You will have seen them in museums, you will have seen them used as decorative pieces, you may even have seen them, labelled to guarantee their authenticity, for sale in garden centres. They are amphorae (plural) or amphora (singular) and they are an important part of the ancient historical jigsaw because they can be identified by age, their original contents, origin and, since they were ‘one time use’ vessels and broken up once empty, in many cases the destination can also be determined.
Amphorae were as common once as plastic bottles are today. They were manufactured in their millions and it made sense to use local clays and labour in the vicinity of the product to be stored or transported.Amphorae were as common once as plastic bottles are today. They were manufactured in their millions and it made sense to use local clays and labour in the vicinity of the product to be stored or transported.
In 2011 a 2nd century AD Roman kiln was unearthed at Manilva. It may well have been used to make amphorae for products shipped out of the Roman port on the coast below at what is now Castillo de la Duquesa as well as tiles, bricks and crockery for the nearby settlements and villas.
In Rome an area called Testaccio was set aside for the destruction of amphorae. Here the shards were mixed with mortar and used to create a hill now called Monte Testaccio 1 kilometre in diameter and 45 metres high. In other parts of the Roman Empire, including Baelo Claudia and Carteia (Andalucia), the shards and mortar mix were used to make a decorative and non slip aggregate.
First appearing in the Eastern Mediterranean about 3500 BC amphorae were the container of choice for the trading nations of the Sumerites and the Phoenicians. The latter spread their use to the western Mediterranean whilst the ancient Greeks also found them useful and they started to be found in Turkey and on the shores of the Black Sea. The Romans later saw no reason to change the design and used them throughout their Empire. The Romans, being Romans, even went as far as producing a standard volume amphora that held about 39 litres of liquid. Interestingly the volume also equals one cubic foot. This gave rise to the amphora quadrantel, a standard measure of volume used throughout the Empire. The standard vessel against which others were measured was the amphora capitolina that was kept in the Temple of Jupiter on Capitoline Hill in Rome.
Since they were used for the commercial transportation of various goods, olive oil, wine, garum, salted fish, grapes, grain and a miscellany of other perishables, they provide a record of the overseas trading activities of the ancient world from around 2500 BC until their use declined in the 7th century AD.
A 1999 study looking at the Romano-British Amphora Trade from 100 BC to 43 AD meticulously records the trade between the British Isles and the Roman Empire in Gaul, the Germanic tribes further east, and the Dacians, Scythian and Sarmatian tribes around the Black Sea. The study identifies not only the wide range of goods passing back and forth in a series of patterns of amphorae depending on their age and content it also sheds light on the complicated trade treaties known to exist between the various tribes and the political differences between those tribes.
Closer to home, in 2006 a 1st century Roman wreck was excavated off the coast of Alicante. It proved to be a cargo vessel carrying 1,500 amphorae of garum along with lead and copper. Examination of the cargo and its containers allowed academics to determine the ship had sailed from Cádiz and was on its way back to Italy when it sank in a storm.
In 1998 Odyssey Marine Exploration discovered a Phoenician vessel in the Western Mediterranean. They nicknamed it Melkarth after the Phoenician god. The amphorae on board allowed the wreck to be dated to the mid 5th century BC. The material and shape of the amphorae showed they originated in the eastern Mediterranean.
Originally a humble single use vessel as common then as beer bottles are today, amphorae have since proved to be an enduring and illustrative record of history from ancient times to Mediaeval.
Interestingly the amphora may be about to re-emerge as a favoured container for storing wine. Modern winemakers in Sicily (Gabrio Bini) are using amphora to age wine to provide different finishes to their products.