Samian has nothing to do with the island of Samos but was once thought to have originated there, and the name has stuck, at least in British usage. It may also be derived from the Latin verb samiare, to polish. It can be identified from its pinkish or orange fabric and a distinctive smooth red surface created by dipping the unfired pot in slip before putting it in the kiln. The specific technology varied but the main idea was to have a slip that melted or sintered at a lower temperature than the body of the pot. One way of achieving this was to use potassium carbonate from wood ash to act as a flux. Some sigillatas therefore have a higher percentage of potassium in the shiny surface material than in the body of the pot (Mirti et al 1999). It was produced in industrial quantities and archaeological evidence implies that it was still in heavy demand as examples showing signs of repair as well as shoddy imitation pseudo-Samian types have been excavated.
Famous production centres included La Graufesenque in southern Gaul, Les Martres-de-Veyre and Lezoux in central Gaul, and Rheinzabern and Trier in modern Germany. In order to cope with demand several attempts were made to produce Samian in Roman Britain, at Colchester and in Northamptonshire and Sussex. Due to inferior clays and less competent potters however, the ventures soon failed. Many vessels were stamped by their makers and thus their distribution can be traced across Europe.
Decorated Samian could be created by adding designs in barbotine, applique or through rouletted or incised methods. More commonly, the decorated vessels were created from moulds. Hunts for wild animals were a popular theme.
As it is easily identified and datable, Samian has been long studied by archaeologists. The first attempt to classify it was in 1896 by Hans Dragendorff.
There is also a rare black variety known as Black Samian.