Novaesium, alias Neuss

Roman Pottery

Ein Artikel von J. W. Hayes

Several parallel stylistic traditions flourished within the Roman Empire, some with local pre-Roman roots. 'Roman' pottery usually denotes the products of the Roman Imperial period; late versions - 'Byzantine' (in Palestinian contexts) or, more normally, 'Late Roman' - persist in some Mediteranean regions until c. ad 700. The technology already current in Greek lands - the fast wheel, moulds, sintered (heat-treated) slips - was scarcely improved on, but penetrated to many more regions, where a commercial pottery industry replaced local domestic production. Vigorous hybrid traditions ensued in several outlying areas, while a certain artistic sterility marks the wares of the Mediterranean after c. ad 200.

Types and techniques

The most characteristic Roman ware is a smooth red ware bearing a glossy sintered slip. This has been called terra sigillata since the 19th century; its alternative name, Samian ware (vasa samia), attested in antiquity, signified a varnishing technique, not that it was a product of Samos. The finest versions (c. 30 bc - c. ad 200) come from several centres in Italy and Gaul. Such red wares inherited the traditions of fine Greek pottery, while substituting a single-phase firing in an open kiln. The glossy surface, as in Greek wares, depended on the use of calcitic clays rich in such iron compounds as illite. Kilns were equipped with piping to direct any smoke away from the pots; some kilns were enormous, holding up to 40,000 vessels.

Glossy red wares, some decorated, appeared at Pergamon in Asia Minor by 100 bc; another series (Eastern Sigillata A), from an unlocated Levantine source, was widely marketed in the eastern Mediterranean after 150 bc. Both influenced Sicilian wares. The rise of the classic Arretine ware factories in Italy at Arretium (now Arezzo) and around Naples c. 40 - c. 25 bc suggests the imposition of Pergamene and Sicilian practices, presumably via slave craftsmen, on the already strong local Black-gloss ware tradition. Lead-glazed wares also occur, though rarely; the glaze was apparently applied in powdered form. Such vessels were normally inverted for firing in stacks within closed containers (saggars), as is shown by knobs of glaze at their rims; some cups bear the scars of small tripod stilts. Parthian-style, alkali-lead glazes occur in some eastern frontier regions; these parallel the Egyptian 'faience' (glazed glass-frit) series, which survived into Roman times.

Millions of large two-handled clay jars (amphorae) of plain heavy-duty ware and generally elongated form, in hundreds of varieties, served as shipping containers for foodstuffs, as they had done in the Greek world. Such vessels were formed of several wheel-thrown sections luted together before firing and were remarkably standardized within each series. Early Roman examples (2nd century bc) defined a unit of capacity (amphora=25.8 litres), but the average size was reduced thereafter. Around ad 1 - 200 many centres from Syria to Britain produced variants of the Hellenistic 'Koan' shape (from Kos) with its double-roll handles; also typical are the globular Baetican (southern Spanish) oil amphorae, the main constituent of the Monte Testaccio, an immense rubbish dump in Rome.

Other shapes were normally wheelmade: red- and grey-bodied cooking pots, buff-ware jugs and serving vessels, frequently with horizontal ribbing. Heavy buff-ware basins with grit-studded interiors (mortaria) were used in preparing food.

Potters’ stamps, naming both proprietors and workmen (mostly freedmen and slaves), are standard on Italian terra sigillata. One- or two-line stamps were superseded by foot-shaped ones c. ad 15 - c. 30; the latter persisted until production ceased in Italy c. ad 150. In Gaul and Spain the rectangular form of stamp persisted, generally with of (officina: 'workshop') or fec (fecit: 'made') accompanying the name. Name-stamps are rarer on 1st-century ad Eastern wares, occurring mostly on the Italian-style products of Pergamon and Tralles (Eastern Sigillata B).


(ii) Regional traditions

(a) The Mediterranean

Prestige silverware provided models for Mediterranean Roman fine pottery. Hence terra sigillata flat plates and trays (diam. up to 700 mm) and smaller bowls display complex rim- and foot-profiling. A parallel range of drinking vessels (shallow two-handled cups, small bowls, beakers) current c. 100 bc - c. ad 100 mimic the extreme thinness of metalware. Their varied decoration includes moulded relief, freehand applied motifs, rouletting (regular mechanical notching) and added sand or clay particles creating a 'rough-cast' surface; others bear a bronze-coloured mica-rich wash. Most such types originated in Italy, but Spain and Gaul were also major producers.

A smaller class of high-footed bowls and cups in terra sigillata bear relief patterns cast from moulds thatwere rotated on the potter's wheel, the rims and moulded feet being thrown freehand. Patterns were either punched individually into the moulds or, less often, cast directly off metalware. Arretine ware typifies the class; many bowl-shaped moulds are known from several named workshops at Arezzo, notably those from the workshop of M. Perennius (mostly Augustan; many modern fakes exist). The Perennius workshop repertory, closely following that of silverware, abounds in figural compositions, largely mythological or erotic, skilfully crafted in the delicately refined Neo-Attic style favoured in Augustus' court circles. Yet such products are rarer among other finds: most Arretine and related bowls made until ad 60 - 70 tend towards lush foliage or plain symmetry, with multiple mouldings on wheelmade parts. The many branches of the Ateius workshops established at Arezzo, Pisa and Lyon adopted this treatment. (It was copied on some early provincial terra sigillata from Gaul, where it soon evolved into mere patternwork)

Arretine-style motifs, similarly produced, ornament the less numerous two-handled drinking-cups and pedestalled bowls with a green or yellow lead glaze. These rather dearer wares patently mimic silverware. Several classes are known from Asia Minor, where they were produced at Tarsus and (probably) Pergamon; others stemmed from Italy. White clay additions may appear under the glaze to create a colour contrast. Some lead-glazed cylindrical tankards (modioli) and related red-gloss jugs from north-west Turkey copy metalware with high reliefs; motifs such as skeletons are here rendered in barbotine technique (liquid clay squeezed on to the surface).

Less often, vessels were entirely mould-made, like most Roman lamps and figurines. Knidos in Asia Minor produced the main series (c. ad 70 - c. 230); some copies are known from Africa. 'Novelty'products predominate, mostly wine jugs and sexually explicit forms (possibly to combat magic). Corinth and later Pergamon produced other series.

After ad 150 silver plate with Dionysiac or animal-hunt relief friezes on the rim was repeatedly copied in Roman pottery. Rare lead-glazed, mould-made versions occur in Italy; commoner are red-gloss ones. On African Red Slip ware (mostly from Tunisia), by then the dominant Mediterranean fine ware, the style recurred for almost three centuries; discrete applied figures are set on rims, inside rounded bowls and on small jugs (some bearing labels). Amphitheatre and hunt scenes were favoured, reappearing on some related signed flagons and jugs (by Navigius and others, c. ad 300). The mythological, Mithraic and biblical motifs on later bowls recall cut glassware. Rectangular platters dating to c. ad 400 combine mould-made 'pictures' with the usual rim ornaments; the Achilles legend, hunt scenes and Christian saints mingle, reflecting cultural diversity. From c. ad 320 stamped ornament characterized the ever-popular African red wares; again, both vessel shapes and repertory are 'metallic'. Dishes and shallow bowls exhibit simple radial or concentric patterns based on repeated palm-branch or circle stamps, framed by grooving or rouletting. Small animals - mere crude outlines - and various Christian symbols abound after ad430. The influence of later (Byzantine) metal platters is clear on footed plates and dishes featuring large Christian motifs: 'saints', 'jewelled'; crosses, lambs, fishes. Linear in concept, and lacking relief depth, these stamps form rudimentary patterns within grooved surrounds. The African stamped style was copied in South Gaul and Spain, in Egypt, perhaps in Cyprus, and particularly in the Phocean ware that was widely marketed in the eastern Mediterranean and featured broad rouletted bands impressed with a multiple-notched tool, and crude figures. The treatments tended to diverge: a series of medallions in sunk relief marked the end of one South Gaulish series, while in the East (Egypt, Jordan) painted scenes largely prevailed. A small orange-ware class from western Turkey, which favoured hunting scenes and crosses, mimicked pictorial plates by engraving and removal of the slip from background areas (a sort of 'Black-figure'; style). All such treatments faded out between c. ad 550 and c. ad 700, signalling the demise of the Roman decorative tradition.


(b) Gaul and elsewhere

Best known among the non-Mediterranean wares are those from the Rhineland, Gaul and Britain, where many hundreds of kiln sites have been excavated. Some Italian-style terra sigillata was made in southern France in the time of Augustus; further north this was copied in the plain burnished 'Gallo-Belgic' wares. Classic Gaulish terra sigillata is divided by region into South Gaulish (mostly c. ad 20 - c. 120), with main centres at La Graufesenque (Aveyron), Montans (Tarn) and Banassac; Central Gaulish (c. ad 100 - c. 250), at Lezoux (Puy-de-Dôme) and Les Martres-de-Veyre; and East Gaulish (c. ad 40 - c. 300, mostly 2nd century ad), with various centres in and around Lorraine and Alsace, and later at Rheinzabern and Trier. The large and long-lived Spanish terra sigillata series, produced chiefly in Navarra and Rioja, and in the south at Andújar (Jaén), derived mainly from southern Gaul, while the other series spawned crude copies in the Danubian provinces. Lezoux, the largest 2nd-century ad producer, exerted considerable influence. East Gaulish offshoots include Westerndorf in south-east Bavaria and short-lived workshops at Colchester in Britain. The classic Gaulish vessel shapes, like earlier Italian forms, widely influenced coarse-ware products in all northern provinces.

The huge commercial success of the mid-1st century ad wares of La Graufesenque induced a progressive migration of specialist potters to the north and east; indeed, potters' stamps and decorative motifs attest much movement among the various Gaulish centres, and some moulds for decorated wares (notably those of Cinnamus of Lezoux) were also traded around.

Gaulish vessel forms are normally cited by the type numbers assigned to them in the 1890s by Dragendorff. Three types regularly bear moulded decoration. The earliest, an angular 'carinated' bowl (Dragendorff 29), bears two friezes, normally with floral motifs. Around ad 60 - 90 a round-bodied version with upright rim (Dragendorff 37) took over, continuing until the ware's demise; its single decorated band, narrowing over time, has a repeating egg-pattern (ovolo) at the top. It was the most copied type; in Spain it survived until the 5th century ad. A deep cylindrical bowl (Dragendorff 30), less common, is similarly treated. More numerous were undecorated dishes and bowls, made in standard sizes, bearing makers' stamps in Latin script. These vessels, which soon discarded Italian 'metallic' profiles, were mostly robust, with an impermeable surface gloss.

The classic South Gaulish style featured delicate floral scrolls in low relief, in part traced freehand on the mould. Panel decoration, with some small animal motifs, became popular in the late 1st century ad (mainly on Dragendorff 37). In the 2nd century ad the frieze was often divided vertically and horizontally into variegated panels (cf. mosaics and plasterwork), each bearing a few figural or floral motifs punched deeply into the mould; other vessels display a continuous figural frieze. While hundreds of motifs were borrowed from the Classical mythological repertory, their handling was mostly crude and haphazard, lacking sculptural feeling. By the 3rd century ad repeated copying and remoulding rendered many almost unrecognizable. (The so-called 'Late Italian' series from Pisa, of c. ad 80 - c. 140, parallels the Gaulish treatment, though its figure-types derive mostly from Arretine ware.) Around ad 200 the Gaulish moulded wares were largely replaced by other vessel types: sigillata beakers and high-flanged basins with barbotine patterns, vertical-sided basins with applied spouts in the form of a lion’s head, and a series with excised patterns copying cut glassware. Lezoux, Rheinzabern and, finally, Trier were major sources. Derivative wares with a poor red gloss, some with crude roller-stamping replacing the reliefs, were still made in the Argonne region (northern France) and the Rhône Valley in the 4th century ad. The late Roman red-slipped Oxfordshire wares mirror these.

Drinking mugs and beakers in fine wares, mostly pale-bodied with a darker surface slip, were also popular in the northern provinces throughout Roman times; most lack handles. They derive in part from local pre-Roman types, some angular and cordoned (decorated with horizontal ribs), some elegantly curved. Italian surface treatments (rough-cast, barbotine) mark some early series, as in central Gaul. Later the barbotine technique was used for whole flowing compositions of animals and foliage, notably on the 'hunt cups' made at Cologne, Colchester, Castor and elsewhere from c. ad130. Most refined in technique are the black-gloss products of Lezoux and the Trier region ('Rhenish ware'). Their decoration includes barbotine scrollwork (some in added white or orange), white slip inscriptions, applied 'fish-scales', indentations and impressed rouletting. Less ambitious barbotine wares occur in the Danubian areas (especially Bulgaria) and in Egypt.

Simpler painted wares, mostly dark-on-light and featuring linear patterns or simple scrollwork, were produced in many regions of the Roman Empire, but form no continuous tradition; plain slip coatings are more widespread. In Athens, white painted scrollwork adorns some 'metallic' forms; comparable motifs can be found on 4th-century ad examples from Britain. Some more fancy treatments appear in the Rhineland, including jugs with striped 'marbling' and a small polychrome series from the Frankfurt region (Wetterau ware). Other dark-on-light series, generally floral, occur in Egypt; later ones there (5th - 6th century) are more ambitious, with some sketchy figural scenes. The eggshell-thin bowls from Nabataea (southern Palestine, mostly 1st century ad) show a refined but un-Classical use of floral elements. Linear burnished patterns, with pre-Roman Celtic origins, are the sole decoration of most coarse cooking wares in the northern provinces.



  • Bémont, C.; Jacob, J.-P. (Hrsg.): La Terre sigillée gallo-romaine (Paris 1986).
  • Bulmer, M.: An Introduction to Roman Samian Ware (Chester, 1980).
  • Carandini, A. (Hrsg.): L'instrumentum domesticum di Ercolano e Pompei (Rome 1977).
  • Chantel, N. (Hrsg.): Céramique en Gaule romaine (Paris 1975).
  • Charleston, R. J.: Roman Pottery (London 1955).
  • Cockle, H.: Pottery Manufacture in Roman Egypt. A New Papyrus, Journal of Roman Studies 71 (1981) 87-97.
  • Comfort, H. u.a.: Terra sigillata. La ceramica a rilievo ellenistica e romana (Rom 1967).
  • Dragendorff, H.: Terra sigillata, Bonner Jahrbücher 96 (1895) 18-155.
  • Dyson, T. (Hrsg.): The Roman Quay at St. Magnus House, London. Excavations at New Fresh Wharf, Lower Thames Street, London, 1974-78 (London 1986).
  • Ettlinger, E. u.a.: Conspectus formarum terrae sigillatae italico modo confectae (Bonn, 1990).
  • Gose, E.: Gefässtypen der römischen Keramik im Rheinland (Kevelaer 1950; Köln 1975).
  • Hayes, J. W.: Late Roman Pottery (London 1972, suppl. 1980).
  • Johns, C.: Arretine and Samian Pottery (London 1971, rev. 2/1977).
  • Khairy, N. I.: The Painted Nabataean Pottery from the 1981 Petra Excavations, Levant 19 (1987) 167-181.
  • King, A.: A Graffito from La Graufesenque and "samia vasa", Britannia 11 (1980) 139-143.
  • Levêque, P.; Morel, J. P. (Hrsg.): Céramiques hellénistiques et romaines (Besanšon 1980).
  • Liesen, B.; Brandl, U. (Hrsg.): Römische Keramik. Herstellung und Handel, Kolloquium Xanten , 15.-17.6.2000, Xantener Berichte 13 (Mainz 2003)
  • Mayet, F.: Les Céramiques sigillées hispaniques (Paris 1984).
  • Oxé, A.; Comfort, H.: Corpus vasorum Arretinorum (Bonn 1968).
  • Peacock, D. P. S.: Pottery in the Roman World (London 1982).
  • Peacock, D. P. S.; Williams, D. F.: Amphorae and the Roman Economy (London 1986).
  • Poblome, J.; Talloen, P.; Brulet, R. u.a. (Hrsg.): Early Italian sigillata. The chronological framework and trade patterns, Proceedings of the First International ROCT-Congress, Leuven, May 7 and 8, 1999, Bulletin Antike Beschaving Suppl. 10 (Leuven u.a. 2004)
  • Porten Palange, F. P.: Fälschungen in der arretinischen Reliefkeramik, Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt 19 (1989) 91-99.
  • Rupp, V.: Wetterauer Ware. Eine römische Keramik im Rhein-Main-Gebiet (Frankfurt, Bonn 1988).
  • Swan, V. G.: Pottery in Roman Britain (Princes Risborough 1975).
  • Swan, V. G.: The Pottery Kilns of Roman Britain (London 1984).
  • Vegas, M.: Ceràmica común romana del Mediterráneo occidental (Barcelona 1973).

Quelle: J. W. Hayes, Roman pottery, in: Grove Dictionary of Art.



[Vorwort] [Landschaft] [Forschung] [Geschichte] [Militär] [Schriftquellen] [Novaesium]
[Alltag und Kult] [Literatur] [Verweise] [Glossar] [News] [Weblog] [Gästebuch] [Kontakt]