Samian ware was highly prized Roman ceramic tableware, distinct for its orange/red colour and skilled craftsmanship. Imported and relatively expensive, your average (fairly) well-to-do Roman would have had the odd piece to show off their wealth. As it is, it was of such an expense that though you do find some quantity of samian on most archaeological sites, it was also a material that wasn’t thrown away with ease…
You’re doing the washing up and you accidentally chip the rim of your favourite bowl; most of us may hang on to it for a while, but eventually we would throw it away. The Romans weren’t quite so quick to dispose of their prized possessions.
When samian, being prized as it was, got chipped, the Romans had a novel (and presumably time-consuming) way of hiding the evidence. They would grind down the rim around their pot to produce a new unbroken rim, often having to remove a significant portion of material to achieve this.
|Samian bowl with rim ground down|
You knock your favourite bowl off the table and it’s lying in pieces on the floor; the Romans had a solution for that too!
Samian is sometimes found with holes drilled through it along the line of a break, evidence that the bowl has been put back together. Corresponding holes would be drilled on the two halves of a break, and a lead rivet would be put between them to hold the two pieces together.
The Romans were not hesitant about using lead in conjunction with food, being (relatively) unaware of any issues with it, and as samian was about showing off your wealth, it would seem the distinct colour and decoration, was enough to distract admirers from the less appealing lead additions.
And they didn’t stop there, when all you had was a sherd left, you could always chip it down, in to a rough circle and use it as a counter, or with a hole drilled through it, it could be used as a spindle whorl (for spinning yarn).
So you see concepts of recycling were nothing new, the Romans were at it long before us.
Look out for the objects pictured here in our current temporary display on samian, in the Sun Lounge at the Roman Baths.
Roman Baths Collections Assistant