Category Archives: From the Archives

VM_365 Day 362 Guest VM curator on Thanet’s Roman samian pottery

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For Day 362 of the VM_365 project we have a roundup of the images that accompanied posts made by one of VM_365’s guest curators, Dr. Steve Willis of the University of Kent, an expert of the distinctive Roman samian pottery which has been found on so many of the archaeological sites of Roman Thanet.

Samian vessels featured in several  VM_365 posts. Day 297 featured samian sherds from a site at Dumpton near Broadstairs and Day 102 featured a small samian cup from the remains of a kitchen found at a Roman site in Broadstairs. Day 183 featured a samian sherd  with evidence for a repair from the same site and Day 54 featured a sherd of samian with a name scratched on the surface.

With an expert’s eye and detailed knowledge the assemblages of finds collected by archaeologists can reveal hidden details, even from the smallest elements and Steve’s knowledge of Roman pottery has helped to provide detailed information for a number of VM_365 posts.

One of the most extensively excavated of the major buildings of the Roman period in Thanet is the large Villa at Minster, which appeared in several VM_365 posts. In VM_365 posts  two samian beakers of the rare Dechelette 64 form,  found in the Minster villa excavation, were examined by Dr. Willis. Day 175 of the VM_365 project featured a beaker manufactured in the workshop of Libertus, who was producing pottery at Lezoux in the early 2nd century. The beaker on Day 179 was slightly later, and is decorated with a chase scene. The post also featured an interesting biography of the French archaeologist Joseph Déchelette who first catalogued the samian vessels manufactured in Gaul.

On Day 86 of VM_365 the post visited a box full of samian and other Roman pottery, which belongs to an archive of finds and records which has been given to the Trust to store. Steve was able to examine the pottery contained in the box and to give more detail on the forms and dating of the pottery in a later post on Day 345. in a strange co-incidence, the post written by Steve for Day 346 pointed out that one of the vessels that formed the contents of the wooden storage crate was manufactured in the same place, near Colchester in Essex, nearly two thousand years later. The parallel was drawn that the transport of goods a very useful form of evidence for archaeologists!

The images that went to make up this round up picture were produced by Lloyd Bosworth, archaeological technician at the University of Kent.

VM_365 Day 346 What about the box? Imports from Colchester.

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Today’s image for Day 346 shows the wooden box that was used to store some of the Roman pottery excavated at the Roman building near Drapers Mill by Joe Coy in the late 1950’s and 1960’s which featured in yesterday’s VM_365 post for Day 345. The wooden box holding Joe Coy’s Roman pottery dates to the late 1950’s – 1960’s, comtemporary with the time the dig at Drapers Mill was carried out and itself has a story to tell us.

Museum stores house thousands of artefacts and when visiting the stores it is often not long before you see an old tobacco tin, wooden matchbox and the like from the 20th century that had been pressed into service as a make-do receptacle for a find. This was a time when Tupperware, cardboard and plastic wrapping were generally less common and before there were stricter museum curation policies (that specify how materials are to be received by the curating museum). So, just as with a visit to the family shed, you can see how, what were familiar items of recent times, were opportunistically utilized for safe storage.

Coming across such containers can jog the memory and be a fascinating encounter as sometimes what was ubiquitous, valueless and discardable packaging, say 70 years ago, now has a story to tell. Occasionally this is as insightful as the artefact within. In those times we consumed less, things were less easy to replace, and there was more of an attitude of ‘make-do and mend’; what items came in were often carefully designed and very well-made: here was a chance for the prudent 20th century recycler to find a new use for old packaging. What was to hand was helpfully taken into service, not so much to save cash but more likely because there were limited alternatives.

We only have to go back a few decades to the 1960s to be within that time and we can see that Joe Coy’s best pottery finds from the excavations at Drapers Mills from the turn of that decade came to be housed in a robust wooden box convenient for shelving and for transport for when the finds were needed for display or to show the pottery experts.

The box is made of thin ply-wood and its measurements and markings are in imperial standards for it pre-dates the switch to decimalization in 1971. Accordingly it measures 11 by 10 inches and has a height of 6¾ʺ. It had been marked in now fading black-ink by stencilling or stamping with the name ‘BETTS’. It was seen recently by Pete Nash who recognized it immediately as coming from the Betts toothpaste tube factory at Colchester.

Also marked on one side (more obviously by stencilling and in a different type-face) are the contents, described in light traces as ‘TUBES’ with what is likely to be the quantity given but which cannot now be read clearly. The price is given by means of the same stencil as ‘BETTS’ telling the reader ‘BOX CHARGED 4/-’ in what we call nowadays ‘old money’ namely four schillings (20p in today’s decimal currency). The ply-wood is ⅛ of an inch thick, with metal staples used to bind the sheets together. This makes for a container it is very sturdy but light and doubtless the dimensions relate to the size of the tubes inside and their safe transit and housing.

The tubes of toothpaste originally stored in the box were almost certainly of soft metal and shorter than today, so may have sat in two rows within the box. Masking-tape had been added at a later stage, probably to secure an improvised lid as the original top is missing (was that perhaps used in a role as a tray as we might use a shoe box lid today or had it been broken on opening?). Did the original lid say more about the content? A makeshift lid was provided when it was pressed into service to store the pottery, perhaps in the 1960s or 1970s, made of ‘hardboard’ which is another material that was ubiquitous at the time, being used in light carpentry, but now rarely seen. This was also something likely to be simply convenient to hand which has been cut to just lie over the top of the box. It too is inscribed, but this time with summary information on the present contents and in marker pen, short and to the point “Joe’s pots DM.”

Aptly the box and perhaps what it originally held were imports to Thanet, just as it contains imports from the Roman era in its present use. One of these, a whole globular beaker, as featured in yesterday’s post for Day 346 of the VM_365 project, is a type known from Roman Colchester, one that may have been made there, which would be a striking coincidence.

Of course the reuse of former packaging is well-attested through the ages: from Roman wine and oil amphorae seen reused as caskets for burials (with examples known on Thanet and in north-east Kent) to the tea-chests which were an everyday item seen in second use in ‘storage and removal’ through the second half of the 20th century. Doubtless old jam jars will be employed for new home-made jams this summer, some maybe first had jam from Tiptree, near Colchester.

The Betts factory which was still operating in the 1960s closed to be redeveloped recently for housing. Joe Coy’s box has become an artefact and its history ties it in time to the important excavations at Drapers Mills that occurred when the box was itself young. What happened to all the thousands of other boxes of this type dispatched from the Betts factory and are there other surviving examples from Thanet?

Dr Steven Willis (University of Kent), Photo: Lloyd Bosworth (University of Kent). Thanks to Pete Nash of Colchester.

VM_365 Day 345 Wooden box stores Roman pottery collection. Part 2

VM 345Today’s  image for Day 345 of the VM_365 project shows a selection of pottery from excavations carried out by Joe Coy at Draper’s Mill, Margate during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. These vessels and sherds were stored in a wooden box and a general exploration of the samian contents have previously featured on Day 86 of the VM_365 project.

A deeper dig into Joe Coy’s box of Roman pottery reveals more about the site and the collection. The ensemble features samian ware very prominently and some is shown in this photo; it is clear that this ‘boxed set’ is a selection of items considered particularly interesting by the excavator.

Samian ware was the fine imported table ware of the Roman period which was relatively expensive and, indeed, rather ‘flashy’ perhaps when set on the Roman dining table alongside other locally produced vessels. Several vessels here have the stamp of their maker present. Leaving aside the three complete or near complete vessels in the foreground of the post from Day 86 there are a number of vessels which are represented by several sherds and in these cases much of the vessel is present. This being so we might speculate: was there an accident one day when several vessels were broken and needed to be discarded?

Two of the larger samian vessels are bowls made at Lezoux in Central Gaul, now located in modern France (top right). From the reading of the names of the makers (or is it the name of the workshop?) impressed into the floor of the vessels, together with their shape, it is possible to say with confidence that they date to the middle of the second century AD. The makers stamps show them to be the work of Paterclinus and Patricius ii. The most frequent vessel form amongst the samian is, however, the conical cup (Dragendorff’s type 33) though this is present in a variety of sizes.

The small whole buff-coloured globular vessel is a beaker (Jason Monaghan’s type 2C6) and is a form seen at other sites in the region such as Colchester. Pots in this form have likewise been recovered at Cooling in north Kent (on the Hoo Peninsula) where there was a major pottery industry at this time.

The samian includes first century ware, while a little later in date is one of the type 33 cups which is a particularly fine example of Hadrianic date and more orange than red (bottom right). Later samian forms occur too. One of these late samian vessels came to the Drapers Mills site from Trier, then in Eastern Gaul, in the early third century and is noteworthy in lacking the finesse of earlier samian wares. Present too in the box are other non-samian Roman finer wares including a sherd from a beaker from the Nene Valley near Peterborough, and the lower part of a vessel with gold mica-dusting giving it an intentionally attractive glittery appearance (on the left but with glitter not caught in this photo).

Another fine table item present is of much more recent date being a decorated base fragment of black Wedgewood Jasperware (bottom, right of centre on top of a small pile of fine Roman greyware sherds) which was perhaps originally thought by the excavators to be fine Roman ware. Samian and Nene Valley beakers were the equivalent to Wedgwood products in their time and Jasperware often featured goddesses and other imagery drawn from the classical world so their companionable boxing-up here seems very apt.

Dr Steve Willis

Photos by Lloyd Bosworth, University of Kent.

VM_365 Day 313 Colour coated dish from Minnis Bay, Birchington

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After P. H. G. Powell-Cotton and G. F. Pinfold, 1939, Plate IV.

Today’s image for Day 313 of the VM_365 shows half of a Roman pottery bowl found in one of the pits excavated and recorded by James Beck and Antoinette Powell-Cotton at Minnis Bay, Birchington in 1938.

The bowl, described as a half of a red ware colour coated dish, was found in the same pit as the double handled wine jug featured in yesterday’s post for Day 312 of the VM_365 project. Half of a 4th century black pottery vessel, fragments of millstones and part of an upper quern stone were also found in the pit.

VM_365 Day 312 Roman pottery from pits on foreshore at Minnis Bay

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After P. H. G. Powell-Cotton and G. F. Pinfold, 1939, Plate III.

Today’s image for Day 312 of the VM_365 project shows three Roman pottery vessels found and excavated by James Beck and Antoinette Powell-Cotton in pits on the foreshore of Minnis Bay, Birchington in 1938.

The vessel on the left hand side of the image was found in a square shaped pit and is described as a ‘grey Belgic vase’ by Major Powell-Cotton and G. F. Pinfold in their report and catalogue of the site in 1939. This late Iron Age/Early Roman vessel was found along with the base of a 1st century rough cast pottery beaker and a fragment of Quern stone.

The vessel shown in the centre of the picture is described  as a two handled wine jar of New Forest type.  A wide range of wheel thrown fine wares were produced in the New Forest  in the 3rd and 4th century,  sometimes decorated as is the case with this vessel, and are generally found distributed across southern Britain. The vessel was found complete, in a pit along with some other pottery and a fragment of the upper part of a quernstone.

The vessel on the right was found in a pit beneath the millstone that featured in yesterday’s, Day 311 post for VM_365. The vessel was described as a fine red ware pot with the remains of decoration with white slip.

Some of the pits may be the remains of the bottoms of well as three contained springs. The pottery found in the pits dates from the early 1st century to the 3rd or 4th century indicating that this area had been a focus of activity by the Romans for at least 300 years.

VM_ 365 Day 311 Roman millstone from a pit at Minnis Bay.

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After P.H.G Powell-Cotton and G. F. Pinfold, 1939.

Today’s image for Day 311 of the VM_365 project shows a large Roman Millstone found on the foreshore at Minnis Bay in 1938 by a 14 year old schoolboy named James Beck. The picture of the millstone was taken at the Powell-Cotton Museum where the millstone now resides.

James Beck identified and excavated a group of eight pits of Roman date assisted by Antoinette Powell-Cotton. The millstone, measuring nearly a metre in diameter and almost 12 centimetres thick, was found covering one of the pits, an irregular shaped cut which measured about 73 centimetres deep. A fragment of millstone of a similar date found at Broadstairs previously featured on Day 59 of the VM_365 project. Below the millstone, the pit also contained a fine red ware vessel, two fragments of samian pottery, horses teeth and fragments of wood.

James Beck also identified a Bronze Age site in the same area as the group of Roman pits and excavated and recorded a Bronze Age hoard that was previously featured on Day 202 of the VM_365 project.


VM_365 Day 307 Middle Bronze Age Urn from keyhole site at Westgate

VM 307Today’s image, for Day 307 of the VM_365 project, shows a large sherd from a Middle Bronze Age, Deverel Rimbury style, pottery vessel that was excavated from the enclosure ditch that featured in the post for Day 306.

The sherd is one of eleven fresh conjoining sherds, including five small fragments, made of a characteristic heavily flint gritted fabric. The sherds come from the rim of a large Barrel Urn, measuring approximately 28cm in diameter at the rim and widening below the shoulder. The rim is decorated externally with two parallel rows of fingernail impressions.

The survival of such a recognisable and substantial collection of dateable pottery in a tiny remnant of an ancient settlement, demonstrates the value of observing the deposits that are revealed when construction sites clear a keyhole view into the ancient landscape.

VM_365 Day 306 Middle Bronze Age Enclosure at Westgate

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Today’s image for Day 306 of the VM_365 project shows another image from our series looking at archaeological sites revealed through the keyhole of small discoveries at sites in built up areas under Thanet’s towns, where construction work has opened a window into an ancient landscape that has been lost for many years.

The discovery was made in an area where a substantial amount of urban development has taken place, which has masked and sometimes destroyed the deposits and features that could provide evidence of the past occupation in the area.

The image shows a short stretch of an enclosure ditch dated to the Middle Bronze Age, which was exposed in groundworks for the construction of a house. The site had already been occupied by an extension that was used as a temporary police cell for a former police house and a garage.  The foundations for the  police cell can clearly been seen in the image above, located on the right hand side of the ditch before turning to cut it.

The ditch contained twelve sherds of pottery from three seperate Deverel Rimbury style Middle Bronze Age vessels. The discovery of a small surviving stretch of a Middle Bronze Age enclosure is a significant contribution to the prehistoric archaeology of the Isle of Thanet. The enclosure ditch may have formed part of a wider settlement and such features are always an important part of any attempt to map the historic occupation of the landscape.

VM_365 Day 303 Iron Age polychrome decorated pottery from Dumpton Gap

VM 303Today’s image for Day 303 of the VM_365 project shows a number of joining sherds from the upper part of an Iron Age  polychrome decorated pottery vessel, which was found in an excavation at Dumpton Gap in the 1960’s.

The image of these joining decorated sherds was digitised from a slide taken by Joe Coy, who directed excavations at the site at Dumpton. The slide is one of a small group in the same archive as the box of finds that we explored in previous posts from Day 292  to Day 301 of the VM_365 project.

The post for VM_365 Day 302 looked at the monochrome surface finishes on two Iron Age sherds, one caused by natural staining, the other by deliberate application of a black carbon pigment.  The vessel shown today exhibits a more complex decorative finish in a rectilinear and geometric style, similar to the Halstatt inspired scheme on the deliberately decorated sherd dating from the Early to Mid Iron Age. The pot is made of a dark grey fabric, whose surface is decorated  using red Iron Oxide pigment  to fill in some of the triangles and stripes that have been scored in a regular geometric pattern over the surface of the clay.

The use of the red pigment to create regular rectilinear geometric decoration is similar to that of another Early to Middle Iron Age sherd from Sarre which featured on Day 198 of the VM_365 project.

Another vessel from Margate, decorated with fields of red iron oxide pigment, was featured on Day 226 of the VM_365 project, although the decorative finish on that vessel is typical of the later curvilinear La Tène decorative style.

VM_365 Day 302 A tale of two sherds

VM 302Today’s image for Day 302 of the VM_365 project is of two Iron Age pottery sherds, both from a similar archaeological period and from the same site near Broadstairs. Both sherds seem to exhibit an apparent surface decoration. However, the origin of the patterns on the surface of each sherd is quite different.

The sherd on the left is from the rim of a simple open-form bowl. The fabric is flint-tempered and the surface has been decorated with a comb, it is datable to between c.500-350 BC. But what are the black streaks on the surface? The sherd has been washed when it was brought from the site but the black colouring survived intact. Is this some form of avant-garde art, with the black colouring applied as a visual contrast to the more rigid but bold comb-decoration?

The answer, as near as our experience can judge, is more prosaic. The pattern is caused by soot-impregnation or staining. One can imagine soot dribbles being created in a rubbish pit, where the sherd has been discarded and imperfectly sealed by earth or other rubbish. Material, wood as cuttings, carpenters shavings, perhaps even cloth or some rotting vegetable matter, is thrown on top and burnt, creating sooty ash. Then the powdery charcoal rich ash, mixed with rainwater, making a thick and rich solution that seeps lower into the pit, dribbling in streams and impregnating the surface of the pottery as it runs over it.

Unlike the sherd on the left, with naturally acquired soot-staining, the sherd on the right is deliberately decorated with a black trellis design, deliberately painted using crushed charcoal or carbon deposits mixed with water, to provide the black colour. The trellis pattern was applied as a horizontal band around the shoulder panel of a large fineware jar. The linear design is typical of the rectilinear motifs current during the Early-Mid Iron Age between c.600-350 BC, inspired by continental rectilinear art-forms in Halstatt style, as opposed to the more curvilinear designs of La Tene type, more typical of the succeeding Mid and Mid-Late Iron Ages between c.350-50 BC.

The two patterning processes, one deliberate and one a fortuitous phenomenon of the deposition of the pot sherd should cause a momentary hesitation for archaeologists before reading all patterning and surface treatments as a deliberate act of decorative symbolism. The archaeologists job is determine the boundaries between the signals from the past and the noise accumulated by the random processes of time.