The Romans in Britain: Pottery

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Pottery was required in such large quantities that even before Emperor Claudius’s invasion in AD 43, it was Britain’s most imported item, above food and all other products. However, the trade of actually making pottery was always smaller than many others, such as the wool trade. Roman pottery could be quite difficult to break – hence the large quantities of it found in modern archaeological digs.

Imported pottery

The Britons did not make much pottery before the Romans came, although it was produced in small quantities. Most of the pottery they used was imported from Gaul1. The home-produced British pottery, such as there was, was generally of lower quality than that of Gaul, so little was exported.

Samian ware was a type of highly regarded pottery made in Gaul. The pots were vivid red and featured extraordinarily intricate designs. Samian ware was produced in vast numbers. One record states that 34 potters working on Samian ware produced more than 400,000 pots in only a few months. A good deal of this would then have been exported to Britain. Production of Samian ware dropped significantly in the second century (it is not known why) so Britons began producing copies. They were not as high quality as proper Samian ware but were generally accepted as substitutes.

In the second and third centuries, Germanic pottery began to be imported into Britain. It was of lower quality than the exquisite Samian ware and looked rather more like metal than clay. These coarser German pots sometimes had inscriptions, such as 'Bibe' – Latin for drink. Different types of pottery were imported from different places. Flagons were imported from modern-day Belgium and Germany, amphorae2 were from southern Gaul and mortaria3 were from North East Gaul and Belgium.

However, while originally most of the pottery used in Britain was imported or produced by the Roman Army potters (the Army was the main user and producer of pottery in the early years of their conquest and occupation of Britain), the Britons saw an opportunity to make money by selling their own pots to the Roman army. They learnt the Roman techniques and began production for themselves. Britons produced good quality pottery called Castor ware in the second century.

British Pottery

Pottery was used for many different purposes once the Romans arrived. It was needed for roof tiles, brick making, storage jars and kitchenware. As the British became Romanised and took on Roman living and eating habits, they needed different types of pottery, ranging from the cellar storage jars known as dolia and seriae which have been found in Silchester, to strainers for honey, mortaria for pounding down food or amphorae for general storage. British potters even developed a special type of amphora, which had a resin coating on the inside for the storage of wine.

The British quickly began to learn how to produce high quality pottery in a range of shapes and sizes. Potteries were founded where there was the best quality clay. They ranged in size from small workshops to those that were almost the size of a factory. British pottery developed in several main areas. There were two workshops producing high quality pottery in the New Forest and the Oxford area.

These workshops were quite large by about 300 AD and sold to the whole country. Naturally, they came into competition. The Oxford manufacturers were more successful due to Oxford’s central position, while the New Forest was right on the South coast and so had less area to sell to.

While both had ranges incorporating different colours, the New Forest manufacturers managed to produce innovative designs by using more colours in their work. They produced pots in yellow, red, green and even purple. Their drinking vessels were well known for their dark backgrounds contrasting with white raised patterns. Potters in the Nene Valley produced similar drinking vessels but theirs had scenes instead of motifs.

Pottery was also produced at Poole in Dorset. This type of pottery was unusual because it was black. It was decorated with lines, either straight or curved. Most of it was originally sold to the largest market in Roman Britain – the army. This enabled the business to expand and examples of their work have even been found in military sites in the north of the province.

There were also factories in Hampshire, which saw an opening in the market. They mass-produced lots of cheaper pottery, selling large quantities of the most commonly used items to the public at prices much cheaper than the opposition. They took advantage of local resources including large deposits of clay and the timber that could be taken from the New Forest (needed to keep the kilns going), to help them.

In time, potters began to be well known and the public would want to buy their individual work. Therefore, the potters copied their Gallic cousins by signing or including a brand mark on their work. This meant that not only could customers see that the work was genuine, but it acted as a form of advertisement for the potter, so that anyone who saw his piece would know who had made it and would then be more likely to buy some themselves.

By the mid third century AD, Roman Britain was self-sufficient in pottery - they produced everything they needed themselves. By the fourth century AD, they were even exporting it to the north of Gaul.


The Romans and later the Britons also produced some glass. They blew storage jars, jugs, bottles and glass for windows4. It was sometimes also used for the tesserae (tiles) of mosaics. In Britain, glass making sites have been found at Silchester, Gloucester, St. Albans, Wroxeter and Caistor-by-Norwich, which were all fairly important towns in the Roman period.

1Modern-day France2Sizeable container pots for holding oil, wine or similar products in large amounts.3A pot with a coarse inside surface, used for grinding food, the same as what we now call a mortar.4Though glass windows were rare.

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