Past Talks

The Roman Pottery Industry in the Oxford Region

Date: 24th April 2017
Speaker: Dr Christopher Young

The Roman Pottery Industry in the Oxford Region

Dr Christopher Young – 24 April 2017

A major pottery industry existed in the Oxford region during the Roman period with the height of production being around AD 250-400.

We can identify the various uses for pottery, which included tableware, cooking, storage and the transport of commodities such as oil and wine (amphoras). Unlike other materials, pottery is very durable, so that a catalogue of differing shapes, uses and places of origin has been established.  It provides evidence of trade routes and commerce more generally.

The availability of raw materials such as lower green sand; grit; white clay (rare deposits at Shotover); ochre (also at Shotover); water and fuel, and good communications, influenced the location of kilns.

The exchange and sale of goods from the production site at Boars Hill to the Roman settlement at Abingdon has been established.  Larger kilns produced goods which were transported via the River Thames to London or by road to the rest of Britain.

Evidence of the industry in this area was first identified at Headington Wick in 1850; Sandford 1870s; Rose Hill 1930s.  However, the extent of production and distribution was not fully recognised until the 1960s. 

Christopher’s objectives for archaeological investigations included classifying wares; typology; chronology; conditions of production and distribution.  He undertook digs at the Churchill Hospital site, Yarnton and St Luke’s Road Telephone Exchange in the 1970s.  Other kiln sites have been discovered at Noke, Nuneham Courtenay and Greater Leys since this time.

AD 240-250 ~ New wares were introduced – parchment ware, red colour-coated ware (and the production of mortarium continued).  

AD 350 onwards ~ More decoration and new designs – flagons, beakers, bowls.

Pots began to be stamped with the name of the potter.  Although most were an illiterate combination of lines and dots, one reads ‘Patern’.

Questions raised include:

·        Where does pottery fit in the landscape? (Ans: In the field system as part of the agricultural activity.  Pottery production didn’t happen in isolation from the rest of society).

·        Where did potters live? (Ans: See the Archaeox project in East Oxford.

·        Was it all year-round work?

·        How were sites allocated to potters?

·        Who owned the industry?

·        Who was responsible for distribution?

Not all of these questions can be answered by archaeology.

When the Romans left Britain in AD 410, much of the technical expertise for pottery making was lost and markets disappeared.