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Luxury tableware? Terra sigillata in the coastal region of the northern Netherlands
Pages 94-110 from Experiencing the Frontier and the Frontier of Experience: Barbarian perspectives and Roman strategies to deal with new threats edited by Alexander Rubel and Hans-Ulrich Voß by Annet Nieuwhof. DOI: 10.32028/9781789696813-8.ISBN 9781789696813-8.
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With thousands of finds, Roman terra sigillata (TS) is a common find category in terp settlements of the Northern Netherlands. It is traditionally interpreted as luxury tableware of the local elites, who acquired it through their contacts with Romans, or who were able to buy it from traders who came to this area with their merchandise. This paper questions that interpretation. The reason is that the far majority of TS is found as sherds, which, despite their good recognisability, only rarely fit other sherds. Moreover, many of these sherds are worked or used in some way. They were made into pendants, spindle whorls and playing counters, or show traces of deliberate breakage and of use for unknown purposes. Such traces are found on 70–80% of the sherds. The meaning of TS hence seems to have been symbolic rather than functional. Rather than as luxury tableware, TS may have been valued for the sake of the material itself, and may have been imported as sherds rather than as complete vessels. A symbolic value also shows from its long-term use. Used or worked TS sherds from the 2nd and 3rd century AD are often found in finds assemblages that may be interpreted as ritual deposits, not only from the Roman Period but also from the early Middle Ages. There are striking parallels for such use in early modern colonial contexts. TS sherds may have been part of the diplomatic gifts by which the Romans attempted to keep peace north of the limes, or may even have been payments for local products. These sherds might thus be comparable to the trade beads of early-modern European colonial traders.

Keywords
Northern Netherlands; terra sigillata; Roman colonialism; indigenous people; secondary use; exchange.


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