A Week in the Life of a Pottery Researcher - Ian Rowlandson

Which types of pottery do you study?

I mostly study Iron Age and Roman pottery but I am often sent mixed groups of ceramics: it is important to be able to recognise ceramics and archaeological finds of all periods. A key skill is to spot what you are confident reporting on and when you need to bring in another specialist with more detailed knowledge.

What are the advantages of studying Roman pottery as opposed to that from other periods?

There has been over fifty years of detailed study of Romano-British pottery so there are lots of useful publications that can be consulted when writing reports. What is most exciting is when new finds help us to overturn some of the previous assumptions.

What do you do all day?

The job mostly consists of recording pottery (including counting and weighing) into a database. Recording is laborious but provides the data required for the analysis and report writing we do at the end of the process. I try to establish the purpose of individual vessels, such as cooking, storing, serving, votive or ceremonial. The geological source of inclusions added to the clay sometimes tells me where the pot was made. Occasionally it is possible to re-assemble a pot or a part of pot, from many sherds retrieved from different deposits across a site, which can indicate patterns of rubbish disposal.

Pottery usually suggests the approximate date of a site and may indicate some of the activities undertaken, such as cooking, cheese making, storage  or fine dining. By comparison with other local assemblages it can be possible to infer the status of a site, if it is a town, a villa or a more basic rural settlement. Apart from pottery recording, telephone calls, emails, administration and project management fill the rest of the day.

How did you get into doing pottery?

After finishing an undergraduate degree at University of Liverpool and a Master’s degree at University of Nottingham I went into field archaeology. After a period working in Hertfordshire and East Anglia I moved to Lincoln, where I was promoted to running excavations on pottery production sites, urban and rural sites. I gained experience of writing-up site reports and then I volunteered to work with pottery specialists Maggi Darling and Barbara Precious who shared our office building in Lincoln. After gaining this experience I worked at North Lincolnshire Museum as a Community Archaeologist for two years whilst finishing my training with Maggi and Barbara. From there I went back to working for a field unit as a pottery researcher and subsequently became self-employed. I shared an office with post-Roman pottery researcher Jane Young before setting up my current office. I also gained good experience whilst on the ERAS committee which gave me an opportunity to work with a range of archaeologists in East Yorkshire too.

What qualification are needed?

I think it is best if pottery researchers have been to university to study archaeology but many of the more senior researchers learnt their skills whilst working for an archaeological unit. A good foundation in field archaeology, preferably experience with dealing with urban excavations and writing up site reports would be helpful too, so that the researcher understands the excavation and post-excavation process. Beyond that you need enthusiasm to read the published material and digest it, and ideally complete a traditional apprenticeship with experienced researchers. A period of training helps the researcher develop a broad knowledge of ceramics and how to record them. This is the best way to learn the job, and it helps prevent young inexperienced researchers from making mistakes.

What is the best thing about the job?

New pots to identify every time I tip out a bag.

And the worst thing? 

The main problem with being self-employed is undertaking project administration and the standard tasks required for running a small business. It takes up time that could be spent recording pottery. When I worked for a field unit these tasks were typically done by the office manager. It was easy to overlook how much they did when I didn’t have to do the paperwork myself!

Do pottery researchers have to be self-employed?

No - I think that many pottery researchers work within commercial archaeology companies. To gain experience of the job one needs to work with another specialist. Being self-employed only becomes an option once you have a number of regular clients who send pottery to you.