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Function            Decoration            Life of a pot            Pot drawing





Roman pottery was made in a range of standard forms. The names used in the database are all those used by modern scholars and are not necessarily those used by the Romans.


(Click on the images below to enlarge the image in a new window)


Major forms



These were used to serve liquids such as water, wine and beer. Other vessels for serving liquids are ‘jug’ (with a serving spout) and flask (without a handle).



This term is used of vessels mainly used for drinking. They vary greatly in size. Some hold only as much as a modern coffee cup, and others as much as a pint glass. They are often covered with a coloured slip and are decorated. Other forms of drinking vessels are the ‘cup’ (with a wide mouth like a bowl, but a small diameter) and ‘tankard’ (with a handle).



Storage jar
These are large vessels, usually with quite a narrow neck, that may have been used for storing food or liquids. Some were used to collect water from wells.


Cooking pot or jar
Some of these vessels were used for boiling water or cooking food over an open fire. The pot was placed on the hearth with the wood or charcoal piled round it to its widest point for maximum heat.

Examples of these vessels without sooting or signs of burning may have been used for storing food such as pickled vegetables and preserved fruits.


Small jar
This has the shape of a cooking pot but is the size of a beaker. They rarely show signs of burning. Some have a handle and would have been used for drinking (tankard), so perhaps examples without handles were also used for drinking. Others may have been used to store food.



Bowl and dish
A ‘bowl’ is deep with tall sides and a ‘dish’ is shallow with low side walls. Some were used as table ware for serving food. Others have sooting and were clearly used to cook food in a fire. Another form is the ‘platter’ (large diameter and low sides).





This is a Latin word for ‘mortar’, as in ‘pestle and mortar’. It was used for grinding up food such as herbs, and as a general mixing bowl. Small stones (called ‘trituration grits’) were deliberately added to the inside surface to help grind the food.



Shallow lids with a central handle were sometimes used with cooking pots, but they are not common. Sometimes stone discs were used instead.


This is a Latin term for large containers used to transport food round the Empire. The main types of food carried in them were olive oil, wine and fish-sauce. Unlike the other vessels described above, amphorae were bought for their contents. In modern terms an amphora is a coke bottle, not a cup. The coke bottle gets thrown away after it has been emptied, while the cup is used again and again.



Minor forms


This is an Italian word for ‘cup’. It is a small bowl with a pedestal base, used for burning incense.



This is a Latin term meaning ‘container for scented oil’. In fact, the exact use of these small vessels is unknown.



Wine strainer
This is a bowl with an integral strainer. Whilst it is known they are connected to drinking, exactly how they work is unknown.


This a small jar with a thin spout to one side. Suggested uses are as a baby’s drinking bottle or as a jug to refill oil lamps.





Roman pots could be decorated in a number of ways. These are just a selection of the methods used.


Burnishing is carried out before the pot is dry enough to fire (‘leather-hard’). It involves rubbing the surface of the pot to make it smooth and shiny. Large areas, such as the shoulder of a cooking pot, can be done with a pebble or flat piece of wood, while decorative lines can be done with a blunt stick.



Grooves were added while the pot was still on the wheel. A sharp rod is held against the pot as it rotates, and cuts a groove into the surface.



Lines of fine indentations are created by running a notched wheel over the surface of the pot.



Individual stamps, or a stamp on a wheel similar to that used in rouletting, are pressed into the clay while it is still damp.



A colour-coat is a thin mixture of water and clay (called a ‘slip’), often with added pigments. The whole pot is dipped in this mixture to give the pot a coloured finish. Pots made of white clay could therefore appear to be black, brown, green, tan or orange when new.



This is a slip just like a colour-coat, but instead of the whole vessel being dipped in it, lines and other patterns are added to parts of the pot using a brush.



A thicker mixture of water and clay is added free-hand to the pot to create slightly raised decoration usually consisting of lines, plants and animals. It was produced in a similar fashion to the way modern cakes are decorated, being squeezed out of a small opening in a bag.



A thick slip is added to the surface of the pot in irregular patterns, pulled up into rough ridges.



Incised decoration is cut into the pot when it is leather-hard, before being fired. It takes its name from its similarity to the modern method of glass decoration.




Life of a pot


First life
After a pot has been made, it may travel hundreds of miles by river or sea to the place where it will be used.



The pot is used for cooking, eating or drinking, or to store things.



It can be broken by the heat of the fire while being used to cook food or boil water, or some-one can accidentally knock it off a table, or drop it. It can also be thrown out when food has soaked into the clay walls and turned rancid, making the pot unpleasant to use.



The broken sherds are thrown into a heap in an empty room, or onto a nearby rubbish pile outside the building. When the pile gets too big, the rubbish is put on a cart or hurdle and taken further away from the building. The rubbish can be added to a large tip on the outskirts of the settlement, or it can be thrown into a convenient river or an abandoned building, or it can be used to manure farm fields. The sherds get mixed in with sherds from other pots.



Second life
The pot remains in the ground until 1800 years later archaeologists dig it up.



Every sherd is washed and marked.



They are then catalogued. Archaeologists work out which part of the country the sherd came from, what type of pot it was and what part of the vessel the sherd comes from. Some are chosen to be drawn.


The sherds are then stored in the museum for any-one who wants to look at them.



Pot drawing


Fragments of vessels are drawn at 1:1 to be published at 4:1.


The diameter of the vessel can be reconstructed by matching the curve of the rim to the curve of one of the circles of known size on the Rim Diameter Chart.



The left hand side shows a cross-section through the pot to show the wall thickness.

The right hand side shows the outside of the vessel.



As can be seen, the drawing provides a lot more information about the vessel than the photo.




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