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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Roman Era in Britain

by John Ward

published by Methuen & Co. Ltd.
36 Essex Street W. C., London

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

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p179 Chapter X



Almost invariably broken glass is found on our Roman sites, but never in the profusion of the potsherds. We need not infer from this that glass was scarce or costly. To‑day, a domestic rubbish-heap discloses more broken earthenware and porcelain than glass, and this in both cases is due to the latter material being, from its brittleness and inability to withstand sudden changes of temperature, of more limited use than the former. The general diffusion of Roman glass warrants a belief that it was both well known and in regular use in the homes of the era, but perfect vessels are rarely found on their sites. The majority of these in our museums have been obtained from graves, where many of them were used as cineraries and others as accessories, their careful burial having conduced to their preservation.

The combined action of the moisture and carbonic acid of the soil has often rendered the surface of the glass more or less opaque. If the action has been slight, a beautiful iridescent lustre may result, beloved of connoisseurs, but masking the original brilliancy of the surface; if severe, the surface may be in a scaling condition. In most large collections, some of the glass is in an unchanged condition, and well indicates the high attainments of the glass-makers of the era, both in their material and their technical processes.

How high these attainments reached, is well seen in the 'onyx' glass, of which the Portland vase in the British Museum is a familiar example, with cameo-like figures which are unrivalled p180in glass-carving; in the 'millefiori' or fused-mosaic glass, sometimes resembling a richly coloured coralline marble, and sometimes a brecciated marble; and in the 'diatretum,' distinguished for its deeply undercut ornamentation. But glass-wares of the costliness and high finish of this need not detain us further, for although not uncommon in Italy, the finding of fragments in this country is of excessively rare occurrence. They indicate that the glass-workers had command of a wide range of colours, but they seem not to have attained to a pure transparent red. They certainly used copper, iron, manganese and antimony in their production, and probably also cobalt for some of the rich deep blues.

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The vessels ordinarily met with here are of a useful kind, consisting of bottles of a variety of forms and sizes, ewers, jars, cups, beakers, and saucers, mostly with a bluish-green tinge and highly transparent. In the finer qualities the tinge is slighter, but absolutely colourless glass is rare. If the tinge is not green, it is a faint saffron or honey-colour, but nearly always with a suspicion of green. Vessels, however, in what may be properly called coloured glass, are by no means uncommon, deep blue and green, and various yellow tones ranging from amber to a rich brown, being the most frequent.

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Fig. 52. — Examples of Roman Glass Vessels (¼)
In the forms and decorations of the vessels, the Roman glass-worker went his own way, and his products rarely simulated those of the potter and the metal-worker. As might be expected, he turned out wares of various grades — strong, plain, and cheap for common and rough purposes, and highly refined, which had a delicacy of form and finish that can hardly be excelled. Most of the glass vessels of Roman Britain were simply blown, and they indicate a high proficiency in the use of the blow-iron. The little cup with its widespread and turned-down rim (Fig. 52, B),º from Caerwent, is a simple and not unpleasing example. It is thin and wellshaped, and its foot is a ring of glass deftly attached to the base. The cylindrical handled bottle (A), from Boughton Monchelsea, Kent, is a small specimen of a common form, fragments of which are found on most Roman sites. These vessels are of common greenish glass, and are mostly from about 8 ins. to 1 ft. in height. They invariably have wide handles, strong and p182sturdy, reeded externally, and attached to the shoulder by a spreading base. This reeding is characteristic of the handles of the time, and the claw-like feet of the reeds, well seen also in our examples, C, D, E, F, give a sense of firmness of grip. The last three, from burials at Sittingbourne, Colchester, and Faversham respectively, are decanter-like bottles. The spiral string of glass round the neck of the first gives it an admirable finish. Vessels of the shape of the second have been more frequently found than the other two, but without the smaller handle. The trail of glass, frilled by the dexterous use of the pincers, below these handles, is not uncommon. The third is remarkable for the vertical pillars round the body.

In C we have a moulded square variant of A of equally common occurrence, with a precisely similar handle. Similar hexagonal, and more rarely octagonal, bottles are also met with, occasionally with two handles. The bodies of these bottles were moulded, and their bottoms often have simple devices, as panels, interlaced letters, concentric circles, etc., in raised lines, and sometimes letters, probably initials of the makers' names.1 A small jug from Colchester, in the British Museum, was shaped by being blown into a mould or cage of wire network, the impression of which shows on the glass.

H is a beaker-like cup of the finest workmanship, and ornamented with grooved bands, from one of the Bartlow Hills tombs. Fragments of similar cups, but not necessarily of quite the same shape, have been found on many of our Roman sites. A piece of one was turned up at Gellygaer with the edge of the spreading lip ground and polished, and the narrow horizontal groovings cut on the lathe.

The godrooned or 'pillared' bowl, I, was not uncommon. These bowls were often in coloured glass — deep blue, full green, amber, or mulberry; but fragments have been found in London and Silchester of several colours mingled together after the fashion of the coloured clays of the old Staffordshire 'agate' ware. They were evidently moulded. The writer examined some pieces of these bowls in the Caerleon Museum, and found that the inner surface and the outer above the pillars had been ground and p183polished, apparently on the lathe, from which, it would seem, that whatever the process of moulding may have been, it left the inner surface in a rough or uneven condition.

Moulded cylindrical cups of greenish glass, exhibiting chariot races and gladiatorial combats in relief, and arranged in tiers with appropriate inscriptions, have been sparingly found. The portion of one found at Hartlip presents a charioteer in a biga on the point of reaching the metae, and on the tier below two gladiators. A perfect cup of the kind from Colchester in the British Museum has a chariot race in two tiers, with an inscription above to the effect that Crescens beats Hierax, Olympias, and Antilocus.2

The beaker-like cup G, from a grave at Barnwell, Cambridgeshire, and now in the British Museum, has a singularly modern appearance. It is of rather thick glass with a faint greenish honey tinge, and its ornamentation consists of oval depressions, cut out on the lapidary's wheel. Pieces of precisely similar cups have been found at London, Caerwent, Gellygaer, Birrens, Ardoch, Wilderspool, and probably elsewhere, as such pieces may be easily mistaken for modern cut glass. The little cup J, in the Guildhall collection, presents another type of decoration rarely met with. It is of thin yellowish blown glass, with applied 'nail-head' ornamentation.

The little blown glass bottles, commonly known as lachrymatories or unguentaria, were not confined to funerary purposes, but were in general use for holding perfumes, unguents, and served all the purposes of small bottles with us. It was mentioned on page 140, that large bottles of the forms of A C were often used to hold the ashes of the dead; less often these were placed in large globular glass jars. The one shown in Fig. 52 is a simple example, about 9 ins. in diameter, from a burial in Lockham Wood, and now in the Maidstone Museum. More usually they had two handles and occasionally glass lids, and a good example, with the leaden cist in which it was found in Warwick Square, London, is in the British Museum. It is not unlikely that these vessels were specially made for funerary purposes.

Very little is known of the sources of manufacture of Roman glass-ware in Britain. In 1859, Mr. Roach Smith knew of p184no vestige of Roman glass furnaces in this island; nor did Mr. Thomas Wright, sixteen years later, but he suggested that water-rolled lumps of coloured glass found on the beach near Brighton were derived from the site of Roman glass-works which had long been encroached upon by the sea. Even as late as 1907, Mr. Edward Dillon, in his book on glass, could only suggest that if anywhere in England, traces of such works might be expected between the Medway and the Isle of Thanet. Mr. Thomas May, however, has been able to make a strong case for the manufacture of glass at Wilderspool near Warrington in Roman times. During his excavations he uncovered the remains of five workshops containing peculiar ovens. These were singly or in pairs in dense clay platforms, hardened by fire. Some were oval, from about 2 ft. 6 ins. to 5 ft. long, having at one end a flue or stoke-hole reached from a hearth, and at the opposite end or in the side, another flue, blocked at the end in several instances with a flag-stone. Others were simple rounded cavities with a stoke-hole. Mr. May considered that the former were annealing ovens or 'lires,' and that the latter had contained melting-pots. In the vicinity of these structures, he found several lumps of crude glass, glass-scum, calcined flint, a lump of chalk, and pieces of broken glass — all more or less confirmatory of the manufacture of glass; also a stone slab with a shallow recess, 12 by 8 ins., which he regarded as a mould for window-glass.3

To what extent glass was made in Roman Britain is at present unknown. The glass vessels found in this country resemble those of Roman Gaul, where the manufacture obtained a foothold as early as Pliny's time, and flourished greatly, to judge from the known sites of glass-works and the wealth of specimens in the French museums. Our Roman glassware closely resembles that of northern Gaul, and it has long been noticed that the parts of England nearest Gaul — Kent, London, and Essex — have been most prolific in this ware. The glass may have been largely imported from Gaul, or Gaulish glass-workers may have been settled in these contiguous parts of England. Either would explain the relative plentifulness, and perhaps both contributed to it.


The metallic vessels of Roman Britain that have survived are of bronze, pewter, and silver, the first being the most numerous, and the last the rarest; but as a class these vessels are among the rarer 'finds' of the era. It must not be inferred from this that they were correspondingly rare during that era. One vessel of metal would outlast many of pottery and glass, and, when worn out, its metallic value would save it from the rubbish heap. Most of the examples in our collections have been deposited with the dead or purposely hidden.

Whether beaten or cast, these vessels indicate, as a class, a perfect mastery of the metal-worker over his materials. Their curves are graceful and precise, and, when ornamented, the ornamentation is usually finely and carefully executed. Occasionally they exhibit engraved decoration; less so, enamelled.

Of the bronze vessels, two forms are noteworthy — the ampulla or jug, and a pan with a straight horizontal handle known as the patera, also as the patina or patella. Both in form and decoration, these exhibit little provincial influence. Precisely similar vessels have been abundantly found at Pompeii, and its region was an important centre of the manufacture, exporting its products to Britain and even beyond the limits of the empire. There is no evidence that vessels of the kind were made in Britain; but it is almost certain that some were made in Gaul, either by Italian artisans or by natives who copied Italian forms.

Four examples of jugs are shown in Fig. 54, A, B, C, D. The first was associated with the patera, F,º in a grave near Canterbury.4 It so closely resembles some Pompeian examples that there is little doubt it came from the same source. The next two are good examples of the plainer wares of the kind, the one from Tewkesbury and the other from Winchester, both in the British Museum. The last is from one of the Bartlow Hills tombs,5 in which it was associated with a similar patera to the one just referred to, and is decorated with a band of niello p186below the neck. The plainer jugs are usually without spouts, as in the two examples given; and in the more elaborate, the spout is sometimes produced by an angled indentation on each side, thus giving the mouth a pleasing trefoiled shape. Two jugs of this form were obtained from the Bartlow Hills and another from a grave at Sittingbourne. Almost invariably the handle terminates below in a human or an animal's head, or a small medallion. In our Bartlow Hills example it is an ox's skull.

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Fig. 54. — Examples of Roman Bronze Vessels. (¼)

Two forms of the patera can be distinguished — a shallow one with the bottom usually bossed up in the centre, and the handle cylindrical and ending in an animal's head; and a deep one with a flat bottom and a wide flat handle. F is a typical example of the first, from the grave near Canterbury. Two of the Bartlow Hills paterae resembled it, but the third6 differed in the ornamentation of the handle, which, instead of being fluted or reeded, had a cippus, masks, basket of fruit, and other objects mostly of some religious significance. Another found near South Shields had an inscription to Apollo round the boss, and there is a silver example found in Gracechurch Street, in the British Museum.

The second form is of more frequent occurrence, and G is an example from Herringfleet,7 which is representative of a large number. The sides convexly taper to the flat bottom, and the handle terminates in a disc with a central hole, the curves of its concave sides flowing into those of the mouth and disc. The disc is relieved with concentric corrugations, and the bowl with a bead below the lip. Beyond these, ornamentation rarely goes further, but in the present example the upper surface of the handle has a conventional thyrsus, and, what is rare, the maker's name, Quatinus.

Five vessels of this form, graduated in size, have been found at Castle Howard, and two of the handles are stamped P. Cipi Polib. and C. Cipi Polvibi. Another in Wigtownshire bears the same maker's name. The Cipii appear to have been a firm in or near Herculaneum, and their products have been found as far away as France, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and p188Denmark, besides Britain. 'Nests' of these vessels have been found at Abergele, Helmsdale in Sutherlandshire, and Irchester in Northamptonshire. A variant of the form has a recurved lip, and often a slightly recurved foot. One found at Swinton Park, Yorkshire,8 had a handle ornamented with a Thyrsus almost identical with that of the Herringfleet 'skillet.'

The handles are sometimes elaborately ornamented, and there are fine examples in the British Museum. That of a patera from Prickwillow, Cambridgeshire,9 bearing the name of Bodvogenus, is adorned with a winged genius, dolphins, shell, and sea-serpents, the grip being enchased with foliage filled in with enamel. That of a silver patera from County Durham,10 which when found contained a number of silver and gold finger-rings and other articles, is enriched with scrolly and refined arabesques, and it is inscribed to the Mother Goddesses — MATR FAB DVBIT. Four detached handles, part of a large silver hoard found at Capheaton, Northumberland,11 in 1747, are ornamented in relief with mythological subjects and emblems, and these include the Labours of Hercules, Mercury, Bacchus and a moenad, Neptune and a nereid, and Minerva.

The uses, like the names, of these vessels is the subject of a diversity of opinions. They have been regarded as the equivalents of the modern saucepans, as vessels for serving stews at the table, as combining both functions, as wine-measures, and as libation or sacrificial utensils. Against the first hypothesis it has been urged that they never exhibit the effects of fire, also that the high and beautiful finish of many of them is not consistent with their being kitchen utensils at all. If, however, they were held over charcoal braziers, not for cooking, but simply for warming viands, the effects of fire would scarcely be visible, and they might very well have also conveyed the foods to the table. On the other hand, some were certainly dedicated to religious purposes, as the inscriptions on British and Continental silver examples prove. Poorer temples probably had bronze services, and in the household, metallic and other vessels may have been reserved for offerings at the domestic shrine. It is noteworthy that the p189paterae figured on the altars resemble those of our first division, and are nearly always associated with ewers, just as they were in the Bartlow Hills. The patera appears to have been a saucer-like vessel for liquids only, and derived from the Greek phiale, both being used for libations. The central boss or omphalos of the latter provided a small hollow underneath for a finger to be caught in when the vessel was held. The Romans or Etruscans added the handle, and the omphalos survived as an ornamental feature. The patina and its diminutive, patella, appear to have been used for solid or semi-solid foods, either in cooking or for serving up at the table; and perhaps these terms should be confined to the vessels of our second division.

Shallow bowls of thin bronze ranging from about 8 to 14 ins. in diameter, with or without two loop-handles, were in regular use, and fine examples may be seen in the British and York Museums. They are excellently made and usually quite plain, but the handles are often slightly ornamented. Fig. 54, E, is a peculiarly graceful example found in one of the Bartlow Hills.12 As it was associated, like the paterae in two of the other tombs of these 'hills,' with a bronze ewer, it presumably had a similar ritual use. A silver bowl with a flanged lip, highly ornamented on the upper surface, was found at Corbridge in 1736.

Bronze colanders or strainers have occasionally been found, but rarely perfect in consequence of their thinness. They are hemispherical, with or without handles, and the holes are usually arranged in patterns. One with a wide flanged rim was associated with a bronze patina at Kyngadle13 in Carmarthenshire, now in the Welsh Museum, and a similar one, but lacking its flange, was found at Ribchester. An Ickleton14 example had a long, flat, horizontal handle, the grip having incurved sides, and precisely similar strainers have been found at Pompeii.

Flat-bottomed trays, described also as plates or salvers, have been sparingly found. There is a small example in the Guildhall, with a flat, engrailed rim, the shoulder and edge being neatly finished with a bead. Globular bronze camp-kettles have been p190found at Newstead. Bronze lamps will be referred to in Chapter XII.

Bronze vessels were sometimes adorned with champlevé enamel. These were cast with sinkings to receive the enamel. A remarkably fine example was obtained from the Bartlow Hills. It was a small globular situla,15 with moulded foot, recurved lip, and a movable handle attached by ring arising from acanthus leaves on the sides of the vessel. The enamelled decoration consisted of belts of foliage and simple geometrical patterns, in translucent blue, opaque red, and green, and the exposed bronze had been gilded. Several small bowls or cups with similar decoration have been found, and notably one near Marlborough16 with a line of inscription below the lip, ABALLAVA VXELLODVM G AMBOGLAN S BANNA · A. MAIS — names of Roman places in the neighbourhood of Carlisle. Possibly it was made for some society connected with these places. In the British Museum are two cups of similar character, the one from Brougham near Standon, and the other from Harwood, Northumberland. These enamelled vessels appear to have emanated from a common source, and probably British.

As already stated, pewter is less frequent than bronze. A large table service of this alloy, carefully secreted by burial, was discovered at Icklingham, Suffolk, in 1840, and about forty pieces of it are now in the British Museum. In the same museum are thirty-two pieces of another service found similarly buried at Appleshaw, Hampshire,17 in 1897, and another hoard found near Ely in 1858.18 A Roman well at Brislington, Bristol,19 yielded seven pewter jugs in 1899, and other examples have been found at Caerwent, Colchester, London, and elsewhere. Pewter is more susceptible to chemical change by contact with the soil than bronze, and the Roman examples are usually in a friable condition, with a peculiar pearly sheen. The proportions of tin and lead in the Roman examples vary, and as a rule the percentage of the latter is greater than in the English alloy.

The most characteristic vessels in Roman pewter are large p191circular platters or lances.a There are ten from the Appleshaw, eleven from the Icklingham, and six from the Ely hoards, in the British Museum. Occasionally they whether square instead of circular. Of the other Appleshaw forms, five are hemispherical bowls from 4 to 6 ins. in diameter, and three others have a curved flange below the lip — a form frequent in the redglaze pottery (Fig. 44, No. 22). Several cups reproduce familiar forms in Castor, New Forest, and kindred wares (Fig. 46, No. 3). The rest of the hoard consists of two jugs, several saucers, a curious chalice, and an oval dish with a flat handle at one end and ornamented with a fish in the centre. The decoration of the Roman pewter, which is almost confined to the lances, is very distinctive, consisting of incised lines filled with black bituminous inlays. The prevailing designs present a framework of interlacing bands, in the interspaces of which are small ornaments, and the central feature is often a large rosette — a scheme of decoration which recalls that of many mosaic pavements and has a distinct Byzantine feeling. On one of the Appleshaw saucers is shown the 'chi-rho' symbol, and it also occurs on a Roman cake of pewter found in the Thames at Battersea.20

It is noteworthy that as a class the pewter forms and decoration have little in common with those of bronze. The old English pewterer regarded his material as a substitute for silver, and took the simpler silver forms for his models. This is true to some extent of the Roman pewterer, but he certainly did not copy bronze vessels. Many of the Appleshaw vessels were copies of the current table-ware in pottery, and the lances were probably from silver models. The decoration and especially the Christian symbol are suggestive that the use of pewter came in late in Roman Britain; and this is further suggested by the fact that pewter at Minton was associated with coins ranging from A.D. 360 to 410, and a hoard of 1400 coins from Constantine to Gratian in Cambridgeshire was deposited in a pewter jar.21


The most important stone utensil was the revolving quern (mola versatilis), entire stones or fragments of which are constantly found on Romano-British domestic sites. Although invented only two or three centuries before our era, it was already established in Britain, and probably had displaced the older saddle-quern (mola trusatilis) in the southern parts of the island, at the time of the Roman conquest.b The typical quern of Roman Britain differed from its predecessor in being larger and flatter. The grinding-face of the nether stone was still convex (that of the upper stone being correspondingly concave), and this form was due to a mistaken notion that it aided the discharge of the meal. Externally, it was circular with a more or less convex summit. The 'eye' of the upper stone was more or less dished above to serve as a hopper, and frequently its funnel-shaped hollow had a raised rim. The prevailing size was 15 ins. in diameter, but specimens 2 or 3 ins. smaller or larger are occasionally found. The grinding-faces were often transversely grooved to facilitate the flow of the meal.

The lower stone had the necessary central hole for the wooden or iron pin on which the upper stone revolved. In the simpler and presumably earlier querns, the rynd or block which contained the socket for the pin was of wood. This was sufficiently narrow that when driven into the 'eye' it left a space on either side for the passage of the grain. In the more elaborate querns the rynd was of iron with two or more arms, the ends of which fitted into grooves on the under surface of the stone. The wooden handle was usually flat and horizontal, and was driven into a wedge-shaped sinking in the upper surface, and only rarely into a lateral socket. In a few instances, querns have retained their handles, a notable example being one found at Silchester.22

Most of the examples found in this country are of native stones — the old red sandstone and conglomerate and millstone-grit being commonly used for the purpose. But the favourite material was the volcanic rock quarried at Andernach on the p193Rhine, which has been extensively worked into mill-stones from Roman times downwards, and querns made from it were imported into this country in large numbers.

Stone mortars of two forms, the tall and the shallow, were used in Roman Britain. The former resembled in the depth of their cavities the old-fashioned brass mortars of the apothecary and the kitchen, and externally they had, as a rule, the tapering form of a modern flower-pot. Their shape and thickness indicate that they were used for pounding rather than for mixing substances. These mortars are rather rare. One a foot high has been found at Camelon, and fragments of three others at Bar Hill.23 Another of different type, with a semicircular lug on one side of its rim, was dug up at Wroxeter.

The cavity of the shallow form usually approximated to that of a saucer, but with sides curving upwards; but not seldom the sides were abruptly vertical and the bottom concave or even flat. Almost invariably the rims had two or more lateral rectangular projections or lugs, obviously to support the vessel when set in a cavity in a table or bench. These mortars were any other all sizes from about 6 to 18 ins. in diameter, and were of various kinds of stone, the smaller being sometimes of marble. They were apparently used for triturating powders, grinding and mixing colours, mashing fruits and foods, and other kindred purposes. As, in the case of the earthenware mortars, pestles have not been found, we may infer that they were of wood.

Stone was also used for a variety of other utensils and implements, as large weights, spindle-whorls, quoits, whetstones, troughs, mullers, heavy mauls, pounders, net-sinkers, and loom-weights. At Wroxeter, London, Rushmore, and Bar Hill have been found small rectangular palettes of marble, slate, and other fine stone, which were probably used for mixing colours or unguents.24

The Author's Notes:

1 As AP within a circle at Great Chesterford, Arch. Journ. xvii, p126.

2 See also, Brit. Arch. Assoc. v, p371.

3 Warrington's Roman Remains, pp37, 82.

4 Proc. Soc. Ant. 2, xviii, p279.

5 Archaeologia, XXVI, p33.

6 Archaeologia, XXVIII, p2.

7 Proc. Soc. Ant. 2, xvi, p237.

8 Arch. Journ. vi, p47.

9 Archaeologia, XXVIII, p436.

10 Arch. Journ. viii, p35.

11 Archaeologia, XV, p393.

12 Archaeologia, XXIX, p3.

13 Arch. Camb. 6, i. p21.

14 Brit. Arch. Assoc. iv, p376.

15 Archaeologia, XXVI, plate xxxv.

16 Arch. Journ. xiv, 282.

17 Archaeologia, LVI, p7.

18 Arch. Journ. xxxii, p330.

19 Vict. Hist. Somerset, i, p305.

20 Proc. Soc. Ant. 2, ii, p235.

21 Ibid. 2, xii, p56.

22 Archaeologia, LVI, p240.

23 Proc. Soc. Ant. Scot. xxxv, p414; Roman Forts on Bar Hill, p89.

24 Uriconium, p177; Pitt-Rivers, Excavations, i, p67; Roman Forts on Bar Hill, p90.

Thayer's Notes:

a lances: This is a Latin word, the plural of lanx.

b the revolving quern displaced the saddle-quern rather fast: Not only because the revolving quern was much more efficient, but because it was more ergonomic. For querns of both types, with illustrations and commentary, see the article Mola in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, including my note.

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