Hampshire Archaeology

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Buried in time – the Sparsholt Cup

A short while back we looked at the Selborne Cup, a multi-coloured enamelled beaker, a rare form of receptacle which would have been at home in the hand of some wealthy Roman Briton.  From the Sparsholt Roman villa excavations, which began 50 years ago this summer, came a hemispherical glass vessel with pinched-out decoration, representing what is now considered to be the commonest form of drinking vessel of the mid-3rd century.

The Sparsholt cup

The Sparsholt cup – the ‘grozed’ rim is very clear.

The cup was made of good quality, thin-walled glass, with only a few bubbles and blowing swirls within the metal. The rim flares outwards and would originally have been fire-rounded and thickened. During its lifetime, however, it was chipped quite evenly around its full circumference and this seems to have been a deliberate process (grozing) probably to hide an accidental crack or blemish.

The cup in (rather garish) colour

The cup in (rather garish) colour

Beneath the rim are faint, horizontal, wheel-incised lines and the body of the cup was decorated, while the glass was still warm and pliable, with 12 short vertical ribs, formed by running a reamer up and down the glass.  These alternate with vertical pairs of nipples or horns, pinched out using a pair of pucellas. The slightly flattened base has a central pontil mark. This surface treatment, whilst decorative, would also provide a contoured surface which would presumably improve handling.

Sparsholt radiate coin (named after the type of crown) of the Tetrici (c 270).

Sparsholt radiate coin (named after the type of crown) of the Tetrici (c 270).

The cup was found in the primary silts of Pit XX, in a fragmentary condition, with some pieces missing. The excavators thought that it had probably been swept up and disposed of in the pit, with some of the shards being missed in the process. Dating evidence was provided by a ‘barbarous radiate’ coin of AD 270-95.

Cups of this type have been looked at in detail by Dr Hilary Cool. Parts of four similar cups were found among the grave goods at a cemetery at Brougham, Cumbria, dated to AD 220-70, and one of them is very like the Sparsholt vessel. Other parallels have been found at Dorchester, South Shields and Verulamium.

Sparsholt villa - excavations in progress.

Sparsholt villa – excavations in progress.

An increasing number of finds, mostly of small fragments, suggests that these colourless hemispherical cups with pinched out decoration represent the main style of drinking vessel in the mid-3rd century. They superseded the cylindrical cups of the later 2nd century, before in turn being replaced by conical beakers and cups with cracked off rims in the 4th. The near completeness of the Sparsholt cup makes it a classic example of the type.

Further reading

Based on the glass report by Denise Allen in

Sparsholt Roman Villa, Excavations by David Johnston (Johnston & Dicks), Hants Field Club Monograph 11 (2014)

Cool H E M, 1990, The problem of 3rd century drinking vessels in Britain, Annales de 11e Congres de l’Association Internationale pour Histoire du Verre (Basel 1988).

Sparsholt finds are on display in the Winchester City Museum

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone, with help from Stacie Elliot.

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