03.05.18, Vagalinski, Burnished Pottery

Main Article Content

Dr. Ioan Stanciu

The Medieval Review baj9928.0305.018


Vagalinski, Lyudmil Ferdinandov. Damyanova, Lyubina, trans.. Burnished Pottery from the First Century to the Beginning of the Seventh Century A.D. from the Region South of the Lower Danube (Bulgaria). Sofia: Nous Publishers Ltd., 2002. Pp. 200. ISBN: 954-90387-5-X.

Reviewed by:
Dr. Ioan Stanciu
Institute of Archaeology and History of Art

The problems concerning this category of pottery were recently discussed by the same author in two studies, both based on the material coming from the south of the Lower Danube region.[[1]] But his interest to the subject is even earlier (5). Vagalinski's book is written in Bulgarian and an English translation of the original was added. The book also has a map of the discoveries points mentioned in the text (6-7) and plates with good quality drawings and even some photographs (52-200).

The book represents the first systematic attempt to catalogue this category of pottery in Bulgaria. So, even if there are more possibilities of interpretation (at p. 39 the author writes that the "apple of discord" was always establishing the ethnic identity of those who used and produced this type of pottery), Vagalinski's book is a real contribution to the understanding of its theme. Using a critical position, the author is continuing the discussion of the chronology and of the ethnic interpretation of the burnished pottery (gray to black color) from Bulgaria (a territory which belonged to the Roman Empire starting in the first half of the first century AD and had contacts with the barbarians from the Lower Danube from the fourth century AD on). The "Introduction" contains some important comments concerning the methodology used (5). The author took into consideration all vessels or sherds with polished walls, as well as burnished ornaments. The research focuses on the fourth-sixthth centuries AD (Later Roman Empire), although in the catalogue first-century burnished pottery is also included. This decision is welcome, as the author attempts to follow its relationship with the later group. He pays attention to the Romanian Dobrudja (as the bibliography shows), which belonged to the late Roman province of Scythia Minor, together with north-eastern part of modern Bulgaria. Difficulties in checking archaeological records and groups of unpublished pottery probably lie behind the author's decision not to include Dobrudja's burnished pottery in the catalogue.

An important part of the book outlines the history of research for several regions of Central, South-East and Eastern Europe, and earlier opinions are in places criticized (9-40). It is obvious that the chronology of the pottery and the possibility of analyzing closed assemblages represent the key to the ethnic background (39). At the beginning of the 1930s, two important views of the burnished pottery from the Middle Danube were formulated. E. Benninger considered it of Visigothic origin, its technology being taken from the Celts. The second hypothesis belonged to the Hungarian scholar A. Alfoeldi, who presumed that its origin must be looked for in southern Russia and it was spread in the Carpathian Basin by the Hunnic and Alanic groups at the end of the fourth or beginning of the fifth century. Generally speaking, later opinion has considered burnished pottery from the Middle Danube to date from after the reign of Valentinian, having been spread by the Gothic, Alanic and Hunnic federates in the late Roman army garrisoned along the Pannonian frontier. Its origin was held to be of Celtic, Dacian, or Sarmatian, if not from the north of the Black Sea coast. M. Gruenewald argued that the barbarian federates brought the technique of burnishing the pottery, but the so-called "foederati ware" was produced in the late Roman workshops, using Roman technological traditions. J. Tejral also tried to separate the late Roman burnished ware to that belonging to the next stage of the Early Migration period, considering that the "foederati ware" was made in late Roman workshops to be used by the Germanic population established inside the provinces, while the "Murga type" pottery, from the second third of the fifth century, was made in Germanic workshops.

Vagalinski's comments are critical of K. Ottomany's opinions concerning the burnished pottery from Pannonia. Ottomany believes that the Roman provincial population of Pannonia (based on the Celtic tradition) used the burnished pottery even before the last third of the fourth century AD. Later, at the end of the fourth century, it spread to the barbarian world. Vagalinski shows that the finds are not spread over a large territory, but rather grouped along the Danube frontier of Pannonia, mainly in Valeria, where barbarian federates, for instance the eastern group led by Alatheus and Saphrax, were settled starting with the reign of Valentinian. This would mean that the burnished pottery could be linked with the federates, particularly because there is no serious evidence for the production of burnished pottery in Pannonia's Roman workshops between the second century and the end of the fourth century.

A diversity of opinions also exists among the specialists of South-East and Eastern Europe. The Serbian researcher M. Sladic appreciated that the Scordisci (a Celtic tribe from the Serbian Danube) borrowed the technique of burnishing from the Dacians of Transylvania (today a region of Romania) during the first century BC. Vagalinski does not agree with this point of view (23, 25). He considers that the origin of the production of this category lies in the Geto-Dacian world, taken from earlier Celts. He also accepts the idea of the Romanian scholar K. Horedt that at the Lower Danube the burnished pottery of the fourth century AD must be connected with the Sintana de Mures-Cernjachov culture. According to J. Tejral and B. Magomedov, the precedents of the burnished pottery from the Late Roman and Early Migration period come from South-East Europe, probably connected to the Dacian and Sarmatian cultures from the first to third centuries AD, or from the Lipitsa culture (according to Gh. Diaconu). Vagalinski agrees and adds analogies from the so-called "Carpic culture" of Moldavia (eastern Romania). To the south of the Carpathian Mountains the situation of the culture "Chilia-Militari" (second-third/fourth centuries AD) seems to the author not at all clear, and on this point he is absolutely correct.

Vagalinski criticizes S. Nikolic-Dordevic for the confusion of his definition of the "foederati ware" at Singidunum (end of the fourth-middle of the fifth centuries AD) considered to be influenced by the Roman ware (27). He likewise rejects the chronology of the burnished pottery at Olbia and Tyras as starting with the first century AD (27). Rather, he accepts the conclusion of A. Gudkova and A. Malyukevich, according to which the emerging of the "barbarian" burnished ware of the Lower Dniester was due to the penetration of Eastern-Germanic groups at the end of the first and during the second century, even though this assumption has not yet been archaeologically confirmed (29). Recently, B. Magomedov supported the Eastern-Germanic origin of the gray burnished pottery from the Cernjachov culture, as a consequence of the evolution of the older Gothic culture (Wielbark culture). The emergence of the gray burnished pottery in the Romanian Dobrudja was always related with the arrival to the south of the Danube of the Sintana de Mures-Cernjachov people in the second half of the fourth century AD. Vagalinski denies the dating to the same period of some vessels of fruit-dish type (considered of Carpic origin by C. Scorpan); they belong, probably, to the first century AD.

The author makes a special analysis of research on the subject in Bulgaria, where the majority of specialists agree with the dating of the gray burnished pottery to the second half of the fourth and the first half of the fifth century. They consider it of Eastern-Germanic origin, or spread by the Sarmatian tribes (St. Stanchev, G. Kuzmanov, G. Kabakchieva). Similar opinions were also expressed by the German researchers B. Boettger and G. Gomolka-Fuchs, and the English R. K. Faulkner, who worked on Bulgarian archaeology. The ideas of S. Mihailov (the continuity of the local Thracian pottery), or of S. Georgieva (that the Old Bulgarian burnished pottery, the Pastyrsk type, comes from the Roman provincial pottery) are not based on archaeological evidence (31, 33).

Chapter 3 (41-75) describes the 34 sites in Bulgaria where gray burnished pottery was found. Sometimes, the author has his own opinions about the interpretation of old, or recent, excavations. Chronological possibilities are very different and he pays attention to other categories of artifacts, mainly when they can indicate foreign populations.

His final results are summarized in Chapter 4 (77-85). First of all, there are two chronological groups: the first century BC/first century AD-second century AD (Early Roman period) and the second half of the third century-ca. AD 600 (Late Roman period). The first is little represented, its pottery, mainly bowls, being found at only 8 sites on the right bank of the Danube. Using the analogies for the motifs and some shapes, the author stresses the link between the burnished pottery of this period and the Celtic groups of northwest Bulgaria, the Small Scordisci, so-called from the written sources (77, 81). The final chronological limit of this group cannot be exactly defined (generally, the second century). But there is an obvious hiatus of around 150 years between the two groups. This situation is identical in neighbouring Pannonia. The Late Roman group dominates numerically. Its finds are concentrated between the Danube and Stara Planina Mountains, in Eastern Bulgaria on the main routes from the Danube to Constantinople. It can be separated three subgroups: middle of the third century-middle of the fourth century, middle of the fourth century-middle of the fifth century, middle of the fifth century-middle of the 6th century. In quantity and variety of shapes, the second subgroup is the most representative, followed by the third one (with half number of finds). In contrast to the Early Roman period, the bowls are rare, the majority of vessels being the jugs. There are differences in the ornamentation too: in the first period, the horizontal straight strips are used often, while in the next period, burnished ornament appears more frequently and is more developed, consisting of horizontal and vertical straight lines, undulating and zigzag lines. The lattice motif seems to be used only from the last quarter of the fourth to the sixth century. All wares from the second group were made on a heavy pedal potter's wheel. Only a few vessels from the first group were made to a slow, manual, wheel. The fabric of the majority of the pots is fine, with little particles of mica, or sand. Both groups have colors from gray to black, but in the late group red and yellow wares also exist.

The final part of the last chapter of the book is dedicated to ethnic interpretation (81-85). As the burnished pottery is absent from Southeast, the relation with the late Celts from the Northwest is again mentioned. The author considers thirty-five items to be of barbarian origin. The higher number of vessels from the second subgroup fits well with the settle of barbarian groups to the south of the Lower Danube after AD 378, when Valens lost the battle at Adrianopole. The late burnished pottery was found at 13 sites along the Danube bank, mainly in Eastern Bulgaria, all but one fortifications. That implies a relationship to federate groups. The same pattern can be found also in the spread of the late barbarian buckles. The pottery shows that the barbarians quicly adopted the shapes of local Roman pottery and its production, while Roman pottery adopted the burnished motifs from the barbarians.

Vagalinski has made an objective analysis and he accepts that he worked on fragments of material. He has reached important conclusions and his book will be an important beginning for the study of burnished pottery in other areas too, not least in Romanian archaeological research where a systematical approach to the subject is at present lacking. Vagalinski's conclusions seem to be valid for Roman Dacia and for post-Roman Dacia. Even though the gray burnished pottery is frequently found in Dacia before the Roman conquest, it disappears on Roman territory during the period of Roman rule (second century-AD 271).[[2]] The burnished pottery appeared again in Dacia after the abandonment of the province by the Roman authorities, starting with the end of the third century, when the first Carpic groups from the East came to Transylvania.[[3]] At the end of the fourth century burnished pottery also appears in northwest Romania (always a barbarian territory), on the routes to the Northern Carpathians. Here a compact Dacian population that produced burnished pottery existed from the second half of the first century BC.[[4]] The large-scale production of this category of ware was began again in this barbarian land at the end of the fourth century AD,[[5]] when new populations from the East arrived in the region. In Transylvania the fashion of the gray burnished pottery can be followed in the fifth-sixth centuries among the Gepid population (of Eastern Germanic origin).


[[1]] L. Vagalinski, "Der Zustand der Forschungen nach der spaetroemischen und voelkerwanderungszeitlichen Drehscheibenkeramik mit eingeglaetteter Verzierung in Europa," Archaeologia Bulgarica 1 (1997): 38-46; L. Vagalinski, "Spaetroemische und voelkerwanderungszeitliche Drehscheibenkeramik mit eingeglaetteter Verzierung suedlich der unteren Donau (Bulgarien)," in Die Sintana der Mures-Cerneachov-Kultur. Akten des Internationalen Kolloquiums in Caputh vom 20. bis 24. Oktober 1995, ed. G. Gomolka-Fuchs (Bonn, 1999), 155-178.

[[2]] As a Transylvanian illustration, one might take the site at Slimnic, where there existed first a Dacian settlement (third century BC-first century BC) then another settlement (with Dacian hand-made pottery) from the period of the Roman province. The burnished pottery is missing in the last settlement.

[[3]] In this case, the best example (used by Vagalinski too) is the group of graves at Sopteriu (G. Marinescu, N. Mirioiu, "Die karpische Nekropole von Sopteriu, Gem. Urmenis," Dacia 31 [1987]: 107-118).

[[4] V. Kotigorosko, Tinuturile Tisei superioare in veacurile III i.e.n. -IV e.n. (perioadele Latene ├či romana) (Bucuresti, 1995), 67-103.

[[5]] P. Jurecko, "Zur Frage der Genese der roemerzeitlichen scheibengedrehten Keramik in der Ostslowakei," in Roemerzeitliches Drehscheibenware in Barbaricum (Weimar, 1984), 75.

Article Details

Author Biography

Dr. Ioan Stanciu

Institute of Archaeology and History of Art