Dead Research Proposals Episode 1: Investigating Italian Terra Sigillata

Image: wikimedia commons

“Where do vanished objects go?

Into non-being, that is to say, everything.”

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

How appropriate to start this post on Harry Potter day with a sneaky quote. Is this the same place that failed research proposals go? Some of the projects I’ve put forward in the past have been, let’s face it, a bit pants. Looking back at them for this series has helped me realise that. But some have been ok. And some have, I immodestly think, been quite good. I’m going to share a mix of them here, well, parts of them. The one I’m sharing today was one of the rubbish ones. It’s far too long: it was an early proposal (2014) and I got carried away because (and I still think this) the idea was worthwhile. I would still happily have a go at this project, working on Italian red-slip or Terra Sigillata ware. Have a read, and see what you think, and learn from my (now rather obvious) mistakes. Names and institutional references (including a research synergy section) have been erased to protect the poor sods who had to read this essay.

Investigating Italian Terra Sigillata

This class of pottery, produced in Italy during the late 1st century BC and early 1st century AD, is perhaps the quintessential Roman ceramic type. Its glossy red surface has become an icon of Roman pottery studies, and, adapted and adopted by workshops in Gaul, this style of pottery spread far across the Empire. However, these pots were heavily influenced by previous low-relief wares, adopted and adapted from Hellenistic traditions, and this project analyses their role in the transmission of Greek imagery to Italy and beyond. It approaches the Greek influence on Italian terra sigillata in two different ways – firstly, through the adaptation of Eastern Mediterranean imagery, and secondly through an analysis of the relationship of these vessels to Imperial ideals of the Greek body. Finding their way into the hands of people across the Empire, these pots were a well-placed tool for the promotion of idealised images of the Roman body.  The analysis of this iconography has the potential to be a transformative addition to scholarship, with connections both to the establishment of Imperial ideals and the continued influence on Rome (and beyond) by the Hellenistic and Classical Greek worlds.

Research Questions

This project would analyse the Greek influenced representation of the body in so-called Arretine wares, defined for this study as those Italian terra sigillata vessels produced in the workshops of Etruria in Arezzo, the Val di Chiana, Pisa and the Tiber Valley between 45 BC and AD 50. It would investigate:

  • Overarching patterns in the iconography of human figures – the activities, body positions and accoutrements of individuals shown in pottery decoration. This would incorporate a detailed analysis of the gender, age, and socio-economic status-specific representative tropes visible in ceramic imagery, and an investigation of changes in figure placement over time.


  • The relationship of Italian terra sigillata ware imagery to earlier Hellenistic styles, particularly Megarian bowls, and connections with even earlier forms of Greek pottery popular in Etruria, including Attic wares. This would be accomplished through a comparative analysis of human figures in all three pottery wares, building on my previous research on the reception of Attic pottery in the region (Shipley forthcoming 2014).


  • Patterns of representation specific to individual workshops or makers within Etruria, and the existence of audience preferences based on archaeological provenance. The project would build on previous studies of makers’ stamps (Hartley, Dickinson and Dannell 2008; Fülle 1997), and petrographic analyses (Peacock 1970, 1977; Williams and Dannell 1978) to map the visual economy of Arretine wares (building on work by Woolf (1992)).

At the heart of each of these specific points of investigation is the driving question of what these images were for, and how that purpose changed over time. Each would form the basis of a published research outcome, with questions 1 and 2 intended to be submitted to journals of international significance of a 4* rating, and question 3 intended to be submitted to a more specialised journal with a 3* rating. I would also expect to present the project at national and international conferences, and would hope to organise a session at the American Institute of Archaeology Annual Meeting 2016 focused on the influence of Greece on Roman iconography. Papers presented in this session could then form the basis for a further edited volume. The underlying thread of developing new perspectives on Augustan bodily ideals and the consumption of images during this turbulent period would be a highly relevant topic, while innovative theoretical approaches augmenting previous studies of Roman pottery would contribute to a future for the sub-discipline based on the social context of ceramics.

Research Context

The investigation of the classical body has been a productive research topic, from second-wave feminist-inspired investigations of gender developed from both textual analysis and material culture studies (Allason-Jones 1989; Cameron and Kuhrt (eds.) 1993; Clark 1989; Hawley and Levick 1995; Pomeroy 1975; Rabinowitz and Richlin (eds.) 1993) to more nuanced approaches, including work on masculinity (Foxhall and Salmon (eds.) 1998a, 1998b; Gunderson 2000), and sexuality (Flemming 1999; Hallett and Skinner (eds.) 1997; Williams 1999). While these ideas remain important (as evidenced by Pinheiro, Skinner and Zeitlin (eds.) 2012; Skinner 2005; Vout 2007), over the last decade approaches have shifted to incorporate the multiplicity of features inscribed on classical bodies in literature and imagery (e.g. Chaniotis and Ducrey (eds.) 2013; Isaac 2006; Langlands 2006; McDonnell 2006). While focused on Greece rather than Rome, Osborne (2011) illustrates the potential for analyses of the body, which incorporate these varying aspects, utilising texts and images, including those from Attic vase-painting, to seek out the visual features which classified bodies and people in Classical Athens. His use of ceramic imagery to analyse ideals and divisions marked out on the body is a key influence on this project.

Italian terra sigillata vessels have also been the subject of intense research. From their initial discovery in the medieval period in Arezzo, the town in Etruria from which they were initially named, to the detailed Corpus Vasorum Arretinorum, (Oxé and Comfort 1968), the forms and decoration of these vessels have been scrupulously recorded. In more recent years, an updated catalogue has analysed over 2,500 different artisans’ stamps (Kenrick, Oxé and Comfort 2000), and further analyses have demonstrated that workshops were scattered across Etruria (Ettlinger et al. 1990; Jefferson et al. 1981; Menchelli 1995). The development of this style of ceramics has also been considered (Pedroni 1995), while the working practices of the industry have been an important topic of archaeological debate (Pucci 1973; Wiseman 1963). These studies have all concentrated on the production of vessels, as opposed to their consumption. While studies of the distribution of pots within Etruria (Gliozzo and Turbanti 2004; Kenrick 1993; Kiiskinen 2013) have also been popular, these too have not considered iconography as a factor influencing these distribution patterns. In terms of iconography, Sangriso (1998) has convincingly argued for connections between Augustan ideals and the work of a single workshop in Arezzo or possibly Pisa, that of Gnaeus Ateius, but does not recognise the influence of the Classical Greek tradition.

A larger scale study would allow for both comparisons between workshops and an investigation of the scale of Augustan promotion of the ideal body. This would be an entirely original topic, as ceramic iconography has been almost entirely neglected as a source of information for Augustan socio-cultural reform as influenced by Greek ideals. There has also been very little attention paid to the influence of Greek imagery in the design and use of terra sigillata in Etruria, and this would be a valuable addition to the literature, examining connections of longstanding between Italy and the Eastern Mediterranean. My focus on the body, and the intimate relationship between people on pots and people using pots, would drive this investigation beyond economic or political analysis to the everyday encounter with ceramics, and the experience of viewing images of the human body developed from Greek and Imperial influences.

While this research lies within a strong area of previous scholarship in classical studies, as described above, it is also influenced by my own previous engagement with archaeological and anthropological theory. My doctoral research (Shipley forthcoming 2014c) considered the representation of the body in Etruscan ceramics, developing a phenomenological approach to pottery analysis, which explored the relationship between the users of vessels and the images of bodies moulded or painted on their surfaces. A central part of this project was the application of theories of object agency, primarily developed by Alfred Gell (1993, 1998) in relation to the desired impacts and effects of material culture on those who encounter it. Peacock (1982) has successfully utilised ethno-archaeological approaches to Roman pottery in the past, and my previous work would act as a natural stepping-stone to this project, allowing me to begin this research with the theoretical background of the project already in place, having proven success in reaching original conclusions about ancient ceramics. This study of Italian terra sigillata in Etruria, one that is centred on the effect of pots on consumers, would add an entirely new dimension to Roman ceramic studies, building on previous work and developing new conclusions about the experience of using these iconic vessels.

Historical Context

It is the social context of this study that would make an analysis of Arretine iconography such an arresting research project. Arretine ware began to be produced shortly (around 20 years) before the reign of Augustus (r. 27 BC- AD 14), whose interests in the promotion of an idealised Roman body are well documented (Ando 2000; Bartmann 1999; Clarke 1993, 2003; Zanker 1990), including his marked preference for Greek-influenced imagery (Kleiner 1978). The impact of Augustan social and cultural reforms on Arretine design would be a key facet of the project, tracing whether tropes described in textual sources are reinforced in ceramic imagery. The relationship between both images and texts and the Greek world is central to this analysis. I would argue that, in the same way that the poetry of Vergil adapts and extends Homeric and Hellenistic tropes to fit a Julian narrative, Arretine wares were similarly exploring these ideals through images. Indeed, while Vergil’s work would reach a relatively limited audience of those who were learned and literate, and statues and monuments would have been encountered at a local level, Arretine wares spreading across the expanding Empire would have made an ideal format for the promotion of Augustan values during and after his reign. Yet, in spite of its potential as a source for the relationship between elite ideals and non-elite consumption, as suggested above, Arretine ware has predominantly been studied as an economic unit, as opposed to a rich iconographic canon. By comparing and contrasting ideas of the Roman body as presented in textual sources, the other visual arts, and Arretine wares, this project would examine the construction of idealised bodies in clay, and their impact on the real people who used and interacted with them.


The primary method for this project would be the establishment of a large database of imagery from published examples of Arretine wares, Megarian cups and Attic wares. As part of my doctoral work, I have already established a database of over 1000 Attic red and black-figure wares from Etruria, and would create a dataset of Arretine and Megarian wares on a similar scale. Each would be subject to a detailed compositional analysis, based on gender, age, body position and activity, figure placement, drawing out key patterns in representation. I would also relate these data to makers’ stamps and existing petrographic analyses, mapping patterns of imagery unique to particular workshops, and potentially providing evidence for associations between moulds, patterns and potters. From production to consumption, I would also examine the provenance (where available) for each vessel, searching for and seeking to explain audience preferences based on geographical location. The establishment of this database would entail the first six months of the Fellowship, with the analysis taking up the following six months. For the following year, each research output would take up approximately four months of writing and preparation. These time estimates are deliberately generous, to enable me to devote time to teaching and to outreach activities associated with the project.


This research project has potential for the creation of an outreach scheme modelled upon the University of X’s existing and highly successful Y Project. While that project involved young people in XYZ, I would hope to engage them in discussions of a different, although equally important issue: that of body image. In a world in which images of idealised bodies (usually digitally manipulated) are continually presented through digital, television and print media, many young people feel increasingly uncomfortable about their own bodies, and develop low self-esteem (Bucchianeri et al. 2013; Cash 1994; Featherstone 2010). By using archaeological objects to facilitate discussion of the manipulation of images of bodies, young people engaged on workshops associated with the project could explore the reasons behind the images they encounter daily, while simultaneously discovering the relevance and immediacy of Roman history. This could be expanded to incorporate an exploration of changing fashions in body image more widely, and their relationship with political and cultural leaders past and present. The existing links between the University of X and local schools established by the Y project would be an ideal framework for this scheme to work within, and I would hope to be guided by the experiences of Dr A and Professor B, and to support their ongoing work.

Future Potential

This project has a great deal of potential for future expansion, and could be developed in a number of different ways. To continue the major theme of Greek influence on Roman ceramic design, the same methodologies could be applied to ceramics produced within Greece during this period, to examine any differences in the way in which people in this area of the Empire chose to represent themselves on clay. Similarly, other low-relief Roman ceramic wares could be subject to the analytical scheme, developing a wider understanding of the representation of the body on pottery during this period. This would conceivably have far-reaching interpretative results, linked to debates on “Romanisation”, identity and the maintenance of the body through material culture. To develop the project in a different way, the impact of different Emperors could be assessed iconographically, expanding the database to incorporate a wider range of ceramics and tracking representative changes over time. In particular, expanding the project to the ceramics Flavian period, when ideals of representation in other forms of public iconography acknowledged age and physical imperfections, could also be an area for future investigation. More questions, and future channels of enquiry, would undoubtedly emerge over the course of the project, leading naturally to its potential expansion.


Allason-Jones, L. 1989. Women in Roman Britain. London: British Museum Press.

Ando, C. 2000. Imperial ideology and provincial loyalty in the Roman Empire. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Bartmann, E. 1999. Portraits of Livia: imagining the Imperial woman in Augustan Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bucchianeri, M., Arikian, A., Hannan, P., Eisenberg, M. and Neumark-Sztainer, D. 2013. Body dissatisfaction from adolescence to young adulthood: Findings from a 10 year longitudinal survey. Body Image 10: 1-7.

Cameron, A. and Kuhrt, A. (eds.) 1993. Images of Women in Antiquity. Hove: Psychology Press.

Cash, T. 1994. Body image attitudes: evaluation, investment and affect. Perceptual and Motor Skills 78: 1168-1170.

Chaniotis, A. and Ducrey, P. (eds.) 2013. Unveiling Emotions II: Emotions in Greece and Rome. Texts, Images and Material Culture. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.

Clark, G.  1989. Women in the ancient world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clarke, J. 1993. The Warren Cup and the Contexts for Representations of Male-to-Male Lovemaking in Augustan and Early Julio-Claudian Art. Art Bulletin 75: 275-294.

Ettlinger, E., Hedinger, B., Hoffmann, B., Kenrick, P. M., Pucci, G., Roth-Rubi, K., Schneider, G., Schnurbein, S. von, Wells, C. M. and Zabehlicky-Scheffenegger, S. 1990. Conspectus formarum terrae sigillatae Italico modo confectae. Materialien zur römisch-germanischen Keramik.  Bonn: Habelt.

Featherstone, M. 2010 Body, image and affect in consumer culture. Body & Society 16: 193-221.

Flemming, R. 1999. Quae corpore quaestum facit: the sexual economy of female prostitution in the Roman Empire. Journal of Roman Studies 89: 38-61.

Foxhall, L. and Salmon, J. (eds.) 1998a. When men were men: masculinity, power and identity in the ancient world. London: Routledge.

Foxhall and Salmon, J. (eds.) 1998b. Thinking men: masculinity and its self-representation in the classical tradition. London: Routledge.

Fülle, G. 1997. The internal organization of the Arretine Terra Sigillata Industry: Problems of evidence and interpretation. Journal of Roman Studies 87: 111-155.

Gell, A. 1993. Wrapping in Images: Tattooing in Polynesia. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Gell, A. 1998. Art and Agency: A new anthropological theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gliozzo, E. and Turbanti, I.M. 2004. Black gloss pottery: production sites and technology in northern Etruria, part I: provenance studies. Archaeometry 46: 201-225.

Gunderson, E. 2000. Staging masculinity: the rhetoric of performance in the Roman world. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Hallett, J. and Skinner, M. (eds.) 1997. Roman Sexualities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hartley, B., Dickinson, B. and Dannell, G. 2008. Names on Terra Sigillata: A to Axo; 2. B to Cerotcus; 3. Certianus to Exsobano; 4. F to Klumi; 5. L to Masclus I; 6. Masclus I-Balbus to Oxittus; 7. P to RXEAD; 8. S to Symphorus. London: Institute of Classical Studies.

Hawley, R. and Levick, B. (eds.) 1995.Women in antiquity: new assessments. Hove: Psychology Press.

Isaac, B.  2004. Proto-racism in Graeco-Roman antiquity. World Archaeology 38: 32-47.

Jefferson, T. O., Dannell, G. B. and Williams, D. F., 1981. The production and distribution of Terra Sigillata in the area of Pisa, Italy. In A.C. Anderson and A.S. Anderson (eds.) Roman Pottery research in Britain and North-West Europe. Papers presented to Graham Webster, 161-72. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports.

Kenrick, P. 1993. Italian Terra Sigillata: a sophisticated Roman industry. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 12: 235-242.

Kenrick, P., Oxé, A., and Comfort, H. 2000. Corpus vasorum Arretinorum: a catalogue of the signatures, shapes and chronology of Italian Sigillata. [2nd Ed.] Bonn: Habelt.

Kiiskinen, H. 2013. Production and Trade of Etrurian Terra Sigillata Pottery in Roman Etruria and Beyond between c. 50 BCE and c. 150 CE. Turku: University of Turku Press.

Kleiner, D. E. 1978. The great friezes of the Ara Pacis Augustae. Greek sources roman derivatives and augustan social policy. Mélanges de l’Ecole française de Rome 90: 753-785.

Langlands, R. 2006. Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McDonnell, M. 2006. Roman Manliness: Virtus and the Roman Republic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Memmi, I.T. 2004. Pottery production and distribution: the contribution of mineralogical and petrographical methodologies in Italy: state of the art and future developments. Periodico di Mineralogia 73: 239-257

Menchelli , S. 1995. Ateius e gli altri: produzioni ceramiche in Pisa e nell’ager Pisanus fra tarda repubblica e primo impero. Annali Scuola Normale Superiore Pisa 25: 333-350.

Osborne, R. 2011. The History Written on the Classical Greek Body. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Peacock, D. (ed.) 1977. Pottery and early commerce: characterization and trade in Roman and later ceramics. London: Academic Press.

Peacock, D. 1970. The scientific analysis of ancient ceramics: a review. World Archaeology 1: 375-389.

Peacock, D. 1982. Pottery in the Roman world: an ethnoarchaeological approach. London: Longman.

Pedroni, L. 1995. Riflessioni sulla nascita dell‟aretina.” Ostraka 4: 195-204

Pinheiro, M. Skinner, M. and Zeitlin, F. (eds.) 2012. Narrating Desire: Eros, Sex, and Gender in the Ancient Novel. Berlin: DeGruyter.

Pomeroy, S. 1975. Goddesses, whores, wives and slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Robert Hale.

Pucci, G. 1973. La produzione della ceramic aretine. Note sull’industria nella prima età imperiali. Dialoghi di Archeologia 7: 255–293.

Pucci, G. 1981. La ceramica italica (terra sigillata). Società romana e produzione schiavistica. In A. Giardina and A. Schiavone (eds.) II Merci, mercati e scambi nel Mediterraneo, 99-121. Roma: Editori Laterza.

Oxé, A. and Comfort, H., 1968. Corpus Vasorum Arretinorum. A catalogue of the signatures, shapes and chronology of Italian sigillata. Bonn: Habelt.

Pucci, G.1973. I bolli sulla “terra sigillata:” fra epigrafia e storia economica. In W. Harris (ed.) The Inscribed Economy, 73-79. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Rabinowitz, N. and Richlin, A. (eds.) 1993. Feminist theory and the Classics. London: Routledge.

Sangriso, P. 1998. Terra sigillata e politica augustea: alcune note su Cn. Ateius. Studi Classici e Orientali 46: 919-932.

Shipley, L. (forthcoming 2014). Experiencing Pots: Ceramics and the Body in Archaic Etruria. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Skinner, M. 2005. Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture. London: Wiley Blackwell.

Vout, C. 2007. Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Williams, C.A. 1999. Roman Homosexuality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Williams, D.F. and Dannell, G.B. 1978.  Petrological analysis of arretine and early samian: a preliminary report. In P. Arthur and G. Marsh (eds.) Early fine wares in Roman Britain, 5–13. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports.

Wiseman, T. 1963. The potteries of Vibienus and Rufrenus at Arretium. Mnemosyne 16: 275-283.

Woolf, G. 1993. Imperialism, empire and the integration of the Roman economy. World Archaeology 23: 283-293.

Zanker, P. 1990.The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

If you’ve got through all that, well done you. The next one in this series will be shorter. Comments on how rubbish it is welcome*. Kinder remarks also welcome.


*This post (and indeed this proposed series) has been quite scary for me. Be nice in telling me it’s crap. Or polite, at least.

2 thoughts on “Dead Research Proposals Episode 1: Investigating Italian Terra Sigillata

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s