites/environs*





Table 59: Summary of the frequency of graves with samian by site type (data drawn from the sample of 30 cemetery environments documented in Appendix 9.1)

* excluding the graves from the western link road site, Bradford Peverell)

It is very rare that samian vessels occur in graves as the only pottery type present. One instance where this is so is the barrow burial at Knob's Crook, Woodlands, Dorset (see Appendix 9.1), with six to eight samian vessels represented. Dating to the early Flavian period, the samian sherds from this cremation burial are burnt and are thought to be pyre debris, along with other items. This burial is unusual for this part of Dorset and it was speculated that this represented the grave of a Roman auxiliary soldier (Fowler 1965), though this need not be so. Just three other instances where samian occurs as the only pottery type in a burial are recorded among the sample of burials collated in Appendix 9.1. These are Cremation 1 at Chequers Lane, Great Dunmow, which included a Drag. 31 dish, though this burial had been disturbed and other vessels may once have been present (Wickenden 1988), Burial 5 at Walls Field, Baldock, with a cup and platter of samian, together with a glass jug (Stead and Rigby 1986), and the 'badly disturbed' burial, no. 68, at St Pancras, Chichester, which contained a Drag. 46 dish (Down 1971, 99). Evidently, a habit prevailed through space and time: to include samian vessels in a grave was a widespread practice that was fairly common, but, in contrast, to include a samian vessel as the only ceramic item was exceptional, and seemingly, not normally appropriate.

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