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Roman Terra Sigillata pottery from Constance, Germany
Samian ware is a kind of bright glossy red Ancient Roman pottery, also known as terra sigillata although definitions vary somewhat, and on the continental mainland terra sigillata is a generic term for all red glossed Roman pottery, including Arretine ware, African Red Slip and other types. It is similar to the earlier Arretine ware and both types are attempts to copy more expensive metal originals. Because of this they display skeuomorphic characteristics. It was first made during the first century AD and production ceased around the mid third century, having been the dominant type of fine pottery for most of this period, found all over the Empire and beyond. The main centres of production were in Gaul and Germania.

Samian has nothing to do with the island of Samosmarker but was once thought to have originated there, and the name has stuck, at least in British usage. It may also be derived from the Latin verb samiare, to polish. It can be identified from its pinkish or orange fabric and a distinctive smooth red surface created by dipping the unfired pot in slip before putting it in the kiln. The specific technology varied but the main idea was to have a slip that melted or sintered at a lower temperature than the body of the pot. One way of achieving this was to use potassium carbonate from wood ash to act as a flux. Some sigillatas therefore have a higher percentage of potassium in the shiny surface material than in the body of the pot (Mirti et al. 1999). It was produced in industrial quantities and archaeological evidence implies that it was still in heavy demand as examples showing signs of repair as well as shoddy imitation pseudo-Samian types have been excavated.

Manufacture

Famous production centres included La Graufesenque in southern Gaul, Les Martres-de-Veyremarker and Lezouxmarker in central Gaul, and Rheinzabernmarker and Trier in modern Germany. In order to cope with demand several attempts were made to produce Samian in Roman Britain, at Colchestermarker and in Northamptonshiremarker and Sussex. Due to inferior clays and less competent potters however, the ventures soon failed. Many vessels were stamped by their makers and thus their distribution can be traced across Europe, Asia and Africa.

Decorated Samian could be created by adding designs in barbotine, applique or through rouletted or incised methods. More commonly, the decorated vessels were created from moulds. Hunts for wild animals were a popular theme.

As it is easily identified and datable, Samian has been long studied by archaeologists. The first attempt to classify it was in 1896 by Hans Dragendorff.

There is also a rare black variety known as Black Samian.

References

  1. See terra sigillata. For some Samian ware is a type of terra sigillata, for others terra sigillata is a type of Samian ware, and others treat the terms as effectively synonymous.
  • P.Mirti, L.Appolonia & A.Casoli 1999 Technological features of Roman Terra Sigillate from Gallic and Italian centres of production Journal of Archaeological Science vol. 26 pp1427–35


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