Exhibit of the Week: Malton Museum – Roman pan

Roman pan on display in the Subscription Rooms, Malton.
Roman pan on display in the Subscription Rooms, Malton.

It is rare to know the name of anyone living in Malton almost 2,000 years ago but this small copper-alloy pan allows us to do just that. Our last object introduced a slave working in Norton but does not mention his name. This time the owner of the pan has written his name on it, although he probably did so to make sure that he did not lose it rather than to ensure his place in history.

The pan was found in 1878 on the site of the new gasworks between the river and the site of the Roman fort, together with a metal bowl, now in the Yorkshire Museum, and pottery. Pans of this type, with a round bowl and long handle, are usually referred to by archaeologists as paterae, although other names are used.

The name, punched underneath the handle, probably reads LUCIUS SERVENIUS SUPER, and there has been an assumption that he was a soldier but there is no proof. Paterae were definitely part of a soldier’s kit because the famous Trajan’s Column in Rome, which is covered with wonderful carvings, shows soldiers marching on campaign and carrying, together with their weapons, all their kit hanging from stakes over their left shoulders and the small pans are clearly shown. However they have also been found at a variety of Roman sites, domestic as well as military, and had many different uses.

Because they resemble a small modern saucepan they have often been thought to be for cooking but during work on hundreds of them from the Roman town of Pompeii no evidence was found of the fire-blackening that might be expected if they had frequently been used on fires. It is generally accepted that for a soldier they were the equivalent of a ‘mess-tin’, an all-purpose vessel in which food might be heated before it served as a dish from which to eat. Other larger, shallower pans, often with more decorative handles, were used for washing hands before meals, whilst another deeper variation was used for pouring libations in shrines.

The Malton pan has another name on it, that of ALPICUS who was the maker of this vessel, this time stamped on the top side of the handle. The pierced disk handle suggests he was working in the second half of the first century AD, around the time that the first fort was built, but he was probably not working in Britain. The Roman Empire allowed long-distance trade and one pan found in Britain was made in Pompeii.

Although a number of Roman objects found in Malton and Norton have letters scratched or stamped into them and we know the names of many potters whose vessels were imported, Lucius is one of only two people living here whose personal names are known so far.