Digging into the Collections December 2016

Roman Pottery Sherd

Last in my series on the Verulamium artifacts in the Ohio History Connection (OHC) collection is the pottery sherd.


The earliest ceramics in Britain date to around 4000 BC during the Neolithic period.  This early pottery, according to the BBC, was “generally undecorated with heavy rims and rounded bases.  From about 3500 BC the upper parts of some pottery vessels were decorated with patterns made while the clay was still soft.”  British pottery, similar to most regions in the world, then continued to change and evolve with the various cultures that occupied the county.

By the Iron Age (the time period just before Roman occupation), pottery was still being hand-made by coil or slab-shaping.  The potter’s wheel, according to the British Museum website,

was introduced to this region in the first century BC.  Research has considered this innovation in the context of changes in cooking, eating and drinking.  It has suggested that it was these changes in the meal that were more important than technological change, and provided the demand for exotic pottery, wine and beverages seen in parts of Eastern England in the Late Iron Age.

Most pottery was wheel-made in Britain after its introduction.

Another change in British pottery occurred when large quantities of Roman pottery were first imported into Britain shortly after Roman occupation around 20 BC.  British potters began copying Roman style vessels including flagons, mortaria (a bowl for pounding or grinding), and storage jars (e.g. amphora).  The introduction of more efficient kilns by the Roman also helped increase production of pottery in Britain.

Roman mortarium.  1st centry AD. British Museum (AgTigress).

In fact, the Verulamium region pottery industry (located between London and Verulamium) was an important center for pottery manufacturing in Roman Britain.  The industry, according to Steven Willis, “quickly became one of the major suppliers of coarse pottery to London and other settlements in south-east England between the late first and early second centuries AD.”  Willis states that

The principal products of the Verulamium region pottery industry were flagons and mortaria, but other forms such as bowls, lids, jars, lamps, amphorae, and tazzas were also produced.  The most common pottery type is Verulamium region white ware, which has a cream or off-white color and a hard fabric characterized by a dense, clean clay matric and abundant well-sorted quartz inclusions.

The industry did, however, make other pottery types including Verulamium region grey ware, Verulamium region marble ware,
Verulamium region mica-dusted ware, and Verulamium region coarse white-slipped ware.

The pottery sherd in the OHC collection from Verulamium is grey ware, possibly Verulamium region grey ware.  In general, grey ware was the most common type of pottery in Roman Britain.  Its popularity was in part due to the fact that it was locally produced in several different areas around Britain and in part to the types of vessels it produced.  Grey ware was used for cooking, serving, and storage vessels.

Grey ware is a fine, sandy ware with moderate quartz inclusions.  It has little to no decoration and can be light grey to almost black in color.

The OHC grey ware sherd is light grey to grey in color with a faint, incised zigzag decorative pattern near the top.

The bottom is curved out signifying that the vessel would expand outwards from here.  It is because of the angle of this curve that Dr. Lockyear believed that the sherd was part of a large jar.

Dr. Lockyear also believed that the sherd may be Verulamium region grey ware, but was unsure as pottery is not his specialty.  The fabric (grey-white with sand inclusions) and coloring (light grey to grey) is similar to that of Verulamium region grey ware, but those characteristics are also similar to grey wares in other regions as well.   But as the sherd was excavated from Verulamium, there is a chance that it may have been produced in the region.

Posted December 6, 2016

eNewsletter Sign-Up