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Nene Valley Colour Coated Ware

Colour coated wares from the lower Nene Valley are characterised by a pale fabric with a strongly contrasting surface colour. The fabric is hard and smooth textured exhibiting a finely irregular fracture. The fabric also formed the basis of white ware and parchment ware which have a light surface and are particularly associated with the mortaria produced in large numbers in the third and fourth centuries.


Emanating from the potteries in and around Durobrivae these wares were widely distributed across Britain and even into northern Europe. Their manufacture continued for over 250 years from the mid second century to the end of the Roman period. They have sometimes been referred to as ‘Castor Ware’.

[Those less familiar with pottery types should note that there is no direct connection with 'Peterborough Ware' - a  late Neolithic ceramic tradition.]


Similar kilns and styles of pottery are seen at an earlier date in parts of Europe so it is postulated that the products were introduced to the Nene Valley by migrant potters from the Lower Rhineland in the mid second century. Such products also started to be produced at about this time in Colchester. 

Early production concentrated on beakers such as ‘hunt cups’ and other ‘bag-shaped’ forms. These vessels can be confused with imports from the Lower Rhineland, both having a white fabric with dark, nearly black slip. By the mid third century production included a wider range of rather thicker utilitarian forms such as jars and dishes.

In terms of technique and decorative design the Nene Valley pottery is considerably more sophisticated than normal British provincial wares. During the early Roman period most tableware was terra sigillata (samian) imported from Gaul. By the end of the second century little samian reached Britain and the improved local table wares such as those from the Nene Valley had taken over. It was not unusual for the Nene Valley potters to imitate the form of the earlier samian vessels.

The Colour Coat Process

The colour of a fired clay is controlled largely by the iron compounds in it and by their state of oxidation. With little iron present in the clay used for the fabric, colour coated wares are typically off-white or buff (though orange-yellow, grey or brown cores are sometimes seen).

Conversely, the slip used for colour coating was rich in iron compounds and so highly coloured when fired. With normal levels of oxidation a red, tan, or brown finish would result. If the kiln was sealed towards the end of firing a reducing atmosphere formed and the pottery could become blue grey to almost black.

It appears that pots were often inverted and held by the base when dipped in the colour coat slip. Potters’ fingerprints are often visible in the finished surface. The slip would not always reach the entire inner surface of enclosed vessels such as jars, leaving bare patches. The consistency of the colour coat finish was also sometimes impaired by restricted circulation of the gases in the kiln.


While much of the colour coated ware was undecorated, from the start of the industry the decorated forms attracted attention and were more widely distributed than the plain forms.

Barbotine decoration (both under and over the colour coat) creates a relief using a thick slip trailed on the surface of the pot. Most commonly featured are running animals and flowering scrolls. By the third century a simpler lattice pattern is more often seen. Unlike other production centres the Nene Valley colour coat industry did not use ‘rough-casting’.

‘Painted’ wares involve use of a much thinner slip without relief. Simple geometric decoration appears on many different forms in the third and fourth centuries. 

Moulded and stamped decoration is unusual though examples have been found at kiln sites where, for instance, moulded faces were added to the necks of flagons.

Rouletted decoration is commonly found. A rotating cylinder applied to the spinning pot creates a continuous horizontal band. These bands were sometimes used above and below barbotine decoration.


Precise dating can be problematic but there are clues when it comes to deducing approximate dates:


  • Barbotine decorated ‘hunt cups’ and bag shaped vessels: AD 150 to 250

  • Vessels with pinched necks and wide spouts: AD 200 to 250

  • Barbotine lattice work: AD 200 to 300

  • White slip scroll and berry motifs: AD 200 to 400

  • Samian derived forms: AD 200 to 400

  • Plainer, thicker, utilitarian dishes: AD 300 to 400

  • Rouletting and white over painting: AD 300 to 400

  • Narrow necked flagons: AD 350 to 400

Typical Forms and Examples

The Nene Valley products embrace a wide range of table wares, including cups and beakers, dishes, bowls, jugs, flagons and bottles.  They also include the lidded ‘Castor Box’ and mortaria. Some imitate samian styles whilst others are distinctive in their own right. The following examples provide a flavour of the range of products. Reports from Nene Valley archaeological sites and from other assemblages provide far more detail and underline the vast range of items produced.


Common forms of Nene Valley colour coated ware (Hartley, Notes on the Roman Pottery Industry in the Nene Valley, 1972)


Nene Valley Colour Coated wares recorded by Artis – Durobrivae of Antoninus Plates 47, 49, 51, 53, 54 (not to consistent scale)

Beakers, Cups & Vases


Hunt Cup found Leaholme, Cirencester. Third century.


Hunt Cup found Bedford Purlieus, 1841 and donated to the Royal Ontario Museum. Late second or early 3rd century. 280 x 214mm. 


A large, funnel necked beaker with a white slip decoration of vines and grapes between rouletted decorative bands. Probably 4th century. Found Thame, 2015 – Oxford Cotswold Archaeology


Beaker with barbotine and rouletted decoration. Found Durston, Northants. Height115mm; diameter 69mm. © The Trustees of the British Museum.


Colour coated beaker. 
Rob Perrin


Vase with barbotine decoration of hounds and hares. Found Water Newton. Height 260mm; rim diameter 170mm. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Flagons and Jugs


Flagon with pinched neck from Stilton. Height 300mm
[Collection of Mr Richard Landy]


Colour coated flagon
Rob Perrin -

Bowls and Dishes


Plain bowl found Stonea Grange. © The Trustees of the British Museum


Bowl found Water Newton. Height 111mm; diameter 158mm. Excavated/Findspot: Water Newton © The Trustees of the British Museum



The ‘Castor Box’ form comprises a bowl and lid. This third century example is from the Roman town of Margidunum, near Bingham.  Image credit - University of Nottingham Museum



Mortarium with stamped rim. Image credit – Peterborough Museum

Lower Nene Valley White Ware

The most commonly found vessels have a white fabric with cream surfaces. There are however examples with grey-white, brown-cream or orange-brown fabric.

Lower Nene Valley Parchment Ware 

Mortaria, bowls and face flagons were commonly produced. Parchment ware has little or no iron. The colour of core and surfaces varies between white, buff, cream and pale yellow. Occasionally oxidised cores may be pale orange. Sometimes surfaces can be mottled in a variety of the oxidised shades. Painted decoration varies from orange-brown to brown or red-brown depending on how thickly it has been applied.

Nene Valley Ware – Marks and Potters’ Names

Samian ware is routinely marked with the name of a potter or workshop but this is not the case with Nene Valley ware.

An exception is mortaria where potters’s stamps were frequently impressed on their rims. This practice had largely died out by AD200 although there is a third century example in Peterborough Museum which reads SENNIANUS DVROBRIVIS VRI[T] ie Sennianus fired this at Durobrivae.

The following pottery fragments with inscriptions are recorded by Artis – Plate 46:

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