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9.8 Interpreting samian forms in graves

The furnishing of graves with plain samian as opposed to decorated forms raises a series of questions. Are decorated bowls excluded for economic reasons, since they were likely to have been more expensive than plain forms? One interpretation of the use of 'seconds' in graves (cf. above) is because it was 'economic' to use defective pots rather than usable items which might have to be replaced with a new purchase; in these terms to avoid using a decorated vessel may have been to 'make a saving'.

As observed above (Section 9.1), interpreting funerary assemblages is not straightforward and generalisations may be unwise. Interpretations must be grounded in an analytical approach to the evidence and will remain largely speculative. It is conceivable that if pottery and other grave goods relate to provision of food and sustenance, whether symbolic or actual, then it might follow that the pottery forms (samian or otherwise) present within graves should relate to 'the individual' person or persons buried. In this way it is possible to interpret some funerary pottery as related to individual servings. The samian forms present suggest that the types included are often not about collective meals or sharing during meals, be these meals at the burial ceremony, on the journey of the deceased to the underworld, or in the underworld. Gritted samian mortaria (Drag. forms 43 and 45) are also absent, reflecting the virtual absence of coarse ware mortaria from graves; this suggests that ceramic grave goods were to do with food consumption, not preparation (cf. Biddulph 2002).

Examination of the samian forms occurring in burials reveals that they are almost invariably small vessels suitable for one individual. Among the sample of 207 vessels from the 30 cemetery environments examined here, the following ratios occur (Table 70 below):

Small VesselsNumber of ExamplesLarge VesselsNumber of Examples
Drag. 18:


Drag. 18R:


Drag. 18/31:


Drag 18/31R:


Drag. 31:


Drag. 31R:


Walters 79:


Walters 79R:


Small decorated beakers:


Decorated bowls:


Table 70: Numbers of smaller and larger samian vessels in graves among the sample of 30 cemetery environments documented in Appendix 9.1

* may be a Drag. 31 rather than a 31R.

Table 70 above shows the smaller dish/platter forms Drag. 18, 18/31 and 31 to be frequent and the larger dishes/platters (Drag. 18R and 18/31R) to be infrequent. Drag. 18R and 18/31R are not particularly frequent forms within settlement deposits, but overall, the trend is clear: larger forms are under-represented among samian from funerary deposits, relative to their incidence among settlement deposits. Evidently the forms that one may suspect were used in shared/collective drinking and eating, or for passing round foods and drinks, namely large dishes, platters and bowls, are absent. The forms that occur are those which are appropriate for a solitary being or 'soul', on a solo journey to the after-life. When samian vessels occur in some numbers in graves, as in east Hampshire, they comprise mainly small vessels, implying collective consumption (a feast?), but no 'passing the pottery round'. It is possible to read this evidence as suggesting a strict cultural definition existed as to the appropriate function of generic vessel forms. It seems that the large samian vessels were deliberately not included in burials, not for reasons of economy but because they were perhaps seen as inappropriate, because the vessels included in the burial seemingly relate to individual consumption for the deceased alone, or in some cases including mourners (as at Grange Road, Winchester; Appendix 9.1).

Curiously, in those few cases where the larger samian forms occur there is often something unusual about the individual vessels. Only five large dishes of Drag. form 18/31R were recorded in the survey of the 30 cemetery environs. Three in fact occur in just one burial, Burial 5 at Neatham 1969-70 (Appendix 9.1); strikingly all three are broken vessels mended in antiquity with lead rivets. Another Drag. 18/31R comes from a burial at Chequers Lane, Great Dunmow (Cremation 10; Appendix 9.1) and it too is a vessel repaired in antiquity with lead rivets! The remaining Drag. 18/31R is a partially represented (fragmentary) vessel coming from Little Waltham (Appendix 9.1), where it is believed to come from a grave.

Equally, in rare instances in which decorated samian bowls occur in burials they are not necessarily in a 'normal' condition. Among samian from Stonepound, Hassocks (Appendix 9.1), is a collection of material thought likely to come from graves. These items include two Drag. 29s, one of which had been 'functionally redefined', since its walls had been removed in antiquity leaving a dish-like form (Lyne 1994, 71). This collection also included one example of a Drag. 30, but this had been repaired via riveting. The unusual small form, Knorr 78, from the Knob's Crook barrow, Dorset, is perhaps best described as a beaker rather than as a small bowl or cup (Appendix 9.1).

Funerary contexts are a highly sensitive status passage (life into death), the end of the life process and (in the Roman world) the beginning of a new status. It seems appropriate that among the burial pottery vessels were those which were worn, repaired, damaged or altered. They appear appropriate not because their condition meant they could be discarded more freely by the living, who might choose to retain pristine vessels, but appropriate since these vessels readily manifest their own individuality, they testify to a biography, their own life histories and process in cultural use, as opposed to fresh unworn samian pottery that might be offered to the Gods in structured deposits not involving the dead (cf. Section 9.6).

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