Vivien Swan: Expert on Roman pottery and military supply systems

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Vivien Swan was an internationally acknowledged expert in the study of Roman pottery. Early retirement from the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England allowed her the time to make a series of studies, particularly in northern Britain and on the Lower Danube, which revolutionised our understanding of the significance of ceramics in establishing ethnic identity and origins and in working out how military supply systems operated. This work established her international reputation.

Vivien Bishop was born in London, but adopted, in her words, by an elderly couple, living in Penarth. She was educated locally and then read archaeology at Cardiff. In December 1965 she was appointed an investigator at the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, being one of the first women to take up such an appointment in any of the Royal Commissions. Much of her earlier career was spent in the office in Salisbury but in 1975 she moved to York, settling with her family (she had married Tony Swan in 1966) at Flaxton, where she became the church organist and formed the Flaxton Music Consort. While in York, she published, with Humphrey Welfare, Roman Camps in England: the field archaeology (1995), still the indispensable source of information on this peculiarly British archaeological phenomenon.

She already had an interest in Roman pottery, and that was underlined by the publication of The Pottery Kilns of Roman Britain (1984). This will remain for the foreseeable future the foundation of Roman pottery-production studies in Britain. The main text is supported by details on microfiche of every kiln in Britain and its products, an enormous scholarly resource. Following her retirement in October 1996, Swan consciously picked up the mantle of her friend and mentor, the Roman-British pottery expert John Gillam, who had died in 1986, and turned her undivided attention to the study of Roman pottery.

The first flowering of her career after she left the Royal Commission is represented by her identification of North African ceramic styles in Britain. A parallel discovery was that a series of pots modelled in the form of human heads which were made in York had North African antecedents and portrayed members of the Severan imperial family. Her work on this pottery and its implications was explored in a series of articles published in the 1990s.

The last of the series, "The Twentieth Legion and the history of the Antonine Wall reconsidered" (Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1999), goes far beyond the usual scope of specialist studies and has led to renewed and continuing interest and discussion about the building history and occupation of the Antonine Wall, the most northerly frontier of the Roman empire. In particular, Swan was able to suggest that the building of the Antonine Wall took far longer than previously believed and to offer a context for this: a hiatus of about four years while soldiers from the army of Britain were dispatched to north Africa to participate in the war against the Moors, returning with new styles of cooking which she was able to recognise at various forts along the frontier. Her research led to the award of an honorary doctorate by the University of Wales in 2001 and helped underpin the successful nomination of the Antonine Wall as a World Heritage Site in July 2008.

As her knowledge grew, Swan was able to recognise vessels from the same workshops on different sites and offer percipient comments on troop movements within Britain. She widened her report on the Roman fort at Carlisle to take into account local production, looking holistically at the development of Roman trade and production in Carlisle and the surrounding area.

In 1998 breast cancer was diagnosed. While still recovering from surgery, Swan took part in Andrew Poulter's project on the late Roman and early Byzantine fort at Dichin in Bulgaria, where she worked as Chief Ceramicist from 1998 to 2001 and subsequently as a Research Fellow of Nottingham University preparing the pottery for the publication. In a remarkably short time, Swan produced the first chronology for pottery on the Lower Danube for the period covering the transition from the Late Roman to Byzantine periods (c.AD 400-600). She was also able to trace the changing nature of the garrison through the different vessels used for eating and drinking. As one foreign archaeologist put it, "no one is doing work like this on the continent". More recently, she was involved with the development of Roman-period ceramic studies and the mentoring of scholars in Georgia.

Vivien Swan was an active member of the Study Group for Roman Pottery, an interest group for amateurs and professionals, from its inception in 1971. She was involved in the formalisation of the group in 1985 and then served as its first president until 1990. Swan did more for the group than any other single member and has been on the committee in varying capacities almost continuously. She also played an important role in the ongoing success of the Journal of Roman Pottery Studies, since its first volume in 1986, initially as a member of the Editorial Committee and as Reviews Editor until her resignation in March 2008. Additionally, she was an active participant at almost every annual conference and organised six of them.

She also played a prominent part in the development of the Rei Cretariae Romanae Fautores, an international society dedicated to the study of Roman ceramics, latterly serving as a trustee of the society and helping to establish a bursary for foreign participants. Since the late 1990s she was co-convenor of the Roman Northern Frontiers Seminar, reviving an important forum for the exchange of information and ideas.

Specialists in artefact studies are often forced by circumstances to limit the dissemination of their work to a small audience, but from the 1990s Swan demonstrated how such studies are central to a better understanding of much wider archaeological issues. From very early in her career she was concerned with promoting pottery studies as widely possible, publishing the popular general account Pottery in Roman Britain in 1975 and updating it in two subsequent editions. Through the Study Group for Roman Pottery and the Fautores Swan mentored younger pottery specialists. More generally, she encouraged younger scholars, even when their interests were not specifically in Roman ceramics.

Two years ago cancer returned. Vivien continued to work, with great courage and fortitude, on the Dichin and Carlisle pottery to within days of her death and completed these two important studies. In November, she was able to attend the British Archaeological Awards ceremony in the British Museum where she received a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Vivien Swan was a larger-than-life figure, unusually for archaeologists wearing colourful designer clothes (her coffin was painted white and with garlands, peacocks and shoes), and contributing generously to archaeological discussions. Rigorous in her own treatment of the sources, she expected the same from all other scholars and could be trenchant in her comments when this did not occur. While some colleagues were at first unwilling to accept her radical views on Roman pottery, she died knowing that she had won the respect of her colleagues in Britain and abroad and that a collection of her papers on Roman pottery, Ethnicity, Conquest and Recruitment is about to be published by the Journal of Roman Archaeology.

David Breeze

Vivien Grace Bishop, archaeologist: born London 12 January 1943; investigator, Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England 1965-96; married 1966 Tony Swan (two daughters); died Scarborough, North Yorkshire 1 January 2009.

Comments