Re-examination of the Colchester Vase reveals it was made locally

The vase was found in a grave, located outside Roman Colchester, having been reused as a cremation urn.

Since the Colchester Vase, with its rich imagery of gladiators in combat, was first discovered in 1853, there have been those who deny that anything so finely crafted could have been produced in Roman Britain. Now, though, in-depth analysis of the vase, carried out as part of a new project led by Glynn Davis from Colchester + Ipswich Museums Service, has proved the naysayers wrong, confirming that it was indeed made locally. These findings greatly add not only to our knowledge of Romano-British pottery production but also to our understanding of the presence of gladiators in Britain.

Photo: Colchester Museums

The vase was found in a grave, located outside Roman Colchester, having been reused as a cremation urn (an unusual fate for a vessel of this kind). The cremated human remains that it contained have already been examined in an earlier project. Strontium isotope analysis by the University of Durham identified the person that they came from as non-local, while osteological analysis by Dr Emily Carroll determined that this individual was probably a man aged over 40.

While the man was not a product of Colchester, the vessel was. It is an excellent example of a large barbotine colour-coated ware beaker – barbotine being a decorative process of adding slip directly on to pottery – and has now been confirmed as having been made from local clay, a product of one of the kilns located to the west of Roman Colchester. This is in contrast to previous analysis which had suggested that, based on its style, the vase might have come from modern-day Germany. Research by Joanna Bird, however, has reviewed the work of potters from the Colchester kilns who were active between c.AD 160 and 200, when this vase was made, and it appears that several had migrated there from that part of the Continent, bringing their distinctive and highly specialist style of pottery production with them. Joanna argues that the Colchester Vase would have been made by one of these ‘master potters’.

The vase’s decorations depict various kinds of gladiator, as well as figures known as venatores who fought wild animals in the arena. Nina Crummy suggests that scenes including the famous depiction (pictured above) of a lightly armed retiarius (named as Valentinus) showing submission to a heavily armed, left-handed secutor (named as Memnon) indicate that the potter may have had first-hand experience of watching gladiator fights as the detail of the figures’ armour is specific and well-executed. In addition, the inscriptions around the outside of the vessel, which specifically name the individual venatores and gladiators, were etched into the clay before it was fired. Dr John Pearce argues that this further indicates that the vessel depicts a specific event and not a generic gladiatorial scene.

Taking all the evidence together, the research team suggest that the Colchester Vase is best interpreted as a vessel that was specifically commissioned, possibly by the man whose remains it later contained, to depict an actual event that may have happened in Colchester itself. While no Roman amphitheatre is known in Colchester, there was a large military presence there, and Philip Crummy, Director of the Colchester Archaeological Trust, believes an arena was located in the town. For both the vase’s commissioner and creator to have had such detailed and specific knowledge of an arena spectacle is strongly indicative of its probable presence in Roman Colchester.

The vase will feature in a new exhibition, Gladiators: a day at the Roman Games, at Colchester Castle from 15 July. See for further details, and watch out for more extensive coverage in a future issue of CA.