Romano-British Mortaria Wares

Mortaria are an important material artefact for studying the history of Roman Britain. They are synonymous with a “Roman” type diet, and were found across the Roman provinces during the empire’s expansion. Used for grinding and processing various types of foodstuffs, the mortaria came in a range of fabrics and sizes depending on what was being processed in which vessel. Some larger vessels were believed to be used for bread making, while smaller ones maybe have been used at the table to grind up food particular to a meal. Mortaria are a round bowl with a hooked flange rim and a spout used for pouring processed materials. Their interior texture is a rough, gritty surface produced by the addition of flint and quartz stone. This is the part of the bowl used for grinding food, and it is necessary that the surface is granular. Usually white or cream in colour, mortaria can sometimes be orange or buff1.

A number of mortaria styles existed across Roman Britain. The most common in the Southeast was the Verulamium-region mortaria, manufactured at Brockley Hill and St Albans. Their distribution reached as far as southern Scotland in the 1st and 2nd centuries, creating an economic question of how and why this particular vessel was being traded so far from it’s manufacture centre. This has been documented using potters stamps which are common on the rims of most mortaria. These stamps usually give the potters name. Sometimes a counter stamp will also be on the rim, stating the workshop where the pot was made. These stamps are helpful in drawing conclusions about distribution and trade where mortaria are seen.

Not only were mortaria produced in Verulamium, but other mortaria types are also present throughout Roman Britain. These include the Nene Valley mortaria, New Forest mortaria, Colchester mortaria and a number of others from Britain, Germany and Gaul2.

Mortaria Types

Mortaria have a wide distribution across Britain. The majority are seen in the area around Londiumium and Verulamium. Tyers3 tells us, “Production commenced before the Boudiccan revolt (c. AD 50/55), and mortaria were stamped until c. AD 155/160. Production continued on a smaller scale until c. AD 200.” The majority of mortaria in Southeast England during the 1st and 2nd century came from Verulamium. The potteries producing the bulk of the coarse wares were situated near Verulamium and along Watling Street, the road connecting London to Verulamium (Davies, et. al, 1994:40). Based on information obtained from mortaria stamps and X-Ray fluorescence of kiln materials from known pottery manufacture locations, it is possible to distinguish the different Verulamium region kilns from one another (Davies, et. al, 1994:41). Using this information, it is possible to come to a better understanding of which fabrics derived from which production sites. According to Davies (et. al, 1994:41), London received the entire range of Verulamium mortaria. This included Verulamium Region White Ware (VRW), Verulamium Region Red Ware (VRR) and Verulamium Region Coarse White-Slipped Ware (VCWS). Although Verulamium was the predominant producer of British mortaria, other local and regional producers were seen throughout London. These included Brockley Hill White-Slipped Ware (BHWS), Sugar Loaf Court Ware (SLOW), Eccles Ware (WCCW), Colchester Mortaria (COMO), New Forest Mortaria (NFMO), Nene Valley Mortaria (NVMO) and Gloucester Mortaria (GLMO). There are also a number of examples seen from Continental Europe, although these are rarer in London. Aoste Mortaria (AOMO), Rhone Valley Mortaria (RVMO), Rhineland Valley Mortaria (RHMO) and Italian Mortaria (ITMO) are the types seen in London.

By looking at the fabric and shape of part or all of a mortarium bowl, it is possible to identify where that individual bowl came from. By doing this, archaeologists can piece together some idea of where early Britons were getting this important part of their food processing wares, and how this varied across the island.

  • 1 Paul Tyers,
  • 2 Paul Tyers,
  • 3 Paul Tyers,
  • Davies, B., B. Richardson and R. Tomber 1994 A dated corpus of early Roman pottery from the City of London in The Archaeology of Roman London Vol 5. CBA Research Report 98

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