For the past few days, my house and garden has looked rather like a Samian Ware factory…
For those of you who don’t know, Samian Ware is a distinctive type of pottery used across the Roman Empire. Its other name is Terra Sigillata and, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it is only British archaeologists that use the term Samian Ware. Why? Well, I’m not entirely sure.
Anyway, the pottery is a glossy red slip-ware, sometimes plain but also decorated, and was used as tableware. The pottery that we find in Britain at first came from factories in South, Central and Eastern Gaul, but from the 2nd century AD it was also being made at small workshops in Pulborough (Sussex) and Colchester (Essex). You can find out more by visiting potsherd.net – a great site where you can find out all you need to know about any type of Roman pottery.
By Haselburg-müller (Own work) [GFDL (httpwww.gnu.orgcopyleftfdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (httpcreativecommons.orglicensesby-sa3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons1
But back to Samian Ware. Someone once described it to me as “the Tupperware of the Roman Empire”, but I’m not sure that really does it justice. It’s more like your best dinner service (if, indeed, you have one), just that many Roman households had one that was similar to, if not the same as, everyone else’s.
Anyway, I have been preparing for a workshop that I am delivering next week to Reception, Y1s and Y2s. I decided that I wanted them to learn something about how Romans made their pottery since their school is not too far from an interesting Roman site that once featured on Time Team. Giving clay to children to play with is also a sure-fire way of getting and then keeping their attention. However, as always, I want the children’s experience to be as meaningful and ‘genuine’ as possible and not simply a way of occupying their time, no matter how enjoyable it may be.
This left me in a quandary. When it comes to prehistoric pottery, I feel on safe ground as it is hand-made with no wheels in sight. However, it is well known that Samian Ware is made using a wheel. It is also made using moulds (although not always). In fact, the moulds are made first on a wheel, then decoration applied to the inside using stamps, then the bowl itself is made by applying the clay to the inside of the mould, again using a wheel.
Now, I once used a potters wheel when I did A level Art and Design many moons ago and, let’s face it, I wasn’t great. I always thought that ‘throwing a pot’ must be a knack that you either had or didn’t have, and so I pretty much left it alone and didn’t give it much thought, until now. I have since changed my mind about my abilities, and now I am sure I could become a master potter if I only set my mind to it and practised and practised and practised some more. However, not only do I not have the time to do all this practising, I do not have access to a potter’s wheel either, never mind enough ‘portable wheels’ (if they even exist) to take to a school so that a class full of children can have a go. So what was I to do?
I decided that we should concentrate on the decoration of Samian Ware – the creation of the mould and then how this translates to the decoration we eventually see on the finished pieces. To this end, I made a number of stamps out of clay, using vaguely Roman themes, such as abstract designs, foliage and the odd animal, and decided I would make a number of moulds, not using a wheel, but using small plastic bowls as moulds (I wonder where I got that idea from?) and then give them to the children to use as moulds once they are dry. I hope you are following me. I tried it with my own children (aged 3, 6 & 9), and they were all able to roll out some clay and smooth it down on the inside of the moulds quite competently (even the 3 year old). Once the clay dries out they come out of the moulds quite easily, whether the plastic bowls or the replica Samian Ware moulds. And the effect, dare I say it, is pretty good. My children have been quite eager to help and have loved the results. In fact, they also wanted to help make the moulds in the first place and create the decoration using the stamps I made.
Now, it would be great if I could go through the whole process with the children in the workshop, but we just do not have the time, and so I have compromised: some children will be making the moulds, using the plastic bowls and ready-made stamps, and some will be making the pots from the ready-made moulds. Of course, some children will have to wait until the next day in order to see the finished results, but I’m sure they will think it is worth it. Voila! A workshop making Samian Ware pottery for children aged 4 – 7 years old. Ok, so the finished pieces won’t look quite the same as the real thing, although firing and applying slip may help, but still, I think the children will learn something about a technique that the Romans used.
Even if many of the moulds end up broken, which I’m sure is how one or two will end up, then that will give a perfect lead into talking about archaeology and how the evidence we have of Samian Ware production has reached us.