In the third century AD, during the Roman occupation of Britain, the New Forest became an important center of pottery production. The area was cleared and cultivated from the Late Neolithic onward, and the deterioration of soil quality made it less and less suitable for agriculture. The availability of quality clay and sand, plenty of wood as fuel, and flowing water from the network of streams feeding Latchmore Creek allowed industry to develop and led to clusters of kilns over a wide area. They produced a variety of pottery, from fine crockery to coarse cooking utensils.
One such cluster of kilns was located in Lower Sloden. Here Vivian Swan excavated in 1966 on behalf of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments. The furnaces followed the standard plan of the New Forest. The deep furnace chamber below ground level had walls thickened at intervals to form pilasters. They supported the permanent floor of the furnace, on which firing pots were placed. Holes in the floor allowed hot air to pass from the kiln below into the kiln. Large-sized fuel was fed into the kiln through a small stoker through a short chimney.
The depth and size of the New Forest furnaces allowed for very high temperatures, in the region of 1,000 to 1,250°C. This made it possible to produce high-temperature products. This allowed for the shiny surfaces of some of the color-coated pieces typical of the New Forest collections (see above) and gave some of the vessels a very hard, almost stone-like structure. Glassy material was present in some parts of the kiln. Vivien Swann saw parallels, both in the type of kiln and in the nature of the final product, with places in northern France and Belgium. It is possible that the industry was founded by migrants from these regions, but more work is needed to confirm this theory.
One of the interesting aspects of the excavations was the discovery of evidence of hand-finishing of the kiln chamber in the form of fingerprints on the clay lining. The wet clay was shaped, molded and smeared, and the resulting 1700-year-old fingerprints are a tangible link to the past.
Swann also discovered fragments of pottery "wasters." These are pots that have been discarded because they were deformed or exploded during firing. Such wastes were sometimes collected and used in kiln repairs.
Aside from the kilns and vessels, the excavations have provided little information about the pottery-making process and the lives of the potters. A fragment of "quernstone," which may have been part of a potter's wheel, is the only other evidence from Sloden.
Since the mid-19th century, a number of archaeologists (and antiquarians) have discovered and investigated firing sites in the New Forest, and perhaps the most famous of the early explorers was Haywood Sumner. More recently, Mike Fulford studied both the industry and the distribution of the wares.
Image: A selection of Roman pottery, including typical items from New Forest: (Rockborn Roman Villa)