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Buried in time – potters’ handprints

In the 3rd century AD, during the Roman occupation of Britain, the New Forest became an important centre of pottery production. The area had been cleared and cultivated from late Neolithic times onwards and the resulting deterioration of the poor quality soils meant that it became less and less viable for agriculture. The availability of good quality clay and sand, quantities of timber as fuel, and running water from the network of streams feeding the Latchmore Brook, enabled the industry to develop and led to clusters of kilns over a wide area. They produced a range of pottery, from fine tableware to coarse kitchenware.

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A selection of Roman pottery, including typical New Forest wares: (Rockbourne Roman Villa)

One such cluster of kilns was located at Lower Sloden. Here, Vivien Swan excavated in 1966, on behalf of the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments. The kilns conformed to a standard New Forest plan. A deep furnace chamber below ground level had walls which were thickened at intervals to form pilasters. These supported the permanent oven floor on which the pots were stacked for firing. Holes in the floor allowed hot air to pass from the furnace below into the oven. The furnace was fed with bulky fuel through a small stokehole via a short flue passage.

The depth and size of New Forest furnace-chambers resulted in very high temperatures being achieved, in the region of 1000 – 1250°C. This enabled the production of the highly lustrous surfaces of some of the colour-coated wares typical of New Forest assemblages (above) and gave a very hard-fired, almost stoneware fabric to some vessels. In some parts of the kiln vitrified material was present.  Vivien Swan saw parallels, in both the type of kiln and nature of the end product, with sites in northern France and Belgium. The industry may well have been set up by migrants from these areas, but more work is needed to prove this theory.

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I’m impressed: a piece of the kiln lining, squashed into place in the 3rd century.

One of the exciting aspects of the excavation was the evidence for the hand- finishing of the kiln chamber in the form of finger impressions in the clay lining. The wet clay was shaped, sculpted and smeared and the resultant fingerprints from 1700 years ago are a tangible link with past.

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Excavation in progress in 1966, showing the finger-moulded lining

Swan also recovered fragments of pottery ‘wasters’. These are pots which have been rejected because of distortion or exploding during firing.

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The contorted rim of a kiln ‘waster’

Such waste sherds were occasionally scooped up and incorporated in repairs to the kiln.

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Part of the kiln wall incorporating pottery sherds

Beyond the kilns and vessels, excavation has provided little information about the process of pottery production and the lives of the potters. A fragment of ‘quernstone’, which may have been part of a potter’s kick wheel, is the only other evidence from Sloden.

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The fragment of stone – possibly part of a flywheel.

 

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Another view of the kiln-builder’s handiwork

A number of archaeologists (and antiquarians) have discovered and investigated the New Forest kiln sites since the mid-19th century, with perhaps the most celebrated of the early explorers being Heywood Sumner. In more recent times Mike Fulford studied both the industry and the distribution of the wares.

Archive: A2004.3 held by the Hampshire Cultural Trust. 

Further reading:

Fulford M G, 1975 New Forest Roman Pottery: manufacture and distribution, with a corpus of the pottery types. BAR 17 Oxford p 16

Sumner H, 1927, Excavations in New Forest Roman Pottery Sites.

Swan V, 1971 The Structure of Romano-British New Forest pottery kilns Antiquity Vol 16 number 177 pp 45-48

Swan V, 1973 Aspects of the New Forest late Roman pottery industry p 121 in Detsicas, Current research in Romano-British coarse pottery CBA 10 London

Swan V, 1984 The pottery kilns of Roman Britain RCHM Sup series 5 London

Series by;  Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Jane King, Lesley Johnson, Peter Stone

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1 Comment

  1. Marie Keates says:

    This hand prints are just amazing. What a fabulous find.

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