Michael Walsh
The British Museum, £40.00
ISBN 978-0861592029
Review Edward Biddulph

People have been collecting Samian pottery off the coast of Whitstable in Kent at least since the 18th century. The pottery may even have inspired the name of Pudding Pan, the area of the seabed from which much of the pottery has been recovered. Hundreds of pottery vessels are known, but having disappeared into various museum and private collections, and with its context considered too nebulous, the material has largely been ignored as a subject of serious academic study. The tide has finally turned, however. In his book, Michael Walsh presents the findings of his exhaustive analysis of the pottery, its chronology, its context and interpretation, and offers a much more optimistic assessment of the assemblage.

The author has catalogued some 500 complete or near-complete Samian vessels. All are plain forms; many are stamped with the potters’ names, come mainly from the Central Gaulish workshops at Lezoux, and date to the late 2nd century AD. Most of the pottery is likely to belong to a single shipwreck, probably destined for London, although occasional finds of early and late Roman date suggest that more than one ship had foundered off the north Kent coast. Analysis of wear patterns and damage caused by oyster dredgers provides insights into the way that the pottery was packed into the ship, while the potters’ stamps suggest that potters specialised in specific forms or sets.

As for the nature of the Samian trade, the composition of the Pudding Pan assemblage suggests that consumers received what was available to be exported, not necessarily what they wanted. More controversially, the author challenges the conventional view that Samian was exported as a minor cargo, arriving where space in the ship allowed. Instead, it is suggested that the assemblage had sufficient intrinsic value to be exported as a bulk consignment. The author makes a compelling, if not entirely conclusive, case.

This book is essential reading for researchers of Roman trade and Samian pottery. At last, the Pudding Pan Samian ware has the report it deserves.

This review appeared in CA 334.

Leave a Reply