A Romano-British Head Pot

Imagine my surprise when, whilst sorting through a box of Romano-British pottery sherds from Leeds Museums and Galleries collections, I found this handsome face staring (well, perhaps staring isn’t quite the right word) up at me!
This object (LEEDM.D.1966.0083), probably excavated from the Roman town of Aldborough in North Yorkshire, is a ceramic fragment which has been moulded in the form of a male face. You can distinctly see his nose, pursed lips, left cheek and a section of chin. This sherd would appear to originate from an elaborately decorated vessel – was I looking at the Roman equivalent of a Toby Jug?!

Vessels with faces on them seem to have been popular throughout the Roman Empire. The most common type are face pots, which were probably introduced to the province of Britannia by the Roman army during the first century AD, as early examples are found primarily at military sites. However, being seemingly fashionable and popular, this style of vessel soon spread throughout the province. The portraits on these however are much more schematic, and indeed more comedic, than our example.

A pair of typical Romano-British face pots, these examples were found in London (Braithwaite 1984: 109, fig. 6).

The more naturalistic, Classical features of our face suggest it originates from a different type of vessel, probably a small head pot. Similar faces are also found on Late Roman head-neck flagons (where a small moulded head is applied to the neck of the vessel), but I think our example is slightly too large for this.
Head pots consist of a moulded human head which forms the body of the vessel. They seem to be an insular British occurrence, developing quite independently from their distant cousin the face pot, and became fashionable in the early third century AD. They were made locally but influenced by the exotic cultures and styles of the Eastern Mediterranean. They are uniquely found on our island and their distribution is further confined to the east of the country, north of the Thames.

A selection of Romano-British head pots, these were found at York, Piercebridge and Chester-le-Street (Braithwaite 1984: 118, fig. 11).

The jury is still out regarding the function and use of these vessels. Although many examples lack context, the majority of provenanced head pots come from ritual sites, but a few have cropped up on domestic ones too. They are probably linked to some form of ritual or cult – but which, we do not know. One head pot found at Lincoln bore the painted inscription DON MERCVRIO – ‘To the God Mercury’ – but no other vessels have been found so usefully labelled. Compared to face pots which are usually coarse cooking ware, head pots are relatively fine. Perhaps they held liquids rather than food, such as wine for libations and offerings.
So what role did the faces play in all this? Did they have an important ritualistic function, or are they purely decorative? Whilst some similarities have been found between faces on different pots, the majority of portraits vary greatly, suggesting them not to be associated with one particular deity or cultic figure. Is the face depicted on our vessel that of a specific individual, a deity or just a generic portrait? Such objects pose interesting, and indeed frustrating, questions and serve as a reminder of how some aspects of the past still remain elusive to us.
Interested in reading more about these fascinating Romano-British vessels? This article provides an excellent overview of the subject: Braithwaite, G. (1984) ‘Romano-British Face Pots and Head Pots’, Britannia 15, pp. 99 – 131.
Lucy Creighton


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