Highlights of the British Collection:

The Oxford Potteries

Large numbers of pottery kilns have been excavated in south and east Oxford. The numbers have suggested to some archaeologists an "industrial zone", coincidentally but interestingly centred on the modern industrial zone around Cowley, but also stretching to Headington, Rose Hill, Littlemore, Sandford and as far south as Berinsfield.

The kilns cluster around the Roman road linking the towns of Dorchester-on-Thames and Alchester, near Bicester. The road by-passed central Oxford, an area of rural settlement in Roman times, to the east.

The Oxford Potteries developed in the early second century AD and underwent a major expansion as imports of Roman red ware from the potteries of central Gaul began to decline in the mid third century. The potters produced high-quality, durable domestic ware for kitchen and table – the ancient equivalent, perhaps, of Poole pottery. They used to advantage the pure white clay of Shotover Hill, just east of the modern ring-road and south of the road to London.

To make grinding bowls (mortaria), a well-known product of the kilns, the potters used quartz sand from sources such as Boars Hill to the west, probably crossing the River Thames at the site of the modern Donnington Bridge.

The potters sometimes signed or stamped their work. The stamps were not always literate, and only one name (Tamesubugus) can be recognised in cursive Latin script and is of local, probably Celtic origin. Despite the high number of kilns, no trace has yet been found of residential accommodation for the potters.

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Distribution of kiln sites. Reproduced with kind permission of M. Henig and P. Booth (Click to enlarge)

Distribution of Roman pottery kiln sites in Oxfordshire (based on Henig and Booth 2000)

They competed successfully with other regional potteries - notably the more decorative New Forest and Nene Valley wares to the south and north-east. In the fourth century AD the network of exports extended across southern Britain into northern France. The pots may have travelled with agricultural products - at this period Britain supplied wheat to the Roman armies stationed on the Rhine frontier.

By the early fifth century AD the potteries were closed. The abrupt end of so successful an industry suggests that it depended upon the network of contacts and communications, administrative and military, provided by the Roman authorities. The demonetisation of Britain and demise of the monetary economy was surely a massive blow.

Despite the local origin of the highly skilled potters and their raw materials, they were unable to maintain even local production. Early Anglo-Saxon pottery was hand-made, with no use of the wheel, and we find Oxford wares of Roman date still in use or re-used in early Anglo-Saxon sites.

Some vessels from the Oxford potteries are on display in the 'Rome' gallery on the ground floor.

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Regional pottery distribution. Reproduced with kind permission of B Ward-Perkins (Click to enlarge)

Regional distribution of pottery manufactured in 3rd & 4th centuries at a production site just outside modern Oxford (B. Ward-Perkins 2005, p93)

Two Roman vessels from Oxford potteries
Two vessels from the Roman Oxford potteries, a white-ware mortarium found at Sandford on Thames (AN1886.1559) and a colour-coated beaker from the kiln at Rose Hill, Oxford (AN1936.139)
Anglo-Saxon storage vessel (AN1933.517)  Anglo-Saxon food bowl (AN1923.837)
Two early Anglo-Saxon hand-made pots from Sutton Courteney; a storage vessel, 28cm high (AN1933.517) and a food bowl, 25.5cm high (AN1923.837)
Further Information

Blair, J., Anglo-Saxon Oxfordshire (Stroud: Sutton, 1994)

Henig, M. and Booth, P., Roman Oxfordshire (Stroud: Sutton, 2000)

Salway, P. and Blair, J., The Oxford History of Britain Vol. 1: Roman and Anglo-Saxon Britain (Oxford: OUP, 1992)

Ward-Perkins, B., The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation (Oxford: OUP, 2005, 2006)

Young, C.J., The Roman Pottery Industry of the Oxford Region (reprinted with a new introduction by the author and updated bibliography by P. Booth, Oxford: Archaeopress, 2000)

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Susan Walker
15 December 2011