VM_365 Day 175 Rare samian beaker from Minster

Photos: Lloyd Bosworth, University of Kent
Photos: Lloyd Bosworth, University of Kent

The image for VM_365 Day 175 shows sherds of a samian ware beaker found at the Roman villa, Minister.

Samian ware was the high quality table ware of the Roman world, made in Gaul, and it came in both plain and decorated types. At a villa site we might expect to see quite a bit of samian ware but whilst it is often present we have to wonder if the villa owners and guests also had something better to call on too to drink and eat from such as glass or silver vessels.

Typically samian drinking vessels are undecorated cups, but this vessel will have been more striking, more costly and more prestigious with its decorated design. It is an example of the type we call Déch. 64, after the pioneer French samian scholar Joseph Déchelette who described many samian vessels and their decoration (there will be more on him in a later post).

This is a rare form even amongst imported samian ware and so may have been especially prized at the villa. In this case we can fortunately see the name of the maker of the vessel as his workshop stamp is present. Decorated samian was made using a mould; here the potter making the mould impressed the die stamp bearing his workshop name in the mould, only it was impressed upside-down. Hence on the vessels made from this mould the name appears ’round the wrong way’ or ‘retrograde’ and upside-down.

Thoughtful potters took care over how the design appeared, but often we see mistakes in the impressed names. The stamp here reads ‘OFFILIBERTI’ (the ‘o’ is missing’) representing  officina Libertus (‘the workshop of Libertus’). The lower photo shows the stamp here turned 180 degrees to read correctly. Libertus ii, as he is known, was active in Lezoux in Central Gaul in the early second century (c. AD 105-130) and his workshop has been found by archaeologists and examined. This stamp is his stamp die 2a as catalogued by Hartley and Dickinson in their monumental corpus of the stamps of samian potters.

A mould for this type of beaker was found at his workshop, but very few examples of the actual beaker with this stamp have been found in the Roman provinces. The decoration here includes a figure with arms raised which may be a rather bulky depiction of Venus, or it is a type where the figure holds a large theatrical mask above its head, only in this case there is no mask. There is a rather plump bird and also on the right side of the figure is the front part of a small deer with its head turned backwards on a tilt and its antlers therefore are pointing to the ground. These small figure types are appropriate for the size of the beaker and typical of the Roman classical world where animals are often shown.

We might imagine the Roman  owner exclaimed their unhappiness when this vessel broke, especially if it contained a nice beverage at the time.

Dr Steve Willis, University of Kent

References

Hartley, B. & Dickinson, B. 2010. Names on Terra Sigillata. An index of makers’ stamps and signatures on Gallo-Roman Terra Sigillata (samian ware), Volume 5, London.

Stanfield, J. & Simpson, G. 1958. Central Gaulish Potters, Oxford University Press, London.

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