Category Archives: The Devil is in the Detail- Practicalities of Trade and Consumption

Session Abstract – The Devil is in the Detail- Practicalities of Trade and Consumption

Trade, commerce, and consumption have, for many years, provided popular subjects for discussion in Roman studies and continued to push the boundaries of our knowledge and understanding of the Roman Empire. Approaches typically focus on questions concerning how material groups were supplied to consumers and how patterns of trade and commerce can be identified based primarily on ceramic evidence, such as from ship wrecks or site deposits. While these patterns can be approached using macro-analysis of find groups as a whole, investigations into the micro-details of traded goods provide much potential for understanding the organisation and processes of commerce and consumption.


Tituli picti and stamps on find groups, such as amphorae, provide one of the best examples for understanding the implications of micro-details in Empire-wide trade.  Pottery stamps on fine and coarse ware can also be used to understand the organisation of workshops and the scale of supply, while additionally offering new perspectives of the implications of consumer choice.

This session will therefore explore micro-details within a variety of form groups that have been the subject of short and long distance trade. The material will be analysed within a wider context of commerce and practicalities of supply, such as private trade, merchant organisations, or the annona. Further emphasis will be placed on the detailed analysis of distribution networks and the possibilities of personal consumer preference. Some aspects that have often been overlooked are trade goods and vessels that rarely survive in the archaeological record (i.e. wooden items, animal skins) but which undoubtedly played a crucial role in long and short distance trade.
Based on the analysis of these micro- details, and a consideration of how various material groups were originally used, this session will offer new theoretical perspectives on commercial exploits throughout the Roman Empire based on what we know about the organisation of local markets and individual trade.


Evidence for Regional Trades in Game Pies and Potted Meats, using Petrologically Distinctive Hand-made Coarse Pottery as “Brands of Location” – Ian Longhurst

Archaeology has found a persistent low level of hand-made pottery even in large Roman urban centres, like Carthage[1]. Analysis of source materials indicates that some of this pottery travelled considerable distances. Given Roman economic conditions, this hand-made pottery appears to be “irrational” in its means of production and transportation. Wheel-made pottery ought to have driven this material out of the market.  There exists an ethno-archaeological model, which sees this pottery as surplus domestic production marketed to islands of the market economy by largely self-sufficient poor peasants who lived primarily in a non-market economy. In this model, the pottery travels empty and in its own right.

The present paper refutes the previous model and argues that the pottery contained cooked game, which carried a price premium sufficient to make the distribution economically rational. In this model, access in the major cities to game from remote regions is an indicator of the integration of the developed Roman economy. The primary function of this cheap pottery was as a “brand” to verify the source of the contents. Marketing of cooked meats in sealed jars required an organised response to maintain quality standards and avoid the danger of the fake goods ruining the market. Hand-made pottery using petrologically distinctive fabrics signalled that the contents came from highly specific locations, most famously Black Burnished Ware 1 (BB1) came from Poole Harbour. Knowing the location of the pottery allows us to predict the contents of the pots and make testable predictions about the organics preserved in the fabric. Some wares represent the seasonal exploitation of dense migrating wild resources e.g. BB1 migrating wildfowl trapped in Poole Harbour, Pantellerian Ware contained migrating small passerine birds trapped on the island, Dales Ware contained potted salmon and sea trout ascending the Trent. Some other wares represent the products of hunting of boar and deer e.g. Malvern Ware and Central Gaulish Coarse Micaceous Ware. Aspects of food technology that allowed for the safety of these products will be addressed.

[1] D.P.S.Peacock 1982: 75 Pottery in the Roman World Longman Harlow

Putting a Name to the Pot – The Evidence of Potter Stamps on Terra Sigillata – Meike Weber (Reading)

This presentation explores the supply of Samian ware to Britain and the provinces on the basis of potters’ stamps from continental sites and Britain itself. These have recently been made accessible by the publications of the monograph series “Names on Terra Sigillata” as well as the appending data base. This paper will focus on the Antonine period, a major production and trading phase of Central Gaulish sigillata.

The Roman province of Britannia was probably the main export market for Central Gaulish samian workshops. Their products occur at both military and civilian sites throughout the province. As such, it produces data that directly reflects the range of vessels and trade patterns of these workshops from their emergence in the early 2nd century through to the end of supply. In contrast, the frontier zone along the German Limes offers a picture of fluctuating trade, some areas offering more evidence of Central Gaulish products than others. As the pottery was evidently traded along the river Rhine and should have been evenly supplied, different questions will have to be asked.

Based on Steve Willis’ previous works on consumption patterns of samian in Britain, this presentation will explore intra-regional comparisons of consumption across the provinces of Britain and Germany.  Does the absence or presence of certain potters at different sites thus have chronological reasons or could it have been the result of trade routes, distribution networks, economic considerations, or personal consumer preferences? Are we looking at state-controlled supply of Samian to military fortifications or did individual traders offer a choice to the consumers?

Several case studies of individual potters will form the basis of a comparison of British and continental supply with Central Gaulish Samian.

Roman Fish Sauce and the Practicalities of Supply – Sally Grainger (Reading)

The precise nature of Roman fish sauce has until now only been imagined. It was necessarily assumed to be a clear free flowing liquid not un-similar to the modern varieties of fish sauce found in South East Asia.

These products are clear filtered liquids aptly described by Pliny as looking like ‘aged honey wine’ (HN 31.93) . How one get from piles of dissolving fish (with all that that conjurors up in our imagination) to this clean sanitized product is impossible to comprehend without empirical knowledge of the product in manufacture.

Experiments were conducted to manufacture a bulk fish sauce over the last 2 year in conjunction with the University of Reading and in part completion of an MA.  In this paper I will report of the findings of these experiments as they pertain to the practicalities of trading in fish sauce products. A theory is developed as to how the nature of these products determined how they were traded. The various design features of the numerous fish sauce amphorae will be outlined and discussed in light of these findings.

Conclusions will be drawn as to the motivation behind particular design features, such as the long narrow necks of Dressel 12, more reminiscent of a wine amphora and the pronounced hollow spike in types Dressel 7-11, the logical purpose of which was clearly to hold a residue. 

The residue associated with fish sauce, allec, was once considered a product of little value, to be either discarded or given to slaves (Van Neer and Ervynck 2002:208).  Allec has now been observed in manufacture and it is clear that its role in the fish sauce trade is more complex and its value considerably greater than we thought.

From Port to Table – A Fresh Look at Samian Assemblages from London and Beyond – Gwladys Monteil (Nottingham)

London’s position at the core of a road network for the Roman province of Britain meant that it played a pivotal role as a redistribution centre for imported goods within the province, exploiting official and military supply routes.

Several warehouse and shops samian groups are known in London particularly for the second century AD. Aiming to understand the integrity of each group in terms of chronology, workshops and deposition, previous studies have mostly focused on decorated vessels and potters stamps (Bird 1986, Dickinson 1986, Bird 2005). Considering the whole range of samian forms found in warehouses and shops groups is nevertheless essential since a number of samian forms are unstamped.

Some pairs or groups of samian forms have been found in equal quantities in warehouse assemblages from London and seem to have been imported as ‘sets’. The existence of samian services and the presence of discrete vessel sizes have long been recognised. Often seen as logical by-products of a semi-industrial production and an essential requirement for long-distance transport, little is known about how these sizes were interpreted by consumers or their role in dining.

The following contribution proposes to explore in more details the range of samian forms and sizes found in warehouse groups using detailed quantification. By comparing the profiles of such groups to more domestic samian groups across a range of sites in Roman Britain, it will be possible to understand the dynamics behind the circulation of different groups of samian vessels from port to table and the role played by individual consumer preferences.

A Preliminary Discussion Concerning the use of Wooden Barrels in Lusitania – A. P. Souter (Nottingham)

The use of wooden barrels is widely accepted to have occurred in the Roman world, but often with little further commentary or consideration of their practical implications. Although such material only survives in rare circumstances, there are sufficient indications for their widespread use in addition to ceramic containers including amphorae and dolia.

Nevertheless, given their general absence in the archaeological record, understanding their use and subsequent distribution presents many challenges and in most cases can only remain theoretical: indeed, while recent publications demonstrate the advanced level of ceramic studies (Reynolds 2010), our ability to comment on these perishable containers is usually very limited.

Despite these issues, a preliminary theoretical discussion will be presented on the use of wooden barrels in the province of Lusitania where there are sufficient indications for a successful local wine industry that in some cases occurred on a significant scale. Although it is known that a local amphora industry also endured the period of Roman control, the majority of forms were those used for fish-sauce, and there are many indications for the use of barrels at wine production sites. Furthermore, numerous examples of carved stone barrel-cupa monuments are known in addition to other artistic representations.

This paper will therefore build on discussions presented in previous research (Étienne and Mayet 2000; Tupman 2005) and present a detailed study concerning the use of barrels at production sites and the practicalities of supply and distribution.