Department of Archaeology
   
   
  

Workshop One: Future of Samian Research

Ten years on from the Study Group for Roman Pottery publication which raised concerns about the future of Samian studies, this workshop will reassess the state of samian research, both in the light of recent work undertaken in the UK and Europe (in particular the Römisch-Germanische Zentralmuseum at Mainz) and in terms of the possibilities offered by new technology.

Samian Studies - Challenges and Opportunities in an Electronic Age
Geoffrey Dannel, University of Nottingham

Summary by Christoph Rummel

The first paper of the day was presented by Geoffrey Dannell who summarized why samian should be studied in detail. He presented an overview of the various research possibilities this pottery type offers (iconographic, social contexts, reconstruction of trade patterns and industrial organisation), as well as a brief history of samian research in Europe. This was followed by an overview of current research methods, as well a discussion of the main researchers in this subject area and their respective specialism.

A particular focus of the paper was the publication of samian research and the positive and negative aspects of publication in standalone volumes or through specialist reports attached to general excavation reports. A notable emphasis here lay on the possibilities offered by various digital media – particularly so as it was pointed out that most of the major corpora traditionally used by samian scholars are dated, frequently of poor quality in terms of illustrations and often difficult to access.

On the basis of the work that is being carried out at the RGZM at Mainz as well as other current projects, various priorities for future research were then proposed. The urgent need of training up a new generation of samian specialists received particular emphasis in this context, as it could only be achieved through further involvement of public bodies such as the IFA and English Heritage in samian research and the training of new specialists (this was the main point stressed in the discussion). This should ideally include a standard code of practice for samian recording and publication and “training days” to pass on samian expertise, as well as the possible creation of “centres of excellence” for samian research.

In conclusion, the paper highlighted the possibilities offered by digital collections and tools such as the database developed at Mainz. Particular points raised were that such a database would enable not only instant access to vast quantities of data from across the western provinces, but, due to remote-upload features, also eliminate the labour-intensive element of data collection that currently forms a major part of advanced samian research.

Discussion

During the discussion, the need for samian to be investigated from a social, as well as economic perspective was stressed by Naomi Sykes. It was also generally agreed that there was a need for English Heritage and the IFA to become involved in the development of the discipline. Download a copy of Geoff Dannell’s presentation.

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The Recording of Samian Potters' Stamps: Past, Present and Future
Brenda Dickinson, University of Leeds

Summary by Christoph Rummel

The second paper was by Brenda Dickinson, who presented the rationale behind the Leeds Index of Potters' Stamps as well as current progress in this area. After summarising the main researchers that studied stamps on samian, the paper proceeded to explain why Brian Hartley, in 1962, decided to revise Felix Oswald's (and most other) publications of potters' stamps – primarily because of the sheer volume of data that had accumulated in the course of the 20th century, but also because of the poor standard of publication in some earlier works.

The paper explained the purpose of the Leeds Index of Potters' Stamps (also known as the corpus of 'Names on terra sigillata') and how entries are sorted: by name (and number if more than one potter of the same name is known), production centre, images of the stamp, an identification of a particular die used for the stamp, vessel forms on which the stamp appears, provenance and excavation code, a possible attributed date range and references to earlier publications.

The 'index' is to be made available through a database set up by Dr Allard Mees at Mainz (see paper 3), as well as a ten-volume traditional paper publication. Mrs Dickinson did, however, point out that even when current work on the publication is complete, the database will need regular updating to accommodate new finds, and that new scholars need to become familiar with the study of potters' stamp in order to ensure that a facility such as the database will remain useful and up-to-date. In the course of pointing out such requirements for future research into potters' stamps, the paper also highlighted the possibility of enhancing any database of potters' stamps with a possible study of samian kiln sites and fabrics.

The closing summary reiterated the reasons for studying potters' stamps in particular and samian in general, namely their usefulness as a dating tool as well as for the reconstruction of trade patterns and social interpretations of archaeological sites.

Discussion

Brenda Dickinson's paper generated an interesting discussion that developed a number of points touched on during the talk further: Roberta Tomber (British Museum) picked up on the idea of possible samian kiln site and fabric studies, asking how many samian kilns are actually known. While it appears that many kilns are known, the data from the potters’ stamp index suggests there may well be more. Currently, entries in the index are completed as much as possible where a kiln site is not known precisely, but it was suggested that further analyses in the near future might be able to explore further patterns in the distribution of potters' stamps.

At this point, Marinus Polak (Nijmegen) pointed out that currently, fabric analyses are carried out on visual level alone. He suggested that statistical analyses of corpora such as the Leeds Index of Potters' stamps can provide further information. As such techniques are highly advanced, however, it was suggested that a tool to enable scholars with less knowledge of samian to access data regarding kiln sites and associations of potters with production centres should be developed.

Naomi Sykes (Nottingham) then posed the question to what extent samian fabric series should be seen as an important area for further research, at which point Dr Polak pointed out that accurate fabric analyses using archaeometrical techniques would be impossible to carry out in daily archaeological practice, as it requires too much equipment. Disagreeing with this point, Gwladys Monteil (Nottingham) argued that fabrics can easily be analysed at lower power magnification, with little need for specialist equipment. Dr Monteil suggested that there was, however, a need for accessible fabric series reference collections. This was generally agreed on. Download a copy of Brenda Dickinson's paper.

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Internet-based Samian Research and Statistical Methods
Allard Mees, Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum at Mainz

Summary by Christoph Rummel

This paper concentrated on the possibilities offered by database software for large scale statistical analyses of samian. It was argued that traditional hindrances to samian studies (the sheer quantity of data) can now be overcome by the use of computers and custom-made software and that such tools on web-based platforms would facilitate international cooperation on research programmes.

Dr Mees provided several examples of how statistical analyses could be used to pose and answer wide-ranging research questions. These included: intra-site analyses of samian data using correspondence analyse to answer question of social usage of space; the establishment of and temporal changes in supply patterns of samian ware, and the possibility of reconstructing the organisation and function of samian production centres.

The limitations of statistical research were raised, with consideration given not only the quantities of data required to draw valid conclusions, but also to presenting different techniques for data mapping. The call for a standardised method of samian recording, voiced in Dannell's paper, was reiterated - without this statistical analysis is problematic.

Discussion

Discussion focused on the possibilities that statistical approaches based on net-based databases can offer. It was suggested, and generally agreed, that this approach would enable precisely the sort of social analyses currently lacking in samian research. Marianus Polak raised some concern over the limitations of database-linked statistical research; that whilst knowledgeable specialists could be objective in their recording and entering of data, people not familiar with samian could easily, and unknowingly, create apparently 'statistically significant' patterns that were, in fact, meaningless. Nevertheless, it was agreed that the work of Dr Mees presented an important opportunity for furthering samian studies. Download a copy of Allard Mees' abstract.

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Review of Some Trends in Samian Use in Britain
Steven Willis, University of Kent

Summary by Christoph Rummel

This paper presented an overview of traditional research trends in samian studies across the UK and offered some thoughts on new approaches and research opportunities. It was argued that the analysis of samian enabled advanced studies of economic and social contexts on the basis of site types, forms and fabrics.

Dr Willis suggested that Roman forts and vici produced different samian spectra from urban sites, but also that differences could be identified between the assemblages from vici and those from the forts themselves. Even within the forts, there seemed to be distinct differences between the types of vessels usually found in officers’ quarters and barracks. Interestingly, the highest percentages of samian in any pottery assemblage are actually those from vici surrounding Roman forts.

Studies of the incidence of samian vessels in funerary and votive contexts also produced interesting results: in burials from urban contexts, for example, samian vessels are rarer than at rural funerary sites. Within votive contexts, on the other hand, samian vessels are strongly represented and occur on a regular basis throughout Britain and the continent. Beyond such basic observations, samian vessels seem to reflect local traditions of consumption. In Essex, for instance, distinct patterns of wear and, frequently, repair on certain vessel types appear to indicate local drinking traditions amongst the Trinovantes.

Having highlighted the potential of samian for more sociological studies, Dr Willis pointed out that there are certain types of site which have been little studied with regard to samian, villas and rural sites in Britain in particular. He pointed out that there are distinct differences between the ways that samian is studied and recorded in different countries on the continent and in Britain. As such, he reiterated earlier calls for a standardised method of samian recording and publication.

In this context, Dr Willis suggested that the future of samian research required not only high-quality datasets based on detailed recording during excavation, but also a significant amount of personal and technical resources as well as integration with wider spheres of archaeological study. Provided all such requirements were met, however, he argued that samian research could produce work at the forefront of modern archaeological method.

Discussion

It was agreed that continuous re-assessment of samian date ranges at the hand of sealed deposits was crucial; however, it was suggested that any social interpretations would be limited unless based on securely-dated evidence from sealed context. Dr Willis agreed with this thesis in principle, but argued that this should not pose too great a difficulty provided samian finds were plotted three-dimensionally when found. Marinus Polak (Nijmegen) suggested that there might be an inherent problem in such an approach, as not all excavations currently adopted the same standards and many past excavations did not include such recording techniques. Yet Dr Polak agreed that if samian research in future was to receive funding grants and be seen as an important part of mainstream archaeological research, it would have to find a way to answer broader sociological questions such as those posed by Dr Willis. Download a copy of Steven Willlis' PowerPoint presentation.

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