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J. Theodore Pena. Roman Pottery in the Archaeological Record.

J. THEODORE PENA. Roman Pottery in the Archaeological Record. xviii+430 pages, 90 illustrations, 12 tables. 2007. New York: Cambridge University Press; 978-0-521-86541-8 hardback 55 [pounds sterling] & $95.

This book is the first to attempt a comprehensive explanation of how Roman pottery enters the contexts from which archaeologists recover it. Pena acknowledges his debt to the work of Michael Schiffer, and both the topic and presentation are spiritual heirs of New Archaeology. The underlying approach is to render a seamless fabric of human behaviour into a systematic classification of use and deposition which can be modelled in diagrammatic form (chapter 11). The author speaks from the standpoint of considerable personal knowledge, having been involved in the excavation and interpretation of complex deposits from Rume and elsewhere.


Some readers may be puzzled by the number of pages devoted to each topic. While the manufacture and prime uses of ceramics occupy 27 pages, 131 describe reuse of amphorae (just 15 cover the reuse of other categories). This clearly reflects Pena's experience of Mediterranean assemblages, for in many Roman provinces the roles of ceramic amphorae and dolia were played by perishable wineskins and barrels. A further 62 pages cover maintenance and recycling of pottery, and 46 discuss discard and reclamation. The final 43-page chapter presents Pena's method of modelling the formation of the archaeological record; its diagrams repay careful study. Archaeologists working on more general questions such as typology, cultural affinities or economics may find the book daunting: Pena's structures for interpretation and categorisation are elaborate, and his style of writing is consequently complex.

Readers interested in contextual studies may be surprised that ethnographic approaches are not given more weight (Pena considers that insufficient appropriate analogies have been investigated (pp. 347-8)). Studies by Peacock and others have made an enormous contribution to the understanding of Roman pottery, but are rather lightly dismissed on p. 41. This approach is nut entirely neglected (there is a section on ethnoarchaeological research into refuse disposal in chapter 10), but the discussion of cooking-ware production technology (pp. 57-8) would have benefited flora ethnographic perspectives. Pena is comfortable both with technical approaches to pottery and with relevant ancient literary sources, which are helpfully translated and comprehensively indexed. Knowledge of the ancient sources leads to an interesting review of excavated amphorae, including discussion of the saving of wine in its containers for long periods, with significant implications for chronologies. The book is unusual in containing a comprehensive treatment of dolia, which are frequently ignored by pottery specialists, and here the literary sources emphasise the cost of these enormous containers. Fineware vessels associated with the consumption of wine, oil and other bulk products were much cheaper than the vessels in which these products were transported, but have attracted far more attention in analyses of the ancient economy; Pena helps us to see things in a different light.

As teachers of an undergraduate module on pottery in the Roman world, the reviewers found it difficult to determine the precise audience for Pena's book. Before reading his introduction we had expected to find chapters about ceramics in different spheres of Roman life (trade, crafts, domestic life, religion, funerary practices etc.) and how (or whether) such uses might be reflected in archaeological deposits (these aspects are briefly addressed in chapter 10). It would be difficult to use the book to acquire a broad understanding of Roman pottery; indeed, it would be essential for a beginner to study general works by John Hayes, David Peacock and others before tackling it. Furthermore, readers lacking practical experience of excavation, recording, and finds processing will find Pena's categories difficult to conceptualise.

Pena's book is an essential study that needed to be carried out, and its author was ideally placed to undertake this task. The comprehensive analytical index will allow readers to identify specific information without having to read it from cover to cover. Archaeologists who study material culture from any period could profit from exploring the extraordinary range of reuses of amphorae (including urinals, basins, incense burners, funnels, weights, boundary markers and grinding instruments). Although the book does not contain a large number of illustrations of pottery, the images which are included provide detailed documentation of some of the more unusual examples of the reuse of both sherds and pots. In conclusion, we strongly recommend that Pena's rigorous work should become a component of the training of all field archaeologists and pottery specialists involved in the study of Roman sites.


School of Historical Studies, Newcastle University, UK

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Author:Jackson, Mark; Greene, Kevin
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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