Sorting Pottery 101

Hello Everybody!

This week Morgan and I began a project in which we sort the bulk finds found in the North Field a few years ago. The last time I posted here, I showed you the process by which artifacts found on site reach their final destinations. If you remember (if not read it here: Post Excavation: A First Person View), after being washed, the pottery is then sorted, put in bags, and labelled. As you can imagine, the hardest part of this process is distinguishing the types of pottery from one another. Let me show you the tips and tricks that we use to identify different types of pottery.

We sort our finds into 5 categories:

  1. CBM (Construction Building Material)
  2. Iron
  3. Slag (metal castoffs from the smelting process)
  4. Glass
  5. Pottery

For the most part, it is easy to differentiate glass, iron, slag, and CBM. Iron tends to come in the form of nails and is often long, rusted, heavy, and quite obviously metallic. Slag tends to be more amorphous and is less defined in its shape, though highly rusted. CBM is composed of tile and brick. CMB often looks like rocks but is differentiated by the bright orange-red colour as well as patterns, and flatter man-made edges. Glass is the easiest to identify because it looks almost exactly like modern glass. I’m serious! See the pictures below to see what I mean:

IMAG0377 wpid-wp-1435266615282.jpeg

Here you can see blue glass on the left and iron nails in a bag on the right.

When it comes to sorting pottery, we have to sort it into 6 types of pottery:

  1. Amphora
    • roman-amphora-ar2213Amphorae were large containers used in shipment and often stored olive oil, wine, and other commodities that were popular throughout the roman empire. As a result, we find several pieces of amphora all over the site. Because these amphorae had to survive travel, they were made quite thickly to protect their contents. In addition, because they were mainly storage vessels, they are very simple in their appearance. Amphorae can be identified by their distinctive thickness and texture, their beige colour, and their curvature which indicates the large nature of the pottery.
  2. Black Burnished Ware
    • wpid-wp-1435266648089.jpegfig12_bb1Black Burnished Ware is a distinctive type of Romano-British ceramic. It is identified from its striking black colour and its burnished lattice decoration; hence the name black burnished ware. In piles of pottery that have spent about 1800 years in the ground, it can sometimes be hard to see its distinct black colour. The pottery also comes in sherds which means that some pieces can not have the lattice decoration. The way we test for black burnished is to dab it with a bit of water. Regular pottery is quite porous and quickly absorbs the water, drying quickly. In addition, the colour when wet is still grey. On the other hand, black burnished will take longer to dry and will appear jet black when wet.
  3. Mortaria
    • These kitchen wares were important because the inside surface was covered with coarse sand and grit. This allowed the Romans to pound and mix foods effectively. When we get pottery, we look for the unmistakable grit on the surface, as well as the characteristic shape of the rim shown below.IMAG0436 wpid-wp-1435266702455.jpeg
  4. Samian Ware
    • 3292805686_46a4ce6eff_zIn my personal opinion, Samian Ware is some of the nicest pottery at the site. This type of pottery is also called Terra Sigillata and is unique in the fact that it is made with a glossy, reddish, slip that gives it a glossy texture, even hundreds of years later when it is found. Samian Ware comes from South Central Gaul (modern day France) and was quite popular in the Roman Empire. In fact, a lot of the pottery was made from moulds and mass produced for export. In the Vindolanda Museum, there is a complete set of Samian ware that is unused because the pottery broke during shipment from France to Vindolanda. We can identify Samian ware from its distinct colour and glossy texture.wpid-wp-1435266692880.jpeg

      You can see the difference between regular pottery (left) and Samian (right)

  5. Fine Ware
    • Fine ware is more carefully crafted and is often painted, thinner, and more delicate. We look for flecks of paint or intricate designs on the pottery to see whether it is fine ware or not.wpid-wp-1435266627223.jpegThis pottery is thin and has paint flecks (visible in the bottom right piece)
  6. Coarse Ware
    • This is basically the category for all the regular day to day utilitarian pottery that doesn’t fit into any of the other categories.

So now that you know how to differentiate between all the types, let’s put it to the test. Comment below and identify the following:


All three of these sherds fall into one category. Do you know which one it is?
IMAG0374 (1)
All of these are the same category. Can you identify it?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s