For two days in August the village of Salleles d’Aude hosts a potters’ market, with potters from near and far exhibiting their wares. The range is wide, from everyday traditional dishes to very artistic creations and everything in between. The market always takes place on the 14th and 15th of August, and I can always find yet another piece to buy; this year I purchased a couple of bowls, perfect for serving nibbles in!
One of the highlights of the market for me is the demonstration of how a potter would have made pots in Roman times – not all that easy I imagine!
The reason for the demonstration is that just outside the village is Amphoralis, a museum dedicated to the Roman pottery village which once existed there. Excavations of the site started in 1976, and over the years the archaeologists have discovered what was one of the largest sites in France for the production of pottery during the 1st to 3rd centuries AD. After 17 years of excavations a total of 17 kilns had been discovered, as well as the sites of various workshops, houses, clay pits, wells etc. To make all the finds accessible to the larger public a museum was built on part of the site, and opened in 1992. The design is reminiscent of a butterfly with outstretched wings. The central body contains exhibition space, offices and workshops, and the wings float over the site, protecting the exposed artifacts from the elements, whilst walkways above the excavations allow visitors to look directly down. All very clever!
The visit of the museum starts with a film which explains the history of the site in Roman and modern times. The film also showcases an exciting experiment which started about 10 years ago: the reconstruction of one of the kilns on the site, with the aim of firing pottery as the Roman potters would have. Over the years the kiln has been used a good few times, firing a range of items such as roof tiles, pots, jugs, bricks and more. Some of the items such as bowls, jugs and oil lamps can be bought at the museum, others such as the roof tiles and bricks are being used in the reconstruction of buildings on the site.
After you’ve completed your visit of the museum, you can walk around the rest of the site. Wander along the marked route and see where some of the clay came from, remains of the aqueduct which supplied the village with water, until you come to first of the reconstructed buildings, which houses a bread oven (seemingly used regularly). The building next door shelters two replicas of smaller kilns.
The larger building a little further on is the workshop and also shelters the large kiln. On the day I visited, someone was showing how bricks were made, with the help of a form. First the inside of the frame is wiped with a damp sponge, and then dusted with wood ash, to help release the clay. The form is then placed on a board, also dusted with wood ash (from kiln firings), and then the soft clay is thrown in, to ensure that there are no air pockets. Bit by bit the form fills up and then a wooden stick is used to scrape off of the excess and to level the brick. The form is then lifted carefully, tapped a little on its side, and the finished brick slid on to a little board and set aside to dry. Drying takes several days and the bricks have to be turned regularly during the process.
The path leads on to the next building, a reconstruction of a building where the potters might have lived: a beautifully made, wood-framed barn of a building, with a thatched roof. The walls are filled in with a variety of materials: partly woven with twigs and covered with earth/clay, partly filled in with bricks. Inside, at one end of the building is a reconstruction of what the living quarters might have looked like – sparse!
The visit continues past the potters’ garden – a somewhat overgrown maze of beds growing plants which would have been known to the Romans. By then the the skies were turning very dark and threatening – the famous orage du quinze aout was looming – so I didn’t linger, and once back in the car the heavens opened. Time for a little reflection on what life must have been like 2000 years ago…