Pottery Kilns in Pompeii


The Pottery in Via di Nocera in Pompeii. The first three doorways are its frontage, the central one being the shop.

Planning a visit to Pompeii it occurred to me to wonder if there were any potteries amongst the ruins. After all it is a whole town and whilst obviously not essential there must be a chance of a pottery somewhere and with that a kiln or two perhaps. The is nothing in the guidebooks. A trawl on academia.edu turned up just the paper I needed ‘Pottery Production in Pompeii: an Overview’  by Myles McCallum and ‘A Reassessment of the Two Potteries at Pompeii: 1.20.2-3 and the Via Superior.’ by Myles McCallum and J T Peña. The authors are interested in trade and the town economy not ceramic technology but that is fair enough. They details the locations of the two known potteries and provides plans of them which indicate the presence of four kilns. So we had a guidebook… the next issue was whether either of them were actually accessible and did the kilns survive in any recognisable form?

Much of the pottery in use in Pompeii was brought into the town from potteries further afield. The two small potteries found so far seem to have specialised in particular products. The first made a range of basic cooking pots. It is located outside the Porta Ercolano on the north side of the Via Superior as at leaves Pompeii in the direction of Herculaneum and Naples. Opposite a cemetery, the buildings are a orderly row of fifteen two-storey commercial units with a colonnade in from of them. The pottery is the furthest from the town gate.

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The pottery workshop in the Via Superior, Pompeii. The workshop is two-storey, three rooms deep and with two addition rooms to the left. The wide doorway would be closed with wooden shutters and there was a colonnade in front. The surviving kiln is in the second room back.

Via Superior – The Kiln

The site on the Via Superior was excavated in 1838 and 1875 and it is obvious that there has been quite a bit of ‘conservation’ done over the years. Nonetheless, it was very exciting to see that one of the two kilns was clearly evident in the middle room and apparently relatively complete. It is a rectangular updraught kiln with a single firebox extending under a ware chamber with a door in its front face. The firebox projects slightly making a ledge for access into the ware chamber. We couldn’t see the internal floor and the upper walls of the ware chamber did not appear to provide any evidence of the top of the kiln. Apart from the left hand side of the door much of the fabric has been rebuilt or repaired to the extent that it is hard to say whether materials or proportions are original. Judging from other tabernae we have seen, this would be the rear ground floor room with a suspended floor above – the units are more or less identical along the row and are similar to lock-up shops elsewhere in Pompeii, Herculaneum and Rome. In practice it must have been a small yard.

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The kiln in the pottery on the Via Superior, Pompeii. It was excavated in the 19th century and has been restored. Its relationship to the ground surface is difficult to understand. Archaeologists surveying the area had decided to use it for storage and roped it off!

The pottery made simple cooking pots in two sizes. Large stocks were found during the excavations. There are no records of finds associated with making processes but the kilns themselves make it clear that production was going on. The usage of the building is not clear. There are no traces of clay processing equipment and storage must have been difficult. McCallum and Peña suggest storage of fuel, clay and stock to the rear and making and selling to the front, spilling into the colonnade

with a small upper storey over the front for living accommodation. The extensions into the cemetery are not clear and I suspect that things like fuel and clay management and storage probably happened pout there too.

The second pottery is located at the opposite end of the town, a block back from the amphitheatre. Via di Nocera is a narrow side street dominated by the boundary walls of the gardens of expensive houses, vineyards and open spaces. The building survives better than the other pottery and the sense of it as a two-storey building accommodating the full range of potting activities and two kilns is more convincing than in the Via Superior. The large doorways closed by shutters are typical of all the tabernae and lock-up shops around the town.

This pottery was first excavated in 1959 and again in 1979. The excavators were of the opinion that the building was being renovated at the time of the eruption and was not actively operating as a pottery. The ground floor is roughly 10m square and consists of an L-shaped group of three rooms around two sides of ya yard in which are two kilns. Two doors open into the neighbouring open space perhaps providing an additional work area. From this outside area a external staircase rises to the upper storey which potentially extends over all three ground floor rooms and the entrance passage to the yard. The largest of the rooms faces onto the street and combines a retail area with what are described as tanks for clay preparation and an area for clay storage. The whole feel with the workshops laid out around the yard and the kilns feels good. The yard is accessed from the road via a separate passageway with a wide opening, ideal for delivering bulk materials such as clay and fuel. At the rear of the yard there is a cistern for water, presumably fed from one of the roofs. As with the Via Superior pottery this was a specialist workshop making a narrow range of products. At least 16 two piece press-moulds for small lamps were accompanied by many completed pieces and over a hundred small thrown jars.

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The Via di Nocera near the Amphitheatre in Pompeii. The pottery is on the right.

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The pottery in the Via di Nocera, Pompeii. The central doorway goes through to the pottery yard, the further one is the shop. A third beyond opens onto the Caupona del Gladiatore and provides access to the side doors and the stairs to the upper floor of the pottery.

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The visible kiln in the yard of the pottery in Via di Nocera, Pompeii.

Via di Nocera – The Kiln

The building is kept closed off and it was not possible to see the second kiln but the larger one is clearly visible and effectively complete. The form appears to be more or less identical to the Via Superior kiln with a rectangular chamber with a door and a firebox that projects slightly in front making a ledge. I was not able to get a clear look at the floor but it appeared to be intact. Apparently the excavators found a pyramidical stack of 61 lamps inside. The firebox is straightforward. Doors in kilns are not a guarantee of a roof/vault/dome but make it more likely. Here the really exciting thing is that the back wall survives to its full height showing the return to a vault and two (probably 3) of the vents in the vault. From this the exact capacity of the kiln is clear and the arrangement of vents can be gauged – most likely they line up with the openings in the floor. In effect it is a small version of the kiln illustrated by Cipriano Piccolpasso in Il Tre Libri Dell’ Arte del Vasaio in 1548. Given that the lamp moulds are there too, it would only a take a week or two to get the whole thing up and running again. Cipriano can provide the instruction book.

Sketch plan of the pottery in the Via di Nocera, Pompeii

Sketch plan of the pottery in the Via di Nocera, Pompeii

McCallum and Peña’s suggestions for room usage in both potteries are very general. I imagine the yards having overhanging roofs projecting over the kilns to keep the rain off but otherwise open to the elements. The layout of the Via Superior workshop is not clear – parts of it are missing apart from anything else. At Via di Nocera the wide access to the yard suggest ‘goods inwards.’ The retail area on the street has doors back into all areas so that it is visible and accessible – especially from the clay processing are and one of the two potential workshops. Sounds like everyone is responsible for sales. Judging from the other shops, retail storage is overhead on a mezzanine. Bearing in mind the small size of the products, that leaves two rooms and the yard for throwing, moulding and drying ware and for fuel storage. The rooms are north-facing and will be cool and if two-storey will provide shelter for the yard too. The external stair could then provide access to accommodation for the family upstairs over the two workshops. A balcony, or better a jetty, out to the line of the stair would provide more space.

I will add some plans and drawings to this later.

This entry was posted in Archaeology, Italy, Kilns and Kiln-building, Roman Pottery and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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