Enhancing the learning and teaching potential of samian ware: Recent work on Durham University’s Oswald-Plicque collection

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Enhancing the learning and teaching potential of samian ware: Recent work on Durham University’s Oswald-Plicque collection

  • Robin Skeates

The Oswald-Plicque collection

  • The Oswald-Plicque collection was the personal samian collection of Dr. Felix Oswald.
  • This collection was acquired by Professor Eric Birley for Durham University in 1950.
  • It is now housed in Durham University’s Old Fulling Mill Museum of Archaeology.

The collection today: artefacts

  • The main part of the collection comprises:
  • 64 boxes containing nearly 5000 sherds of decorated figured samian from large bowls.
    • 10% is South Gaulish material, mostly acquired by Dr. Felix Oswald from Roman London and annotated by him in great detail.
    • The other 90% comprises Oswald’s section of the Plicque Collection acquired sometime between 1931 and 1936 from Mme. Plicque, the widow of Dr Alfred-Edward Plicque. This contains Central Gaulish samian of the 2nd century, from both the production site of Les Martres-de-Veyre on the Allier, and from Dr. Plicque’s late 19th century excavations at Lezoux.



Anchor Potter




The collection today: archive

  • 8 boxes of unsorted pottery sherds, labelled by codes, but lacking index cards or other documentation
  • 6 boxes of plaster casts of some of a lost collection of moulds, accompanied by original drawings
  • 4646 samian drawings by Oswald, and photocopies of some of these, accompanied by detailed notes listing figure-types and quoting parallels
  • Letters exchanged between the collectors and other correspondence, sketchbooks, and photo albums
  • Museum documentation relating to the collection, including a card index with a paper rubbing of each sherd.

The collection today: display

  • Currently, only a small proportion of this collection is on display in the Museum of Archaeology
  • The majority remains in storage, in the Museum and in the Department of Archaeology.

The inaccessible collection

  • Before our project to enhance the accessibility of this collection:
  • Informal and formal questions revealed that both staff and students regarded the collection as inaccessible:
  • The large size of the collection, and generally small size of the artefacts, were regarded as off-putting;
  • The disorderly and cramped conditions of its storage made the collection physically inaccessible;
  • The limited, even chaotic, museum documentation system and database, which had been added to by many different people over the years, made information about the collection inaccessible;
  • The lack of public information about the collection meant that none of the students had previously heard of the Oswald-Plicque collection.

The Durham project

  • The Durham project comprised a pilot study for a broader HEFCE-funded project on Archive Archaeology.
  • The core aim of the Durham project was,
    • To enhance the accessibility of the Oswald-Plicque collection of Roman samian ware in the University’s Old Fulling Mill Museum of Archaeology as a learning and teaching resource’.

Specific project aims

  • Improving intellectual and physical access to this internationally significant museum archive of artefacts and associated records, central to Roman studies
  • – which both Oswald and Birley were anxious should benefit samian studies and not lie ‘idle in some museum’;
  • 2) Establishing new ways of learning and teaching with this collection of samian ware, using assignments that involve active learning;
  • 3) Providing opportunities to improve the employability of students by engaging them in detailed studies of this ubiquitous pottery.

Proposed outcomes

  • From the perspective of the students, the hope was that the project would enable learners:
  • 1) To gain a critical understanding of the theory and practice of samian studies;
  • 2) To extend their knowledge of Samian ware by undertaking close examination of the physical features, construction, function, design and value of samian ware;
  • 3) To gain and develop confidence and skills in handling, analysing, interpreting, recording and exhibiting samian ware.
  • But did we achieve these outcomes?

Enhancing the collection

  • We enhanced the value of the Oswald-Plicque collection as a learning, teaching and research resource in the following ways:

1. Key museum-based practical tasks

  • 1. Dispersed elements of the collection were tracked down
  • 2. Lost elements of the collection were identified and investigated. In particular, it was discovered that 199 clay moulds had been missing since 1985.
  • 3. The boxes of samian sherds were cross-referenced with the card index.
  • 4. The collection of sherds was sorted, cleaned, repacked and renumbered.
  • 5. The casts of the moulds were sorted and cleaned, and some research was undertaken in order to identify them.
  • 6. The paper archive was sorted and repacked.
  • 7. The additional boxes of unsorted samian ware sherds, which had been ‘absorbed’ into the collection over a number of years but are not necessarily attributed to Oswald’s collection, were subject to preliminary research and identification, and were repacked.
  • 8. An ADLIB searchable collections documentation database and user manual, which was secure yet accessible to museum staff, students and researchers, was developed by the Museum’s Documentation Officer and by the University Library’s Database Administrator.
  • Students can now access this at the University Museums, with a special password.
  • The Museum’s Photographic and Documentation Officers digitally photographed each piece of the samian collection: every sherd with a front view, and some also with rear, cross-section and detail images.
  • Collections data, including written information and the digital photographs, were then entered into the documentation system.

2. The student support officer

  • A key figure in the transformation of the Oswald-Plicque collection was the project’s Student Support Officer, Mrs Christine Tallentire, who was appointed using the FDTL-5 project funds to work with students on the development of the collection.
  • Chris worked with students, supervising their work in a variety of ways:
    • Training and supervising them in the handling, sorting, cleaning, repacking and documentation of the collection;
    • Helping them to choose artefacts to be exhibited in their exhibitions;
    • Undertaking informal and questionnaire-based evaluations of their experiences of working with the collection.

3. Embedding the collection in learning and teaching

  • We successfully embedded the use of the collection as a learning and teaching resource in a variety of assignments, modules and degree programmes, at both undergraduate and postgraduate level:

e.g. Level 3 ‘Museum Archaeology’ exhibition project

  • The Museum Archaeology module was one of a group of undergraduate Level 3 modules designed to provide students with a sound knowledge of core professional techniques related to the recording and analysis of classes of primary archaeological materials, and thus to develop skills required for their analysis and interpretation.
  • The student assignment was to contribute to a group exhibition in the temporary exhibition gallery of the Old Fulling Mill Museum of Archaeology on an aspect of archaeology, using artefacts from the Oswald-Plicque collection, accompanied by a press-release and an information pack.
  • The students undertook this project under the guidance of the Department of Archaeology’s Lecturer in Museum Studies, the Deputy Curator of the University Museums, and the pilot project’s Student Support Officer, as well as with the assistance of other members of the Archaeology Museum’s staff.

The Level 3 exhibition project

  • The students chose to draw upon the whole of the Oswald-Plicque collection and archive to explore themes such as:
    • the history of the collection,
    • the manufacture and decoration of samian ware,
    • the distribution, uses and archaeological deposition of samian ware,
    • the values of samian ware to us today.
  • The culminating exhibition at the Museum was entitled, ‘From Clay to Collection: the Life and Times of a Roman Pot’.

From Clay to Collection: the Life and Times of a Roman Pot

Evaluation of the Level 3 exhibition project

  • Student portfolios and questionnaires found that around 75 percent of the students felt that that they had benefited from working with the collection during the course of the exhibition project, by gaining new, or enhancing existing, knowledge and skills.
  • In particular, they valued:
    • Working as part of a team;
    • Gaining hands-on experience with museum objects;
    • Learning more about samian ware, particular through undertaking research on the collection. Indeed, the students’ initial, somewhat negative to neutral, attitude towards samian ware was transformed into a positive one;
    • Learning about the interesting history of the collection;
    • Learning more about museum work, by actually working in a museum.
    • Contributing something to the wider community in Durham through public exhibition.
  • Overall, it is fair to say that the students found the whole experience slightly stressful, but very rewarding.

e.g. Level 3 Dissertation

  • One of the students who undertook the exhibition project on the Museum Archaeology module also chose to write an 8,000-word Dissertation related to the samian collection.
  • The title of this Dissertation was, ‘The Museum Display of Samian Ware in the North East and London’.
  • The idea behind this Dissertation was to place the current permanent display, and the temporary student exhibition, of material from the Oswald-Plicque collection in the Museum of Archaeology in a broader context.
  • The Dissertation found that samian ware is a highly versatile artefact that is used in different museums for a range of purposes, to:
    • Inform about many aspects of Roman life,
    • Explain archaeological practices,
    • Illustrate an individual collection.
    • It also found that, although in existing museum displays text plays the largest part in explaining samian ware, other exhibition media can communicate information about this pottery equally, if not more, effectively. These include:
      • Illustrations, especially when integrated with the text;
      • Tactile ‘interactive’ experiences, including contextual reconstructions.

e.g. Level 3 Archaeological Illustration project

  • The ‘Archaeological Illustration’ module was another one of the group of undergraduate Level 3 ‘professional skills’ modules.
  • In this, one student chose to use some pieces from the samian collection in their illustration project.

e.g. Level 4 (Masters) ‘Museum Principles and Practice’ weekly museum work placement

  • As part of the ‘Museum Principles and Practice’ module, the MA Museum and Artefact Studies students also undertook a weekly half-day work placement in one of the Durham University Museums, over a period of around six months.
  • This activity was intended to develop the practical and judgmental skills of students to professional standards, working alongside museum professionals.
  • As part of this, some of the students worked in the Museum of Archaeology alongside the Student Support Officer on the Oswald-Plicque collection of samian ware.
  • In particular, they learnt about and helped with the sorting, cleaning, repacking and documentation of the collection.

What the students gained from this placement work

  • Evaluations confirmed that there are real benefits to undertaking such placement work on museum collections.
  • From the perspective of the students, the work:
    • Increased their interest in and knowledge of samian ware, potters and technology, including the variety of colours, decoration and potters’ marks found on the pottery sherds,
    • Increased their skills in the identification of samian decoration, which one of the students thought would be of possible help to them in their ambition to undertake postgraduate research (i.e. a PhD) in the future,
    • Gained a better understanding of museum collections management issues surrounding backlogs of undocumented and unpublished material,
    • Developed their professional museum skills and knowledge, through:
      • receiving training in the correct handling of museum objects,
      • working on the packing and storage of the collection,
      • working with a computerised museum documentation system,
      • using a digital camera.

e.g. Level 4 (Masters) ‘Artefact Studies’ artefact report

  • As part of the ‘Artefact Studies’ module, the Masters students had to select, research, analyse, record (document and describe) and interpret a chosen inorganic artefact, and write it up in essay form, accompanied by photograph(s) and drawing(s), and by acknowledgements of all specialist assistance provided.
  • The report had to begin with a catalogue-style entry of around 300 words and an accompanying photograph of the complete object, and then be followed by an extended discussion of the object of around 2700 words and further illustrations, including a discussion of its manufacture (materials, processes and tools), decoration (materials and techniques), alteration, use, damage, discard, burial, and its existence in the museum collection.
  • A few students selected items from the Oswald-Plicque collection.

What the students gained from this assignment

  • This exercise helped those students to develop their knowledge and skills in a number of valuable directions:
    • They gained a thorough and critical understanding of the material composition, technology of production, uses and cultural context of samian ware;
    • They gained direct experience in, and a competent ability to, handle, examine, analyse, identify, classify, interpret, document, describe and report (in written and graphic form) samian ware, using appropriate methods carefully, safely and accurately, summarising critically their physical nature, structure and composition, key features, condition, use, history, significance, age, provenance, relationship to other relevant objects, in line with a research plan;
    • In the process, they also gained direct experience in and a competent ability to:
      • Use computer and information technology,
      • Access library, museum, archive and World Wide Web resources,
      • Undertake advanced independent study, research and problem solving,
      • Communicate information and arguments effectively, in written, visual and computerised form, to specialist audiences,
      • Take responsibility for personal, professional and ethical development within the museum and cultural heritage sector or within academia, responding actively to critical feedback,
      • Manage time effectively, working to time-tables and meeting deadlines.

e.g. Level 4 (Masters) Museum and Artefact Studies exhibition project

  • The ‘Museum Communication’ module of the MA in Museum and Artefact Studies was focussed on helping the student group put on an exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology.
  • The exhibition was undertaken in collaboration with the staff of the University Museums.
  • The teaching included a series of training seminars on general themes relating to museum communication, a series of field-trips examining relevant existing types of museum display, and a series of combined tutorials and group-work sessions on the student exhibition.
  • Self-directed learning was integral to this module, and involved a considerable number of hours of individual and group work and meetings undertaken outside of formal teaching sessions.
  • The exhibition was completed and opened to the public in mid-June, and finally dismantled in mid-August.

The assignment

  • The 10 students were initially informed that the exhibition was to be based on the Oswald-Plicque collection of samian ware.
  • They were also informed that the following core elements had to be undertaken by the group:
  • 1. Preparation and mounting of a temporary exhibition in the upstairs
  • gallery of the Old Fulling Mill Museum of Archaeology,
  • 2. Preparation of an exhibition catalogue (either printed or on-line),
  • 3. Preparation of a resource pack for use by school teachers,
  • 4. Organisation and running of one or more related educational activities
  • or events, with in-put from the staff of the University Museums,
  • 5. Formal evaluation of the exhibition and related activities;
  • 6. Evaluation of the project as a whole and of each individual student’s experience.
  • The student group entitled their project and exhibition,
  • Fire Your Imagination: Stories from Roman Pottery.

Front-end evaluation

  • One of their early activities was to undertake front-end evaluation on the general public in Durham City.
  • In total, 53 questionnaires were completed, which shed some light on peoples’ preconceptions about Roman pottery:

Would you be interested in seeing an exhibition on Roman pottery?

  • In response to this question,
    • 31 respondents answered ‘Yes’
    • 9 were unsure
    • 11 said ‘No’.
  • One of the ‘No’ people said: ‘I find pottery quite dull to be honest!’.
  • One challenge for the students, then, was to try to create an exhibition that might overcome the negative preconceptions of the ‘Unsure’ and ‘No’ groups.

What would you expect to see in an exhibition entitledFire your Imagination: Roman Stories from Roman Pots”?

  • The responses to this question revealed the wide-range of materials and themes that potential visitors expected to see in the exhibition, in addition to pottery.
  • Here is a small, but representative, selection of these responses:
    • Pots, pots, pots, pots and pots.
    • Roman pots
    • Broken pots
    • Different types of pot
    • Domestic pottery, decorative pottery – dishes and cups for wine drinking
    • Pottery used for peaceful and warlike purposes – e.g. fire in the kitchen and boiling oil catapulted over the enemy
    • Big kilns
    • Demonstrations of how pottery is made - people working handling clay
    • Where the Roman pots originated
    • Scenes from life
    • Gladiators
    • Roman history and myths
    • Latin poetry

Exhibition project aims

  • Building upon this, and other information, gathered in the initial stages of the project, the students defined the following aims for their exhibition:
  • 1) To generate an interest in the Roman way of life, and to raise awareness of Samian ware,
  • 2) To create a high quality, visually exciting, display that communicates information in a clear and easily understandable manner, and in an entertaining manner,
  • 3) To provide a range of opportunities for visitors of all ages and abilities to engage with and learn from the objects on their own level, through both staff- and visitor-led means,
  • 4) To introduce greater numbers of visitors to the Old Fulling Mill Museum of Archaeology.

Practical museum-related tasks

  • In practice, the exhibition project set out to meet these aims by:
    • Using a narrative-based approach to engage visitors,
    • Focussing on manufacture, as well as on the images on the pottery,
    • Creating a marketing campaign focussed on families,
    • Following learning guidelines, such as the National Curriculum and Generic Learning Outcomes,
    • Consulting with professional designers,
    • Creating a strong programme of staff-led events targeting schools and families,
    • Creating a highly informative display,
    • Having layers of complexity in the exhibition text, which would allow visitors to access information appropriate to their comprehension levels.


Object handling


On-line catalogue

Education pack

Visitor feedback

  • Visitor comments on the exhibition, recorded in the visitor’s book and on feedback forms, demonstrated that the exhibition had been successful in achieving its original aims.

What visitors learnt

  • Here is a representative sample of some of the most interesting things that people learnt:
    • That samian ware exists
    • How samian ware was made – e.g. how a raised decoration was created on a pot
    • That Roman pottery tells a story, as well as having a functional use
    • That spectators could buy pots depicting their favourite gladiators
    • That the Britons were inspired by Roman pottery
    • That Roman remains have been found near to where I live
    • We forget that the Romans were just the same as we are today, with their wants and needs. They just had a different way of life.”

What visitors enjoyed

  • Some of the things that people enjoyed most:
    • The well chosen and interesting artefacts – ‘Love those pots!’
    • The handling session
    • The locally found artefacts
    • The informative labels
    • The stories
    • The children’s activities
    • Seeing my daughter’s enthusiasm

What visitors didn’t like

  • Some of the things that people enjoyed least:
    • You can’t see the images on the pottery very well, due to the small size of the objects and poor lighting.
    • The limited size of the exhibition – they wanted more!
    • There wasn’t any hot water for a cup of tea!

What the students gained from the experience

  • Learning about working as a team to achieve shared objectives;
  • Communicating effectively as a team;
  • Gaining understanding and practical experience of a range of museum principles and activities – e.g. securing loans, text writing, evaluation;
  • Gaining experience of working alongside museum professionals;
  • Gaining experience of curating a museum exhibition to professional standards;
  • Overcoming exhibition problems.

Recommendations for best practice

  • The following recommendations are based upon the lessons learnt during this project:
  • Archaeologists based in universities, museums and archives should co-operate, communicate effectively and work together to enable students to:
  • 1) Access information about the existence and contents of collections,
  • 2) Experience working within the museum/archive environment,
  • 3) Work with collections by integrating collections into university curriculae,
  • 4) Enable students to learn actively, enjoyably and effectively through hands-on experience of multi-valent artefacts in collections;
  • 5) Contribute to the process of improving the accessibility of collections and dealing with backlogs in their documentation,

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