A Samian Ware Bowl

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Samian Ware bowl in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. 

Photograph taken by Andrew Maclellan, the Museum’s Education Officer,

1.  Introduction

In the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, there is displayed on the Middle Gallery a Samian Ware bowl found in 1880 at Richmond Castle, Kent. Samian ware can be described as the ‘Wedgewood’ of Roman table-ware. Typically it is red in colour and comprises some of the finest Roman pottery. Most vessels are plain but a low relief decoration is common. Samian ware comes in a variety of forms of mass-produced pottery that is characterised by its red-glazed-like slip. The ware is mould made, in both decorated and plain forms, with the vessels usually bearing the stamp of individual potters or workshops (Darvill, 2002; Bahn, 2001). two principal types are recognised and numerous production centres recognised. The Arretine was produced at Arrezo (Arretium) in northern Italy between 30 BC and 50 AD. Samian was produced in several areas of Gaul from 20 AD until the late second century.

2.  Samian ware – its provenance

With regard to the provenance of Samian ware it always shows the same forms, density, and colour. The “…beautiful red coralline Samian ware…” (Rosenthal, 1949) is a red-gloss pottery, often referred to as terra sigillata or provincially produced equivalent of Arretine ware. It is table-ware made from a fine red clay with a glossy surface that was used throughout areas of Roman influence from the late 1st century BC until the early 4th century AD (Johns, 1977). However, Attetine ware itself is extremely rare in Britain. Samian ware  – terra sigillata – moulds and kilns have been found in Italy, France and Germany. In Britain the red slip Samian table-ware of Gaul has bee found in most Roman forts, towns, settlements, and in modest graves (Bedoyere, 2000).

The earliest Samian ware was produced in southern Gaul from where it spread northwards to central and east Gaul and then Britain. Important factories in south Gaul were at La Granfesenque, Montans, Banassac (Johns, 1977), and Lyon (Darvill, 2002). South Gaulish ware entered Britain on an unprecedented scale during the 1st century AD and, much of which came from La Granfesenque, eventually dominated the entire fine-ware market (Bedoyere, 2000). By 100 AD central Gaulish ware from Les Martyres-de-Veyre had taken over but, by 120 to 125 AD the nearby Lezoux factories had gained control of the market and then declined by 190-210 AD. The industry was effectively dead by 230 AD. Other central Gaulish ware came from the Clermont-Ferrand (Johns, 1977) with Les Martyres-de-Veyre and Lezoux active during the 2nd century AD.

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Major Samian ware pottery sites in Gaul

Important sites for British importation were at Trier and Rheinzarben. Romano-British Samian ware, around 160 AD, was attempted at Colchester and resembled that of east Gaul (Bedoyere, 2000) but disappeared after little impact. Nonetheless some 30 kilns were found at Colchester (Bahn, 2001) Derivative forms of Samian ware, such as the late Roman Argonne and Marne wares, influenced African red slip ware and eastern red wares (Darvill, 2002). Samian ware was first classified by H. Dragendorff (Webster, 1996), in 1895-96. Samian forms are still referred to by their ‘Dr’ or ‘Drag’ number. The Ritterling Classification, prefixed by ‘R’ is based on his studies at the Roman fort at Hofheim (Oswald, 1920; Webster, 1996). The Pitt Rivers bowl is a hemispherical decorated bowl of Dragendorf classification Type 37.


 A terra sigillata Samian ware bowl similar to the one in in the Pitt Rivers Museum.

From 1st century AD, South Gaul (type Dr.37).

3.  Samian ware – its production

The pottery is characterised not only by its colour but also by its variety of standard shapes, some plain, some decorated (Johns, 1977). The most common form of decoration is a moulded relief depicting figures and other motifs on bowls, dishes, cups, and vases. Even though decoration techniques included the incised, barbotine  (a piping technique using soft clay), and applied, the most common and characteristic was the bas-relief moulding using stamps or punches called poincons (Johns, 1977). The Pitt Rivers Museum bowl is an example of relief moulding.

Samian ware was made in moulds that involved many specialists – mould makers, decorative stamp makers, the actual potters. Some mould makers may have been independent artisans or worked for an individual potter or workshop. Quite often the name of the mould maker and potter appear stamped on the finished vessels. Some stamps consist of just a name whereas others are accompanied by either prefixes or suffixes. For example, F or FEC for fecit or ‘made it’. M or MA for manu or ‘by the hand or’. and OF for officina or workshop. Even handwritten signatures have been seen.

Firstly the clay mould is thrown and turned on a potter’s wheel to create the desired form. Secondly, whilst still soft, the decoration is impressed into the vessel’s inner wall with roulettes or stamps, after which the mould is dried and fired. The fired mould then has clay pressed onto the decorated inner wall and the interior is then finely finished. Thirdly, partial drying shrinks the pot away from the mould whereby it can be removed for finishing – addition of foot-rings, handles, etc. At this stage the vessel is immersed in slip.

Large amounts of manganese and iron oxides give the body of Samian ware its brilliant red or brownish-red colour (Rosenthal, 1949) though more magnesium is also added than done nowadays. The red body colour results during cooling (slowly) with consequent re-oxidising of the iron compounds in the clay. It is assumed that the glaze mixture is the same as that for the body, but with the addition of large amounts of iron and manganese to which have been added flux alkalis to enable the mixture to melt during firing (Rosenthal, 1949). Firing temperature in the kilns was around 1000 degrees C (2200 F) and this secured the red glaze. Kiln records from south Gaul indicate some 20-30,000 vessels comprised a single kiln load.

4.  The Richborough Castle bowl in the Pitt Rivers Museum

The Accession Book IV (Accession Number 1884.37.26) states that the bowl is from Richmond Castle in Kent and was previously owned by a Mr Ready of the British Museum and donated by General Pitt Rivers in 1884. The vessel is described as an ancient wheel made piece of pottery similar to another bowl, Accession Number 1884.37.25), and has an undulating floral design and similar fringe border. The Museum’s delivery catalogue simply records that it is a bowl of red ware found at Richmond Castle in 1880. The Pitt Rivers Museum ‘Green Book’ entry mentions the South Kensington Receipts of 13.5.1880 as one red Samian bowl repaired by Mr Ready of the British Museum. Moreover, it was displayed in the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum), having been previously broken and then repaired with added material and coloured to match the original ware. Examination of the bowl indicated that the portion bearing a stamp was missing, replaced during repair. Richborough Castle (or Ritupiae) in east Kent was the major Roman port and fort in Britain., founded on invasion in 43 AD.


Map of Kent showing location of Ritupiae (Richmond Castle).

The bowl in the Museum has an upper border known as an ovolo or ‘egg-and-dart’ or ‘egg-and-tongue’ design (Webster, 1996), commonly used in decorating Samian ware

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Ovolo design.

bowls type number 37. The terms ‘egg and tongue’ and ‘egg and dart’ are self-explanatory but are rarely mentioned in reports about Samian ware. The design is commonly used as a design on the upper border on Dragendorf 37.  Note the Note the undulating vegetation the bead row and ovolo which are a feature of imported Samian ware. The slip is less glossy and show quality decline of southern Gaul ware during the 2nd century AD. Type 37 bowls were not imported into Britain after the 2nd century AD.The bowl in the Pit Rivers Museum, which is typical of the Antonine period, can be compared to a Samian ware bowl found from an East Gaulish centre at Rhenzabern and found at London Wall. Again, the bowl in the Pitt Rivers Museum can be compared with a Form 37 bowl from Lezoux (by the potter Paternus ) and found at Wingham in Kent.

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Cross section of a type 37 bowl.

The Wingham bowl is dated as early as Antonine. Decorative schemes used by the Potter called Pertenus II, see Figure 5 and Figure 6, were the popular bold winding scroll with a lower freestyle floral design (Webster, 1996). Other type 37 bowls were closely modelled on central Gaulish ware and possibly by the potter Respectus, and dated to the 2nd century AD (Webster, 1996). This brings us back to the bowl in the Pitt Rivers Museum. The bas-relief ovolo design is evident as is the freestyle floral design.

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An example of freestyle floral design.

The bowl was found at Richborough Castle (Ritupiae) in Kent, a site occupied throughout the Roman period with a wide range of Samian ware (Bush-Fox, 1926; 1928; 1932; 1949; Cunliffe, 1968). Another similar Form 37 bowl, found in Kent at Plaxtol, showed ovolo and freestyle decoration by a certain Cinnamus of Lezoux. It is possible, which requires further research and confirmation, is that the Pit Rivers Museum bowl could possibly be provenance as early Antonine and from Lezoux, bearing in mind the similarity to other designs. Antonine period Samian ware would date the from the Emperors Antoninus Pius, 138-161 AD, and Marcus Aurelius, 161-180 AD (Johns, 1977). Cinnamus worked in Ad 145 to 170, and Patemus was at Lezoux during the early Antonine period as well.

5.  Summary

Arretine and Samian wares were exported throughout the Roman Empire on a very large scale and, as a result, the forms and decoration, the potters stamps, allow archaeologists to determine a detailed chronology (Bahn, 2001). Samian ware in Europe and Britain functions as an accurate chronological indicator of Roman occupation and influence. This especially true because the Roman army had access to a wide range of Samian ware types and forms (Bedoyere, 2000). Samian ware production shows the existence of a highly organised industry with a vast network of export and trade links from Britain, Germany, and France. Prior and after manufacture packers, carriers, wholesale and retail dealers, were all involved in the economics of the Samian ware trade.

Economically and socially Samian ware centres were established near major rivers for ease of and safety of transport. In addition production centres had to be close sources of appropriate materials because only iron bearing clays could be used. Samian ware production was a highly organised industry, with potteries only located in certain areas of the empire, and became on of the more common exports beyond the actual borders of the empire (Johns, 1977). Another aspect is that Samian ware conferred status in the sense that it became “…a fashion which almost everyone aspired to own, according to means.” (Bedoyere, 2000), and this became the art of mass production reached a high state of perfection in Roman times.

The bowl in the Pitt Rivers Museum reflects this not only in its form and decoration but also in its provenance – though found in Kent it was almost certainly made in Gaul and purchased by the Roman army or by a Roman civilian who could afford its purchase. Embodied in the bowl is not only its craft but also its trade and its status. Its date range is AD 70 to late 2nd to 3rd century thus post AD 70.

Originally a contribution for the OUDCE certificate course in archaeology (2002-2004).


Bahn, P.  (2001).  Penguin Archaeology Guide.  Allen Lane, Harmondsworth.

Bedoyere, G de la.  (2000).  Pottery in Roman Britain.  Shire, Bucks.

Bushe-Fox.  (1926).  First report on the excavation of the Roman fort at Richborough, Kent.  Rep. Res. Comm. Soc. Antiq.  London (6).

Bushe–Fox.  (1928).  Second report on the excavation of the Roman fort at Richborough, Kent.  Rep. Res. Comm. Soc. Antiq.  London (7).

Bushe-Fox.  (1932).  Third report on the excavation of the Roman fort at Richborough, Kent.  Rep. Res. Comm. Soc. Antiq.  London (10).

Bushe-Fox.  (1949).  Fourth report on the excavation of the Roman fort at Richborough, Kent.  Rep. Res. Comm. Antiq.  London (16).

Cunliffe, B.  (1968).  Fifth report on the excavation at the Roman fort at Richborough, Kent.  Rep. Res. Comm. Soc. Antiq.  London (23).

Darvill, T.  (2002).  Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology. OUP, Oxford.

Johns, C.  (1977).  Arretine and Samian Pottery.  British Museum, London.

Oswald, F. Pryce & Davies, T.  (1920).  An introduction to the study of terra sigillata.  London.

Rosenthal, E.  (1949).  Pottery and Ceramics.  Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Webster, P.  (1996).  Roman Samian Pottery in Britain.  Council for British Archaeology, York.


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