Roman Mystery Pot Full of Holes – Solved! (Maybe)

Okay, okay … I know yesterday I was doubting whether that pot in a London (Ontario) museum was Roman, but after watching a zillion folks trying to figure it out yesterday and today on Twitter and Facebook, it suddenly struck me: it’s an octopus trap. Here’s a detail from a famous fishing mosaic in the Sousse Museum in Tunisia (here’s the original source from which it was untimely ript):

From the Stoa Image Gallery

These two happy fellows are clearly fishing with perforated pots of roughly analogous size to the mystery pot and the one guy seems to be pulling an octopus out of one … just a suggestion (if anyone can point me to a better photo of this section of the mosaic, it would be greatly appreciated). By the way, it’s full of holes to make it easier to pull up …

UPDATE (an hour or so later): while looking for a photo of a japanese octopus trap, I came across this one from Tunisia (not sure of the date) in some Mediterranean Pottery Museum … can’t tell if it has holes or not (certainly not as many as our mystery pot):

20 thoughts on “Roman Mystery Pot Full of Holes – Solved! (Maybe)

  1. Are you sure that the ‘pots’ in the mosaic are not, despite their shape, lobster pots made of basket work? – [as is perhaps more usual].

    My guess about the pot is that it was part of a monster incense burner or potpourri container.

    1. I’d suggest folks do a google image search for ‘roman octopus trap’ … similar things are still used (without so many holes)

    1. that’s fair … i have asked for better photos but haven’t received any replies yet. I’m not sure a better photo would alter either one of our interpretations though 🙂

  2. Seems reasonable to me – an octopus could conceivably tear apart a basketwork trap, while a pottery trap would much better resist repeat dunkings in salt water. Good work!

  3. No lid, but a form you would call a ‘storage jar’, with a foot ring designed to work on a level floor; it has incised decoration, and looks to be middle quality ceramic. Why would it not to be for the storage of product that requires ventilation and is larger than the holes?

      1. I think we’re dealing with something that was repurposed for whatever reasons. clearly the holes aren’t part of the decoration, and they look like they were ‘drilled’ after … they clearly do not have ‘artistic’ purpose because there wasn’t ‘great care’ to ensure they go in a straight pattern …

  4. Hello Rogueclassicist, we have been very happy to see all the interest in our strange pot. There have been a lot of good suggestions. I am going to give you a couple extra facts that have not been included in any publication, the holes are 100% pre-firing; they were not drilled after. Also, the pot weighs approx. 60-70 lbs. It’s weight would exclude a number of the suggestions we have received. Realistically there are a number of very plausible purposes, but the lack of preserved provenance means we may never know the true answer.

    Cheers, The curators

  5. I think it is a root crop storage container, think turnips, carrots, onions. (There are no octopodes in Britain). Considering that the British climate is very moist, it might be useful to encourage cool, dark but aired storage.

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