Thursday, October 10, 2013

In Small Things Forgotten Redux

Robin Fleming

Sometimes the most unimpressive objects, like this little Romano-British ceramic pot, found in Baldock, in Hertfordshire (in the UK), can speak volumes about the lives of long forgotten individuals. To appreciate the value of this pot, which was manufactured in the 4th century but still in use in the 5th, we need a little context. Although Britain in 300 CE was as Roman as any province in the Empire, within a single generation of the year 400, urban life, industrial-scale manufacturing of basic goods, the money economy, and the state had collapsed. Because of these dislocations ubiquitous, inexpensive, utterly common everyday objects––including mass-produced, wheel-thrown pots like this one––began to disappear.

The dislocations caused by the loss of such pottery were immense, and it is easy to imagine the ways the disappearance of cheap, readily available pots would have affected the running of kitchens, the rhythms of daily work and the eating of meals. But pots like our pot had also long been central in funerary rites, and the fact that they were no longer being made must have caused heartache and anxiety for bereaved families preparing for the burial of a loved one in the brave new world of post-Roman Britain.

Baldock, the site of our find––which, in the 4th century had been a lively small town with a hardworking population of craftsmen and traders––ceased in the early 5th century to be a town, and in the decades after 400 it lost most of its population. Still, a few people continued to bury their dead in the former settlement’s old Roman cemetery.

During the Roman period, a number of typical Romano-British funerary rites had been practiced here, including postmortem decapitation (with the head of the dead person placed carefully between the feet of the corpse!) and hobnail-boot burial. Most of the dead during the Roman period were placed in the ground in nailed coffins, and a number were accompanied in their graves by domestic fowl and mass-produced, wheel-thrown pots, many of them color-coated beakers like our pot.

After 400, as pottery production faltered in the region, the community burying at Baldock carried on, as best it could, with time-honored Romano-British funerary traditions. Domestic fowl and coffins (although some now partially or wholly fastened with wooden dowels rather than now scarce iron nails) continued to play starring roles in funerals; and postmortem decapitations and hobnail-boot burial persisted, as did the placing of pots at the feet of the dead.

This is where our pot comes in. It is from one of Baldock’s 5th-century post-Roman graves. It is an extremely worn color-coated beaker, mass-produced in the years before the Roman economy’s collapse, and it had to have been at least a half-century old when buried. Much of its slip-coat had rubbed off from long years of use, and its rim and base were nicked and worn with age. Although this is exactly the same kind of little beaker favored by mourners burying at Baldock in the 4th century, the appearance of one in a 5th-century grave is startlingly different, because pots as hard-worn as this are never found in Roman-period graves. This pot is an extraordinary survival, an heirloom carefully husbanded by people determined to carry on funerary practices in which their families had participated for generations, rituals that, with the collapse of industrial-scale pottery production, must have required determination and the careful preservation of whatever pots were left. It gives eloquent testimony to the lived experience of people alive during Rome’s fall in Britain, people who were trying, as best they could, to maintain the rituals and lifeways of their ancestors.

Robin Fleming, professor of history at Boston College, is a 2013 MacArthur Fellow. Her most recent book is Britain after Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400 to 1070 (Penguin, 2010). 

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