Roman Pottery

from the first century and early second century

There are three main categories of pottery....

There are several sub categories that have various uses.



Tableware-used for serving food

Tableware included bowls, cups, and plates. Rich families would have very decorated pottery.

Dolia- large containers used for holding wine, grain, or olive oil.

Dolia generally had very thick walls and very little, if any, decoration.

Amphora (pl: ae)- containers used for transporting food items and storing them after distribution.

Characteristics of the common amphorae is having bifid handles (two handles on either side of the neck) and having a pointed base. The pointed base allowed amphorae to be placed on top of each other in a balanced firm matter and be transported together in large quantities.

Lamps- small decorative pottery used in lighting.

Lamps often had depictions of scenes from mythology and such.

Cookwares- used for cooking and heating food and beverages.

Cookwares are usually coarse ware that is thick and is broken and replaced often.

Utilitarian wares- used for preparation or storage of food and other various substances (like perfume)

One common kind of utilitarian ware is the mortaria, a large bowl used for grinding and mixing foods. The mortaria has grooves carved in it to grind up food more efficiently. Basically, imagine a guy using a giant mortar and pestle like a blender.


Many pots would be reused for other purposes. For example- old amphora were often reused as urine or money containers.

Another way that materials could be reused is during the production  process. Whenever excess clay was accumulated, it could either be turned into a watery slip (used in decoration, will be mentioned later) or it could be recycled through a process involving soaking and kneading to be used to make new pots.


Romans were influenced by many cultures when it came to decoration, so there were many methods.


Stamps were the makers way of claiming his art. They were often decorative and included the name of the potter as well as some fancy design. Stamps were made of fired clay (usually) and could be pressed into the clay to give it a pattern. Some stamps were just patterns that could be pressed repeatedly into the clay to make a geometric pattern or a scene.

a simple stamp


Various carving tools were created and were often used to make very simple geometric patterns such as rows of circles or rings.


Clay could be pressed onto the pottery to make a 3D design. Clay could also be put into small molds and pressed on that way, making a more uniform appearance.

girl on the bowl I made

Squeezed on

Rather wet clay could be squeezed on in a method similar to putting icing onto a cake. This technique is called barbotine, most commonly used on fancy cups.


Most modern pots are glazed, but in the case of the Romans, glazing was less common. Glaze would be painted on and give the pot a shiny smooth texture after firing. It was sometimes colored.

a modern teapot I made a long time ago. notice the glaze.


Painting the pottery was also a somewhat unusual form of decoration to the Romans. When pots were painted it was usually just simple geometric designs.


Imperfections left on the pottery could be smoothed out by a wet sponge if the pottery was wet, or rubbed off with a hard tool when dry.


Slip is clay that has been soaked in water, or water that has clay dissolved in it. Pots could be dunked into slip to get a smoother surface.

Colored slip was also used as if it were paint to give pottery unique appearances.

slip. beautiful isnt it?


This is not really a decoration technique but it does cause a change in the pot's appearance. If a pot (usually coarse ware) is fired in a certain kind of kiln or in a bonfire then the surface will be black.

Pottery Making Techniques


A technique that allows for easy homemade pottery to be created. Coils of clay are rolled out and used to build up into a pot. Coiled pottery has uneven walls and is not a professional way of making pottery.

coiling is a very sloppy method.

Wheel Throwing

A technique used where the potter shapes the clay while it rotates on a bat (a plate like surface). This was the most common way to make pottery. Coiled pottery could be placed on the throwing wheel as well and be smoothed into normal pottery.

yay wheel throwing!

Molds (or moulds if you are British)

The inner shape of the pot would be mounted on the wheel, then a very specific amount of clay would be placed on, and then the outer mold would be used to form the pot. This allowed for mass production of pottery.



Kilns are used to fire pottery and make them ready for use. After firing, pottery becomes much harder. Kilns have many different types, and some of them keep oxygen out so that the pottery wont turn reddish. Pottery turns reddish if it has iron in it, which a lot of clay does. Kilns also heat up glaze and make it shiny and more colorful. Kilns are basically really hot ovens for clay.

Diagram from The Pottery Kilns of Roman Britain by Vivien G. Swan.


Bonfires make the pottery discolored and blackish, but they are easy for people to use to make homemade pottery.


The prices of pottery where generally determined by quality and type, but in 301 AD a decree set a maximum price for many goods including pottery. This decree was enforced through the entire Roman Empire.

Other kinds of containers


They were much less common than clay pots but still used. They were made of weaved pieces of wood and certain types of plants.

Silver Ware

Silver was expensive and therefore more fancy. It often inspired designs on Fine Ware pottery.

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