Inside the Collection

In Roman times: Colchester pottery

Collection: Powerhouse Museum

This collection of Roman-British pottery was presented to the Sydney Technological Museum (as we were called at the time) in 1907 by the city of Colchester, England. I encountered it 103 years later when Paul Donnelly asked me to research some additional information for the museum’s database. As a second-year archaeology student at Sydney University, I found the collection particularly fascinating as an example of how artefacts can acquire a double history – first in their use in ancient times, and then as part of the modern relationship between Australia and Britain.

Collection: Powerhouse Museum

In Roman times, Colchester was a centre for the production of bricks, wine, coins, and pottery – it was the only part of the Roman province of Britannia to produce Samian/terra sigillata ware (albeit only briefly). Most of the objects in the Powerhouse’s Colchester collection are of forms discovered in the more than 30 kilns discovered in the area, while others are distinctively of Gaulish origin; the fragments grouped under registration number A688 bear the markings MOXIVSF[ECIT] (“Moxius made this”) and [OF]PRIMI (“workshop of Primus”), which can be traced to potters’ workshops in Lezoux and La Graufesenque respectively. The locally-produced objects are generally for domestic use, and include cups, flagons, bowls, cooking-pots, drinking-cups, vases, and an oil lamp.

Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The artefacts’ second history began in 1906, when Richard T. Baker, the curator of the Sydney Technological Museum, received a miniature reproduction by W.H. Goss of the ‘Colchester Vase’, the original of which was excavated in Colchester in 1848 and depicts four gladiators and a hunting scene. Having corresponded with the curator of the museum at Colchester Castle (Arthur G. Wright) regarding the details of the original vase, it seems that Baker was alerted to the dearth of Roman antiquities in the museum in Sydney. In 1907 he wrote to Wright again, asking if he could spare some artefacts from Colchester’s extensive collection since there was “not a single specimen of old Roman or Saxon pottery” at the Sydney Technological Museum. The committee of the Colchester Museum “at once agreed to present a series of Roman antiquities” to Sydney, and the 37 items (catalogue numbers A664-A700) arrived in August 1907; the Sydney Technological Museum’s annual report for that year recorded that “The Borough of Colchester Corporation Museum presented a very valuable collection of Roman and British pottery … dating back to the 1st century, A.D.”.

Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Colchester itself has a long and illustrious history: as Camulodunon (“Fortress of Camulos”, the Celtic war god) it was the capital of the Trinovantes tribe, whose request for Roman assistance against the rival Catuvellauni tribe gave Julius Caesar the opportunity to invade Britain in 55 and 54 BC; as the Latinised ‘Camulodunum’, Pliny the Elder mentioned it in AD 77 in the earliest historical reference to a town in Britain; as Colonia Victricensis, it was the first Roman town in Britain, and then the first capital of the Roman province; in AD 61, it was razed to the ground by Boudicca and the Iceni, as it had no defences and only 200 soldiers, and the Romans moved their provincial capital to Londinium. The town was rebuilt quickly, this time with a 2.4m thick, 6m high and 2800m long stone wall, but never quite regained its earlier importance.

MRS 4 Letterbooks, Vol 23, 1906/323
MRS 4 Letterbooks, Vol 25, 1907/270
Department of Public Instruction, Technical Education Branch. Technological Museums: Annual Report, 1907.
Hawkes, CRC & Hull, MR 1947. Camulodunum: first report on the excavations at Colchester, 1930-1939. Oxford: Society of Antiquaries.
Hull, MR 1963. The Roman potters’ kilns of Colchester. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harrison Jones (intern with P. Donnelly), November 2010.

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