Decorative Techniques on Roman Period Ceramic Drinking Vessels

The Latin term poculum refers to a broad range of drinking vessel forms. The lack of terminological consistency in the literature sees a number of names used to describe related drinking vessel types: beakers (tumblers), goblets (chalices), jugs, pots, and cups. Here we will use the term beaker to refer to drinking vessels without handles, and the term cup to refer to drinking vessels with one or two handles. Beakers are an item of tableware of small dimensions, no more than fifteen centimetres tall, used as an everyday drinking vessel. They were made on a potter’s wheel or using a mould, of finely refined clay and shaped in a manner that allowed them to be grasped with a single hand. The selected specimens are of the types of fine thin walled pottery and terra sigillata tableware that were made in imitation of vessels done in the noble metals or glass.

Thin walled pottery was either wheel thrown or mould made of high quality refined clay. The wall thickness ranges from 0.5 to five milimetres, with an average thickness of two to three millimetres. The most prevalent forms are beakers and hemispherical bowls, but we also see cups, small bowls with one or a pair of handles, pots and jugs. They were produced from the second century BCE to around the late third century CE, especially in the northern provinces of the Roman empire.

Terra sigillata ware is fine Roman ceramic tableware primarily characterised by its glossy red slip. The clay used to fabricate terra sigillata ware was very finely refined and rich in iron oxide. It was fired at temperatures ranging from 900°C to 960°C. A slip (a thick clay slurry) was applied after the vessel had cooled before a second firing that transformed the slip into a thin crust of intense red metallic gloss. In terms of the manufacturing method, we differentiate between two terra sigillata groups: smooth (undecorated) and relief (decorated). Smooth terra sigillata was wheel thrown, while relief work was done with moulds. The first terra sigillata ware was made in central Italy, from where it spread to other lands under Roman dominion. Workshops were set up in Gaul, Hispania, Pannonia, Raetia, Africa and in the Orient in the period from the first century BCE to the end of the second century CE.





The Decorative Techniques

Clay is a material that lends itself to a broad range of decorative techniques and motifs. Decorative elements on ceramic ware can be fabricated prior to firing (on the smoothed or raw clay surface) or following firing (on an unglazed or glazed surface). Some techniques are suitable before and after firing. The decorative techniques can thus be grouped into categories. The following methods are used on raw unfired clay surfaces: incision, stamping, application, modelling, imprinting and encrusting and the numerous subvariants, and burnishing and painting. Burnishing and painting can be executed on a fired unglazed surface, while painting can also be executed on a fired glazed surface. A particular vessel may exhibit a single or a combination of multiple decorative techniques (Fig. 1). Various surface treatment techniques, including slips and glazes, may also be used to achieve a decorative effect.

Here we will focus only on the decorative techniques employed in creating the exhibited drinking vessels.



Fig. 1 Sherd of a thin walled cup with a rouletted decoration on the lower half, and crescent shaped scale-like applications done in the barbotine technique on the upper half (A-27804).



The Incision Technique

The incision technique is, in essence, a graphic decorative technique. It is one of the most widespread and has numerous subtypes. It involves incisions executed with a variety of tool tips and varying levels of applied pressure on a raw and unfired clay surface. A line incised with a tool having a sharp, pointed tip will produce a V cross-section, while a line formed with a tool having a rounded or angular tip will produce a U cross-section. Motifs are incised with knives, sticks, awls, the finger, fingernail, shell, grain, fine thread, stamps and other tools, including those formed like combs, brushes or a roulette. Combed and brushed decorations are similar. A combed decoration is deeper, producing motifs of narrower or broader horizontal, wavy, oblique, or zigzag bands, while a brush-like tool produces a shallower decorative pattern, often over the entire vessel with the exception of the neck and rim area (cat. no. 1). A roulette (wheeled tool) impresses a pattern across the surface of an object, producing a band with a repeating motif of a variety of notches (cat. no. 2), triangles and rhombi.





The Burnishing Technique

The burnishing technique (cat. no. 3) involves buffing the surface of a vessel in order to impart a high gloss to the pottery. Before the ceramic is treated and fired, the surface must be uniform and smooth, and the clay of fine texture. This uniform and smooth surface is achieved by several steps. The wet surface of a clay vessel is wiped without the addition of water (prior to drying). This smooths out the clay between the coarser grains, with the surface still rough and uneven with traces of the direction in which wiping was performed. The still wet clay surface is then (again, prior to drying) wiped while wetted to remove any surface unevenness. Any remaining unevenness is smoothed out by polishing the dried clay surface. Burnishing is performed with fabric, leather, a smooth stone, a bone object, or a piece of hard wood. Burnishing can be done prior to or after firing. Burnishing prior to firing does not have an ornamental role unless combined with other decoration. Burnishing after firing is rarer, used to produce rectilinear motifs. This involves two stages of burnishing, with a second intense burnishing performed after the vessel is fired, producing a higher sheen than seen on surfaces burnished in a single stage.





The Application Technique

In the application technique the decoration has an important secondary function in which the applied ornament also prevents the ceramic vessel from slipping out of the hand (cat. no. 4). The application is performed on semi-hard but still moist clay to which the desired motif or ornament is attached. The decorative ornament and the clay surface on which the application is made must be equally moist in order to prevent the decoration from falling off later while in use. Decorations are done as simple geometric forms (Fig. 2), or as more complex forms (zoomorphic, anthropomorphic, vegetal, abstract) made with moulds, and are more expressive when arranged in a uniform sequence and in greater number.



Fig. 2 Sherd of a beaker with applied bands in the manner of a rope moulding with oblique incisions presenting the impression of twisted cord (A-4812).





The Barbotine Technique

Barbotine is an application technique that produces a decoration in relief on ceramic ware. The decoration is produced by the adhesion of a clay paste (liquid clay) to a rough surface prior to firing.

A coarse barbotine is produced when the clay is thickly applied. When applied in vertical bands we refer to the decoration as a fluted barbotine. A watery clay paste is poured over the surface, or a semi-liquid clay paste is spattered over the vessel. The resulting surface is then manipulated with the fingers, held together tightly or spread apart. This manipulation of the surface creates ridges, varied in form depending on the quantity of liquid clay slip applied, producing a relief surface on the pottery.

Fine barbotine is created when a liquid clay slip is applied with a brush. The barbotine method is used to produce simple geometric, vegetal (cat. no. 5) and stylised (Fig. 3) motifs of nubs, scales, beads, bolts, drops, dots, spirals, flowers, various foliate forms and so forth. These ornaments were also adhered as mould made applications.



Fig. 3 A beaker sherd with horseshoe shaped applications done in the barbotine technique (A-5771).



The Imprinting Technique

Imprinting is a technique used to create relief decoration in one-part (negative) moulds. Moulds were used to create complex vessels, for the part of the vessel that was to be decorated, while the remainder was formed on a potter’s wheel. The moulds were either concave, into which the clay was pressed, or convex, over which the clay was drawn.

A one-part ceramic mould was produced of a thick wad of clay on a potter’s wheel. Figural, vegetal and geometric motifs were stamped into the inside of the mould. The stamped decoration would then be worked for fine detail and borders added if desired with a stylus or by rouletting. The mould, having a wall thickness of about one centimetre, was fired before use. After firing the mould was set up on a potter’s wheel with vessels formed by pressing clay over a mould or by pouring liquid clay into a mould to above its edge. The clay would dry quickly in the mould and be thereby reduced in volume; once dry it was thus easily removed from the mould. Sand, dry ground clay, and ash were used to further facilitate this and prevent the cast piece from sticking to a mould and later breaking. The vessel could be worked further prior to firing, while the mould could immediately be used to create the next piece.

This exhibition features an Aco type beaker (cat. no. 6), a Sarius cup (cat. no. 7) and a Corinthian beaker (cat. no. 8). The Aco beaker and Sarius cup types are named after the workshop or potter indicted by the marks on the vessel: Aco Acastus and Sarius-Surus. Aco beakers have a tall body and thin rim and the relief decoration is present on the lower two-thirds of the beaker. Sarius cups are done in the terra sigillata technique. They have a pair of handles and are done in two parts, having a rounded form compressed at the midpoint. The lower part of the cup has a mould impressed relief decoration. Corinthian beakers are named after the production location, Corinth, where they have been found in great number. They have a pyxis form, most similar to the Dragendorff 30 type.







H. - Height
W. - Width
RD. - Rim diameter
BD. - Base diameter
WT. - Wall thickness
FH. - Foot height
HH. - Handle height


1. A reconstructed calotte shaped beaker; thin walled pottery with constricted rim and flat base. Grey with low gloss black slip. Brushed decoration: dense and fine horizontal grooves.
Inventory code: A-5259
Material/technique: ceramic (hard), wheel thrown
Dimensions: H. 6.8 cm; W. 9.2 cm; RD. 8.8 cm; BD. 3.6 cm; WT. 0.1 cm
Find site: Pula, unknown
Date: 1st c. (last third)




2. Biconical cup; thin walled pottery, grey. The upper part of the cup is vertical, the lower conical. The foot is narrow and gently moulded. There are two handles below the rim at the vertical upper part of the body. The upper part of the cup is decorated with a dense band of rouletted impressions, bordered by two horizontal incised grooves.
Inventory code: A-10896
Material/technique: ceramic (soft), wheel thrown
Dimensions: H. 6.5 cm; W. 12.5 cm; RD. 12; BD. 4.7 cm; WT. 0.3 cm; HH. 2.6 cm; handle section 1 cm × 0.6 cm
Find site: Pula, Marsovo polje, 1985/1986
Date: 1st c. (late)–2nd c.




3. A reconstructed cylindrical beaker; thin walled pottery of the Conspectus 50.3.2 form. At the base is a solid, low, ringed foot. Glossy dark brown slip; burnished; horizontal incised lines.
Inventory code: A-5765
Material/technique: ceramic (very hard), wheel thrown
Dimensions: H. 10.4 cm; RD. 8.2 cm; BD. 5.3 cm; WT. 0.2–0.3 cm
Find site: unknown
Date: 1st c. BCE (last quarter)–1st c. CE (first third)



4. A reconstructed beaker; thin walled pottery, orange with matt black-brown slip. Rim thickened, triangular. Decoration of applied conical nubs rising 0.5 cm off the wall of the vessel.
Inventory code: A-5817-BK
Material/technique: ceramic (hard), wheel thrown
Dimensions: H. 10 cm; W. 10.5 cm; RD. 9 cm; BD. 6.3 cm; WT. 0.3 cm
Find site: Brijuni, Kastrum
Date: 1st c. (first half)



5. Cup; thin walled pottery; low solid foot. Low rim, slightly everted. Body rounded; lower end conical. Grey with glossy black slip applied inside and outside. One preserved upright semi-circular strap handle with two grooves running lengthwise. Barbotine decoration on the upper part of the cup forms a 2.4 cm wide band in relief; stylised vegetal motif of tendrils with a series of buds.
Inventory code: A-5258
Material/technique: ceramic (hard), wheel thrown
Dimensions: H. 5.6 cm; W. 9.2 cm; RD. 8.5 cm; BD. 3.2 cm; WT. 0.2 cm; HH. 2.2 cm; handle section 0.9 cm × 0.5 cm
Find site: Pula, unknown
Date: 1st c. (second half)–2nd c. (first half)



6. A reconstructed tall and narrow conical Aco beaker; thin walled pottery, light orange, no slip. Flat base bordered with two grooves. Lower two thirds of the vessel decorated with fine mould cast lachrymiform motif; zigzag line below. Above a band in relief bordered with horizontal band with foliate motif.
Inventory code: A-5348
Material/technique: ceramic (very hard), wheel thrown
Dimensions: H. 12 cm; W. 8 cm; RD. 7.6 cm; BD. 4 cm
Find site: Labin, Vinež
Date: 1st c. BCE (last third)–1st c. CE (early)




7. Fragmented terra sigillata cup of the Sarius Surus type; reconstructed. Orange with low gloss orange slip. Upper zone undecorated; smooth low ring at midpoint. Two opposing strap handles with four grooves running lengthwise. Lower zone decorated with mould cast relief pattern of alternating bundles of lilies and buds, bound by a bow at the middle. Three small seven-petal rosettes one above the other between the bundles. The lowest rosette is only half-visible, with the lower half concealed by a low foot.
Inventory code: A-5254
Material/technique: ceramic (hard), wheel thrown
Dimensions: H. 8.5 cm; W. 10.5 cm; RD. 9.3 cm; BD. 5.1 cm; HH. 3.2 cm; handle section 1.7 cm × 0.5 cm
Find site: Pula, unknown
Date: 1st c. BCE (last quarter)–1st c. CE (late)



8. A reconstructed relief decorated Corinthian beaker on a low ring foot. Brown; patchy ochre-brown low gloss slip outside, matt brown slip inside. Relief decoration bordered with rings depicts religious scene of Dionysian theme. Depicted from left to right: priest at an altar, a tree, two figures and a sacrificial animal, a maenad with a thyrsus over her shoulder stepping to the left and a satyr stepping right. On the smaller sherd a scene with a priestess facing a statue of Priapus and a tripod.
Inventory code: A-5778
Material/technique: ceramic (hard), wheel thrown
Dimensions: H. 5.3 cm; W. 8.2 cm; RD. 8.7 cm; BD. 5.7 cm; WT. 0.3 cm
Find site: unknown
Date: 2nd c. (second half)–3rd c.





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Decorative Techniques on Roman Period Ceramic Drinking Vessels

Carrarina 4, Pula
Window to the Past
26. 10. 2021. – 25. 1. 2022.

 Exhibition and text author:
Tomislav Franić

Organizer and publisher: Archaeological Museum of Istria

 For the organizer and publisher: Darko Komšo

Editorial Board:
Darko Komšo, Adriana Gri Štorga, Katarina Zenzerović

Set up & graphic design:
Vjeran Juhas

Exhibition coordinator:
Monika Petrović

Vjeran Juhas

Ivo Juričić

Translation in Italian:
Elis Barbalich-Geromella

 English translation:
Neven Ferenčić

Irena Buršić, Adriana Gri Štorga, Milena Špigić

 Print: MPS Pula

Print run: 500

Pula, 2021.

Typo3 site by Ulisys d.o.o. , 2010.