Pewter hoards from Roman Britain

Poor man’s silver? Pewter tableware: its function, significance and contribution to our understanding of life in Roman Britain

Project team

  • Lindsey Smith, project leader
  • Richard Hobbs

Department of Prehistory and Europe 


Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council
  • Arts and Humanities Research Council (Collaborative Doctoral Award)
  • The British Museum

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This project undertakes research on over 100 pieces of Romano-British pewter tableware vessels held by the British Museum. The collection has been growing since 1844 and this is the first time it has been fully researched or published.

The majority of items are bowls, platters, plates, jugs, ingots and ‘vessels’ and a common interpretation is that they were functional utilitarian pieces comprising of the typical Roman dining accoutrement of wealthy villa owners. However, provenance from a number of finds, has been found in areas not typically associated with a high number of Roman villas, such as the Fens in East Anglia and other wet or watery places.

Alternative interpretations drawing on scientific analysis of alloy composition, wear marks, inscriptions, shapes and form will be considered and, to date, evidence rarely shows indications of major wear due to use. Added to the fact that pewter is a soft material (with high lead content), and is therefore not necessarily suitable for use at the table, this evidence challenges the traditional interpretation.

Evidence from hoards that have included pewter, and depositional data, will form a major part of this research and will aim to address wider social, economic, religious, political and art-historical issues. For example, the project will look at the relationship of vessel forms to contemporary ceramics and silver vessels, the connection with literacy and early Christian iconography and the relationship with continental finds of pewter.


The results of this project will be published after the submission of a PhD thesis in 2010. 

The main objectives are:

  • To help the British Museum understand the significance of this important collection and to circulate the data to stimulate wider debate concerning how we study value-laden artefacts
  • Construct a detailed catalogue recording shape and form, wear marks, inscriptions and more to form the framework from which comparable questions can be made
  • Improve our knowledge of the styles and functional use of pewter and juxtapose this against other ranges of artefacts (ceramics, glass, metals) across regional and continental parallels
  • Improve on the chronology and perhaps show how varied habits of metal-working were in different regions amongst different communities
  • Go beyond the physical object–contextual perspective and enhance existing theories of pewter use by taking account of regional and cultural diversities.
Selection of pewter vessels from the British Museum collection

Selection of pewter vessels from the British Museum collection.