The Glossy Spoils of War: How New Conquests Allowed the Romans to Recolor Fine Art


While squatting down in the dusty lower region of the “big room” on site, my mind drifted to issues unrelated to the work before me: the feast we were to receive for lunch in just a few hours, dorm room design ideas to discuss with my roommate, what my dog might be doing at that moment back home.

The sound of my trowel hitting something that was not another rock (yay!) brought my mind back to the task at hand–excavating. I reached for the small brush that lay unused beside my thigh; up until now, I had only needed to use the handpick and trowel to clear away the dirt and rocks in front of me. The promise of a find led me to slow my pace and decrease the force of my motions so as to protect whatever object I would soon uncover.

After a few calculated moves, the ground gave up a small piece of Roman fine ware, hidden from the outside world for more than 2,000 years.

Rui, the main Portuguese archaeologist on site, walked past me as I unearthed this piece. He paused and came to examine the thin, delicate piece of pottery covered in a black gloss. Prompted only by a quick glance at the pottery, Rui launched into a history of black gloss on Roman fine ware and how that tradition gave way to the red gloss that is more commonly associated with nicer pieces of Roman pottery.

I listened as he explained how the black gloss was a typical indication of Roman fine ware for many years, an imitation of the Greek fine ware which preceded the Roman style. When the empire expanded further east, however, Romans discovered that the fine pottery they encountered was decorated with a red gloss. Impressed by this style and wanting to continue to appear on the frontier of class and sophistication, the Romans worked to produce their own version of this style when they returned to Italy, and now that same red gloss is characteristic of Roman fine ware.

It was very important to the Romans that they maintain their supreme status at all bounds of their empire; thus, accepting styles of their conquered people did not make them lesser, rather it proved that Rome was committed to maintaining primacy over all else, even pride.

As with any task, it’s easy to fall into a routine and momentarily forget the significance of the work in front of you. Seeing Rui pick a piece out of the ground, before any lab analysis or cleansing, struck me. The breadth of knowledge of the people with whom I get to work astounds me every time I think about it. Archaeology is a destructive science. The experts are the first to tell you this. However, the finer points of the discipline lie in the connections between histories that archaeology creates. I love being able to play even the smallest role in uncovering that story.


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Eleanor Lilly '22 is currently undecided in her major and is from Norfolk, Virginia.

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