Ancient Roman Terracotta Clay Pottery

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Ancient Rome is famous for its beautiful pottery. Smooth, sleek terracotta bowls and intricately carved plates can be seen in museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum. Many Romans produced pottery for mainly utilitarian purposes. More specialized workshops in specific provinces of the Roman Empire crafted and traded fine pottery. In this article, I’ll discuss fine wares and more common forms of ancient Roman pottery. To make things even better, I’ll try to make a functional piece of pottery myself!

Terracotta or fired clay was the main resource for making pottery. The word “terracotta” is Italian, but it derives from the Latin terra cocta. This clay has a natural brownish color.  Terracotta is made by baking terracotta clay, and it directly translates to  “baked earth.” The Romans used terracotta to build bricks, tiles, and even statues.

As stated above, most pottery was made for daily use. But what about the beautiful flasks and plates decorated with carvings of gods that the museums love to display? More fine pieces of pottery were packed into graves, used for eating by the extremely rich, or placed around the home as decoration. Terra sigillata are glossy terracotta wares that Romans used to serve food. The drinking cups were thin and covered in lead glazes. They were decorated intricately. Table vessels, like large platters and shallow dishes, were made to bear decorative dishes. As Rome progressed, rich citizens propelled farther from using clay kitchenware. They preferred silver. Other fine wares were made for extremely specific purposes. Terra rubra (red-slipped) and terra nigra (black-slipped) fabrics were put on plates and dishes to bear potters’ stamps. Decorative techniques were used for fine tableware, including slips, painting, and texture. Painted decoration was not as popular. People preferred lead-glazed pottery, which caused the pottery to change from brown to amber or even green.

Normal Romans made extremely plain pottery. They shaped the terracotta clay into huge bowls and cups with large cavities in them. They were inexpensive and a standard part of every Roman kitchen. Mortaria were shallow bowls with a thick rim that made it easy to handle. They were covered with a coating of grit or coarse sand. You may be thinking… mortaria sure does sound like mortar! That is true, the mortaria takes on the role of the modern mortar. It was used with a pestle to puree and pulverize ingredients or enhance the flavor of herbs and spices. Amphorae were large, tall flask-like containers. They had a cylindrical body with a spiked base. They were kept in racks because they could not lie flat. Amphorae held liquid, such as olive oil. Plates, cups, and bowls are other self-explanatory examples of Roman pottery.

Clay was also used to create lamps. Candles were used in ancient Rome as artificial lighting. Lamps were also present, fueled with olive oil. Many lamp holders were made of clay. They were made of a circular area and a filling-hole. The candleholders were decorated with images of animals, myths, chariot-racing, gladiator combat, everyday life, and hunting. Some lamps were not made in the usual style. They were molded to represent animals and many other shapes.

Terracotta figurines were very popular. They were made for ritual and religious purposes. People would show their dedication at temples through the construction of a complex Terracotta figurine. They would also serve more typical purposes, being common burial items and found in many household shrines. Each region of the Empire produced terracotta figurines in distinctive styles.

You can make your own terracotta pottery like the Romans did at home! Buy some terracotta clay (or any type of clay or play-doh you have at home) and shape it into a plate, bowl, cup, flask, or candle holder. You can also find other ways to make clay online if you do not want to go out of your way to buy it. If you aren’t the best at forming shapes, you can use an existing plate or bowl to create your pottery. Make sure to cover your silverware with oil or vaseline if you are using it as a guide, so it will be easier to clean later. While the clay is still malleable, make sure to carve out some designs. You can use a pencil, a knife, or any sharp tool to carve the clay. Here is my creation below!

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