Astrid Van Oyen calls it the Coca-Cola of the Roman Empire, an object so ubiquitous it became a conceptual category – a standardized, mass-produced and easily recognized product.
Terra sigillata pottery, distinguished by its bright, shiny red surface, was originally produced in Italy about 40 B.C. and gradually spread to present-day France, Spain, Belgium, Germany and Britain. Using purified clays and special firing processes, the pots were distributed and consumed throughout the ancient world, becoming an integral part of the Roman economy and “a fetish for archaeologists,” says Van Oyen, an assistant professor of classics.
But while the pottery was produced across such a wide expanse of territory, it was not a “neutral template for how the world works,” Van Oyen argues in her new book, “How Things Make History: The Roman Empire and Its Terra Sigillata Pottery.”
“These pots used to be understood as representing Roman identity, because you find them in many parts of the Roman Empire where you didn’t necessarily find them before,” Van Oyen says. “Archaeologists would say, ‘You’ve got these shiny red pots, and this means that these people have become Roman or assumed Roman identity in some way,’ which is very simplistic.”
Using the analogy to Coca-Cola, Van Oyen, who is Belgian, says that just because she buys the soft drink doesn’t mean she has become “Americanized.” And just because people across the Roman Empire bought the pottery as vessels for food doesn’t mean they had adapted to Roman culture.
“These pots do not universally signify Roman identity,” Van Oyen says. “They can get interpreted locally in many different ways. But they had become a conceptual category because they were so standardized, omnipresent and recognizable. As a conceptual category, these pots spurred particular historical patterns, such as competition, or consumption that was not determined by class or setting.”
Van Oyen’s research on terra sigillata pottery is more than theoretical. In 2012, while finishing her doctorate at the University of Cambridge, Van Oyen was part of a team conducting an archaeological excavation in Tuscany when a student unearthed stacks of the pots on the last day of the excavation.
The discovery was completely unexpected because the team had been looking for artifacts for a project documenting Roman peasant life. The project originated at Cornell and moved to the University of Pennsylvania, under the direction of former Cornell associate professor Kimberly Bowes.
With this large trove of reclaimed pottery, Van Oyen decided to launch her own investigation at the Tuscan location into why the pots were produced on such an isolated rural site. “Usually it’s assumed that these pots were produced in Italy in cities, with access to a big export market, because they’re kind of an expensive pottery to make,” she said.
Since terra sigillata pottery uses a special firing technique that is more costly and consumes more fuel, the production required a higher investment, says Van Oyen, who is now the scientific director of the Marzuolo Archaeological Project. Van Oyen says it was once believed that to justify the expense, production typically took place in sites connected to export markets, which could potentially reap higher profits.
Another unusual aspect of the site is that the craftsmen there began experimenting with new techniques and forms, but only decades later started making the standardized terra sigillata pots, which Van Oyen says indicates they were innovators.
Her team, which includes Kathleen Garland, a graduate student in classics at Cornell, began its first phase of excavation last July. “Our goal is to document this innovation process,” Van Oyen said, “and to understand it not just by looking at the production facilities, but at the community around it.”
Sherrie Negrea is a freelance writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.
This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.