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9.6 Samian vessels in graves: the 'condition' of samian vessels found in graves

The condition of pottery vessels recovered from graves is potentially informative. Often it is observed to differ in character to pottery from normal settlement deposits, and this extends to samian as well. A tendency has been noticed in terms of 'old' vessels appearing in graves, or vessels that are worn or 'seconds' (e.g. Biddle 1967, 231-3 and 246-8). The pottery may be burnt, or have been intentionally damaged prior to inclusion in the grave.

The presence of 'seconds' varies from cemetery to cemetery (e.g. Going 1988) and is perhaps more evident among coarse wares. The occurrence of samian 'seconds' in the form of imperfect vessels is rare, given that quality control was indisputably undertaken at source (e.g. Dannell 2002).

The occurrence of 'old' pottery vessels (sometimes referred to as 'heirlooms') in burials is widely attested (e,g. Barber and Bowsher 2000, 122). 'Old' samian vessels interred with younger items have been regularly noted in reports on cemeteries. Recently Wallace has compiled a list of such instances, which emphasises the fact that samian vessels were curated over long periods of time and that such items were considered suitable for inclusion in graves (Wallace forthcoming). Burial 47 at Skeleton Green, for instance, contained a Flavian form 36 together with an Antonine Drag. 46 cup from Eastern Gaul (Partridge 1981).

Information on the condition and quality of the pottery in graves needs to be more systematically gathered and reported before we are in a position to assess the frequency of worn vessels in funerary contexts. Hence reporting degrees of wear to rims and bases may prove helpful for subsequent syntheses. The inclusion of old and/or worn vessels in graves is appropriate in so far as they are a testimony to life-processes and biography. In contrast, fresh/unused samian seems very often to have been used in potential ritual/ceremonial deposits (cf. Willis 1997a; observation of samian from contexts at Great Chesterford).

Very little of the samian present in the graves recorded in Appendix 9.1 is reported as burnt in any way, and there is only limited evidence that samian vessels were burned on the cremation pyre. Samian items among the grave filling of the barrow at Knob's Crook, Woodlands, Dorset (Fowler 1965; Appendix 9.1) were thought to have been burned on the funeral pyre. Peter Wenham suggested that samian had been burned on the pyre at the Trentholme Drive cemetery, York (Wenham 1968, 52-4). The practice is certainly attested on the continent, as, for instance, at the northern cemetery at Asciburgium on the Rhine (Rasbach 1997).

Damaged vessels from graves are fairly regularly encountered. Often this is evidently deliberate mutilation or 'wasting' damage through piercing the vessel, sawing or clipping or smashing (cf. Monaghan 1998, 852; Barber and Bowsher 2000; Biddulph 2002, 104-5). Samian vessels were subject to this treatment. Going reports, for instance, that at Chequers Lane, Great Dunmow, the majority of the vessels 'killed' in this manner were samian (1988, 23). Going notes that, 'The communities in Dunmow and Braughing broke vessels before burying them with the dead. Few of the detached sherds seem to have been buried and thus pressure fractures can be ruled out ... More robust vessels, such as the Drag. 33, are hard to break ... These were spoiled by sawing a 'V' shaped notch in the rim (e.g. a vessel from Braughing grave BLI: Partridge 1981, fig. 102)' (Going 1988, 22-3); this latter practice was also conducted vis à vis funerary samian vessels at Mucking (Chris Going, pers. comm.). Many largely reconstructable samian vessels from Great Chesterford recovered in the 19th century have sections of the rim missing, and it is likely that a proportion at least come from burials. Some cemeteries show little or no examples of this phenomenon but, as Biddulph points out, the practice was widespread and the motivation/s behind it way well have been widely shared. Going contends that while one might suggest that this damage was inflicted to discourage grave-robbing it is more likely that this was a ritual associated with discard, the release of the spirit of the vessel, and the retention perhaps of 'lucky sherds' (1988, 22-3). Biddulph notes that damaging vessels in this manner will have altered their functional possibilities and definition (2002, 105). Vessels already damaged might have been chosen for burial.

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