Mortaria in Roman Britain

Mortaria are a type of Roman pottery that began use in Britain before the Roman invasion and conquest in A.D. 43 although Bédoyére does inform us that they were barely known before this time and became common after it. They are a distinct-looking vessel shaped like a bowl and possessing a vertical rim. ‘They often have a spout formed in the rim, and grit embedded in the inner surface.’ Mortaria are, allegedly, more useful to study than other types of Roman courseware. Evidence for this exists through the recent study of the distribution of north Gaulish mortaria in Britain and northern France. The Journal of Roman Pottery Studies tells us that this is hugely due to ‘the refined characterisation achieved typologically and chronologically through their stamps, and petrologically through trituration grits, both of which have ramifications on source.’ The stamps on mortaria mean that they are highly useful to the archaeologist. As well as providing the potter’s name and oftentimes further information such as where they are from, they may also be used to trace the career of the potter or the history of the kiln they were working at. We can also find out the areas of distribution of the mortaria. The stamping of mortaria appears to have been particularly popular in Britain. Stamped pottery also allows us to date the material more closely than would be possible with unstamped vessels.
Mortaria were a kitchen necessity across the Roman world as they were needed in the preparation of food typical to the Roman ‘’diet’’. The surface of the bowl had to be granular to allow for the grinding of food. The fabric and size of the mortarium depended on the type of food being processed as I will explain further on in the Influence of Roman Cuisine. Stones such as flint and quartz were added to make the interior texture of the vessel gritty. The hooked flange rim and spout of the vessel were needed to pour out food after it was processed. There is a typological series for the rims which helps with the dating of the vessels for example earlier imports into Britain have wall-sided rims. This evolved until it gave way to the hammer-headed rim. Tyers tells us that mortaria are usually white or cream in colour but can sometimes be orange or buff.
It is important to take a look at the British Iron Age before studying the Romano-British period because mortaria were present in Britain at this time, although they were not produced there. They were imported from Belgium and north-east Gaul. Some of these potters opened branches in Britain where demand for mortaria and other vessels, such as flagons, was growing steadily. We know this through the stamping on their vessels. After this, local industries began to grow and thus imports from places like Belgium consequently depleted.
Thus mortaria provide a good area within which to study aspects of cultural development in Roman Britain. They are also helpful in sourcing other types of ware, for example reeded-rim bowls, because they were made alongside these in the first and second centuries. Because they are more useful and easier to date than other types of pottery,

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I have a keen interest in the art world and currently work for a global auction house. Please follow my blog for posts about my personal experiences and opinions on art, antiquities and exhibitions.
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