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Nene Valley Pottery Distribution

The colour coated pottery and mortaria produced in the lower Nene Valley were widely traded across Britain from the mid-second to the end of the fourth centuries.


Distribution of Nene Valley colour-coated wares in Britain (after P Tyres base map)


Distribution of Nene Valley mortaria in Britain (after P Tyers base map)

An Evolving Industry

Pottery production long predates the Roman period but before then it was largely undertaken on a small scale for local use. Coarse hand thrown products were produced using temporary clamp kilns. The Black Burnished Romano-British wares are a continuation of this tradition.

There had been some import of Samian and other fine continental table wares in advance of the invasion and this accelerated rapidly during the later first century. The initial demand would have been driven primarily by the military, and they were also the first to promote larger-scale local production – as seen for example at Longthorpe.

As Roman eating and food preparation habits were increasingly adopted, so demand for more specialised tableware, mortaria and cheese presses multiplied. The Nene Valley industry exploited this opportunity from the mid second century. Products followed military supply routes as is evidenced by pottery found along Hadrian’s Wall. Pottery was also supplied to settled areas such as the south-east and midlands; again the maps above point to the importance of sea and river transport. As the British potteries increased their scale and sophistication so the level of continental imports diminished.

During the third century the capability to produce the more refined products seems to have become more dispersed and production broadens away from the urban and military centres. Most important of the new rural centres of production was Oxford with its own colour coat and parchment wares; in addition, other clusters developed including the New Forest (which dominated Wessex colour coat), Hadham in East Anglia and Crambeck in Yorkshire.

Nene Valley production was probably most extensive during the 3rd century prior to the expansion of the Oxfordshire industry, although the ware was still the most dominant in eastern England into the late 4th century, partly due to diversification into production of ‘coarse ware’ forms.

Throughout the period most centres continued to produce grey or black burnished wares for everyday use alongside their finer wares. However it was the more decorative and more specialised forms which were most likely to be traded over longer distances.

New Research Refines our Understanding

Evans, Macaulay and Mills in their 2017 report on the Horningsea Roman Pottery Industry provide extensive context, including a valuable consolidation of the evidence on distribution of Nene Valley pottery. They see very different patterns in the markets for Horningsea and Nene Valley products: the latter were traded much further and in greater quantities. They do, however, note that it was the colour coated wares, and in particular beakers, which were traded longer distances. 


They draw tentative contour maps inferred from the quantity of Nene Valley ware found at urban, rural and military sites across the country, broken down into broad time periods. The example below is the combined distribution for all sites in the late 2nd to early 3rd centuries when the industry was thriving.


Areas of Higher Volume Distribution of Nene Valley Ware in the late second and early third centuries. After Evans, Macaulay and Mills

There is a strong concentration of material in Cambridgeshire, extending into Northamptonshire and southern Lincolnshire. There is a distinct distortion to the south-west along the Nene. The high levels of Nene Valley colour coated ware at Towcester suggest that it was travelling across Northamptonshire, presumably via Irchester. There is a lesser distortion along the Lee valley. This research implies that the ware did not penetrate in quantity as far south as the Thames and is generally absent from Essex and East Anglia.


Distribution in northern England was predominantly achieved by water transport along the east coast. There is a concentration in the York–Malton area which reflects the importation of material via the Humber. This continues in the Catterick-Piercebridge area which might suggest transhipment up the Swale – or importation up the Tees. Material for the eastern sections of Hadrian’s Wall was probably imported through South Shields.


The ceramic evidence suggests that trade in Nene Valley colour coated ware to the north commenced in about AD 160, given the lack of evidence for the products on the Antonine Wall. It was a well organised trade and initially focused on a subset of the forms widely seen in the Nene valley – perhaps 80 to 90% being beakers. The Orton Hall Farm assemblage shows beakers to be the dominant form in the mid to late 2nd century, but they were then rapidly displaced by jars and open forms. By the later 4th century the Nene valley wares found in the north included a wider range of forms, perhaps reflecting the apparent shift away from use of ceramic beakers.

Lower Nene Valley Pottery on the Northern Frontiers of Roman Britain

Paul Bidwell is a specialist on the archaeology of Roman Britain.  From 1987 to 2013 he led a series of projects which involved the excavation and interpretation of the Roman fort-sites at South Shields (Arbeia) and Wallsend (Segedunum). The NVAT is grateful for this article which provides insights into the evolution and distribution of Nene Valley pottery.

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