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Vessels for food and drink on the frontier

Looking at fragments and reproductions of clay and glass vessels with Dr James Gerrard of Newcastle University.
Here we have an assemblage of Roman pottery. At first glance, it looks fairly nondescript, but I think if you look at it a little bit more closely, you can see that there are quite a range of different things going on here. We’ve got red pots like this. This is quite distinctive. We’ve got black pots like this, and we have pots that archaeologists call white, but most people would probably call beige.
These different kinds of pottery come from different places. So we know that the red pottery is called Samian and it comes from Gaul, what is today mainly modern day France. We know that the black pottery comes from southeast Dorset. So if we were to find this assemblage on Hadrian’s Wall– and all these pieces of pottery are typical of the kinds of things we might see in the frontier zone– if we were to find this assemblage, we would immediately know that the communities living along the wall were trading with places that were quite a long way away– Gaul, the south of England, and that’s quite important.
We might also look at this assemblage and think about the different kinds of vessels that are present. So it’s very clear, for instance, that a vessel like this is a dish, or a vessel like this is a jar, like some of the examples I have here.
Some of them are quite richly decorated as well. Here, we have two sherds with a moulded figure of a hare on it, and we know that this is from what we call a hunt cup. So this is a large drinking vessel decorated with a scene that shows dogs chasing a hare, and you can see that on this reproduction. Here you’ve got the dogs, two rather fierce looking dogs with their open mouths, and here you’ve got the hare. You can see his long ears. And if we put these two together, there you go. You can see the hare on both pieces. But it’s clear that this vessel must have been used for drinking.
It’s quite a tactile vessel– you can hold it very easily– but it’s also very large. So this tells us something about what people were drinking. We can contrast this one, which is quite a large pot, with this one, which is rather smaller, a Samian cup. And there’s the base of a real Samian cup. So presumably, the people who were drinking out of this vessel were drinking something much smaller in volume than the people who were drinking out of this. And we might, for instance, suppose that this was used for consuming wine imported in barrels or amphorae, and this was perhaps used for drinking beer.
And we know from other kinds of archaeological evidence– archaeobotanical, burned seeds, and those sort of things– that people were brewing in the Roman period. And we also have evidence from the frontier, from the Vindolanda tablets, that people were consuming quite large quantities of beer. So that tells us a bit about the kinds of beverages that people were drinking. Of course, pottery survives really well in the archaeological record, but we shouldn’t forget that there are other kinds of materials that don’t survive so well. One of the chief amongst those is glass. Here we’ve got glass vessels, very high status, also used for drinking wine, like the little pottery cups.
And here we’ve got a glass flagon that you would have poured the wine into the cup from. So when we look at this assemblage, at first glance, it looks like nondescript bits of broken pottery. Once you drill down into it, you can start to reconstruct the way people were leading their lives. You can start to think about the actual way people were eating and drinking. We’ve done that for beakers and cups. We’ve thought about the consumption of wine and beer, but we could do it for the jars and how people cooked, we could do it for the grinding vessels and how they prepared their meals.
We could think about the whole Roman influence on the way people were eating and drinking in Roman Britain.
Perhaps one of the most hackneyed clichés about archaeology concerns pots. The archaeologist is seen as someone who scrambles about gathering broken vessels and then sticks them back together.
Well yes, and no. The truth of the matter is that Roman archaeologists are looking for more than a jigsaw puzzle when they study pottery and glassware. Aside from any aesthetic appeal, there is a huge amount one can learn from both.
Pottery combines two extremely important qualities. Firstly, It is made of fired clay, fragments of which will survive millennia when other types of archaeological evidence do not. Secondly as pottery vessels are eminently breakable and their fragments hard to recycle we find them liberally discarded on many sites.
Close study of the vessel form (shape), its fabric (the clay from which it is made) and its decoration allow us not only to date the vessels (thus helping date the objects and features with which they are associated) but also to reconstruct the networks of communication and exchange that brought them to the site. Ceramic petrological analysis of the fabric, for example, allows us to determine the source of clay used to make the pots.
Glass, whilst more likely to be recycled in ancient times, still survives in large quantities. The very presence of glass on the northern frontier testifies to a revolution, as it was not made in northern Britain prior to the arrival of Rome. Interestingly though, once it did arrive, indigenous artisans were quick to learn how to melt it down and model it into the distinctive types of adornment that their people sought.
With both pottery and glass,we can attempt statistical analysis to determine the relative quantity of different types of vessels. Use-wear analysis can help identify their functions. This involves microscopic analysis of the objects to help determine precisely how they were used. Surprisingly, in many cases we are still uncertain as to how otherwise familiar vessel types were actually used. Both the use patterns and the source of these vessels can offer important clues about the cosmopolitan nature of the frontier.
In this video we take a brief look at the range of drinking vessels by the units garrisoning the frontier.
  • What do you think these can vessels tell us about those who lived in the forts?
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Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier

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