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The End of Complexity

This is the third of four excerpts from The Fall of Rome by Bryan Ward-Perkins.
The first excerpt, “The Disappearance of Comfort,” can be found here: LINK

In the post-Roman West, almost all this material sophistication disappeared. Specialized production and all but the most local distribution became rare, unless for luxury goods; and the impressive range and quantity of high-quality functional goods, which had characterized the Roman period vanished, or, at the very least, were drastically reduced. The middle and lower markets, which under the Romans had absorbed huge quantities of basic, but good-quality, items, seem to have almost entirely disappeared. Pottery, again, provides us with the fullest picture. In some regions, like the whole of Britain and parts of coastal Spain, all sophistication in the production and trading of pottery seems to have disappeared altogether: only vessels shaped without the use of the wheel were available, without any functional or aesthetic refinement. In Britain, most pottery was not only very basic, but also lamentably friable and impractical. In other areas such as the north of Italy, some solid wheel-turned pots continued to be made and some soapstone vessels imported, but decorated tablewares entirely, or almost entirely, disappeared, and even amongst kitchenwares the range of vessels being manufactured was gradually reduced to only a very few basic shapes. By the seventh century the standard vessel of northern Italy was the olla (a simple bulbous cooking pot), whereas in Roman times this was the only one vessel type in an impressive batterie de cuisine (jugs, plates, bowls, serving dishes, mixing and grinding bowls, casseroles, lids, amphorae, and others).

In some limited areas, the story of pottery production in the post-Roman centuries is more complex and sophisticated, but always within an overall context of unmistakable and unmarked decline. The great tableware producers of Roman North Africa continued to make (and export) their wares throughout the fifth and sixth centuries, and indeed into the latter half of the seventh. But the number of pots exported and their distribution became gradually more-and-more restricted – both geographically (to sites on the coast, and eventually, even there, only to a very few privileged centres like Rome), and socially (so that African pottery, once ubiquitous, by the sixth century is found only in elite settlements). Furthermore, the range of vessel forms and their quality also gradually declined. From my own experience of excavating the port town of Luna in northern Italy, I know that, while sherds if third- and fourth-century African pottery are two a penny on the site, fragments of sixth-century vessels are rare enough to be exciting. Some regional potteries also survived into post-Roman times. For instance, in southern Italy and the Rhineland wheel-turned pottery of a practical nature, sometimes decorated with features like incised combing or red paint, continued to be made and distributed quite widely through the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries. But even these products display neither the high quality of many earlier Roman wares, nor the range of vessel types once available. There is no area of the Post-Roman West that I know of where the range of pottery available in the sixth and seventh centuries matches that of the Roman period, and in most areas the decline in quality is startling.

Furthermore, it was not only quality and diversity that declined; the overall quantities of pottery in circulation also fell dramatically. This fact is very difficult to demonstrate conclusively; but it will be familiar to anyone who has worked on a post-Roman site-mountains of Roman pottery are reduced to a few interesting but unassuming boxes of post-Roman sherds. In both excavation and field survey, while Roman pottery is so abundant that it can be a positive nuisance, post-Roman wares of any kind are almost invariably very scarce.

UPDATE:The fourth and final part of this excerpt “A Return to Pre-History” is now up!

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