Future Research and Collaboration in Samian Studies: new directions for curators and researchers.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Archaeology


The quintessential tableware of the Roman world was a fine red gloss mould-made pottery known today as terra sigillata or (in the UK) samian ware. In Western Europe, the earliest terra sigillata pottery was produced in northern Italy (around Arezzo). The Italian products were supplanted by those of Gaul, which were themselves superseded by North Africa wares. The easily recognisable characteristics of the pottery, coupled with the discovery of samian in a number of closely dated contexts (such as the destruction layers associated with the Boudican revolt in London and Colchester in AD 60-61), have meant that samian ware has become a primary source of dating evidence for archaeologists studying the Roman Empire.

Despite its importance to the understanding and appreciation of Roman archaeology, a critical appraisal of key reference works is long overdue (Willis 1997). Much of the standard reference material predates the Second World War and has not been reassessed in the light of post-war advances in samian chronology, typology and in Roman archaeology as a whole. Instead samian studies have fragmented and become increasingly compartmentalised within wider archaeological reporting (Willis 1998). Coupled with this is a recognised decline in the number of specialists in samian studies, which is leading to a distinct skills shortage for the future.

Key collections of samian exist in a number of museums and universities across the UK. These represent the personal reference collections of samian study pioneers, such as Felix Oswald (collection split between the Universities of Durham and Nottingham) and Alfred-Edward Plicque (collection split between the University of Nottingham, the British Museum, and the Musée d'Antiquités Nationales (Paris), Clermont Ferrand, Leiden and Montpellier) and collections formed from more recent excavations (e.g. the collection held at the Museum of London). To date little cross-institutional work is done to maximise the research potential of these shared collections.

This Research Workshop proposal aims to explore the research potential of the UK collections by facilitating discussion between institutions that have research interests in, or hold key collections of, samian pottery. The target outcomes are i) the establishment of a research framework for samian studies for the next decade, ii) the identification of potential research and training opportunities to enable a new generation of samian experts to emerge, iii) the exploration of potential future research partnerships between institutions and individuals and iv) the establishment of a standardised and digitally accessible curation and archival system which enables a greater degree of analysis and synthesis across collections.

This project is timely in that it acknowledges a growing international and national interest in revitalising and advancing samian studies. The Mainz Institute has led the field by establishing a GIS-based mapping tool for the investigation of production and distribution sites. This tool draws on database records of samian collections from a variety of institutions (http://www.rgzm.de/samian/home/frames.htm). In the UK, Steve Willis (University of Kent), with support from English Heritage, has launched an online samian resource using data retrieved from archaeological sites. Professor Michael Fulford (Reading University) has recently initiated a British Academy-funded project to publish the Leeds Collection following the death of Brian Hartley - the Leeds Index of Samian Potters' Stamps. The proposed Research Workshop aims to bring this new expertise together with the intention of sharing knowledge, disseminating best practice and highlighting future opportunities for both research partnerships and the training of new specialists.


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Description The Nottingham Samian Workshops coincided with a growing national and international interest in advancing the study of samian ware, a pottery type that is a primary source of dating evidence for Roman archaeology but has become neglected as a wider research resource. By harnessing this momentum, the programme brought together individuals and organisations from across the UK and Europe: samian specialists, university-based academics, students, museum curators, and representatives from professional units, specialist interest groups and governing bodies.

The primary aim of facilitating discussion and creating a new research agenda was achieved in full and the prognosis for samian research is now good. This is evidenced by the newly-established Samian Working Group (SWG). The SWG was founded, by members of the Study Group for Roman Pottery, in direct response to the Workshops and has been central to extending the lifespan of the programme. Importantly this group is empowering junior samian researchers and providing others with a way into the traditionally closed-off discipline.

Workshop 1 met it's goals in full. By bringing together samian researchers and museum curators, many of whom were unfamiliar with each other's work, a comprehensive picture of current and potential research was obtained with several key areas highlighted for future development, forming the basis of the new Research Framework (available on the programme's website but see also Monteil et al. 2012)

a) Digital technology and web-based dissemination must be adopted to make collections meaningful and accessible to the widest possible audience but this will require a standardisation of methods.

b) There is an urgent need for digital fabric reference collections and other on-line resources.

c) Samian studies need to be relevant to the wider archaeological community - more mainstream and social analyses should be undertaken.

d) Imput is required from French colleagues

Workshop 1 influenced succeeding meetings - French colleagues were invited to speak at Workshop 3 and Workshop 4's remit was expanded to include recording and publication.

Research and training opportunities were considered in detail at Workshop 2, which was a particularly provocative meeting with participants taking the opportunity to argue against established training methods and set out new visions for the development of the discipline. The meeting was a pivotal moment for the programme, with new voices being heard and new individuals (particularly members of the Study Group for Roman Pottery) taking responsibility for the future of samian research and training. This meeting produced some of the most immediately positive outcomes (see further research) and inspired several important new initiatives, including the SWG.

The programme's lifespan has been extended by the many new partnerships formed during the course of the Workshops. A particular highlight was Workshop 3, which brought together museum curators and samian researchers from across Europe (Germany, the Netherlands and importantly France). It facilitated networking that has since increased collaboration (e.g French specialists were invited to become involved in Prof. Fulford's round table meeting on 17/09/08) and resulted in new research plans - for instance the moves to link together virtually the Oswald/Plicque collections split between Nottingham and Durham's University Museums and the Musée d'Antiquités Nationales, Paris (see further research).

Curation standards were reviewed at Workshop 4 which was attended by a cross-section of professions involved with samian: curators, unit directors, samian researchers, finds specialists. Through papers and break-out sessions, the problems and possibilities of samian curation (including recording standards and publication methods) were examined. The meeting demonstrated the need for communication between specialists and museum curators in order to inform the approaches adopted by museums. The Felix Oswald Project was used as an example of best practice and it was agreed that this should set the benchmark for other collections. A considerable achievement was that samian specialists accepted that their recording methods must be consistent with those for other Roman pottery.

Full details of the Workshops, with summaries of all the papers and discussions, are available on the programme's website
Exploitation Route The Workshops inspired projects on a number of different levels - training, individual research, professional and academic collaboration and international partnership. The new projects can be broadly categorised and summarised as follows:

Pin-pointed as one of the key areas for development, the workshops have resulted in low-level samian training being provided by Drs Tomber (British Museum) and Monteil (University of Nottingham) who, in partnership with Birkbeck College, will ran two-day intensive training courses on samian forms and fabrics.

In recognition that access to museum collections is fundamental for training and future research Dannell (University of Nottingham) and Dickinson (University of Leeds) obtained funding from the Roman Research Trust to digitise and make accessible the Brian Hartley archive of samian ware.

Monteil (Nottingham) was awarded Leverhulme post doctoral funding to undertake detailed mapping of samian assemblages in three Roman centres and synthesise data from urban, military and rural sites to explore how samian consumption varied with social group and changed through time (AD 40-250). This research constitutes a major step towards the recommendations of the Workshops, which highlighted the need to move samian analysis beyond providing dating for Roman archaeology.

The programme demonstrated that communication is essential for the future well-being of samian research; two initiatives were created in response.

a) Funding has been awarded by English Heritage's Historic Environment Enabling Programme for Rayner and Monteil to undertake a survey of samian requirements and provision in the professional sector.

b) The Samian Working Group was established to facilitate the exchange of ideas and establish a mutually-beneficial support network. It will allow samian specialists, general pottery specialists and other interested parties to meet informally to discuss methodological, practical and theoretical issues, and help develop skills and knowledge.

The programme does have relevance for non-academic audiences. Work undertaken by the University of Durham's museum (discussed in Workshops 2 and 4) has shown that samian is an effective medium for engaging the public and increasing their knowledge and understanding of the Roman period. Furthermore, members of the public, local archaeological societies and commercial organisations have demonstrated an interest in samian and the results of the workshops - this was clear from the plenary session which was attended by individuals from these non-academic groups. For this reason, all the planned online resource projects resulting from the Workshops were designed to reach a broad non-academic audience and to be useful to a wide range of users: for instance museum education officers (as a resource for outreach), local interest groups (as an educational resource) and commercial units (to assist identification and analysis).

Access to the results of the programme and the projects that it has inspired has had a significant impact on the commercial sector; it is possible for individuals working within professional archaeological units to undertake low level samian analysis without the expense of employing specialists.

This will provide the commercial sector with a greater understanding of the pottery's significance and meaning.

Knowledge transfer between academic and commercial sectors has been an important aspect of the programme, not only enhancing the subject area but also advancing understanding of samian among professional and governing bodies. This new awareness of the discipline and its problems is evidenced by the fact that organisations, such as the IFA and English Heritage, are willing to support the discipline's development.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Other

URL http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/archaeology/research/materials/samian/index.aspx
Description The Workshops have greatly accelerated the drive towards digital archiving and the creation of web-based research tools (e.g. fabric series), a move that has had a dramatic effect on the scale and quality of samian research. Prior to this project much samian analysis was undertaken without access to these vital resources. As collections have become available on-line it is possible for more individuals to accurately identify samian, so improving professional standards.
First Year Of Impact 2008
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description Historic Environment Enabling Programme
Amount £1,500 (GBP)
Organisation English Heritage 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2009 
End 05/2010
Description Securing and making accessible the Brian Hartley archive of samian ware (Terra Sigillata)
Amount £4,000 (GBP)
Organisation Roman Research Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2008 
End 05/2009
Title Felix Oswald Database 
Description Felix Oswald, an early pioneer of Roman pottery studies in Britain, established a collection of samian ware from his excavations at Margidunum (Nottinghamshire) and also acquired a substantial collection from the French antiquarian Albert-Edward Plicque. The bulk of Oswald's collection was donated to the University of Nottingham (the remainder to the University of Durham) and the collection constitutes a major, yet underused, resource for Roman pottery studies. By recording, digitising and databasing the decorated/stamped sherds we created a searchable resource that is freely accessible to all researchers. This was publicised widely through the network. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2008 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Prior to publication of the database much samian analysis was being undertaken without access to vital resources and expertise. The database provides an authoritative and easily searchable mechanism to support researchers who are often working in isolation. As such, it has raised standards within samian training and recording. Access to the results of the programme and the projects that it has inspired has had a significant impact on the commercial sector. 
URL http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/~aczsamia/database/index.php