In his book, Roman Pottery in the Archaeological Record, J. Theodore Peña, Ph.D., examines the “life cycle” of Roman pottery and how the Romans used, reused, and repaired their containers. It is organized around a flow model for the lifecycle of Roman pottery that includes a set of eight distinct practices: manufacture, distribution, prime use, reuse, maintenance, recycling, discard, and reclamation. Dr. Peña’s model was intended to help improve the processes for better understanding archaeological and cultural research. Yet his stunning depth of knowledge and unique analysis of these ancient artifacts provides investment recovery professionals a viewpoint for focusing on their modern day surplus.
Pottery represents about 95 percent of the portable material culture to come down to us from the Roman world. These old pots are yielding up new secrets, thanks to research by J. Theodore Peña, current chair of the University of Berkeley’s Department of Classics. Peña has pioneered a novel approach to understanding the ancient world.
Peña traces the entire life histories of Roman pots, from their manufacture as containers for wine or olive oil, to surprising secondary uses as cement additive or even coffins. To construct a model of the life cycle of Roman pottery, Peña began with the general model of the artifact life cycle—a conceptual scheme formulated by Schiffer in the early 1970s, and modifies this to take into account the specific set of circumstances relevant to Roman pottery. Schiffer’s general model of the artifact life cycle assumes that an artifact is normally subjected to a sequence of four distinct behavioral practices: manufacture, use, maintenance and discard.
Manufacture consists of the fashioning of an artifact from one or more raw materials obtained from nature.
Use is the utilization of an artifact for the purpose or purposes for which it was manufactured, followed in some instances by its use for some other purpose or purposes.
Maintenance involves the upkeep or repair of an artifact so that it can continue to serve for the purpose or purposes for which it is being used.
Discard consists of the abandonment of an artifact at the termination of its use.
The amount of time that an artifact remains in use is generally referred to as its use-life. Maintenance is considered an optional practice, in that not all artifacts are regularly subjected to it.
Following discard, durable
artifacts are sooner or later incorporated into archaeological deposits, thereby becoming part of the archaeological record. This set of concepts can be expressed in the form of a simple flow diagram, as shown in Figure 1.
A More Complete Life Cycle View
Peña revised the above scheme to obtain a more complete representation of the actual life cycle during Roman times. Distribution must be introduced between manufacture and use to reflect the fact that nearly all Roman pottery was manufactured by specialist producers and came into the possession of those who used it by means of some more or less complex set of exchange mechanisms.
The regularity with which vessels and vessel parts were employed for some purpose other than that/ those for which they were manufactured at the conclusion of their use for this purpose/these purposes makes it useful—if not strictly necessary—to divide the use portion of the life cycle into two distinct practices: prime use and reuse.
Another phase, recycling, must be added to reflect the fact that vessels and vessel parts were regularly employed as a raw material in some manufacturing process at the conclusion of manufacture, distribution, prime use, or reuse. Finally, reclamation, must be introduced to accommodate the fact that vessels and vessel parts were sometimes retrieved following their discard for use in some reuse or recycling application. This set of concepts is shown in Figure 2 (next page). All of the behavioral practices other than manufacture are here represented as optional (i.e., by means of a dotted arrow), in that no single vessel was necessarily subjected to any one of them.
Maintenance is shown as occurring in the course of manufacture, distribution, prime use, and reuse, whereas recycling and discard are represented as following on from any one of these same four behavioral practices.
Reclamation is shown as leading to either reuse or recycling as a raw material.
In recognition of the fact that vessels and vessel parts were regularly employed in recycling applications, the zone at the top of the figure, labeled nature in the flow diagram for the general model of the artifact life cycle, has been relabeled as raw material. Finally, two distinct lines are presented for use-life—one for prime-use use-life, and one for reuse use-life.
The eight behavioral practices included in the revised model include:
Manufacture: The fabrication of a vessel from one or more raw materials.
Distribution: The physical transfer of a newly manufactured vessel from those who manufactured it to those who will use it.
Prime use: The use of a vessel for the application or applications for which it was manufactured. Reuse: The use of a vessel or a vessel part for some application after the conclusion of its use for its prime-use application.
Maintenance: The upkeep or repair of a vessel so that it can continue to perform some application.
Recycling: The use of a vessel or a vessel part as a raw material in a manufacturing process.
Discard: The deliberate and voluntary abandonment of a vessel or a vessel part by those using it with the intent of no longer using it.
Reclamation: The acquisition of a vessel or a vessel part after its discard.
The Functional Categories of Roman Pottery
For the purposes of this study, Roman pottery is divided into six more or less distinct categories on the basis of a vessel’s assumed prime-use application.
Dolia (singular: dolium): extremely large fixed or semi fixed jars (capacity ca. 400- 3000l) employed for the storage of wine, olive oil, or grain.
Amphorae (singular: amphora): portable jars/jugs (capacity ca.6–150l) employed for the packaging, distribution, and post distribution storage of foodstuffs, chiefly wine, olive oil, processed fish products, and fruit.
Lamps: small vessels employed for lighting. Cook wares: vessels employed for the cooking/heating of food and drink. Utilitarian wares: vessels employed for the preparation or storage/containment of food, drink, and various other substances (e.g., unguents and perfumes, paint pigments, urine, feces).
Table wares: vessels employed for the serving or consumption of food and drink. Other distinct vessel forms were manufactured for a wide variety of prime-use applications not embraced by this scheme (e.g., incense burners, inkwells, lampfillers, dice cups, coin banks, beehives, planters, funnels, crucibles, etc.).
Amphora: Ancient Packaging An amphora is a type of vase-shaped, usually ceramic container with two handles and a long neck narrower than the body. The word amphora is Latin, derived from the Greek compound words referring to the vessel’s two carrying handles on opposite sides. The term also stands for an ancient Roman unit of measurement for liquids.
Amphorae were used in vast numbers to transport and store various products, both liquid and dry, in the ancient Mediterranean world and later the Roman Empire. In some periods the shape was also used for luxury pottery, which might be elaborately painted. Stoppers of perishable materials—which have rarely survived—were used to seal the contents.
Most amphorae were produced with a pointed base to allow upright storage by being partly embedded in sand or soft ground. This also facilitated transport by ship, where the amphorae were tightly packed together, with ropes passed through their handles to prevent breaking or toppling during rough seas. In kitchens and shops amphorae could be stored in racks with round holes in them.
Amphorae varied greatly in height. The largest could stand as much as 1.5 metres (5 ft.) high, while some were under 30 centimetres (12 in.) high. Most were around 45 centimetres (18 in.) high. There was a significant degree of standardization in some variants; the wine amphora held a standard measure of about 39 litres (41 U.S. quarts), giving rise to the amphora quadrantal as a unit of measure in the Roman Empire. In all, around 66 distinct types of amphora have been identified.
On the basis of evidence, it is possible to document 26 more or less distinct reuse applications involving amphorae and/or amphora parts other than that of packaging containers (their prime-use initial intent). These include reuse as a storage container, water jar, urinal, basin, beaker or bowl, incense burner, grinding palette, strainer, boundary marker, libation conduit, funnel, brazier or hearth, lamp cover, prop or support, polishing or grinding implement, amphora stopper or removable lid stopper, token or gaming piece, weight, ostracon (pottery shard used as voting ballots or other “note pad” writing scratched onto the surface), label, ossuary, sarcophagus, planter, architectural element, element in a drain, and element in a geotechnical or hydrogeological feature.
Amphorae could be readily modified in a number of ways—by having one or more holes drilled or punched into the neck, body, or bottom, by being cut down to various heights, by having either their bottom or both their top and bottom removed, or by being sawn or split in half. Alternatively, it was possible to detach various elements with a useful shape, including the neck, shoulder/neck, handle, or base/spike, or to break down a vessel into shards of varying sizes and shapes, which could then be reworked to render them suitable for a variety of applications.
In contrast with the reuse of amphorae for the packaging of foodstuffs, which often may have involved the procurement of large numbers of vessels from a wholesale/storage or retail facility, several of the reuse applications attested for amphorae presumably involved either an individual, a household, or a commercial establishment employing a small number of vessels. These vessels had been obtained as incidental packaging, that had been procured as used containers from a household or some other small-scale consumer of foodstuffs, or that had been reclaimed from a refuse midden or other discard context. For many of these applications, the vessel’s condition would have been of little or no consequence. Thus, the fact that an amphora had a damaged rim or a pitch lining, or had absorbed residues from its prime-use content, would not have served to limit its suitability for reuse. Detailed study of Roman-era shipwrecks show clear evidence that amphorae were routinely reused for packaging of items after having been emptied of their prime-use contents.
Records show that at least three different rabbis felt the need to provide guidelines regarding the minimum size of vessel bottoms, sides, and other fragments that remained susceptible to uncleanness, suggesting that the reuse of broken vessels and vessel parts in connection with the storage, preparation, serving, and/ or consumption of food was a common practice in Jewish communities both at the time of this work’s composition during the second half of the second century and during the period preceding.
Recycling involved the use of a vessel or vessel part as a raw material in a manufacturing process. In this context, an item loses its identity as a discrete artifact.
The recycling of Roman pottery involved the use of shards, crushed or pulverized pottery as a fill/reagent or tempering agent in the manufacture of a compound artifact.
Among the various recycling applications discovered include the use of shards as fill in geotechnical and hydrogeological features, kilns, and concrete construction, as chinking in rubblework walls and as a facing element in concrete construction and pavements.
Pulverized pottery was also used as filler in mortar and wall plaster, as a tempering material in new pottery and even as a flavoring agent or salve.
DISCARD AND RECLAMATION
Discard entailed the deliberate and voluntary abandonment with the intent of no longer using it, whereas reclamation entails the acquisition of an item after its discard. Roman pottery could have been discarded at the termination of its manufacture, distribution, prime use or reuse.
Items that had been previously discarded were presumably reclaimed on a regular basis for some reuse or recycling application. This might have involved the casual recovery of the odd vessel or vessel part that happened to catch the attention of a passerby, or some more systematic effort. With regard to the latter possibility, it should be kept in mind that since a significant number of the inhabitants of Rome and other cities had only a limited means of supporting themselves, some individuals likely sought to supplement their resources by scavenging useful materials perhaps including pottery —from refuse middens, selling these to others who could make use of them— much as is the case today in many cities in the third world.
From an investment recovery viewpoint (vs. archaeological), Peña’s book goes into great detail about the many examples of the Romans repairing, reusing and recycling various types of pottery. His expansion of an item’s life cycle from the previously accepted four stages model (Manufacture, Use, Maintenance, Discard) to eight stages (Manufacture, Distribution, Prime, Use, Reuse, Maintenance, Recycling, Discard, Reclamation) pays particular attention to the value of an item beyond it’s initial “Prime Use.” It is clear that the Roman way of life included an everyday “reuse sensibility” for the functional products that were part of their daily existence. The increased emphasis on sustainability in today’s culture would seem to indicate that perhaps modern society is in some way, going back to Roman times.
Adapted from Roman Pottery in the Archaeological Record,
J. Theodore Peña, © Cambridge University Press