Samian pottery

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Samian pottery (terra sigillata) describes a type of good quality, mass-produced table ware with a fine red glossy slip and, normally, red fabric which was produced at a number of centres in the Roman Empire between the time of Augustus and the mid 3rd century AD. The term samian ware or just samian is normally applied in Britain, while on the continent terra sigillata has been preferred, particularly in Germany, meaning 'earth with little figures'.[1] Tony King has advocated the use of 'samian' suggesting that this is likely to approximate to the contemporary Latin name for this pottery, meaning red or black glossy pottery.[2]

The exceptional character (attributes) of samian pottery have lead to it being regarded somewhat differently to other pottery types and finds, such that its discovery during work in the field, while perhaps routine, nonetheless seems often still to generate comment or minor stir; there is perhaps a certain magic ascribed to samian, as there is with ancient coins, in so far as it is appreciated that study of these sherds can unlock potentially rich information and understanding.

Of particular significance is the wide spread of samian through Europe. It occurs on all types of site, from upland rural sites in northern Britain, such as Forcegarth Pasture South, by High Force,[3] and villas in the Alentejo, such as São Cucufate,[4] to, of course, major urban centres like Verulamium[5] and Roman military sites, for example Vechten,[6] while decorated bowls, for instance, made in the same mould may be found in different provinces.

Samian has long provided a principal means for dating sites of the Roman era and site phases, being regularly recovered during excavations and via surface survey.


  1. Brunsting, H. 1972 'Terra Sigillata', Westerheem 21, 252-68.
  2. King, A.C. 1980 A graffito from La Graufesenque and 'samia vasa', Britannia 11, 139-43. DOI:10.2307/525677
  3. Fairless, K.J. and Coggins, D. 1986 Excavations at the early settlement site of Forcegarth Pasture South, 1974-5, Durham Archaeological Journal 2, 25-40.
  4. Alarcão, J., Étienne, R. and Mayet, F. 1990 Les Villas Romaines de São Cucufate (Portugal), Paris.
  5. Hartley, B.R. 1972 The samian ware, in S.S. Frere, Verulamium Excavations. Vol. 1, Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London, Report 28, The Society of Antiquaries, London, 216-62.
  6. Mees, A.W. 1990 Verzierte terra sigillata aus den Ausgrabungen bei Vechten in den Jahren 1920-1927, Oudheidkundige Mededelingen uit het Rijksmuseum van Oudheden te Leiden 70, 109-81.


Creative Commons Attribution This article incorporates text from a publication under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 licence: S. Willis 2004 'Samian Pottery, a Resource for the Study of Roman Britain and Beyond: the results of the English Heritage funded Samian Project. An e-monograph', Internet Archaeology 17. DOI:10.11141/ia.17.1.